Tuesday, October 7, 2014

NFL Week 5 Power Rankings

By Brad Oremland

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Five Quick Hits

* Congratulations to the Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals, both of whom swept their way to the ALCS.

* The CBS Thursday night broadcasts suck. They routinely miss the beginning of the play. It's amateur and unacceptable.

* Last three Thursday night games: 56-10, 45-14, 42-10.

* You would think a team as popular as the Dallas Cowboys could fill a stadium with its own fans instead of the opponents', but evidently that's not the case. I wonder if part of the issue isn't season ticket prices. People who support the team may not be able to afford the full schedule of home games, so they sell some of their tickets to the highest bidder, regardless of fan affiliation. At a certain point, you price your own fans out of attending.

* Evidence that the AFC North is stronger than the NFC North ... against Pittsburgh and Baltimore, the Panthers went 0-2 and got outscored 75-29. Against Detroit and Chicago, the Panthers went 2-0 and outscored the opponents 55-31. That's a 70-point, 1.000-winning-percentage swing, and in both cases, it's the teams presumed to be second- and third-best in that division. We can confirm our hypothesis in two weeks, after Carolina plays road games against the Bengals and Packers.

Week 5 Rant: Kickoff Returners Are Jerks

As best I can tell, the quality NFL teams most covet in a kickoff returner is selfishness.

Returning kicks out of the end zone is dumb. The ball rarely gets back to the 20-yard line, so you lose field position. Many returns draw penalties for holding or blocks in the back, so the start is even worse. Returners fumble all the time, far more than on plays from scrimmage, so there's risk of a turnover. And kickoff returns are the most dangerous plays in football, so you put yourself and your teammates at risk of injury. Bringing out a kick that's six or seven yards deep is a loser's move on every level.

This has always bothered me, but this week I saw Baltimore's Jacoby Jones try to return a kick from literally as deep as possible. The announcer said he was "9½ yards deep", but it looked like he was out the back of the end zone. Jones returned the ball to the 14-yard line.

Jones has done this for years, but most NFL kickoff returners are imbeciles, and this week, the king of the imbeciles was Cincinnati's Brandon Tate. Here are Tate's kickoff return opportunities from Sunday night:

1. Fields kick six yards deep in end zone. Return to the 25. [+5 yards]

2. Touchback

3. Fields kick six yards deep in end zone. Return to the 9. [-11 yards]

4. Fields kick five yards deep in end zone. Return to the 19. [-1 yard]

5. Fields kick six yards deep in end zone. Return to the 11, fumble, returned by Patriots for a touchdown. [-7 points]

6. Fields kick six yards deep in end zone. Return to the 18. [-2 yards]

7. Touchback

8. Fields kick at four-yard line. Return to the 16.

9. Touchback

Remarkably, none of Tate's returns resulted in a penalty or injury, but he did cost his team 9 yards and a Patriots touchdown compared to if he just kneeled on those deep kicks. I can think of three reasons that players try to return those deep kickoffs.

First, they don't know how deep they are. Fielding a return is much harder than most fans believe, and I can understand losing track of your position, but these guys have a general sense of where they are, and the up man (who also deserves substantial blame for this phenomenon) can help them.

Second, these guys are competitive. They're football players, and they want to play football, not just take a knee in the end zone.

Third, they want the glory. No one remembers a touchback, but maybe one of those returns goes all the way. Everyone wants to score a touchdown. And people don't really keep track of all the times they started at the 16 or whatever, but deep kickoffs yield the longest returns. Tate's return to the 18-yard line, for instance, cost his team field position, but it went in the books as a 24-yard return, which looks good on a returner's average. It helps the player at the expense of the team. Guys like Jones and Tate are selfish.

This sort of thing happens every week. Remember the Thursday night opener between the Seahawks and Packers? Green Bay's DeJuan Harris took the opening kickoff six yards deep and brought it out to the 13. He took the next one five yards deep and returned it to the 16. That's 11 yards lost on two plays. The equivalent would be a running back rushing twice for a total of -3 yards — but it's worse for a kickoff returner, because a touchback is automatic. His team could've just walked off the field, but instead they had to bust their asses for an 11-yard loss. After Harris' second return, he was taken off KR duties and replaced by Micah Hyde. I think fans in every city have done this at some point: notice your return man is an idiot, then cheer when he finally takes a touchback. I saw this in Cleveland almost exactly a year ago.

What I don't understand is why so many teams permit this. There's a special teams coordinator on every team in the NFL. What do these guys do, just pick a fast guy to return and then play Clash of Clans? If I were an NFL coach, my players would understand that they need to make good decisions about this. Any time a player returned a kickoff out of the end zone and we started inside the 20-yard line, I would fine both the returner and the up back. Each time it happened, the fine would double. So if we started at $500, a performance like Tate's would cost $7,500, even if he hadn't returned any kicks in the first three games. Realistically, players would never get to accrue five-digit fines, because they'd get benched, cut, or traded to the Jaguars.

Other than for the record books, I wish the NFL would stop including yards in the end zone on return averages. Tate didn't average 18.8 yards per return on Sunday night, he averaged 16.3. I bet that one change would noticeably discourage kickoff returns, which is why the league moved kickoffs back to the 35-yard line in the first place, to reduce injuries. It's not working, because NFL return men and their coaches are jackasses. This simple, intuitive change would improve player safety and make the KR average stat meaningful.

2014 Week Five NFL Power Rankings

Brackets show last week's rank.

1. Denver Broncos [2] — Three milestones for Peyton Manning on Sunday. He threw his 500th touchdown pass, which you all heard about (as well as his 501st, 502nd, and 503rd). But Manning also passed for a career-high 479 yards (that's milestone two), his 13th 400-yard passing game — which ties Dan Marino's record. It's a reminder how exceptional Manning has been, and how far ahead of his time Marino was.

2. Cincinnati Bengals [1] — Cris Collinsworth mentioned the perception that this team can't win big games. Specifically, some people believe that Marvin Lewis or Andy Dalton can't win big games. I would dispute first of all the idea the idea that Cincinnati doesn't win big games. I know this one was on national television, but it wasn't a bigger game than Week 1 in Baltimore, and the Bengals looked great in that one. Trying to pin this loss on Dalton, though, is particularly ludicrous. It's hard to blame Dalton for Cincinnati's run defense (220 yds, 4.8 avg, 11 first downs) and three lost fumbles (all by other players). Dalton left the game with 2 TDs, 1 sack, no turnovers, and a 117.4 passer rating.

The Bengals lost this game largely with their defense; the offense actually was okay. New England's offensive line dominated Cincinnati's front seven, pushing them around all night. The defensive backs couldn't shed blocks and couldn't tackle; the Patriot RBs fell forward on every run. Brandon Tate's special teams idiocy didn't help, and the offensive fumbles certainly didn't help, but this loss falls first and foremost on the defense.

As ugly as this loss was, there is no team I would pick to beat the Bengals in Cincinnati right now. Vontaze Burfict is also expected to return in Week 6.

3. Seattle Seahawks [3] — Obviously, someone on Jeff Triplette's officiating crew was playing against Percy Harvin in fantasy this week.

4. San Diego Chargers [4] — Rushing averages for Charger RBs:

1. Branden Oliver, 4.8 (31 att, 148 yds)
2. Ryan Mathews, 3.1 (23 att, 71 yds)
3. Danny Woodhead, 2.5 (15 att, 38 yds)
4. Donald Brown, 2.1 (59 att, 126 yds)
5. Shaun Draughn, 1.9 (10 att, 19 yds)

Oliver carried 19 times for 114 yards (6.0 avg) and a touchdown against a Jets team that entered Week 5 with the top-ranked run defense in the NFL. He also caught four passes for 68 yards and another touchdown. Oliver, an undrafted rookie out of Buffalo, looked like Darren Sproles out there. He's short (5' 7½"), he wears #43 for the Chargers, and he's awfully quick: Sproles, Sproles, Sproles. Hopefully we see a lot more of this kid.

5. Arizona Cardinals [5] — The Cardinals beat the Chargers in Week 1. The Chargers beat the Seahawks in Week 2. The Seahawks beat the Broncos in Week 3. The Broncos beat the Cardinals in Week 5, and the circle is complete. You can't use head-to-head results to rank teams, other than maybe to break a tie. Calais Campbell sprained his MCL on a low block this weekend and is projected to miss about a month. I didn't adjust their ranking to account for his absence, but I probably should have.

6. Green Bay Packers [9] — On his interception return TD, Julius Peppers outran Jerick McKinnon, who ran a 4.4 at this year's Rookie Combine. I realize this is the television age, but did anyone else think it was inappropriate that when the broadcast highlighted the "Green Bay Packers Quarterback Legacy," it showed Bart Starr, Brett Favre, and Aaron Rodgers? Arnie Herber is a Hall of Famer. Cecil Isbell and Tobin Rote were very good, too, but Herber at least deserves to be featured. An opportunity to inform the audience and give fans a deeper appreciation for the team's rich history instead becomes an excuse to treat viewers as simpletons.

7. San Francisco 49ers [6] — Multiple sources have reported that people in the 49ers organization, including a number of players, are tired of dealing with head coach Jim Harbaugh. Jay Glazer asserted on Sunday that there is no way Harbaugh will coach the Niners in 2015, even if he leads them to a victory in Super Bowl XLIX.

8. Indianapolis Colts [8] — Average time of possession is 36:23, compared to 23:36 for their opponents. They're winning this stat by 12:47 per game, almost a whole quarter.

9. Baltimore Ravens [10] — Loss to Indianapolis was not as close as the 20-13 final score implies. The Colts out-gained Baltimore 422-287 and 26 first downs to 15, winning time of possession by 17:30. The Ravens went 1/11 on third downs and committed three turnovers. They're not a good road team.

10. Dallas Cowboys [13] — DeMarco Murray is having a brilliant season. He leads the NFL in rushing by over 200 yards, and this week he joined Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson as the only players to rush for at least 100 yards in each of the first six games of the season. But Murray has 130 carries, far more than anyone else (LeSean McCoy is next, 94), and he has a history of injury (multiple games missed each of the last two years). Murray is on pace to tie the single-season record for rush attempts (416), and consequently, to destroy his career. I own Murray in fantasy, and I'm going to try to trade him this week. He's worth a ton right now, but he's not going to make it through this whole season.

11. Philadelphia Eagles [12] — Yahoo's Andy Behrens reports that "every quarterback who's faced the Eagles D has thrown for multiple scores." Chad Henne, Andrew Luck, Kirk Cousins, Colin Kaepernick, and Austin Davis combined for 292 yds/gm against this defense, with 13 TDs, 3 INTs, and a 96.0 passer rating. That list includes three backup QBs, so it's not like the Eagles are getting burned by Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. They're getting burned, period.

12. Kansas City Chiefs [20] — They lost this week, and I moved them up eight spots. It was a close loss, on the road against a good team, but that's not why their ranking improved. This week I forced myself to re-assess every team from scratch. It's time to stop punishing the Chiefs for their Week 1 loss to Tennessee. Since then, they've blown out the Dolphins and Patriots, and lost close road games to the Broncos and 49ers. This is a good team. You'll notice several other teams whose ranking changed dramatically this week; it's because I'm forcing myself to look at the whole picture.

13. New England Patriots [15] — Since Tom Brady returned from injury in 2009, New England is 39-3 at home (.929) and 25-18 away (.581). The Bengals, since the beginning of last season, are 10-0 at home, 4-6 on the road. Let's not overreact to an impressive win in Week 5 any more than to a horrifying loss in Week 4.

14. New York Giants [25] — Odell Beckham's touchdown catch was awesome, but insisting that we call him Odell Beckham Jr. is stupid. No one is going to confuse you with your dad, okay? I feel the same way about Steve Smith in Baltimore. Grow up, you narcissist.

15. Houston Texans [17] — Arian Foster rushed 23 times for 157 yards (6.8 avg) and 2 TDs against the Cowboys. Active players with the most 150-yard rushing games (including playoffs):

1. Adrian Peterson, 16
2. Chris Johnson, 9
t3. Jamaal Charles, 8
t3. Arian Foster, 8

Active players with the most multi-TD rushing games (including playoffs):

1. Adrian Peterson, 23
2. Chris Johnson, 15
3. Arian Foster, 13

Active players with the most games rushing for 150 yards and multiple TDs:

1. Adrian Peterson, 6
2. Chris Johnson, 5
3. Arian Foster, 4

Surprisingly low on the 150-yard list: Marshawn Lynch hasn't topped 150 since his rookie year in Buffalo. His best with Seattle was 148 against the Eagles in 2011. Maybe you wondered: in the "Beastquake" playoff game against New Orleans, Lynch rushed for 131.

16. Buffalo Bills [22] — Kyle Orton played well in his first start, but Buffalo won with defense. The Bills rank top-10 in both yards and points allowed, and on Sunday, they really stifled Detroit. The Lions gained a season-low 263 yards, went 1/11 on third downs, and got sacked six times. Marcell Dareus and Jerry Hughes combined for five sacks and two forced fumbles. Players carried defensive coordinator (and former Detroit head coach) Jim Schwartz off the field on their shoulders.

17. Detroit Lions [7] — They drafted placekicker Nate Freese, and cut him after he started the season 3/7. They signed Alex Henery, who went 1/5, though all from 40 yards and beyond. The team is expected to sign Matt Prater, who was released by the Broncos last week. Jay Feely, who kicked for Arizona in 2013, will also compete for the job.

Calvin Johnson's ankle injury has become a serious concern. Golden Tate's receiving totals notwithstanding, this isn't the same team without Megatron. It's also possible that Detroit could go into Week 6 without its top two running backs, Reggie Bush (ankle) and Joique Bell (concussion).

18. Atlanta Falcons [11] — Starting offensive line in their Week 3 destruction of the Buccaneers: Jake Matthews, Justin Blalock, Joe Hawley, Jon Asamoah, Lamar Holmes. Starting offensive line in their Week 5 loss to the Giants: Matthews, Harland Gunn, Peter Konz, Asamoah, Gabe Carimi.

19. Miami Dolphins [18] — Average margin of victory in their games this year: 19. They won by 13 and 24, lost by 19 in Weeks 2 and 3. I expect closer games the next two weeks, against the Packers and at Chicago.

20. Chicago Bears [16] — Matt Forte has 319 rushing yards and no rushing TDs. Forte has 299 yards receiving, with 1 TD. I expect his rushing to easily eclipse his receiving by the end of the season, but if it doesn't, Forte would become the first full-time RB with more receiving yards than rushing since the strike-shortened 1982 season. The only recent players to rush for 500 yards, but out-gain that total receiving, are Darren Sproles (2011 Saints) and Reggie Bush (2006 Saints). Duce Staley did it in 2001, and before that, you have to go back to the early '90s. No 1,000-yard rusher has ever had more yards receiving than rushing, and none has had more receiving TDs since Edgar Bennett in 1995.

21. Pittsburgh Steelers [19] — Facing an 0-4 Jacksonville team that had lost each of its first four games by at least 17, they entered the fourth quarter with a 1-point lead. The offense had four 60-yard drives, yielding one touchdown, one field goal, a punt, and a turnover. The Steelers were the first team not to score at least 33 against the Jaguars this season.

22. Cleveland Browns [23] — Biggest road comeback in regular season history, breaking the record set just two years ago, Broncos at Chargers in Week 6, 2012. Travis Benjamin's game-winning TD reception looked a lot like The Catch from the 1981 NFC Championship Game. He jumped about halfway out of the stadium to make that grab.

23. New Orleans Saints [14] — This ranking is probably too low, but I'm done assuming they're secretly a good team that just happens to play like a crappy team. The Saints are a league-worst -8 in turnovers, and if they get that cleaned up, they'll make the playoffs.

24. Carolina Panthers [24] — They're on to Cincinnati.

25. St. Louis Rams [27] — Thirty of the NFL's 32 teams have sacked opposing QBs at least once per game (on average). The exceptions are the Atlanta Falcons (four sacks in five games) and the Rams (one sack in five games). The Rams have faced the fewest pass attempts in the league, but they're also last in sack percentage. This looks even more dramatic in a list. Sack percentage:

1. NYJ, 9.8
2. KC, 9.4
3. WAS, 9.1

NFL average, 5.6

30. ARI, 2.5
31. ATL, 2.5
32. STL, 0.9

A year ago, Robert Quinn was named first-team all-pro for his 19 sacks. Through five games in 2013, Quinn had 14 tackles, 5 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles. This year, Quinn has 8 tackles. Aaron Donald has the team's only sack. Chris Long won't be back for several more weeks, but the Rams need to get more pressure.

26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [28] — The good news is, they intercepted Drew Brees three times. The bad news is, they lost anyway. When your defense creates three takeaways, you're supposed to win.

27. Minnesota Vikings [26] — Teddy Bridgewater is expected to return for Week 6, which should help the offense. But the defense could take a hit. Harrison Smith, perhaps the one Viking who really played well on Thursday night, injured his ankle. The injury doesn't seem serious, but it could cause him to miss Week 6.

28. Washington [29] — Nice second-half adjustments to keep the game close. Kirk Cousins has played well in Robert Griffin's absence, but Cousins is 0-6 in his last six starts. The potential is there for Griffin to play the way Russell Wilson did on Monday night, and it's going to be awfully tough for Cousins to win that job.

29. New York Jets [21] — Equally ineffective with Geno Smith (30 yards) and Michael Vick (47). How the New York media expects any QB to succeed with these teammates is a mystery. It's like there's just this agreement to tear down whoever is the Jets' starting QB.

But just as worrisome is the pass defense. Trent Dilfer remarked after their Week 3 loss to Chicago, "They play a bunch of stud quarterbacks here in the next few weeks. They can't cover." Sure enough, Matthew Stafford (272 yds, 2 TD, 116.4 rating) and Philip Rivers (277 yds, 3 TD, 125.3) tore them apart. Next up are Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. The Broncos opened as 6-point favorites, which seems way too low, and are now up to 8 in most listings. I always worry when I see a strange opening line like that. Don't bet on this game.

30. Tennessee Titans [30] — Scored a season-high 28 points but lost their fourth in a row. Jake Locker left the game with a hand injury, and Charlie Whitehurst threw TDs on both of his first two passes. This is Locker's third season as starter, and his third year getting hurt. There's buzz that the team may turn to rookie 6th-round pick Zach Mettenberger (LSU) sooner rather than later, but Whitehurst has played well so far (97.8 passer rating), and I don't see any need to rush the kid. Sure, the Titans aren't going anywhere this year, but I reject the idea that "you might as well see what you've got" in Mettenberger. I've seen players' confidence destroyed because they got put on the field before they were ready.

Bernard Pollard ruptured his Achilles in the loss and will miss the rest of the season.

31. Oakland Raiders [31] — Ownership covets Jon Gruden to return as head coach, but rumors this week also connected former Packers and Seahawks HC Mike Holmgren to the job. If Holmgren wants to return to coaching, though, I can't imagine this is the most appealing opportunity.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars [32] — Already been outscored by 102 points this season. They lose by an average of more than 20. That's actually a little better than last year's Jags at the same point (-112).

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