Tuesday, September 23, 2014

NFL Week 3 Power Rankings

By Brad Oremland

Pro Football Hall of Fame

Last week, the NFL announced this year's nominees to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The major change this year is that "contributors" like owners, general managers, and league officials are no longer competing with players for the same spots. Instead, two finalists will be selected by the Hall of Fame's Contributor Selection Committee and treated the same way as this year's Senior candidate (former Vikings center Mick Tingelhoff, an excellent choice), with an up-or-down vote as a Finalist. I wonder if two contributors isn't too many, and I hope this doesn't become an excuse to induct all the team owners, but I'm glad that people like Steve Sabol and George Young aren't competing with players any more.

There are 113 "modern" nominees this year, and I've broken them into four groups. The first are players and coaches whom I fully support and would vote for enthusiastically. The second are individuals I wouldn't select in the early rounds of balloting, but would probably go thumbs-up as Finalists, and I wouldn't have a problem with them getting in. The third group is comprised of those for whom I probably wouldn't vote, but I see the appeal of their candidacy. The fourth are people who have no business in the Hall of Fame without buying a ticket.

These are opinions, not predictions.

Group 1: Strong Candidates

Tiki Barber, Terrell Davis, Daryl Johnston, Herschel Walker, Tim Brown, Isaac Bruce, Henry Ellard, Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt, Joe Jacoby, Kevin Mawae, Will Shields, Bryant Young, Kevin Greene, Sam Mills, Junior Seau, Zach Thomas, Steve Atwater, LeRoy Butler, Rodney Harrison, Albert Lewis, Morten Andersen, Don Coryell, Tony Dungy, Clark Shaughnessy

There are actually only about 20 modern candidates I support enthusiastically, but I deliberately made this a group of 25, the number of candidates who will advance to the semi-finalist stage. When I wrote about this last year, Young, Mills, Lewis, and Dungy were all borderline candidates.

Junior Seau and Marvin Harrison, at least, should be locks. If they aren't elected in 2015, the entire selection committee should be replaced. Zach Thomas wasn't even a Semi-Finalist last year, which is disgraceful. If you don't think Zach Thomas was a Hall of Famer, you don't understand this sport and you have no business expressing opinions on the Hall of Fame.

Group 2: Borderline Candidates

Randall Cunningham, Kurt Warner, Roger Craig, Priest Holmes, Edgerrin James, Ricky Watters, Jimmy Smith, Mark Bavaro, Mike Kenn, Tom Nalen, Orlando Pace, Cornelius Bennett, Clay Matthews, Karl Mecklenburg, John Lynch, Darren Woodson, Brian Mitchell, Mike Holmgren, Richie Petitbon, Marty Schottenheimer

I listed 25 strong candidates and 20 borderline: 45 of the 113 nominees. That includes 2 QB, 7 RB, 1 FB, 6 WR, 1 TE, 6 OL, 1 DL, 7 LB, 6 DB, 2 special teamers, and 6 coaches, though really Petitbon should be viewed as a combined player (4-time Pro Bowl DB) and coach (3 Super Bowls as defensive coordinator). I know casual fans tend to support the offensive glory positions, but there's a lot more to the game. Those positions make up 27% of the players on the field, and 38% of my top nominees, 44% if you exclude coaches. I don't think I'm being unfair to those positions.

Group 3: Weak Candidates

Shaun Alexander, Ottis Anderson, Gary Clark, Sterling Sharpe, Rod Smith, Willie Anderson, Tony Boselli, Lomas Brown, Jim Covert, Bill Fralic, Jay Hilgenberg, Chris Hinton, Kent Hull, Jim Lachey, Nate Newton, Steve Wisniewski, Al Baker, Charles Haley, Dexter Manley, Charles Mann, Steve McMichael, Fred Smerlas, Ted Washington, Eric Allen, Joey Browner, Ty Law, Tim McDonald, Frank Minnifield, Everson Walls, Gary Anderson, Nick Lowery, Steve Tasker, Bill Cowher, Tom Flores, Chuck Knox, Dan Reeves

Thirty-six people in this group. I don't think any of them should get in, but it's possible my mind could change in the future.

Group 4: It's An Honor Just to Be Nominated

Rich Gannon, Phil Simms, Jerome Bettis, Stephen Davis, Eddie George, Jamal Lewis, Jeff Bostic, Jon Jansen, Mark May, Chris Samuels, Mark Schlereth, Tra Thomas, Jerome Brown, Carl Hairston, Jevon Kearse, Greg Townsend, Tedy Bruschi, Ken Harvey, Willie McGinest, Matt Millen, Chris Spielman, Darryl Talley, Thomas Everett, Terry McDaniel, Shawn Springs, Troy Vincent, Jason Elam, Sean Landeta, Jimmy Johnson, Buddy Parker, Lou Saban, Dick Vermeil

Everyone in this group was a good player, or a good coach. Most of them were very good. But none approach a Hall of Fame standard, and in each case, there are eligible players at the position who are more deserving.

The Philadelphia/Washington Brawl

You probably know that Chris Baker and Jason Peters were disqualified from Sunday's game for their parts in a fourth-quarter brawl, but let's begin at the beginning, as they say. Former Eagle DeSean Jackson was questionable all week, a game-time decision because of his injured left shoulder. On the first series of the game, Jackson made a catch, and while he was lying on the ground, Philadelphia DB Malcolm Jenkins dove on Jackson's left shoulder. Jackson got up and pushed him, then Nate Allen pushed Jackson and drew a 15-yard penalty. Joe Buck and Troy Aikman were outraged that Allen, not Jackson, got flagged. Even the excellent Mike Pereira missed that Jenkins — not Jackson — initiated the conflict. Openly targeting an injury like that is way over the line.

Late in the game, it appeared that Bashaud Breeland had intercepted a Nick Foles pass (the INT was overturned on replay). Durng an interception return, it's open season on the quarterback — defenders go after him with the excuse that they're blocking for a teammate. But Baker ran into Foles, full speed, from behind, after Breeland was down. It was a nasty hit and a dirty play. Peters saw what happened and sprinted at Baker, attacking him in retaliation (though at least Baker was looking, and Peters picked on someone his own size). Baker grabbed Peters by the facemask, and we got the biggest fight of the year in the NFL. Both Baker and Peters were thrown out of the game.

One of the reasons many fans dislike Joe Buck is because it is occasionally obvious which team he prefers. Philadelphia has been on the other side of this in the past, but on Sunday, Buck complained, "Jason Peters, who was sticking up for Nick Foles, gets ejected because of the hit by Chris Baker." He actually said that, that Peters got disqualified because of the hit by Baker. Peters didn't get tossed because of what Baker did, he got thrown out for attacking an opponent and instigating a benches-clearing brawl. Baker got thrown out because of the hit by Chris Baker. Expect fines for both players and smugness from Buck.

Really, you should always expect smugness from Buck.

Okay, time for power rankings. Brackets indicate last week's rank.

1. Cincinnati Bengals [3] — The Ravens are an .800 home team during the Joe Flacco era. The Bengals beat them in Baltimore. The Falcons just publicly humiliated the Buccaneers. Cincinnati routed them in Week 2. The Titans are a professional football team. Cincinnati routed them, too. The Bengals' opponents are 5-1 against other teams; Cincinnati has three quality wins and leads the league in point differential (+47). The defense is excellent, and the offense, with weapons like Giovani Bernard and A.J. Green, is dangerous, too.

2. Denver Broncos [1] — This would have been a great Super Bowl. No one but Seahawk fans enjoyed last February's beginning-to-end blowout, but Sunday's game would have been a classic. This time, the Broncos overcame an early disaster (Montee Ball's lost fumble on their first play from scrimmage) and took the Seahawks to overtime in Seattle. Down by eight with under a minute left, the Broncos went 80 yards in :41 with no timeouts, and got the game-tying two-point conversion, for another great two-minute drill on Peyton Manning's résumé. Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison believe in moral victories, and I do, too. A regulation tie in Seattle is like a 7-point win on a neutral field, and the Broncos proved they can play with the Seahawks.

3. Seattle Seahawks [2] — Four unrelated Seahawk items...

1) Russell Wilson leads the NFL in passer rating (108.9).

2) CBS showed a graphic that Wilson is 6-0 (now 7-0) vs. Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers, with a bajillion touchdowns and no interceptions. But Brady, Brees, Manning, and Rodgers don't play defense. In those seven games, the other QBs combined for 264 yards per game, 8 TDs, 6 INTs, 16 sacks, and a lost fumble. With all due respect to Wilson, who is a great quarterback and who played well in those matchups (213 ypg, 125.8 rating), the Seahawks won those games because they held QBs who average a 101.8 passer rating to 80.6, which is about league average. Over the last 2½ seasons, this is the best defense in the NFL. Wilson didn't beat those quarterbacks, Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor did.

3) A Seahawk fumble recovery in the second quarter was overturned on replay. I really wish the NFL would do more to align its rules with common sense. Demaryius Thomas caught the ball. It looked like a catch live, it looked like one on replay, and it looked like it in slow motion. Apparently officials interpreted the rule correctly, but it's a stupid rule. A catch should be a catch.

4) This can make the difference in a close game ... brilliant special teams performances by punter Jon Ryan and gunner Ricardo Lockette. Ryan punted six times, five of them down inside the 20, no touchbacks, and a net average of 47.7.

4. San Diego Chargers [6] — Already missing Ryan Mathews (knee), the Chargers also lost Danny Woodhead, who will need season-ending surgery on his ankle. Replacement Donald Brown carried 31 times for just 62 yards, which seemed like it might be some kind of record. It's not. Edgerrin James holds the mark for most rushes with an average of 2.0 or less (36 attempts for 55 yards, in the famous MNF "Bears are who we thought they were" game). Matt Asiata, who is filling in for the suspended Adrian Peterson, actually had 30 carries for 51 yards in a game last December.

The Chargers lost their opener, on the road in Arizona, by one point. Since then, they've beaten the Seahawks and cruised over the 2-0 Bills. Three of their next four games are in San Diego, against the Jaguars, Jets, Raiders (in Oakland), and Chiefs, who are a combined 2-10. It's easy to see the Chargers at 6-1 a month from now.

5. Atlanta Falcons [10] — That was the best game I've seen from Devin Hester in seven or eight years. He scored on a vintage punt return, but I was even more impressed by his hustle and heads-up — in the first quarter, when the game was still close — to force and recover a fumble. His end-around touchdown was a thing of beauty, perfectly blocked, and flawlessly run by Hester.

6. Arizona Cardinals [13] — One of three undefeated teams, with the Bengals and Eagles. I still don't believe in the offense with Drew Stanton, but he played well against the 49ers, and the defense is excellent. I anticipated a major drop-off without Darnell Dockett, Karlos Dansby, and Daryl Washington, but it hasn't happened.

7. Philadelphia Eagles [8] — 7:06 time of possession in the first half, and they didn't run an offensive play until 13 minutes into the game, 2:01 of the first quarter. Pro Bowl center Jason Kelce left late in the game with an abdominal injury and Peters (who also got checked for injury, and was not playing well on Sunday) got disqualified, so Philly finished this game with only one of its opening-day offensive linemen, right guard Todd Herremans. The Eagles go forward without Lane Johnson (suspended the first four games), Allen Barbre (injured reserve), Evan Mathis (IR-designated for return), and Kelce (hernia). It's tough to run an efficient offense without any of your starting blockers, and I'm nervous about ranking them so high.

8. New England Patriots [5] — Their struggles the first two weeks could be written off as road games or early-season weirdness. But it's been three weeks, and the Pats have five offensive touchdowns. The defenses they've faced — Miami, Minnesota, and Oakland — aren't exactly the '85 Bears. New England averages 3.5 yards per rush and 5.5 per pass. Those are very poor numbers, and it is now very reasonable to worry about this offense.

9. New Orleans Saints [11] — Played their first game in New Orleans and cured their ills, gaining 27 first downs to Minnesota's 13. The Saints lead the NFL in third down percentage, 62%. Center Jonathan Goodwin has a high ankle sprain and will likely miss several weeks.

10. San Francisco 49ers [4] — Scored touchdowns on their first two drives, then nothing the rest of the game. Here are San Francisco's scores by quarter in 2014:

Chart

The Niners lead the NFL in penalties, 36 for 303 yards. The Patriots (30 for 322) and Rams (26 for 305) actually have even more penalty yardage. Rather than blaming the refs, try third down defense. The 49ers are worst in the NFL, allowing opponents a 52% conversion rate, which doesn't include 2-for-2 on fourth downs.

11. Detroit Lions [14] — Two place-kickers were drafted this year, and now both have been cut. Nate Freese went 3/7 on field goals, and the Lions replaced him on Monday with former Eagle Alex Henery, who went 23/28 last season. The Eagles have moved on with undrafted rookie Cody Parkey, who is 8/9 with a long of 51 and a last-second game-winner in Week 2.

Linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who injured his ACL celebrating a sack, will be placed on injured reserve.

12. Indianapolis Colts [15] — In the first half, they out-gained the Jaguars 330-55 and 18 first downs to 2, and went into halftime with a 30-0 lead. Chad Henne had almost as many sacks (3) as completions (4).

13. Green Bay Packers [7] — They rank 27th in scoring and 28th in offensive yardage. Green Bay's opponents have rushed for twice as much yardage (468) as the Packers (236). There's a critical game at Chicago in Week 4, and this team needs to get on track in a hurry.

14. Baltimore Ravens [17] — Least-penalized teams in the NFL so far: Ravens and Saints (12 for 96 yards) and Raiders (15 for 93 yards).

15. Chicago Bears [20] — Outrushed by 2-to-1 and out-gained by 160 yards, but they won on turnovers and red zone play. Chicago ranks last in the NFL in rushing. Even more surprising: Brandon Marshall is fourth on the team in receiving yards, behind Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett, and Matt Forte. Marshall and Bennett are the only Bears with receiving TDs this season — 4 each.

16. Houston Texans [9] — Since 2011, the Texans are 25-12 (.676) when Arian Foster plays, and 1-13 (.071) when he doesn't. Rodney Harrison said on NBC, "The Texans are garbage," but they're 2-1 with both wins by double-digits. Houston leads the NFL in third down defense, allowing just a 27% conversion rate.

17. Pittsburgh Steelers [22] — Both teams left Sunday night's game banged up. Jarvis Jones needs wrist surgery and will probably miss about two months. Ike Taylor has a broken forearm and might be done for the season, while rookie Ryan Shazier has a sprained MCL. The latter injury is not serious, but this was a costly victory. The Steelers have apparently talked James Harrison out of retirement; he is expected to rejoin the team this week.

18. Carolina Panthers [12] — It sounds like both Jonathan Stewart (sprained knee) and Mike Tolbert (hairline fracture in his leg) are going to miss a lot of time. The Panthers have quickly gone from too many RBs to too few. They should trade for Trent Richardson!

In the third quarter of Sunday night's game, Al Michaels compared Luke Kuechly to Michael Jordan. On the next play, Kuechly got out of position and the Panthers gave up an 80-yard run. Kuechly is the most overrated defensive player in the NFL.

19. Dallas Cowboys [25] — You've heard all about their big comeback. Their first three drives yielded two turnovers and a three-and-out. They followed that with five consecutive scoring drives, good for 27 points, then an interception return for a touchdown and a 34-24 lead. DeMarco Murray has rushed for at least 100 yards in every game this season.

20. New York Jets [18] — Geno Smith won't throw the ball away. Twice on Monday night, he took losses when he didn't need to. Muhammad Wilkerson left the game with an injury, and his status is not clear yet. Defense is already a concern for the Jets, and that will become even more true if they lose Wilkerson. Over the next four weeks, the Jets face the Lions, Chargers, Broncos, and Patriots, prompting Trent Dilfer to remark, "They play a bunch of stud quarterbacks here in the next few weeks. They can't cover. So they're gonna have to keep [blitzing]." Watch out.

21. Miami Dolphins [16] — They play the Raiders in London next week. Since the London series began, teams are 6-12 the week before. The teams in question had a 111-149-2 record (.427), compared to .333 the week before travel. I think the stress of preparing for the trans-Atlantic trip interferes with preparation.

22. Buffalo Bills [19] — Committed 11 penalties for 110 yards. They have three tough games coming up that could go either way: Texans and Lions on the road, Patriots at home. The Texans are 3-point favorites in Week 4. Buffalo's special teams ace, Marcus Easley, is expected to miss 4-6 weeks with a sprained MCL.

23. Cleveland Browns [24] — Four fourth-quarter possessions yielded two missed field goals and two three-and-outs. The trick play with Johnny Manziel was called back by penalty, but it was really cool. It's a shame all the best trick plays seem to get cancelled by penalty.

24. Washington [23] — Back-to-back 300-yard first halves, and the defense played better than the 37-34 final score implies. But they have the worst special teams in the league. Chris Polk scored a 102-yard kickoff return TD on Sunday, and Kai Forbath missed a 33-yard field goal (in a game they lost by 3). They've already had both a punt and an extra point blocked, and new punter Tress Way is having trouble pinning opponents. This was a problem last year, too. On a separate bad note, DeAngelo Hall tore his Achilles and is out for the season.

25. St. Louis Rams [21] — Blew a 21-0 lead and lost a game in which they gained 448 yards, 26 first downs, and a defensive TD. They lost three turnovers and committed 8 penalties for 119 yards and 4 Dallas first downs.

26. Kansas City Chiefs [29] — Two years ago, they went 2-14, almost exclusively because of a dismal -24 turnover margin. So far this year, they're once again league-worst in that statistic, -5. Knile Davis fumbled twice last weekend, losing one.

27. Minnesota Vikings [26] — Matt Cassel suffered multiple fractures in his left foot, setting up rookie Teddy Bridgewater as the starting QB. Jacksonville's Blake Bortles will also make his first start in Week 4.

Buried in the middle of Chris Mortensen's report on Adrian Peterson is significant news: "The Vikings do not foresee Peterson in their future." Mort also suggests that Peterson will not play again this season, but this story implies that the Vikings will cut him. Learn fast, Jerick McKinnon.

28. New York Giants [31] — By far their best game of the season, in all phases. They gained 419 yards, compared to an average of 269 the first two weeks. They forced 3 turnovers (none the first two games), and even blocked a punt to set up their final touchdown.

29. Tennessee Titans [28] — R.I.P. Rob Bironas. At the end of the season, I'll announce my 2005-14 NFL All-Decade Team. Right now, I have Bironas penciled in as the most underrated kicker of the decade.

30. Oakland Raiders [30] — Yahoo's Andy Behrens points out that everyone who scored in their game this weekend has a last name ending in -kowski: Sebastian Janikowski, Stephen Gostkowski, and Rob Gronkowski. You go, Poland.

31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [27] — Halfway through the second quarter, they already trailed 35-0, prompting Phil Simms to remark, "Well, this is an embarrassing night for the Tampa Bay Bucs." The Falcons had 255 yards, 16 first downs, and 35 points before Tampa Bay gained a first down. In the first half, the Bucs had more turnovers than first downs and they were outgained 300-63.

Thursday night was my first look this season at Alterraun Verner, a Pro Bowl CB whom the Bucs signed in free agency. He was terrible. I mean, the whole team was terrible, so his performance didn't stand out, but you would never guess this guy was a Pro Bowler. It wasn't just Julio Jones making Verner look bad. He was beaten several times by Atlanta's sixth-string wide receiver, special teamer Eric Weems.

Gerald McCoy, Michael Johnson, and Doug Martin are all expected back in Week 4.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars [32] — We're used to the offense sucking, but the defense might be even worse. Jacksonville ranks a distant last in points allowed (119) and point differential (-75). Every opponent has scored at least 34, and they're averaging a sickening 466 yards per game. This year's Jags are actually off to a worse start than last year's.

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