Tuesday, January 1, 2013

NFL Week 17 Power Rankings

By Brad Oremland

Five Quick Hits

* Best announcers this season: Mike Mayock, Dan Fouts, and Brad Nessler.

* Worst announcers this season: Thom Brennaman and Brian Billick. Please, make it stop.

* Wes Welker caught 118 passes this year, his 5th 100-catch season, an NFL record.

* The Cardinals' season-high for yards from scrimmage this season was 375. Every other team topped 400 at least once. The Cardinals even played two overtime games, and they never hit 400. Perhaps just as amazing, in their five wins, they never broke 300.

* Context: 28 teams averaged 300 yards a game. 17 teams averaged 350. The Patriots, Saints, and Lions averaged 400. Arizona didn't reach that mark once. Incredible.

***

I realize the Cardinals were terrible this season, but defensive standouts Calais Campbell and Daryl Washington deserve trips to Hawaii. The Pro Bowl voting is unduly influenced by name recognition and sack totals. Overall, the Pro Bowl choices were actually pretty good this year. For the first time in memory, I even like the punters. But all the defensive ends are 4-3 pass rushers, and all the outside linebackers are 3-4 pass rushers. What about Wesley Woodyard and Lance Briggs, or Campbell and Corey Liuget? How about Chad Greenway or Rob Jackson?

You won't read much below about MVP candidates, or about the exceptional accomplishments of Adrian Peterson, Calvin Johnson, J.J. Watt, and others. Check back tomorrow for the Sports Central All-Pro team, including awards like Most Valuable Player, Coach of the Year, and Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year. For now, the final power rankings of 2012 show current strength, an end-of-season rating, and brackets indicate last week's rank.

1. Denver Broncos [1] — To illustrate how well the Broncos have been playing lately, the last time they won by less than 7 was October 7th (Week 5), when they lost to the Patriots. Following a 2-3 start, they won 11 in a row and clinched homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. Their next game will be at home, possibly against the Ravens, whom they beat 34-17 in Baltimore two weeks ago. However, Denver played a pretty easy schedule during the win streak, with only two opponents (Baltimore and Cincinnati) who finished .500 or better. It's fair to question whether the team is really battle-tested.

2. Seattle Seahawks [2] — Bring a five-game winning streak, the NFL's third-longest, into Washington, where they'll face the team with the second-longest (7). The Seahawks went undefeated at home in 2012, the only team to do so, but they were 3-5 away, and that includes one win in Toronto, arguably a neutral site. Despite the home/road splits, I'm predicting Seattle by a touchdown. The wild cards in the NFC are much more dangerous than those in the AFC.

3. San Francisco 49ers [4] — Earned a first-round bye and a matchup with either Green Bay or the winner of Seattle at Washington. If I'm a Niners fan, I don't want to see Seattle. San Francisco beat the Packers on the road in Week 1. The 49ers have 9 Pro Bowlers, most in the NFL.

4. New England Patriots [5] — Led the NFL in scoring (557) and point differential (+226), and went 6-0 in the AFC East, the only team besides Denver to sweep its division. Rob Ninkovich left Sunday's game with an injury. His status for the playoffs isn't clear yet, but Ninkovich is one of the team's best defenders, and his absence would be a major problem. What does Logan Mankins have to do to miss the Pro Bowl? This is the second time in the last three years that he's been chosen despite missing six or more games.

5. Green Bay Packers [3] — Since realignment, teams that lose in Week 17 are 12-15 in the wild card round of the playoffs (.444). If the regular season is any clue at all, though, you'll want to go with most of the home teams next weekend. The most extreme example is Minnesota at Green Bay. Both teams went 7-1 at home this season, but the Vikings were just 3-5 on the road. If you put a 7-1 team and a 3-5 team on a neutral field, it would be pretty easy to guess the winner, right? Packers by 6.

6. Minnesota Vikings [11] — Four wins in a row, including the Bears, Texans, and Packers. I'll have more to say about Adrian Peterson in my All-Pro column tomorrow, and he's obviously the team's most valuable player, but who's second? Maybe Jared Allen? Or maybe rookie kicker Blair Walsh, who led the NFL in field goals (35) and went 10/10 from 50 yards and beyond, a record.

7. Washington Redskins [7] — Seventh win in a row, the third-longest streak of Mike Shanahan's career. I haven't written much this season about rookie running back Alfred Morris, but he rushed for 200 yards and 3 TDs in Week 17, setting a team record for single-season rushing yardage (1,613). It's the 3rd-highest rushing total ever by a rookie, behind only Eric Dickerson (1,808) and George Rogers (1,674). The last rookie RB to top 1,500? Clinton Portis, who played for Shanahan in 2002.

8. Atlanta Falcons [6] — Played their starters the whole way in Week 17, which I think was a good idea, but it didn't work out, because (1) they lost, to a team that hadn't won in a month, and (2) John Abraham and Dunta Robinson left the game with injuries. The Falcons have a bye, and Robinson should be fine for the playoffs, but Abraham's ankle might be a problem.

9. Cincinnati Bengals [8] — Rematch of last year's wild card loss, as they once again travel to Houston for a playoff game. The Bengals have won seven of their last eight, and they actually have a better record on the road (6-2) than at home (4-4). But I'm going with Houston. Both teams have played horrible offense the last few weeks. Andy Dalton's stat line for December: 180 yds/gm, 4 TD, 5 INT, 4 sacks/gm (11.5 sck%), 71.3 rating. Texans by 7.

10. Baltimore Ravens [10] — I'm sure there are still some fans for whom it's weird to hear that the playoffs will feature the Colts playing on the road at Baltimore. Indianapolis actually had a better record (11-5) than the Ravens (10-6), but I'm going with the home team. Baltimore has a huge home-field advantage (6-2 this year), and the Colts were just average on the road (4-4). Baltimore by 10.

11. Carolina Panthers [16] — Ended the season with four straight wins and scored 5 rushing TDs against the Saints. Leading rushers this season:

Chart

Maybe they can streamline that a bit in 2013.

12. Indianapolis Colts [15] — Travel to Baltimore for a wild card playoff matchup. The Colts went 4-4 on the road this season, but the teams they beat had a combined record of 14-50. Their road losses were by a combined score of 164-71 (an average of 41-18).

13. Chicago Bears [14] — Finished 10-6 and fired head coach Lovie Smith. In nine seasons with the Bears, Smith went 81-63 and led the team to a record of 7-9 or better each of the last eight years. They won three division titles and played in two NFC Championship Games. Chicago was a combined 29-19 the last three seasons. I understand feeling like it's time to move on, but I don't understand who the Bears think they can get that will do better. Twenty bucks says the Bears are worse than 10-6 two years from now.

14. Houston Texans [9] — Andre Johnson gained a career-high 1,598 receiving yards this season. However, the Texans were 6-0 when he gained under 75 yards, compared to 6-4 when he gained 75 or more. Houston has 8 Pro Bowlers, most in the AFC.

15. New York Giants [18] — When they play like they did against Philadelphia (42-7) or New Orleans (52-27) or Green Bay (38-10), it makes you wonder how they mail it in for games like Baltimore (33-14), Atlanta (34-0) and Cincinnati (31-13). The Giants scored more TDs in the first quarter this week than in the previous two games combined.

I know Victor Cruz has a look-at-me end zone dance, but I don't understand how Cruz, 10th in the NFC with 1,092 receiving yards, made it to the Pro Bowl ahead of Roddy White (1,351), Dez Bryant (1,382), and Vincent Jackson (1,384). Cruz ranked 7th in the conference in receptions, 10th in yards, 13th in first downs, tied for 4th in TDs. That's a good season, but only four WRs go to the Pro Bowl. Is the salsa dance really worth 300 yards?

16. New Orleans Saints [12] — Allowed 400 yards for the 12th time this season (most in NFL history) and 500 for the 4th time (most in a quarter-century). Their season total of 7,042 easily broke the record of 6,793 allowed by the 1981 Baltimore Colts. Sean Payton, who was suspended for the entirety of the 2012 season, signed an extension last week and will return as head coach in 2013.

17. Dallas Cowboys [13] — I believe Tony Romo is a good quarterback. He's never had a passer rating below 90, and he's thrown almost twice as many TDs (177) as INTs (91). Best TD/INT differential, 2006-12:

1. Tom Brady, +154
2. Drew Brees, +132
3. Aaron Rodgers, +126
4. Peyton Manning, +113
5. Philip Rivers, +96
6. Tony Romo, +86
7. Ben Roethlisberger, +69
8. Matt Ryan, +67
9. Eli Manning, +63
t10. Donovan McNabb and Matt Schaub, +49

This season, Romo passed for a career-high 4,903 yards (3rd-most in the NFL) and threw for 28 TDs (6th-most). He's a good player, underrated because his mistakes get so much publicity. But when you're trying to shake a reputation for choking, it's really best to avoid throwing 3 interceptions in the critical season finale against your biggest rival.

18. Pittsburgh Steelers [19] — Rashard Mendenhall, who had 1 receiving yard, tied for the team lead in receptions in their victory over Cleveland. Pittsburgh's biggest problems this season were injury-related, but that doesn't automatically mean the Steelers will be better next year. The team needs to bring in more young talent, especially on the aging defense, and upgrade its offensive line, including the bench.

19. Miami Dolphins [17] — In the last six weeks, they beat the Seahawks, and crushed the Jaguars and Bills by a combined 48-13. They lost the other three, but against elite teams (the 49ers and the Patriots twice). 28-0 blowout in Week 17 notwithstanding, that's a decent finish. The priority this offseason has got to be a downfield receiving threat. Mike Wallace might be a good fit.

20. St. Louis Rams [20] — Offseason priority is clear: they had no receivers with over 700 yards this season.

21. San Diego Chargers [22] — Won their final two games, and three of the last four. Norv Turner has been fired, and I don't think that's a bad move for the team. But during his six years in San Diego, Turner went 56-40 (an undefeated season over .500), won three division titles, and made an AFC Championship Game. The Chargers outscored their opponents all six years, and never finished worse than 7-9. Only six coaches won more games in those seasons than Turner: Bill Belichick (NE), Mike McCarthy (GB), Mike Tomlin (PIT), Mike Smith (ATL), John Harbaugh (BAL), and Tom Coughlin (NYG). Overall, Turner has 114 wins as a head coach, more than John Madden (103), Vince Lombardi (96), or Bill Walsh (92). Turner won more playoff and postseason games than George Allen, Ted Marchibroda, or Steve Mariucci.

This was probably Turner's last shot at an NFL head coaching job, and most fans will remember him as a failure. That's not fair for a coach who also enjoyed some real success in both Washington and San Diego.

22. Cleveland Browns [21] — Fired general manager Tom Heckert and head coach Pat Shurmur after only two years. The team says it will hire a new coach before replacing Heckert. That always works out well.

23. Buffalo Bills [26] — Sunday was a bad day for setting records. C.J. Spiller caught a 66-yard TD pass, but he rushed 24 times for only 59 yards, dropping his average to 6.01, well below Jim Brown's single-season record (6.40). Adrian Peterson came up barely short of the single-season rushing record, neither J.J. Watt nor Aldon Smith got any sacks, and Calvin Johnson fell shy of 2,000 receiving yards.

The Bills have fired head coach Chan Gailey after three seasons. No Bills coach has lasted four seasons since Marv Levy retired in 1997. Wade Phillips (29-19), Gregg Williams (17-31), Mike Mularkey (14-18), Dick Jauron (24-33), Perry Fewell (3-4), and now Gailey (16-32) haven't gotten much time to prove themselves. You know, maybe the problem isn't the coaches.

24. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [24] — Broke a five-game losing streak to finish a respectable 7-9. That's not bad when you consider that the 2011 Bucs lost their last 10 in a row and got outscored by 207. Every team in the NFC South went 3-3 in division games this year.

25. Tennessee Titans [27] — Sandwiched a 48-point loss between victories over the Jets and Jaguars. With 3:04 left in the second quarter of the win over Jacksonville, the Titans punted. Their offense didn't get the ball back until 10:25 of the third quarter, but Tennessee scored 28 points in the interim. That's two punt return TDs (Darius Reynaud), two INT return TDs (Zach Brown), zero offensive plays, and 28 points.

26. Oakland Raiders [30] — Last year, they set an NFL record with 163 penalties for 1,358 yards. This season, they ranked 8th in penalties: 108 for 939 yards. That's still not good, but it's a lot better: 55 penalties, 400 penalty yards. The Raiders won four games this season. Three of them were against 2-14 teams (the Jaguars, and the Chiefs twice).

27. Arizona Cardinals [28] — Defense allowed just 201 passing yards per game, 5th-best in the NFL, and a passer rating of just 71.2, best in the league. Yes, better than the Bears (71.3) or Seahawks (71.8) or 49ers (78.0). The Cardinals won their first road game, at New England in Week 2, then dropped the next seven in a row. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt and GM Rod Graves were both fired on Monday.

28. Detroit Lions [29] — Lost their last eight in a row, but they never stopped trying, and they gave some good teams a fight. That's more than you can say for the next couple teams.

29. Philadelphia Eagles [23] — Parted ways with their most successful coach since Greasy Neale. You can tell by the way his players gave it their best in Week 17 that they supported Andy Reid and ... oh, wait. The Eagles opened 3-1, then lost 11 of their last 12. They actually ranked 15th in both yards and yards allowed, but 29th in points and points allowed. That will happen when you're -24 in turnovers.

30. New York Jets [25] — Fired GM Mike Tannenbaum, but Rex Ryan will get another year. The Jets scored under 20 points in each of their last six games, and eight of the last nine. In what Jets fans hope will be his final game as the team's starting quarterback, Mark Sanchez completed under 50% of his passes, committed 2 turnovers, and posted a 55.1 passer rating. This season, Sanchez was under 50% completions eight times — most in the NFL, and more than half his starts. Andrew Luck (50% or lower seven times) and Chad Henne (four times in six starts) were also negatively distinguished.

31. Jacksonville Jaguars [31] — The Colts went 7-1 at home this season. The Jaguars went 2-14 overall. One of those two wins? At Indianapolis.

32. Kansas City Chiefs [32] — Clinched the top draft pick for 2013, and fired head coach Romeo Crennel after only one year. As badly as other offenses played this year — Arizona, Jacksonville, the Jets — Kansas City scored the fewest points in the league by 39 (2½ per game). The passing game is a particular problem. I'd like to see them bring in a veteran QB and draft some receivers.

Most games this season throwing more INTs than TDs:

1. Mark Sanchez, NYJ, 7
t2. Matt Cassel, KC, 6
t2. Brady Quinn, KC, 6
t2. Ryan Tannehill, MIA, 6
t2. Brandon Weeden, CLE, 6

The Chiefs had 50% more such games (12) than the second-worst Cardinals and Jets (8 each). They tied Philadelphia for the worst turnover differential this season, -24.

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