NFL Week 16 Power Rankings

Five Quick Hits

* Wow, what a time for Early Doucet to trip.

* Things learned over the holidays: my mom doesn't like Tom Coughlin. Also, she thinks he is ugly.

* I don't mean to beat up on NFL Network, but Matt Leinart's last name is spelled with only one E.

* Nice job by NFL Network catching the sideline exchange between Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne after Dan Orlovsky threw to the other side of the field, and the Colts settled for a field goal.

* Peter King proclaimed on Sunday that the Rams have "got their quarterback of the future in Sam Bradford." Really? I haven't seen anything in the last two years to suggest that Bradford is a franchise quarterback.

***

During Sunday night's broadcast, announcers Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth repeatedly mentioned that the Packers have allowed more yards this season (6,010) than they have gained (5,932). It's an interesting statistic. How does a team go 14-1 with stats like that?

Well, here's a hint: the Packers finished the game with no turnovers and no penalties. Turnovers, special teams, red zone efficiency — many significant facets of the game are left out of the "total offense" and "total defense" statistics. This is why using yardage to evaluate teams is often misleading. The Packers intercepted their 29th pass of the season against Chicago on Sunday night. With two more in the regular season finale, they'll tie the 2002 Buccaneers and the '05 Bengals for most INTs by any team since realignment. They're +22 in turnover differential, an average of +1.5 per game.

They've committed the fewest penalties in the NFL. They have a good kicker, good punter, good return team. They almost always turn their scoring opportunities into touchdowns. The Packers have by far the best TD:FG ratio in the NFL, 2.8:1. When that doesn't work, they've made 88% of their field goals, 6th-best in the league, including a 58-yarder (4th-best). Randall Cobb has scored multiple return TDs. This team does most of the big things well, and all of the little things.

Now on to this week's power rankings. Brackets indicate last week's rank.

1. Green Bay Packers [1] — Set a franchise record for wins in a single season (14), breaking a mark set by Vince Lombardi's 1962 Packers (and since tied in a 16-game schedule). The win was also Aaron Rodgers' seventh career game with four or more touchdown passes. Already, that's 5th-best among active QBs, trailing only the guys you'd expect: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Donovan McNabb. Rodgers also joined Manning (2004), McNabb (2004), Brady (2007), Brett Favre (1996), and Dan Marino (twice) as the only players with five or more 4-TD games in a season.

2. New Orleans Saints [2] — Converted 10/13 third downs as they demolished Atlanta to secure the NFC South title. New Orleans leads the NFL in third down percentage (56%) by a huge margin, well ahead of the 2nd-place Packers (48%) and double the last-place Rams (28%). In all the overblown glory about the single-season passing record, we're ignoring a much older, much more significant team record the Saints are poised to break: offensive yardage. The record is 7,075, by the 2000 Rams, or 450.8 per game by the 1951 Rams, if you go by per-game numbers. The Saints are on pace to break both, with 6,857 yards (457.1/gm) and a week left to play.

3. New England Patriots [3] — Tom Brady this week joined Steve Grogan and Babe Parilli among Patriot QBs who rushed for two TDs in a game more than once. This was the third time in Brady's 161-game regular-season career in which he scored more rushing TDs than passing. His first such game, actually, was the first playoff game of his career, the famous "Tuck Rule" game against Oakland in the 2001 playoffs. The Patriots finished Saturday's game missing their two best offensive linemen, Matt Light and Logan Mankins, both of whom were out with injuries.

4. San Francisco 49ers [5] — David Akers leads the NFL in scoring, and he just broke the single-season record for field goals (42). He's obviously a lock for All-Pro honors. But has he really had a better season than, say, Sebastian Janikowski? Akers has made 30 field goals from inside 40 yards, 19 more than Janikowski. But those are pretty close to automatic — Janikowski hasn't missed from that distance all season. From beyond 40 yards, the kicks that really require some skill, Janikowski has made 15, including a record-tying 63-yarder, and Akers only 12. We usually evaluate kickers by statistics that reward opportunity, not talent. Akers obviously is a talented kicker, and he's had a nice year, but it's not apparent to me that he's been the best at his position, and it's a shame most analysts are too lazy to look at more than one stat to see that.

5. Baltimore Ravens [4] — Can clinch a bye for the first time since 2006 with a win at Cincinnati in Week 17. The Browns didn't have the offense to seriously threaten Baltimore in Week 16, but Joe Flacco's performance was less than overwhelming. Ray Rice led the team in receiving, with 3 catches for 48 yards. Running backs actually accounted for more than half of Flacco's 11 completions against Cleveland. I wrote in Week 1 about Matt Ryan and Flacco, and at the time I saw them as basically equal. But Ryan continues to improve, while Flacco seems to have regressed this season, with a career-low 79.7 passer rating, 14 points lower than last season and even a little worse than his rookie year (80.3).

6. Pittsburgh Steelers [6] — Second shutout win of the season, making this the first Steeler team since 2007 with multiple shutouts. Since the 2002 expansion, the only team with more than two shutouts in a season was the Super Bowl champion 2003 Patriots (3). Charlie Batch is 5-2 (.714) as a starting quarterback for the Steelers.

7. Atlanta Falcons [7] — Totally outclassed against the Saints. The Falcons have won most of the games they were supposed to, but they've repeatedly fallen short against elite opposition, and it's hard to see them going far in the playoffs. I complain about this every time it happens, because I don't understand at all: there was a 15-yard penalty called in the Monday night game, and ESPN never showed what happened. With 1:19 left in the third quarter, the Saints' Tom Johnson apparently roughed Matt Ryan — I assume it was Ryan — but television viewers never got to see what drew the call. Fifteen-yard penalties are important. Please, at least show a replay.

8. Seattle Seahawks [9] — Beast. Marshawn Lynch this week became the first player all season to rush for 100 yards against the 49ers, and the first to score a rushing touchdown against them. Maybe Lynch should never leave the game. With Seattle down 19-17 and under a minute left, Tarvaris Jackson completed a pass to RB Justin Forsett. Rather than heading for the sideline, Forsett danced around trying to find a hole upfield. He gained an extra 2 yards, but lost :15 and his shoe. The Seahawks probably weren't going to win anyway, but Forsett almost single-handedly killed the comeback attempt.

9. Detroit Lions [15] — In 2008, the Lions went 0-16 and were outscored by 249 points. Three years later, they're 10-5, +91, and headed to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. If the Lions win at Green Bay in Week 17, they'll be 11-5, the team's best record since 1991. If they win by more than 9 points, they'll outscore opponents by over 100 for the first time since 1970.

10. Arizona Cardinals [10] — First loss in a month, and only the second since October, as Arizona dropped to 2-6 on the road. This follows a 1-7 road record in 2010. Altogether, the Cardinals are 14-26 (.350) away under Ken Whisenhunt, compared to 25-14 (.641) in the desert. Biggest home/road disparities, 2007-present:

1. Baltimore Ravens, +.339
2. San Francisco 49ers, +.292
3. Arizona Cardinals, +.291
4. Seattle Seahawks, +.268
5. Atlanta Falcons, +.256

By percentage, the Seahawks take over the top spot, winning almost twice as many games at home (.550) as away (.282), a 1.95:1 ratio. The rest of the top five: 49ers (1.88), Cardinals (1.83), Ravens (1.78), Lions (1.73). The Giants, Eagles, Dolphins, Raiders, and Washington actually have better records in road games than they do at home.

11. Philadelphia Eagles [18] — Third straight win, following a 4-8 start. A blocked punt at the end of the game set up a Dallas touchdown to spoil what would have been Philadelphia's first shutout win since 1996. It's surprising that none of Jim Johnson's great Eagle defenses (1998-2009) ever finished a shutout. LeSean McCoy reportedly has "a slight ankle sprain," and his status for Week 17 is unclear. It sounds like he'll play, but how long and how effectively are definite question marks.

12. San Diego Chargers [12] — Front-runners. They can't win when they fall behind early, don't seem mentally tough. They retain the 12th-place spot because of a quirk of the rankings. This week, all the teams I had ranked 7-14 lost, and all the teams 15-20 won. The result is 14 teams that all look something close to equal right now, and San Diego's last month is still among the most impressive of any team in the league, with three blowout wins by a combined 71 points before their embarrassing loss to Detroit on Saturday.

13. New York Giants [19] — How about some love for punter Steve Weatherford, who pinned the Jets inside their own 10-yard line when they were poised to begin a potential game-winning drive? Weatherford's punt set up the game-clinching safety. This will be the first season since the AFL-NFL merger in which the NFC East champion does not win at least 10 games. Over the previous 40 seasons, the NFC East produced 69 teams with double-digit wins (72 if you count the Cardinals), including 18 Super Bowl teams and 11 champions.

14. Dallas Cowboys [13] — Tony Romo's hand injury has understandably drawn the most attention, but the Cowboys also lost left guard Montrae Holland, who suffered a biceps injury and has been placed on injured reserve. Dallas has won three of its last five road games with the Giants, but this team would surprise a lot of people by rising up to win a critical game in Week 17.

15. Cincinnati Bengals [16] — Nearly blew a 23-0 fourth quarter lead. The Bengals are poised for a playoff berth, but they've only beaten one team with a winning record, the 8-7 Tennessee Titans. This isn't a team I'd bet on going into Houston, not even T.J. Yates' Houston.

16. Carolina Panthers [20] — Mike Tirico said during the Monday night broadcast that New Orleans "is the only team in the NFL that has three 400+ yard rushers." This is, of course, not true. The Panthers actually have three 600+ yard rushers: DeAngelo Williams (783), Jonathan Stewart (682), and Cam Newton (674). The Chiefs also have three players over 400 (Jackie Battle, Thomas Jones, Dexter McCluster), and several other teams (Broncos, Colts) are close. The Lions, meanwhile, have nobody over 400. I'd bet there's never been a playoff team without a 400-yard rusher before this, not in a 16-game season.

17. Houston Texans [8] — Victimized by several highly questionable penalty calls, but the bottom line is that they lost a game they should have won. If you look at Houston's approach — rushing on third downs, settling for field goals — it's pretty apparent that they didn't believe the Colts could beat them, and thought they could just play it safe and fly home with a victory. The Texans dropped to 0-10 all-time at Indianapolis.

NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders repeatedly stated that Houston didn't need a first-round bye in the playoffs, that the game reps for rookie QB T.J. Yates were more important. Be that as it may, Houston still needed the second seed. If you're the third seed, that means you go on the road in round two, and there's a big difference between playing the Ravens in Baltimore or Houston. Like Sanders, I'm not sold on the value of bye weeks, but unlike Deion, I'm very much a believer in the Ravens' home-field advantage.

18. Tennessee Titans [17] — Rob Bironas kicked two 51-yard field goals in their 6-point victory over Jacksonville, his fifth and sixth 50-yarders of the season. Year-in, year-out, Bironas is among the best in the league at his position. Tennessee's defense has the lowest sack percentage (4.3%) in the NFL. Former Titan Jason Babin has 18 sacks, and his new team, the Eagles, has the highest sack percentage (9.4%) of any team.

19. New York Jets [14] — Mark Sanchez attempted a career-high 59 passes — not including 5 sacks — in their loss to the Giants. The Jets didn't trail by more than three points until the end of the third quarter (:13), so this wasn't about a wild comeback attempt, it was just bad play-calling. The game got out of hand because the Jets were throwing on every down, not in spite of it. Sanchez averaged 4.4 yards per attempt, committed 4 turnovers in the fourth quarter, and finished with a 54.2 passer rating. The Jets have the fewest pass plays of 40+ yards in the NFL this season (2). The 31st-place Jaguars have twice that many. The cross-town Giants have eight times as many.

As bad as the Jets have looked the last two weeks, they have this thing about bouncing back and winning when they have to, so I'd look for a victory in Week 17, even if turns out to be too late for the playoffs. In order for the Jets to get in, they need to win, the Bengals need to lose, the Titans need to lose, and either the Broncos or Raiders need to lose. Long odds.

20. Denver Broncos [11] — Two ugly losses in a row, and nail-biter victories over the Vikings and the Caleb Hanie Bears aren't terribly impressive. The Broncos have given up 40 points in each of the last two weeks. Amazingly, the Bills got to 40 with only one offensive touchdown, the others coming via punt return and a pair of interception returns. In the NFL, anything new tends to be successful at first. This is particularly true for new quarterbacks. After a couple games, the film's out there, and opponents find the weak points. That may have taken a little longer with Bobby Douglass Tim Tebow, because his style and skill set are so distinctive, but it will be interesting to see how the offense adapts.

21. Miami Dolphins [21] — In the first half, they outgained New England 255-107, with more than twice as many first downs and almost twice as much time of possession. In the second half, all of that was basically reversed. Brandon Marshall has scored in three straight games, and four of the last five.

22. Washington Redskins [22] — On Sunday, Rex Grossman broke the Minnesota defense's 9-game streak of games without an interception, the longest since 1950. There are 32 active players with at least 1,500 regular-season pass attempts. Among those 32, the average interception percentage is 2.8%. The best, by far, is Aaron Rodgers (1.8%), followed by Tom Brady and Donovan McNabb (2.2%). The worst is Grossman (3.9%), with Jon Kitna (3.7%) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (3.6%) the next-worst. Grossman, Kyle Boller, and David Carr are the only ones with more INTs than passing TDs.

23. Kansas City Chiefs [23] — Week 17 matchup pits Kyle Orton against his old team, now led by Marlin Briscoe Tim Tebow. It's a chance for Orton, who as Bronco QB threw 49 TD passes and just 28 interceptions, to not necessarily prove his critics wrong, but at least give them a metaphorical middle finger. I'm sure it would feel sweet for Orton to knock Denver out of the playoffs.

24. Oakland Raiders [25] — Blocked two field goals, including the potential game winner, before winning in overtime, their first victory of December. Maybe it's unrealistic to expect great things from Carson Palmer after he was so quickly thrust into the starter's role, but his performance this season has been uneven (11 TD, 15 INT, 77.2 rating). The Raiders have a shot at both the AFC West title and a wild card, but they have to beat San Diego in Week 17, and they need some help.

25. Cleveland Browns [24] — Everyone except rookie Phillip Taylor knew the Ravens weren't going to run a play on 4th-and-2 at the end of the game. Taylor's offside penalty allowed Baltimore to run out the clock. Bright spot: special teams. Josh Cribbs returned a kick for a touchdown (for the first time since 2009), while Brad Maynard's 6 punts yielded no returns — 3 fair catches, 2 immediate hits, 1 downed by the coverage team — and twice pinned Baltimore inside the 10-yard line.

26. Buffalo Bills [28] — First win since October, and the second straight impressive showing from C.J. Spiller. There's not a huge difference between Fred Jackson's stats before his injury, and Spiller's in the five games since. Per-game stats:

Chart

27. Indianapolis Colts [32] — Two wins in a row! This is pure speculation, but I don't think the Colts are playing hard just out of professional pride. If they finish with the worst record in the NFL, they're probably rebuilding next year with a rookie quarterback. If not next year, probably the one after. If they can win their way out of the Andrew Luck sweepstakes, you have to think it increases the likelihood that Peyton Manning finishes his career with Indianapolis, and that probably brings the Colts back to immediate playoff contention. If I'm a player on that team, I want Manning.

28. Chicago Bears [26] — Looked a little better with Josh McCown at quarterback, and this ranking is probably too low, but they've lost five in a row. Aaron Rodgers (142.7 passer rating, 5 TDs) looked totally at ease against them, finding open receivers at will.

29. Minnesota Vikings [30] — The injury to Adrian Peterson limits their rise in the rankings. Peterson tore his ACL and MCL, and team officials are just hoping he'll be able to play again by the beginning of next season. Christian Ponder also left the game, but that's of less concern. Joe Webb played well in Ponder's absence, and not to trivialize concussions, but that's a problem players usually come back from pretty quickly. There's a definite similarity in Webb's style of play and that of Joe Geri Tim Tebow.

30. Jacksonville Jaguars [27] — Lost for the fifth time in their last six games. Maurice Jones-Drew rushed for 103 yards in the loss, setting a new career-high for rushing yardage (1,437). Ages ago, pro-football-reference.com founder Doug Drinen proposed the Corey Dillon Award, honoring Dillon's "years of meritorious service to a horrible team". MJD's efforts this season on the worst offense in the NFL definitely deserve some kind of award.

31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [29] — "You don't go from being a Coach of the Year candidate to being the worst coach in the league to get fired within a year," said head coach Raheem Morris on Monday. Tell that to Todd Haley, who finished third in COY voting and was fired 13 games later. Steve Spagnuolo, also visible in last year's voting, is expected to lose his job next week. In 2002, Raiders coach Bill Callahan led Oakland to the best record in the AFC, and eventually to Super Bowl XVII, in his first season at the helm. Andy Reid won Coach of the Year, but Callahan got support, as well. The next season, the Raiders dropped to 4-12, and Callahan was fired. You're not alone, Coach Morris.

32. St. Louis Rams [31] — Shut out for the second time in the last month, held to single-digits for the sixth time. St. Louis has scored 166 points this season. The lowest by any team since expansion is the 2006 Oakland Raiders (168), so with another shutout in Week 17, the Rams would break the record. They play the 49ers, who have already shut them out once this season, and twice in the last five meetings.

***

Jon Gruden has asserted repeatedly that Darren Sproles was the best free agent pickup of the year. Sproles has 563 rushing yards (7.0 avg), 681 receiving yards (81 rec), 1,284 return yards (27.2 KR avg, 9.6 PR avg), and a total of 9 TDs. He's had a great year. I've always liked Darren Sproles. But I don't agree that he's been the most valuable free agent of 2011. A few other candidates:

Johnathan Joseph, CB, HOU: 4 INT, huge part of defensive turnaround
Cullen Jenkins, DT, PHI: 5.5 sacks, disrupts a ton of plays
Jason Babin, DE, PHI: 18 sacks
Carlos Rogers, CB, SF: 6 INT, 106 yards, TD
Barry Cofield, DT, WAS: 2.5 sacks, 8 pass deflections
David Akers, K, SF: NFL-record 42 FG, league-high 156 points
Reggie Bush, RB, MIA: 1,086 rushing yards, 5.0 average
Vonta Leach, FB, BAL: Front-runner for All-Pro fullback

Sproles has been terrific, but he's a part-time player, and the Saints have so many other ways to hurt you. Would you rather have Sproles than a stud cornerback, a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive tackle, the leading scorer in the NFL, a 1,000-yard rusher who does a lot of the same things as Sproles, one of the best blocking backs in the league, and a guy who could finish with 20 or more sacks? Sproles is better than all of them? I don't see that.

Comments and Conversation

December 28, 2011

Anthony Brancato:

Your Houston Texans write-up unintendedly points up why the NFL needs to add one more wild card berth to each conference; for if they did, the difference between being a 2 seed and a 3 seed would no longer be greater than the difference between being a 1 seed and a 2 seed is - since the way it is now the 1 and 2 seeds get both a first-round bye and home field in the second round, while the 3 seed gets neither. Furthermore, it would give a team that didn’t win their division some sort of chance at getting a home playoff game in the second round: What if the 2 (which would no longer get a first-round bye), 3 and 4 seeds all got upset in the first round, by the (newly-created) 7, 6 and 5 seeds, respectively? In that case - and it would be bound to happen sooner or later - the 1 seed would host the 7 seed in the second round, and the 5 seed would host the 6 seed.

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