NFL Week 15 Power Rankings

Five Quick Hits

* If NBC doesn't want to show sports, how about a permanent loop of Heidi and let a real network air the most important football game of the week?

* Does anyone think Ed Hochuli is better than the replacement refs? A 36-minute delay, a horribly mangled announcement, and a questionable replay decision? Check, check, check: replacement ref.

* The perils of trying to drop knowledge, presented by Ron Pitts: "That West Coast Offense actually originated here in Cleveland Cincinnati under Paul Brown Bill Walsh." Pitts thinks maybe the Browns were running the WCO in 1960. Because when you have Jim Brown in his prime, what you really need is an innovative passing offense.

* Joe Montana was six when Cleveland fired Paul Brown. Walsh is generally credited with creating the WCO in the early '70s for Virgil Carter. Walsh was the Bengals' offensive coordinator and Brown the head coach, but I'm not aware that anyone believes Brown deserves (or even shares) credit for the system. Walsh detested Brown and credits Al Davis as his greatest influence.

* Packers/Bears is a legendary rivalry, but lately it hasn't been much of a rivalry at all. Aaron Rodgers is 9-2 against Chicago. He's 7-1 against Jay Cutler specifically.

***

Last Tuesday, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue overturned all player suspensions associated with the Saints' bounty scandal. It was a surprising ruling after most fans and players expect the former commissioner to help out his successor. Tagliabue agreed that there was a bounty program in place, but he blamed the coaches rather than the players. The finding was consistent with Tagliabue's legacy of labor peace and putting players back on the field.

I haven't followed the bounty scandal closely — I like my football on the field — but I'm concerned about the message. If there was an active bounty program, players need to shoulder some responsibility, and suspensions are the only effective way to send a message. The players union has demonstrated zero interest in player safety (which is insane), so it's up to the league, and I applaud Roger Goodell's basic goal in that respect.

I'm particularly troubled, though, by Peter King's account of this mess: "Tagliabue blamed the team for the system being in place, not the players who went along with the system and funded it ... the same way judges in society sometimes find parents guilty for the actions of their law-violating children."

That's right, King compared grown men like Jonathan Vilma (30) and Scott Fujita (33) to children. The players are grown-ups, and holding white coaches and executives to a different standard than (mostly) black players is not only wrong, it's racist. I don't know enough about the specifics to say whether that's reflected in Tagliabue's ruling, but let's keep this thing honest. Brackets indicate Week 14 rank.

1. Denver Broncos [2] — Nine-game winning streak. Coincidentally, Peyton Manning has also won nine straight against the Ravens, dating back to 2002. Knowshon Moreno has stepped in ably for Willis McGahee, and the Broncos are remarkably healthy for this time of year.

2. San Francisco 49ers [3] — New England has the best offense in the NFL. The 49ers held it to 2/15 on third downs (13%), forced 4 turnovers, and got Tom Brady to throw more interceptions than touchdown passes for the first time since October 2010 (vs Ravens). Colin Kaepernick has started five games in his career. He has more 4-TD games than Alex Smith (75 starts).

Justin Smith left the game with an elbow injury, and his departure coincided with New England's 28-point onslaught. If the injury proves serious, this ranking should probably be revised. The team's excellent linebacking corps notwithstanding, Justin Smith is probably the key player on defense.

3. New England Patriots [1] — Exciting game. Brady passed a career-high 65 times this week and only threw 1 touchdown. Down 31-3 with 6:00 left in the third quarter, the Patriots scored 4 consecutive TDs and tied the game in less than 15 minutes, with 6:43 remaining. One of the TDs came on a sneak by Brady, his 4th rushing TD of the season. Brady has more rushing TDs than the Raiders. Yes, the whole team.

4. Seattle Seahawks [7] — Three wins in a row, and five of the last six. Oddsmakers have Seattle as a slight favorite to beat the 49ers at home in Week 16. Seattle's offense started the season slow, topping 20 points only once in the first five games. The Seahawks averaged exactly twice as many points per game over the last seven weeks (35.0) as the first eight (17.5). They are the third team in history to score 50 or more points in consecutive weeks (1950 Giants and Rams).

Chris Clemons had 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble this week. This is his third season as a starter, and his third straight season with 11 or more sacks. DeMarcus Ware and Clemons are the only players with three straight seasons of double-digit sacks, yet most fans have never heard of Clemons. He is probably the most underrated defensive end in football.

5. Houston Texans [4] — Arian Foster broke three runs of 25 yards or more and finished with 165 on the ground, but I worry about his workload. This was his 7th game of the season with 25 or more carries, by far the most in the league. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Marshawn Lynch are next, with 4 apiece. Adrian Peterson has 3. On the other hand, it's nice to see Andre Johnson's workload increase.

Johnson, first 7 games: 34 rec, 444 yds, 2 TD
Johnson, last 7 games: 59 rec, 916 yds, 2 TD

He has more than twice as much receiving yardage since the bye. Oh yeah, and J.J. Watt checked in this week with 10 solo tackles, including 6 for a loss, including 3 sacks. And a forced fumble at the 1-yard line, recovered by the Texans. The Defensive Player of the Year race shouldn't even be close. Watt is a legit MVP candidate.

6. Green Bay Packers [5] — Since their ugly loss to the Giants in Week 12, they've reeled off three straight wins, all against division opponents. This week's 21-13 score was close, but the Packers outgained Chicago by over 200 yards and the Bears went 0/9 on third downs. Clay Matthews returned from injury with 2 sacks and a pass deflection.

7. Atlanta Falcons [10] — Won 34-0 without Roddy White. I know he was on the field, but nowhere near 100%. This win was set up by Atlanta's defense. The Giants gained only 10 first downs and ran just 48 plays.

8. Washington Redskins [11] — Five-game winning streak, 2nd-longest in the league (Denver). The Browns had won three games in a row, holding all three opponents below 20 points. Kirk Cousins, in his first NFL start, passed for 329 yards and a 104.4 passer rating, dropping 38 points on Cleveland's defense, as many as it had yielded in the previous three weeks combined.

Fifth-year linebacker Rob Jackson has been playing because of the injury to Brian Orakpo. Jackson has 4.5 sacks, 3 INTs, 5 other pass deflections, 2 forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and a touchdown. I'm sure Orakpo will get his starting job back next year, but maybe Jackson can move to the middle. You have to find playing time for a guy like that.

9. Cincinnati Bengals [6] — Including 6 sacks, Andy Dalton was 13-of-33 for 92 yards, less than three yards per attempt. Cincinnati trailed 13-10 at halftime, but 4 second-half takeaways and a defensive touchdown turned Thursday night into a blowout.

10. Dallas Cowboys [14] — Some around the league have expressed displeasure and even horror that Josh Brent, who drove drunk and killed teammate Jerry Brown, was on the sideline for their game against Pittsburgh. Brent made a terrible mistake. He deserves to be punished, and he will be. But he's also a member of the team, and he's dealing with a tremendous amount of guilt and public criticism. You worry about the mental state of someone in that position, and I don't have a problem with the Cowboys giving him support at this time.

11. New York Giants [9] — How their drives ended this week:

1. Interception
2. Missed 30-yard field goal
3. Three-and-out
4. Interception
5. Turnover on downs
6. Turnover on downs
7. Turnover on downs
8. Three-and-out
9. Lost fumble

12. Baltimore Ravens [8] — In their first game under new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, the Ravens went 1/14 on third and fourth down conversions. They had 7 three-and-outs. Already dealing with injuries to key starters Dannell Ellerbe, Bernard Pollard, and Marshal Yanda, the team also lost receiver Torrey Smith to a concussion.

13. Indianapolis Colts [13] — Gave Houston a fight, with two big plays (a fumble at the 1-yard line and a blocked punt returned for a TD) possibly the difference in the game. The Colts are -17 in turnovers, 30th in the NFL, and if they clean that up, they'll be a dangerous team in the playoffs.

14. New Orleans Saints [16] — Allowed 52 points last week and none on Sunday. The last team to shut out an opponent one week after allowing at least 50 was the 1981 St. Louis Cardinals.

15. Pittsburgh Steelers [12] — Getting Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu back doesn't seem to have helped at all. From October 12th to December 8th, the Steelers held seven consecutive opponents to 20 points or fewer. In two games with Polamalu but without Ike Taylor, they've allowed 34 and 27.

16. Minnesota Vikings [20] — Rookie kicker Blair Walsh had another great game, 5/5 on field goals, including three from 50 yards and beyond. Walsh is 8/8 in 50+ FGs, most in the league.

The Vikings are 8-6, tied for the last playoff spot in the NFC. Adrian Peterson has 1,812 rushing yards, about 300 short of Eric Dickerson's single-season record. Viking fans, if you had to choose, would you rather make the playoffs and All Day falls short of ED, or Peterson gets the record but Minnesota misses the postseason?

17. Chicago Bears [17] — No Tim Jennings. No Henry Melton. No Brian Urlacher. The Bears' offense, outside of Brandon Marshall, has been pretty wretched all year. But when the defense scores 10 points a game, you don't notice so much. Chicago, once 7-1, is now 8-6 and needs help to make the playoffs. The Bears have played six straight games against opponents with winning records, a combined 57-26-1 (.685).

18. Carolina Panthers [23] — Won three of the last four, including a pretty easy victory over Atlanta and a blowout in San Diego. How much do you love Ron Rivera, players? It's tough to fire a coach who ends the season with a four-game winning streak.

19. Cleveland Browns [18] — You probably heard this week that Trent Richardson broke Jim Brown's team record for most TDs by a rookie. I'm not suggesting asterisks, but let's keep in mind that in 1957, the season was only 12 games. Brown led the NFL in rushing by over 20 yards per game and led the league in rushing touchdowns. Richardson is 16th in rushing yards and averages 3.5 per carry.

20. Miami Dolphins [27] — Mathematically alive for a playoff spot. That requires a Week 17 win in New England, plus a lot of help, so probably not going to happen. Ryan Tannehill posted the highest passer rating of his career this week, and threw multiple TDs for only the second time all season.

21. St. Louis Rams [21] — I think it was Terry Bradshaw who said on a pregame show that their defense would hold Adrian Peterson below 100 yards. Peterson ran for 212.

22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [15] — Josh Freeman came out of the Week 5 bye on fire. The Bucs won five of their next six, with Freeman passing for multiple touchdowns in each game, and a passer rating over 100 in five of them. Since then, Tampa is 0-4 and Freeman has thrown more INTs than TDs.

23. New York Jets [19] — In a train-wreck sort of way, the most amazing game I've seen all season. My favorite part was the growingly incredulous reactions from ESPN's crew. I hope you stayed up late enough to catch Trent Dilfer and Steve Young freaking out after the game. Someone's probably posted it on YouTube by now, and it was amazing. Dilfer seethed, "It's justice that the Jets are not gonna be in the playoffs, because this is dysfunction at its highest level." He and Young repeatedly stuttered, simply in amazement and dismay at what they'd just seen from a professional football team. Both inadvertently raised their voices as they spoke, one step from losing it on the air.

The Jets' offense looked okay on the first two series, picking up 7 first downs, 62 yards, and a field goal. Then Tim Tebow replaced Mark Sanchez for a series, and Sanchez went into the toilet. He finished the first half 5-of-10 for 27 yards, with a 7-yard sack and an interception. That's an average of under 5.5 yards per completion. Jon Gruden foreshadowed the reactions of his colleagues:

"Everything just looks painful in this Jet pass offense."

"Tim Tebow, just runnin' around, it looked like broken plays. It was a disaster, and I think it threw Sanchez and the Jets out of rhythm."

"Once again, Sanchez just looks like he's having a miserable, miserable time playing quarterback in this Jet offense."

That last one came immediately before Sanchez threw the second of his four interceptions. When Sanchez and the offense appeared to regain some momentum, the Jets once more replaced him with Tebow. Mike Tirico with the call: "Mark Sanchez is hot, he's rolling, he hit a couple of passes ... and Tim Tebow comes in." Dilfer was flabbergasted afterwards: "[For a quarterback], everything is about rhythm. You establish some — some — and then your genius offensive coordinator throws out his little toy, Tim Tebow." Dilfer, Young, and (to a lesser extent) Stuart Scott were all seriously freaking out on set, and it was wonderful. Rex Ryan indicated in the postgame press conference that it was planned ahead of time for Tebow to handle the third series. The feebleness of gameday coaching at the NFL level astounds me.

24. San Diego Chargers [22] — Philip Rivers' regression the last two seasons has got to rank as one of the biggest disappointments in the past decade. Rivers had three great seasons, looked about as good as any QB in the league. He's not a good player any more. This weekend: 16-of-23, 121 yards, 6 sacks for 27 yards, TD. 29 dropbacks should yield a lot more than 94 yards.

25. Philadelphia Eagles [26] — Three turnovers in 71 seconds. The Eagles are -22 in turnover differential, tied with Kansas City for worst in the league.

26. Buffalo Bills [25] — Since 2008, the Bills are 15-19 in Buffalo (.441). Over those same years, they are 1-4 in Toronto (.200). I'm sure there are plenty of Bills fans in Toronto, but it can't possibly provide the same home field advantage. It's not a stadium they're familiar with, they still have to travel, and it's a dome, which eliminates the team's traditional cold-weather advantage.

27. Tennessee Titans [29] — Charged with 14 penalties for 111 yards and 4 first downs. They went 2/13 on third downs, and only gained 12 first downs. They had two shanked punts and a blocked field goal. Jake Locker finished with 13 pass completions and 4 sacks. But the Jets are a train wreck, so they won.

28. Arizona Cardinals [31] — Held Matthew Stafford below 50% completions and intercepted him three times, with 186 INT return yards and 2 TDs. They scored 38 points despite gaining only 196 yards, with 12 first downs and 2/12 on third down conversions. They had almost as much yardage on interception returns as offense.

29. Detroit Lions [24] — Calvin Johnson has 106 catches for 1,667 yards. That's already the 8th-most receiving yardage in a single season, and 167 yards short of Jerry Rice's 1995 record. Megatron has over 100 yards in 10 games, one shy of Michael Irvin's 1995 record. That includes seven straight games over 115 yards. The Lions are 3-7 when Johnson hits triple digits, but they're also 1-3 when he doesn't.

30. Oakland Raiders [32] — Third straight win against the Chiefs, including their first season sweep since 2001. Oakland didn't score any TDs, but out-gained Kansas City 385-119 and 21 first downs to 7, more than doubling the time of possession.

31. Jacksonville Jaguars [28] — Their offense is so atrocious, it's easy to forget how bad the defense is. Jacksonville ranks 29th in points allowed, 31st in yards allowed, and dead last against the run.

32. Kansas City Chiefs [30] — Held under 10 points for the fourth time in the last five games, and under 14 for six of the last seven. The exception was the game immediately following the Jovan Belcher murder/suicide, and that was probably a fluke. This team is so awful, it is ranked behind Jacksonville.

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