Tuesday, November 8, 2011

NFL Week 9 Power Rankings

By Brad Oremland

Five Quick Hits

* Am I the only one who's less likely to eat five-dollar sandwiches and buy old-man jeans because they're endorsed by Apolo Ohno and Brett Favre? Those companies should be ashamed of themselves for finding two of the most narcissistic men on the planet and paying them to support the product. Those ads make me want to wear Levi's to Quiznos.

* Thursday Night Football begins this week, Raiders at Chargers on NFL Network. That's an important game, with both teams tied for the first in the underwhelming AFC West.

* There are several other really big games in Week 10: PIT at CIN, NO at ATL, DET at CHI, NYG at SF, NE at NYJ. All of those teams have winning records, all are intra-conference, and four are divisional matchups.

* Actually, there are no Week 10 games that pair a team with a winning record against a team with a losing record. On paper, you'd expect a lot of competitive contests this week.

* Did anyone else catch Dan Dierdorf excoriating Denver's Ryan Clady for a holding call away from the direction of the play? Did you also notice that Denver used an unbalanced line on the play and Clady was actually at the point of attack? Dierdorf didn't.


I've always been an advocate for the NFL's efforts at player protection. Time and time again, I've written in support of rules and directives aimed at limiting and preventing concussions and other head injuries. But when the rules start to interfere with football, make the game unrecognizable, they've gone too far. The current enforcement of the league's "defenseless receiver" rules suck. Defenders can't play football under these rules.

"Player safety comes first." That sounds good to me; again, I'm a huge advocate for player safety. But surely there's a limit to how far you can take that. Outlawing tackles altogether would certainly increase player safety, but surely we can all agree that banning tackles is an overreaction to the problem. Eliminating tackles might not be enough, though. What about all those linemen who suffer horrific knee and ankle injuries when things pile up near the line? A more logical solution would be to prohibit all contact, maybe have the "skill" players go 7-on-7. But you'd still have receivers blow out their knees and tweak their hamstrings making sharp cuts, or maybe a quarterback damaging his shoulder. The best way to ensure player safety is not to actually play at all.

Safety is an admirable, even necessary goal. But there have to be limits to how far the policies will go, and the defenseless receiver rules go too far. At a certain point, we have to accept that there will always be some risks, and let these guys play. Moving on to the power rankings, brackets show previous rank.

1. Green Bay Packers [1] — After the Chargers scored 38 this weekend, Dan Patrick opined, "That Packer defense is not very good." Was he talking about the Packer defense that intercepted three passes and knocked down four more? The one that finished with 159 INT return yards and scored two touchdowns? The one that ranks 6th in the NFL in fewest rushing yards allowed and leads the NFL in interceptions? The only one to intercept Philip Rivers three times in any of his 99 career games? That not-very-good defense?

Fine, they gave up a ton of points, but they also had four pass deflections, three interceptions, two returned for touchdowns, and a partridge in a pear tree. What else is it that goes with that song? Oh yeah, five golden rings.

2. Baltimore Ravens [5] — Where was the offense from that final drive for the first 59 minutes? And the first half against Arizona? And the Jaguars game? Baltimore went 14-of-21 on third down conversions Sunday night, 15-of-22 if you include a successful fourth down. Doesn't it seem like Ray Rice has more big plays called back by questionable officiating decisions than anyone else in the league? The Ravens get so hyped up for Pittsburgh, I hope they don't suffer a mental lapse or letdown in Week 10 the way they did against Tennessee in Week 2.

3. San Francisco 49ers [4] — Did anyone else catch Tony Kornheiser, who knows basically nothing about professional football, claiming this week that Frank Gore had a "lousy" season last year? At the time of his season-ending injury, Gore was fifth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage. It is unconscionable that Kornheiser is still given an audience to speak publicly about the NFL. The 49ers still haven't allowed a rushing touchdown this season. If they keep winning, they could clinch the NFC West in two weeks.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers [2] — It seems nothing will discourage Walt Coleman from making untenable replay reversals against both teams. That guy has no idea what "indisputable evidence" means, and it is stunning that he continues to work as an NFL referee. A league that had performance standards would have replaced Coleman years ago. It's laughable that the Steelers described Hines Ward's obvious concussion against Baltimore as a "stinger". Dude was KO-ed. Monster game from James Harrison in his return from injury (3 sacks, 6 hits on Joe Flacco, forced fumble).

5. New England Patriots [3] — Two losses in a row, and they're worst in the NFL in yards allowed. Did you catch all the TV stations talking about how this was New England's first home loss since November 2008, when Matt Cassel was QB? That's only true if you don't count January 16th, 2011, when the Patriots lost at home to the Jets in the playoffs. It is true that this was the first time they'd been shut out in the first half since 2006. I don't think they're going to beat the Jets in Week 10, and I do think I'll drop them out of the top 10 if they fall to 5-4. Poor game from Julian Edelman, who fielded two punts inside the 10-yard line and fumbled another.

6. Detroit Lions [7] — Off-week haiku:

Had a bye this week
I have nothing else to say
Good luck in Week 10

7. Chicago Bears [8] — Got an immediate boost from the return of WR Earl Bennett (5 rec, 95 yds, TD), and did a great job handling Philadelphia's dangerous front four. Jay Cutler, first four games: 871 yards, 5 TD, 4 INT, 77.8 passer rating. Last four games: 923 yards, 6 TD, 2 INT, 93.2 rating. That includes sacks and rushing yardage. Cutler took 15 sacks in the first four weeks, just 6 in the last four. If the playoffs started today, the Bears would get a wild card by virtue of their 30-12 Week 1 win against Atlanta.

8. New Orleans Saints [9] — Lead the NFL in yards per game, but credit the defense for this week's victory over the Buccaneers. Tampa went just 2-of-12 on third down conversions and only scored one touchdown. New Orleans receivers Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem, fantasy gold early in the season, have been rendered worthless by the return of Marques Colston and the emergence of Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles. I wouldn't bother with Henderson or Meachem even in a deep fantasy league at this point. Trade them if you can, drop them if you must, but don't leave them in your lineup.

9. Houston Texans [10] — For the second time this season, Arian Foster and Ben Tate both topped 100 rushing yards. The duo combined for 31 attempts, 239 yards, a 7.7 average, and 2 TDs. Foster also led the team in receptions (5). This seems to be flying under the radar, but Houston held its opponent under 200 for the third week in a row. The Texans lead the NFL in fewest yards allowed, and they're third in fewest points per game allowed. How about some love for new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips? And how scary is this team going to be once Andre Johnson comes back?

10. New York Jets [12] — Lead the NFL in passer rating allowed: 59.4. Basically, everyone who plays the Jets turns into Blaine Gabbert. Darrelle Revis ranks first in the NFL in interception return yardage, second in pass deflections, and tied for fourth in INTs. Best defensive player in the league? Yes. Him or Jared Allen.

11. Cincinnati Bengals [13] — Longest winning streak in the AFC, five straight. Hard to believe this team started 1-2. Tied for first in the AFC North, the Bengals now have four games in a row against division opponents, beginning with a visit to the Steelers in Week 10.

12. Atlanta Falcons [15] — Welcome back, Julio Jones. With 2 TD receptions — a 50-yard bomb into coverage and an 80-yard catch-and-run — it appears that the hamstring injury is behind him. As a defensive coordinator, I wouldn't relish having to worry about Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez, and Jones while I'm focusing on stopping Michael Turner and the run game. This offense has a lot of weapons. Atlanta has already played most of its road games, and the next three are all at home. The Falcons out-gained Indianapolis by 246 yards in Week 9. Second half time of possession: 23:40-6:20.

13. New York Giants [19] — Opponents are a combined 22-42 (.344). If you've only played two teams with a winning record, does being 6-2 make you elite, or does it just make you average? This team barely got by the Dolphins, lost to Seattle by double-digits, and only beat Arizona because of referee incompetence or corruption. Statistically, the Giants aren't a top-10 offense, and the defense is below average. They've been playing better recently, but seem more like a good team than a great one.

14. Buffalo Bills [6] — Ryan Fitzpatrick, first four games: 1058 yards, 9 TD, 3 INT, 96.9 passer rating. Last four games: 918 yards, 6 TD, 6 INT, 86.5 rating. That's not cause for panic, but I suspect Fitzpatrick's real value is a lot closer to what we've seen in the last month than in September. He's been intercepted in four straight games, and more than once in three of the last six.

15. Philadelphia Eagles [16] — With all the Pro Bowlers on this defense, you expect more from it. The Eagles never gave Chicago any trouble: Matt Forte ran all over them, and they never sacked or intercepted Jay Cutler. Michael Vick (60.5 passer rating) also had a less-than-inspiring game. He's really struggling to get the ball to his wide receivers, though that's as much their fault as his. DeSean Jackson is having the worst season of his career; he's been a non-factor in all but two or three games. LeSean McCoy, who looked great on Monday night, leads the NFL in rushing (825).

16. Dallas Cowboys [20] — Another big game from DeMarco Murray (139 yds, 6.3 avg, 47 rec yds), also a nice performance from the pass defense (3 INT). The Cowboys are only two games behind the Giants, with an easier schedule and both head-to-head meetings remaining. A home win against the Bills in Week 10 would keep the pressure on in the NFC East. Miles Austin reportedly will miss 2-4 weeks with his latest hamstring injury. Laurent Robinson, who had been seeing more work anyway, becomes an interesting fantasy prospect.

17. Kansas City Chiefs [11] — Ended their four-game winning streak with a shocking home loss to the winless Dolphins, the third time this season Kansas City has lost by at least 4 touchdowns. The Chiefs now rank 30th in point differential (-70), ahead of only the Rams and Colts. The team is still tied for the division lead, but the remaining schedule is awfully nasty. Five of the last eight games are against teams with winning records, and the other three are all division rivals (Broncos twice, Raiders).

18. San Diego Chargers [14] — Three straight losses, all by a touchdown or less, and all against pretty decent teams (combined 17-7), but they need to start winning close games. A good team doesn't just win blowouts; you have to close out the tight ones, too. Antonio Gates played his third consecutive game since returning from injury, and looked like his usual self (8 rec, 96 yds, TD).

19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [17] — Rank 24th in points per game. Coming into this season, Tampa's offense featured promising prospects like Josh Freeman, LeGarrette Blount, and Mike Williams, but all have disappointed this year. Even more surprising is that the defense ranks 29th, allowing 399 yards per game. Adding injury to insult, 2010 first-round draft pick Gerald McCoy tore his biceps again, and is out for the season again.

20. Minnesota Vikings [21] — Selecting Pro Bowl running backs in the NFC will not be easy this year. Adrian Peterson probably is a lock, but where do you fit LeSean McCoy (leads NFL in rushing), Matt Forte (leads in yards from scrimmage), Frank Gore (only weapon for the 7-1 Niners), and maybe even Michael Turner or DeMarco Murray? You only vote for three, and I see four you can't leave off. I'd guess Gore is the one who ends up getting shorted, but what more could he realistically do?

21. Oakland Raiders [18] — 15 penalties, for 130 yards and 4 first downs. Carson Palmer made two absolutely beautiful throws, on the touchdowns to Marcel Reece and Jacoby Ford, but Michael Bush was not impressive in place of the injured Darren McFadden. He had a good game statistically (96 rush yd, 33 rec yd, TD), but missed holes and cutback lanes and generally failed to show football smarts. Right when Eddie Royal scored the go-ahead punt return TD, Dierdorf praised Ray Guy and Shane Lechler as the two best punters of the modern era. Lechler is not the best punter of the modern era. He's not second-best. He's not third-best, he's not 10th-best, he's not top-20 and probably not top-40. Lechler has handled 99.3% of the Raiders' punts since 2000. During that time, the Raiders rank:

* 31st in punt return yards allowed. Lechler goes for distance instead of hang time, and consistently out-kicks his coverage. Sunday's return TD came on a 56-yard rocket that left Royal out in the open, with no Raiders nearby. Part of this is on the coverage team, and obviously some credit goes to Royal, but it's mostly Lechler.

* 31st in punt return average allowed. An average punt by Lechler gets returned 11.3 yards. That's higher than the career averages of Eric Metcalf (9.8), Deion Sanders (10.4), Dante Hall (10.5), Josh Cribbs (10.6), Brian Mitchell (10.8) ... Basically, Lechler turns every opposing returner into Bullet Bob Hayes.

* 31st in fair catches. Only the Broncos, who have punted 161 times fewer, have forced fair catches less often than Lechler and the Raiders. Lechler is the only punter in the last decade, probably the only one in modern history, with more touchbacks than fair catches. An average punter has more than twice as many fair catches. The Falcons and Texans have about five times as many.

* 32nd in percentage of punts returned. Of Lechler's 898 regular-season punts, he has 3 blocks, 72 out of bounds, 108 downed by the coverage team, 128 fair catches, 129 touchbacks, and 458 returns. Over 65% of his kicks come back via return or touchback. Over the same time period, 10 teams are below 55%.

* 32nd in touchbacks. The other 31 teams have all punted into between 55-94 touchbacks (the expansion Texans actually just 47). Guess how many touchbacks the Raiders have. Wait, I already said: 129. Nobody else even has 100, the Raiders have 129! I suspect Lechler is the worst punter in the history of professional football at keeping his kicks out of the end zone.

* 32nd in I-20:TB. Probably some of you wondered if Oakland had so many touchbacks just because they punt a lot. Nope. Since 2000, the Raiders have 287 punts downed inside the 20, 129 touchbacks. That's a 2.2:1 ratio, by far the worst in the NFL. Green Bay is next (2.5), and four teams (Falcons, Texans, Giants, Chargers) are at least twice as good. Atlanta's ratio is 5:1 — 276 I-20, 55 TB.

Lechler kicks really far, yes. But he doesn't kick directionally, probably has never heard of coffin corner. He doesn't get any hang time, gives up a ton of return yardage. He's the worst in the NFL at pinning opponents deep, can't or won't keep his kicks out of the end zone. And his averages are inflated because he plays in great weather and for a bad team (74-110). Punters on good teams have to shorten their kicks to keep them out of the end zone. Lechler often has the whole field to work with (or he bombs them into the end zone anyway). Lechler gets enough distance that he's still an above-average punter, but he's certainly not a great one, much less historic.

22. Carolina Panthers [22] — Three players with over 300 yards rushing. Last season, the Panthers ranked 32nd in total offense (258 yds/gm). This season, with Cam Newton at QB, they rank 5th (415 yds/gm), an improvement of over 150 yards per game. DE Charles Johnson quietly has 7 sacks. Since the start of the 2010 season, only six players have more sacks than Johnson (18.5).

23. Tennessee Titans [23] — Lost three of their last four, but all against teams with at least six wins. I recently stumbled across a column from last season in which I wrote that Matt Hasselbeck was "not good enough to start any more." He's obviously not the player he used to be, but I was wrong. Not only in Hasselbeck still good enough to play, he's on my fantasy team. I added him in free agency. It's the sort of move you have to make when you draft Peyton Manning.

24. Jacksonville Jaguars [24] — Average 1 touchdown per game, worst in the league. The Jags have 8, the Rams have 9, and everyone else has at least 12. Jacksonville hasn't scored more than 20 points in any game this season.

25. Denver Broncos [29] — Several times this year, I've praised punter Britton Colquitt, but it is abominable that he was not called for intentional grounding in the second quarter. If that wasn't intentional grounding, I've never seen it. Kordell Stewart Tim Tebow played probably his best game of the season against Oakland, but man, he gets hit a lot. If the kid wants to stay healthy, he has to get the ball out of his hand faster, and maybe slide a little more often.

26. Arizona Cardinals [26] — Won in overtime, when rookie CB Patrick Peterson foolishly fielded a punt on his own 1-yard line, then brilliantly returned it 99 yards for the sudden-death victory. Peterson also intercepted a pass in the first quarter. Backup QB John Skelton led the team in rushing (38 yds), but took two sacks in the end zone. Kevin Kolb is unlikely to be ready for next week's game against Philadelphia, so we'll see how many safeties the Eagles can get out of Skelton. Arizona's next three games are all on the road.

27. Cleveland Browns [25] — Sixth straight game scoring under 20 points, but Phil Dawson connected on 50- and 51-yard field goals, the second week in a row he's hit a 50-yarder. Dawson is 6/6 from 50+, leading the NFL. Oddly, he's just 6/8 from within 50 yards. Cleveland's next two games are at home, against the 1-7 Rams and 2-6 Jaguars. Win both, and the Browns would be 5-5.

28. Miami Dolphins [31] — Whoa, where did that come from? Matt Moore threw 3 touchdown passes and the Dolphins sacked Matt Cassel 5 times in a blowout first victory. Look for a winning streak when Washington comes to town in Week 10. Four of the next five are at home.

29. Seattle Seahawks [28] — Held under 14 points for the fifth time this season, and third in a row since their bye. Marshawn Lynch rushed for a season-high 135 yards, but Tarvaris Jackson had an awful game, and the defense couldn't stop DeMarco Murray and Tony Romo. Sidney Rice, who missed the first two games with a shoulder injury, now leads the Seahawks in receiving yardage. There are not a lot of other weapons here.

30. Washington Redskins [27] — Highlight was Graham Gano's 59-yard field goal, a team record and a stadium record. Running back Roy Helu also set a team record, with 14 catches. It's a little shocking that on a team with four Hall of Fame receivers, Helu now holds the single-game receptions record. Stats aside, Helu was not impressive on Sunday. This whole offense is miserable.

31. St. Louis Rams [30] — Scored two safeties this week, and I love safeties. Nice games in the loss from Steven Jackson (130 rush yards) and Darian Stewart (3 pass deflections, 2 special teams tackles, 1 forced fumble). Their next three opponents are a combined 7-17, so if the Rams don't want Andrew Luck, November is the month to prove it.

32. Indianapolis Colts [32] — Austin Collie led the team with 32 receiving yards. Pat McAfee punted 9 times for 451 yards. They can be mathematically eliminated this week from defending their AFC South title.

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