Tuesday, November 6, 2012

NFL Week 9 Power Rankings

By Brad Oremland

Five Quick Hits

* Adults in the U.S., please remember to vote today (Tuesday, November 6th) if you haven't done so already.

* We hold that government should be of, by, and for the people. Deliberate intimidation of voters is sickening. It's anti-democracy and un-American. Candidates and campaigns should win on merit, not dirty tricks designed to prevent eligible voters from casting ballots.

* You probably heard that Andrew Luck set a new single-game rookie record for passing yardage (433). This is not true. Jeff Garcia, as a 29-year-old rookie in 1999, passed for 437 yards against the Bengals.

* Twenty-five rookie quarterbacks have passed for at least 350 yards in a game, losing 22 of the 25. The winners: Matthew Stafford, Andrew Luck, and Andrew Luck.

* Telling media quote from Week 8, courtesy of FOX's Curt Menefee: "Should we be giving [Jay Cutler] even more credit than he deserves?" Perhaps Menefee simply misspoke, or maybe he inadvertently revealed media strategy to millions of TV viewers.

***

Sunday afternoon, the Steelers overcame a great narrative to beat the Giants in New Jersey. A clearly wrong roughness call turned a Giants fourth down (and presumable field goal attempt) into a touchdown, then a very shaky officiating decision turned Ben Roethlisberger's incomplete pass into a 70-yard fumble return for a touchdown. That's probably a 14-point swing for New York, just on those two plays. Television viewers went to commercial with Phil Simms, having watched a couple replays, certain that the ruling would be reversed. When the game returned from break, Simms assured his audience that it was definitely, 100% a fumble. Wow. Who talked to him in between?

I know it would have been nice for the Giants to get a win at home after the devastation of last week's storm, but if the replacement refs had made those same calls, the whole western world would be screaming bloody murder. Ryan Clark's "illegal contact to the head" actually caused a mild rib injury, and Roethlisberger's "fumble" sure looked like the tuck rule.

The replacement officials at the beginning of the season made more mistakes than the usual crews, they took agonizingly long to make decisions, and they appeared to have little control over what announcers always call "extra-curricular activities." But to look at something like the end of the the Packers/Seahawks game and say it never would have happened with the "real" refs is plainly false. That kind of thing happens all the time. Remember, the posterboy of NFL refs, Ed Hochuli, single-handedly blew a game in 2008.

The replacement officials made plenty of mistakes, but they never once got the benefit of the doubt, and that's not fair. Let's get to the Week 9 power rankings; brackets show last week's rank.

1. Houston Texans [1] — Lost in the excitement over Matt Schaub, Arian Foster, and J.J. Watt, tight end Owen Daniels is having a great season. Finally healthy, Daniels has 37 catches for 478 yards and 5 TDs, more receiving touchdowns than any two teammates combined.

2. Atlanta Falcons [2] — Win came down to the final play, but the game shouldn't have been so close. Matt Bryant, one of the league's best kickers but battling back problems this week, missed two high-percentage field goals, which would have put the game comfortably out of reach. Only one team left on Atlanta's schedule currently has a winning record (at home vs. Giants, Week 15).

3. Denver Broncos [3] — Third straight game scoring over 30 points. But this week, let's credit the defense (5 sacks, INT) and special teams (KR TD). Von Miller posted 3 sacks this week, and leads the team with 9. Last week, Denver held the Saints to a season-low 14 points.

4. Chicago Bears [5] — Only the third team in NFL history with 7 interception return TDs in a season. The most recent was the Super Bowl champion 1999 Rams. The single-season record for defensive TDs belongs to the 1998 Seahawks (10), also the leader in non-offensive TDs (13). The Bears will need some help from Devin Hester to match the latter, but it's very realistic to believe they could score three or four more defensive TDs this season. As a point of interest, the total number of non-offense touchdowns scored by legendary Bear defenses and the most recent versions:

Chart

The BK category shows returns of blocked kicks, including Hester's return of a missed FG. This year's Bears have 27 touchdowns: 12 passing, 7 rushing, 7 interceptions, and a blocked punt. Chicago's offense only accounts for about two-thirds of its TD scoring.

5. New England Patriots [7] — Moved up two spots without playing a game. They traded for Aqib Talib, while Aaron Hernandez and Logan Mankins are likely to return from injury following the Week 9 bye.

6. San Francisco 49ers [4] — Flipped spots with New England while both teams were on bye. The rankings from 1-6 are awfully close.

7. Pittsburgh Steelers [9] — It was refreshing to see the Steelers win with their ground game and defense, but Antonio Brown's ankle injury is cause for concern. He opens up a lot of options for them.

8. Green Bay Packers [6] — Bye comes at a good time. Linebacker Clay Matthews, wide receiver Jordy Nelson, right tackle Bryan Bulaga, and tight end D.J. Williams all left Sunday's game with injuries.

9. New York Giants [8] — Eli Manning has thrown only 2 TD passes in the last four weeks, with a passer rating of 68.4. He passed for under 200 yards in three of the four games, and he's thrown an interception in three consecutive weeks. Part of that might be matchups, but 68.4 is a pretty bad month no matter who the opponent.

10. Baltimore Ravens [10] — Joe Flacco threw for just 153 yards against Cleveland, but with no turnovers and only 1 sack. The Ravens look best when Flacco isn't trying to prove that he's an elite quarterback.

11. Seattle Seahawks [11] — At home, the Seahawks are 4-0, with wins over the Packers and Patriots, plus a 27-7 rout of the Cowboys. On the road, they're 1-4, including losses to the Cardinals, Rams, and Lions. It's like two totally different teams.

12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [13] — In the four games since their bye, Doug Martin has rushed for 547 yards (137/gm) with a 6.59 average and 6 TDs. He also has 192 receiving yards (48/gm) in the last month. On Sunday, Martin scored touchdowns on three runs of 40 yards or more, a unique accomplishment. He is the 20th player with three 40-yard TDs in a game, but the only one with all three on rushes.

The last player to score three 40-yard TDs in a game was Chris Johnson in 2009, against Houston: a 57-yard rush, 69-yard reception, and 91-yard run. Others of interest:

* Don Hutson, 1942. The first player with three 40-yard TDs in a game, all receptions: 40, 73, and 65 yards.

* Jim Spavital, 1950. Played one season in the AAFC and one in the NFL. All his NFL touchdowns were scored in this game.

* Billy Cannon, 1961. The only AFL player on the list, three of the five scores from his 5-TD game were over 50 yards.

* Tommy McDonald, 1962 and 1965. He is the only player with two such games.

* Gale Sayers, 1965. His famous 6-TD game: 80-yd reception, 50-yd rush, 85-yd punt return. He is the only player whose 40-yard scores all came on different types of plays (rec, rush, PR).

* Jerry Rice, 1986. His slow 40-yard dash out of college worried scouts. He is the all-time leader in 40-yard TDs (59).

* Eddie Kennison, 1996, and Randy Moss, 1998. They join Sayers and Martin as the only rookies on the list.

Here's a weird group — the only four players with two games of multiple 40-yard rushing TDs: Jim Brown, Eric Dickerson, Tim Biakabutuka, Adrian Peterson. One of these things is not like the others. On back-to-back weeks in 1999, Biakabutuka rushed for TDs of 62 and 67 yards, then 60 and 45 yards.

Barry Sanders is the all-time leader in rushing TDs of 40+ (21), followed by Brown (14) and O.J. Simpson (13).

13. Detroit Lions [18] — Mikel Leshoure rushed for three touchdowns in the first half of their cakewalk over Jacksonville. The Lions are 3-1 since the bye, including two road wins. The loss, 13-7 against Chicago, is nothing to be ashamed of. Left for dead after a 1-3 start, the Lions are back in the playoff picture. Their head-to-head win over Seattle could be significant in December.

14. New Orleans Saints [19] — Defense has allowed over 400 yards in eight consecutive games, extending its own NFL record, and is almost a lock at this point to break the NFL record as worst defensive team (by yards per game) in history. In the next five weeks, New Orleans plays the Raiders, but also the 49ers, the Giants, and the Falcons twice. Even if they split those games, they'll be 5-7, needing to win out for even a shot at the playoffs.

15. Dallas Cowboys [17] — Tough schedule so far. Their opponents have a combined record of 44-23 (.657), and all their losses are to teams with winning records. They've played five games on the road and only three at home. Their last three losses have all been by less than 7. That's about as good as a team can be at 3-5.

16. Indianapolis Colts [22] — At this time last season, they were 0-9. Now they're 5-3, with a weird mix of nice wins (Packers, Dolphins), dispiriting blowouts (lost to the Bears and Jets by a combined 46), and a Week 3 defeat — at home in Indianapolis — against the 1-7 Jaguars. Honestly, how do you beat the Packers and lose to the Jags?

17. Miami Dolphins [12] — In Week 6, the Jets beat the Colts, 35-9. In Week 8, Miami beat the Jets, 30-9. In other words, the Dolphins did 47 points better against the Jets than Indianapolis had. But this week, the Colts edged Miami, 23-20.

18. San Diego Chargers [20] — Over the last 20 years, I've probably heard the phrase "the ground can't cause a fumble" something like 100 times. In the third quarter of their easy win over Kansas City, Eric Weddle lost the ball on a punt return and the Chiefs recovered. The play was ruled a fumble, apparently because Weddle landed on his wrist rather than forearm — a distinction of something like a centimeter — but replays clearly showed that the ground caused the fumble. No defender knocked it away. He had the ball, he landed on the ground, the ball popped loose. Rules should be adjusted to align with common sense, not the other way around.

19. Washington Redskins [16] — Jimmy Johnson fussed on the FOX pregame show that Robert Griffin III is not a "running" quarterback. Griffin has rushed for 529 yards and 6 TDs. He has almost 200 more yards than Cam Newton (347) and is among the top 20 in the NFL in rushing, ahead of Michael Turner, Darren McFadden, and Steven Jackson. He obviously is a running quarterback. So were Randall Cunningham and Steve Young and Steve McNair. The willingness and ability to run well do not preclude being an effective passer or keeping one's eyes downfield.

20. New York Jets [21] — In early September, they waived T.J. Conley, who was one of the league's most effective punters in 2011. His replacement, Robert Malone, has just been okay. Including blocks, Malone's net average is the same than Conley's (39.1 - 38.8), even though he's had a short field more often. But Conley had better hang time, demonstrated by higher fair catch percentage and lower return average. Malone averages about three punts down inside the 20 for every touchback, which is about average. Conley averaged almost twice that, 5.33 per TB. Pinning your opponent deep 78% more often, avoiding blocks, and minimizing big returns are easily worth a little distance.

21. Minnesota Vikings [14] — Another miserable game from Christian Ponder, as they dropped to 1-3 on the road (they're 4-1 at home). The Week 10 home game against Detroit is probably a must-win if Minnesota is serious about the playoffs. Percy Harvin's status for the game is not yet clear.

22. Philadelphia Eagles [15] — They rank 13th in yards per game, but 30th in points per game. Why? (1) Turnovers: the Eagles rank 29th in turnover differential (-9) and lead the league with 6 turnovers in the red zone. (2) No help: Philadelphia is one of just six teams with no TDs from its defense or special teams. They nearly remedied the latter; my favorite play this week may have been the trick play on special teams with Riley Cooper hiding in the end zone.

Against New Orleans, the Eagles had four 10-play drives, which is sensational, but those drives ended in a punt, field goal, fumble, and turnover on downs. Five red zone possessions yielded two field goals and three turnovers, one of them returned for a touchdown.

23. Cleveland Browns [26] — Phil Dawson went 5/5 on field goal attempts, connecting from 28, 29, 32, 33, and 41 yards. The Browns turned five red zone trips into just 15 points.

24. Carolina Panthers [29] — In the opener to this piece, I referenced the 2008 Broncos/Chargers game in which Ed Hochuli blew his whistle early, nullifying a recovered fumble by the Chargers and preventing them from running out the clock in an eventual loss. Almost the same thing happened in Washington this week, but Carl Cheffers chose to pretend the whistle never blew. DeAngelo Williams clearly never stepped out of bounds, and he might have scored anyway, but while Cheffers' decision probably yielded the right result, it was against the letter of the law.

In the same game, umpire Undrey Wash (which is an anagram for Rude Shawny) caused Carolina to be charged with delay of game (later reversed) and got hit in the face when Washington's Logan Paulsen flipped him the football while he wasn't paying attention.

Undrey Wash is also an anagram for Rushed Yawn or Wry Nude Ash, and uncomfortably close to Wash Undies.

25. Cincinnati Bengals [23] — Four straight losses, and their wins came against teams with a combined record of 6-20. They rank 31st in third down percentage (29.4%).

26. Oakland Raiders [25] — Carson Palmer has more touchdowns, fewer interceptions, and more passing yards per game than Eli Manning.

27. St. Louis Rams [24] — If you were making a list of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL, would Sam Bradford crack the top 8?

28. Tennessee Titans [27] — In 1997, Barry Sanders famously rushed for a total of 53 yards in his first two games, followed by 14 straight 100-yard efforts. This season, Chris Johnson opened with 45 yards in the first three weeks, and he's been over 90 in five of the six games since.

Slow starts seem to be a habit for Johnson. Last season, he rushed for almost twice as much yardage (681) in the last eight games as the first eight (366). In his historic 2009, CJ rushed for a very good 468 yards in the first five weeks (94/gm) and an otherworldly 1,538 in the last 11 (140/gm). Fantasy owners who stuck with Johnson through sickness may be rewarded with some health in the remaining games on the schedule.

29. Buffalo Bills [30] — Put up a decent fight against Houston, but they've lost four of their last five: three by double-digits and the other a loss to Tennessee.

30. Arizona Cardinals [28] — I'm not aware of any other team that started 4-0 and fell to 4-5. The defense is pretty good, so this ranking might be too low.

31. Jacksonville Jaguars [31] — This April, I praised them for drafting Andre Branch, noting that the Jags ranked 32nd in sacks in 2009, 30th in 2010, and tied for 25th last year. Today, Jacksonville is back to 32nd, with only 8 sacks. Branch has 1, which ties him for 3rd-highest on the team.

32. Kansas City Chiefs [32] — They're -20 in turnovers, which is horrifying, but otherwise they're really not bad. Their capacity for committing turnovers is almost unbelievable. They've already turned the ball over more times this season (29) than all of last year (28).

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