Tuesday, November 19, 2013

NFL Week 11 Power Rankings

By Brad Oremland

Five Quick Hits

* Hey, television networks: going to commercial during a 30-second timeout is chintzy and rude. Knock it off.

* I hate the Bumblebee uniforms. Teams should only use throwbacks when they aren't horrible.

* Most surprising statistic this season: lost fumbles. The Broncos have the most (13) and the Jaguars have the fewest (3).

* Several games this week played in serious wind. Chicago got the most attention for obvious reasons, but neither the Browns nor Bengals scored going against the wind.

* Did you see UFC 167 on Saturday night? Check out the unofficial scorecards from MMA media. Or tweets from fighters after the decision was announced. I thought Johny Hendricks pretty clearly won the first, second, and fourth rounds. (Second link is NSFW)

***

This happened in Week 10, and my column that week focused on the bizarre Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito drama in Miami, but I really want to discuss something from the Broncos/Chargers game: Jim Nantz's on-air freakout when it was suggested that the Chargers, down 28-19 in the fourth quarter, might go for two, to make it a 7-point game.

Nantz was furious. He didn't just think it was a bad idea, he was unmistakably angry, almost yelling. Phil Simms is the most respectful of analysts, and someone who clearly likes Nantz and enjoys working with him, but he actually had to tell Nantz to calm down: "Take a drink of water." I recall something similar a few years ago, when Mike Tirico briefly went insane because he was upset about the Cowboys trying a two-point conversion. Two things I don't understand:

1. Why do these guys get so emotional about two-point conversions?

2. Why are they a bad idea?

Two-point conversion percentage in the NFL is almost 50%, and the conversion is worth twice as much as an extra-point kick. Purely on the math, they're very similar. But here's the part I really don't get ... Nantz and Tirico insisted that the teams couldn't go for two right away, because then they might not be able to go for two later. Huh?

Why does the order matter? Let's take last week's Broncos/Chargers game. San Diego was down 28-13 with about 10 minutes left. A touchdown made it 28-19. If you kick the extra point, it's 28-20, and you still need a two-point conversion later. This was Nantz's main objection — the extra point assures a one-possession game. But scoring 8 and then 7 is the same as scoring 7 and then 8, and likewise with 7 and 6. And what if you miss the conversion later? You lose 28-26. If you miss the conversion right away, it's 28-19, but now you know you need two scores. You can adjust your strategy at this point. If you miss later, you just lose.

If you make the conversion — and you've got about a 50% chance — then all is well. If you miss, it's better to know early that you need an extra score. Right? I don't understand why it's a big deal either way — why these announcers lose their minds over it — but if a two-point conversion attempt is inevitable, I don't see what you gain by putting it off, whereas there is at least one clear advantage to going for it early. Am I missing something? In any case, these guys need to act like professionals when they're on the air.

Power rankings are for current strength, not a summary of the whole season.

1. Denver Broncos — Scored more points against the Chiefs (27) than anyone had all season. It was Denver's lowest scoring total of the year. Keep an eye on the injuries to Wes Welker and Julius Thomas. Neither is long-term, but one or both could be questionable for next week's game at New England.

2. Seattle Seahawks — Best record in the NFL (10-1), best point differential in the NFC (+127), and they just got Percy Harvin back.

3. Carolina Panthers — Six straight wins, two against top-10 teams and the other four by an average of over 20 points.

4. New Orleans Saints — At home, they're 6-0. They've beaten some good teams and outscored the opponents 199-95. On the road, they're 2-2, including a loss to the Jets, and they've outscored the opponents 89-88. A great team has to be great in more than half its games. The Seahawks are amazing in Seattle, but they're also 5-1 away. The Saints need to show they can win on the road.

5. San Francisco 49ers — Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati reportedly has a sprained MCL. That's not good news, exactly, but it certainly could have been worse.

6. Kansas City Chiefs — They've scored 25 TDs this year. The Broncos have scored 51. But both teams have substantial home-field advantage, so their Week 13 matchup could easily go the other way.

7. New England Patriots — You never want to see a big game turn on a controversial penalty, and you never want one to end on a controversial non-penalty. I think I would have been more bothered by a pass interference and ball at the 1 than by the no-call, but I've still never heard an adequate explanation for why illegal contact can't be called in that situation. I have all the respect in the world for Rob Gronkowski — the best tight end in the NFL, by far — but the ball looked uncatchable to me.

8. Cincinnati Bengals — Beat a division rival by 21 and went 2½ games up in the AFC North, but the offense is worrisome. In Week 9, Andy Dalton had 4 turnovers and no touchdowns. In Week 10, he was a fantasy defense's best friend: 5 sacks, 3 INTs. On Sunday, 93 yards and 2 picks. That's three straight weeks with a passer rating under 65. Defense and special teams bailed him out on Sunday, but you can't usually go 1/14 on third down and score 41 points.

9. Indianapolis Colts — What does someone have to do to get thrown out of a game in this league? Erik Walden grabbed Delanie Walker's facemask, used it to rip the helmet off Walker's head, hurled the helmet 15 yards downfield, and then head-butted Walker in the face. This happened right in front of an official, who gave Walden a 15-yard penalty and a very sharp slap on the wrist. You get in more trouble than that for sacking Drew Brees.

UPDATE: The league has suspended Walden for one game. Better late than never, I guess.

10. Arizona Cardinals — Three wins in a row, and they're the last team to beat Carolina. Daryl Washington has been making big plays ever since he returned from suspension.

11. Dallas Cowboys — I still think they win the NFC East. Yeah, their defense has given up the most yardage in the NFL, and yeah, the Saints embarrassed them last week. That's one game. A year ago, the Ravens lost 43-13 to Houston. It was a terrible, humiliating performance, but they came out of it okay. So can this year's Cowboys. Dallas has an easier remaining schedule than the Eagles or Giants, and tiebreaker wins over both. The Cowboys go 9-7 and win the East.

12. New York Giants — Four victories in a row after their 0-6 start. Those four wins came against the Vikings (2-8), Eagles (6-5), Raiders (4-6), and Packers (0-3 without Aaron Rodgers), and all except the Eagles were at home. I'm not sold, and Eli Manning's next 3-INT game is always just around the corner. The NFC East is mediocre-to-bad this year, but it's going to take 9 wins for a division title, and I don't see the Giants going 5-1 down the stretch.

13. Philadelphia Eagles — Third straight victory, and their first home win in over a year. They clearly have Washington's number, and Nick Foles looks like the answer at quarterback.

14. Pittsburgh Steelers — After a dismal start (0-4), they're 4-2 since the bye, including two straight wins since their blowout loss to the Patriots in Week 9. Guess that "Ben Roethlisberger wants a trade" distraction wasn't such a big deal. Nice halftime adjustment to shut down Calvin Johnson.

15. Detroit Lions — In the first half, Matthew Stafford was 16-of-30 for 327 yards and 2 TDs, with no sacks or turnovers. Calvin Johnson caught 6 passes for 179 yards and both TDs. The Lions gained 16 first downs, including 5/9 on third downs, and scored 27 points.

In the second half, Stafford was 3-of-16 for 35 yards and an interception, with 2 sacks for 18 yards. Calvin Johnson caught no passes. The Lions gained 5 first downs, including 1/7 on third downs, and didn't score. They lost 37-27. It's silly to blame a fake field goal for Stafford's 3/18, 17-yards-and-a-pick performance in the second half. If the Lions had gotten any production from their offense in the second half, or not allowed Pittsburgh a season-high 37 points, they would have won. They blew it on both sides of the ball and lost by double-digits. This isn't about one play, and I don't buy the momentum argument. Detroit had already begun the second half with two three-and-outs, and was only up by 4..

16. Miami Dolphins — They rank 31st in yards per game, averaging just 308. That's ahead of the Jaguars, but it's more than 100 behind six other teams, almost 150 behind Denver. The Dolphins are tied with the Jets for the last playoff spot in the AFC, but they're behind on tiebreakers, and they have December games outdoors in New York, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo.

17. Cleveland Browns — Lost four of their last five, but all against teams ranked higher than this (Bengals, Chiefs, Lions, Packers with Aaron Rodgers) and mostly on the road. Their next two are at home against teams with losing records.

The Browns have attempted and made the most fourth-down conversions in the NFL (11/23). The desperate Jags are next in both categories (8/20).

18. Chicago Bears — Jay Cutler has a laser, rocket arm, and Josh McCown is a career back-up. But it's not obvious to me that Cutler is a better option at QB right now. Season stats:

Comp% NY/A TD% INT% Rating
Cutler 63.0 6.62 4.9 3.0 88.4
McCown 60.4 7.00 5.0 0.0 100.0

(NY/A is net yards per attempt: passing plus sacks)

It's too early to suggest that McCown is a better fit than Cutler, but Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, and Matt Forte have played well with both quarterbacks, so it seems silly to rush Cutler back or make a huge financial commitment to him.

19. Baltimore Ravens — They seem to attract game delays. Unlike the Super Bowl and the season opener, I actually appreciated the two-hour delay in Chicago this weekend. I got to watch Bengals/Browns in the meantime, and flip back and forth between Bears/Ravens and Saints/Niners during the second game slot.

20. Buffalo Bills — I agree with the Bills about their schedule being unfair. More than half of their opponents were coming off a bye or a Thursday night game, with extra time to rest and prepare, including three division games. According to the NFL's research department: "Since 2006, teams coming off a bye week or extra rest from a Thursday night game win 54% of the time." Fifty-four percent instead of 50 is roughly the difference between 8-8 or 9-7. That's not a trivial change, and it's not fair for it to happen to one team in half its games.

The page I linked, by the usually intelligent Gregg Rosenthal, makes one of the most absurd comparisons imaginable: "Teams that repeatedly play on 'Monday Night Football' are also at a disadvantage the following week, but teams love that spotlight."

1. The Bills aren't playing on MNF. They get no advantage from playing well-rested opponents, including "spotlight."

2. Monday Night games are a difference of one day. The Bills are talking about advantages of 3-7 days.

3. No one plays half their games on Monday night. Three times a season, max. The Bills have already had six games against extra-rested opposition. That's ridiculous.

21. New York Jets — Least predictable team in the league. In the last four weeks, they've beaten the Patriots and Saints, but lost to the Bengals and Bills by a combined 63 points. It's not reliable in partial seasons, but according to the Simple Ranking System at Pro Football Reference, the Jets rank 31st, ahead of only Jacksonville. When Geno Smith is bad, he is horrid. The Jets rank last in the NFL in turnover differential, -14.

22. St. Louis Rams — In preseason, I wrote, "The Rams probably won't post a great record in the competitive NFC West, but the team has a promising collection of young players to build on." That still seems about right. With improved QB play and a decent draft, it's easy to imagine St. Louis as a top-10 team next season.

23. San Diego Chargers — Flashes of promise, but they're 0-3 since the bye. They need some big plays from the defense. San Diego is tied for last in takeaways (7).

24. Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Two wins in a row, and they now have the same record as the Falcons, Texans, and Vikings — all playoff teams from last season. Tampa's -50 point differential ranks 24th in the NFL.

25. Oakland Raiders — Second-to-last in first downs, barely ahead of Jacksonville, but they've scored 20-28 points in four straight games. Going forward, it will be interesting to see how the team handles Matthew McGloin and Rashad Jennings relative to starters Terrelle Pryor and Darren McFadden. Rushing stats:

Pryor: 504 yds, 7.4 avg, 2 TD
Jennings: 480 yds, 5.2 avg, 2 TD
DMC: 352 yds, 3.6 avg, 4 TD

26. Green Bay Packers — With Aaron Rodgers, they're a top-10 team. Without him, they've lost three in a row, all to mediocre opponents.

27. Tennessee Titans — Just once, I would like to watch a game in which Ryan Fitzpatrick plays, and not hear the word "Harvard." Just once.

28. Houston Texans — By yardage, they rank 8th in offense and 2nd in defense. They've lost eight in a row, but two of the next three games are against Jacksonville.

29. Minnesota Vikings — Most points allowed of any team (320). Every opponent has scored at least 23. The Vikings have Kevin Williams, Jared Allen, Chad Greenway, Erin Henderson, two first-round picks from April's draft. At what point do you blame the coaching staff?

30. Washington — Coming off a Thursday night game, they had 10 days to prepare for the Eagles. Apparently that wasn't enough. Washington is in last place in possibly the worst division in football. Actually, though, with the Eagles and Giants coming around, and Houston falling off the edge of the world, the AFC South might be the weakest division now.

In last week's game against Minnesota, foolish Special Teams Coordinator Keith Burns repeatedly kicked away from Minnesota returner Cordarrelle Patterson. You kick away from great punt returners, not kickoff guys. There is no kickoff returner in history so dangerous that it makes sense to kick away from him, other than maybe on the last play of the half or something.

Since the expansion to 32 teams, there have been nine seasons in which a returner averaged 30 yards per kickoff, but four of those returners had exactly 16 KRs, just one per game. So let's say 5 seasons of 30-yard average, with a high of 31.6 (Joe McKnight, 2011). That only happens once every two or three seasons, but if you're facing the very best returner in the league, that 30-yard-average guy, and you kick off five yards deep in the end zone, his average return brings it out to the 25-yard line. A squib kick usually ends up beyond the 30. I know, you don't want to give up a touchdown. The single-season record for KR TDs, in a 16-game season, is three. Three! That's less than once every five games. Kicking away from dangerous punt returners can be good strategy, but on kickoffs, you're just giving away yardage. It's idiotic.

31. Atlanta Falcons — At the beginning of the season, they were okay-ish. In the last four weeks, they have lost by a combined total of 135-61, all the losses by double-digits. If you had told me before the season that Houston and Atlanta would both make my bottom five, I would have stopped believing you were a visitor from the future.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars — They're 1-9. All nine losses were by double-digits. This week's 13-point defeat was actually their second-closest loss of the season.

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