Tuesday, December 2, 2014

NFL Week 13 Power Rankings

By Brad Oremland

Five Quick Hits

* My inclination in QB controversies is usually to stick with whoever's starting. It's easy to bring in a popular backup if he struggles. But if you bench the first guy, you're handcuffed. You can replace Brian Hoyer with Johnny Manziel. You can't replace Manziel with Hoyer. I'd start Hoyer in Week 14.

* Is the AFC North really the best division in football? There are no bad teams in that division, but also no great ones; it would be shocking if an AFC North team wins the Super Bowl. Their records are inflated because they've beaten up on the weak NFC South.

* According to the Simple Ranking System at pro-football-reference.com, the AFC East is the strongest division in football. The AFC North ranks fourth.

* The AFC East (Patriots, Dolphins, Bills) and AFC West (Broncos, Chiefs, Chargers) have three very good teams, maybe three teams better than anyone in the AFC North. The NFC West (Seahawks, Cardinals, 49ers, Rams) is probably better than the AFC North, too. Using my rankings, the best division right now is the AFC East, followed closely by the NFC West.

* This is kind of fun ... most TDs by team:

1. Packers, 46
2. Broncos, 45
3. Colts, 44
4. Patriots, 43
5. Eagles, 42

The Saints are sixth (39), but that breaks the pattern.

Week 13 Rant: Show the Game

Televised football is great. Few sports lend themselves so well to TV, and that's a big part of why football surpassed baseball as the most popular sport in the USA. The NFL is by far the most popular sports league in the country. What's mystifying is why so many TV networks are convinced that we don't really want to see the games.

On Monday Night Football, ESPN missed a fumble because they were showing one of the luxury boxes. This is a pattern for ESPN; they routinely miss the beginning of the play, because they're showing fans in the stands, or a close-up of some dude's face. I guess there must be some people in this country who want to see those shots, but they are dramatically out-numbered by those of us who want to see the whole game. Whenever the offense is at the line, we should see the field.

My local CBS affiliate hates football fans. I live in an NFC East market, so they're rarely obligated to show a particular game; they could just choose the best one each week. Yet every single week, we get a quasi-local team or an NFC East team. They've skipped some really good games to show blowouts involving those teams. Whoever makes the programming decisions apparently believes that no one will watch unless they have a rooting interest. This is the most popular sport on the continent, dummy — 95% of us just want to watch good games.

This Sunday, we missed the first two drives of the highly-anticipated Packers/Patriots matchup, because CBS chose to do double commercials, six ads in a row after the early game ended. Go to hell, CBS.

2014 Week Thirteen NFL Power Rankings

Brackets indicate previous rank.

1. Green Bay Packers [2] — All five of their first-half possessions went more than 50 yards and resulted in scores. They won Super Bowl 48½, but could have and probably should have won by even more. The Packers went 0/4 in the red zone, settling for short field goals each time. When you gain 478 yards with no turnovers, you expect to score more than 26.

2. New England Patriots [1] — They've faced a murderer's row recently. Their last four games were against the 9-3 Broncos, 8-4 Colts, 8-4 Lions, and 9-3 Packers. To escape from that 3-1, and win the first three by more than 20 points each, is awfully impressive.

3. Denver Broncos [3] — Comfortable win over a division rival with a good record. The Broncos played without their top cornerback (Aqib Talib) and starting tight end (Julius Thomas). Denver went just 1/6 in the red zone, settling for five short field goals (37 yards or closer). That they still won by double digits should worry the rest of the AFC.

4. Indianapolis Colts [4] — Big-play offense. The Colts gained 487 yards with only 19 first downs. They had as many points as plays (49). They scored five offensive touchdowns from outside the red zone, and should have had a sixth, on Coby Fleener's wide-open drop. In the third quarter, they ran five plays and scored 21 points.

5. Seattle Seahawks [8] — For the second consecutive week, they won 19-3 over a division rival. They were the 14th and 15th 19-3 games in NFL history. Ten of the 15 have come in the last 20 years, probably because successful field goals are so much more common. The Seahawks have three 19-3 wins in their history; no other team has more than one.

6. Philadelphia Eagles [9] — Are you familiar with the +/- system in hockey (and sometimes basketball)? You assess the team's goal differential when a given player is on the ice. Here's that same idea, applied to Philadelphia's offensive line.

Jason Peters: 9-3, +90
Lane Johnson: 6-2, +72
Jason Kelce: 7-1, +66
Todd Herremans: 6-2, +57
Andrew Gardner: 4-0, +48
Evan Mathis: 4-1, +48
Matt Tobin: 4-3, +25
David Molk: 2-2, +24
Allen Barbre: 1-0, +17
Dennis Kelly: 2-1, +1

I included all games started by the player, so this isn't quite as precise as the hockey stat. The return of players like Johnson and Kelce has made the Eagles a dangerous team in the NFC.

7. Miami Dolphins [7] — One of two teams I saw kick away from a dangerous kickoff returner in Week 13. The Dolphins kicked away from Percy Harvin, and the Chargers kicked away from Jacoby Jones. Kicking away from punt returners is smart; doing the same thing on kickoffs is idiotic.

The Jets began drives following kickoffs at the 19, 40, and 39-yard lines. That's an average of the 33. No kickoff returner in the league averages 33 yards per return. Harvin's career average is 27.4.

The Ravens began drives following kickoffs at the 39, 31, and 47-yard lines before San Diego gave up and kicked deep the next three times. Kickoff returners fumble almost three times as often as they score touchdowns. There is no such thing as a kickoff returner so dangerous you should routinely squib to avoid him.

8. Kansas City Chiefs [6] — Second poor performance in a row. They went 1/11 on third downs and finished with just 151 yards of offense. The only thing they did well was kickoff returns, starting seven of eight drives beyond the 30-yard line.

The Chiefs weren't going to win this game anyway, but I don't understand Andy Reid's decision-making. Right before the end of the first half, Kansas City was trailing 20-7. With :16 remaining, they had 1st-and-10 at their own 38-yard line, with two timeouts. Alex Smith took a kneel-down and they went into the locker room. Why not run a play or two and try to score? You're near midfield already. Is it really more likely that you'll turn the ball over on the first play than that you can get into range for a field goal or a Hail Mary? Bad coaching.

9. Arizona Cardinals [5] — Okay, see, now I'm wishing I didn't choose Patrick Peterson on my Pro Bowl ballot.

10. Buffalo Bills [12] — They're 7-5. They've won their last two games by a combined 64-13, and four of their last six. No one who's beaten them has a losing record. They're not a Super Bowl contender, and with three of the next four against Denver, Green Bay, and New England, they're probably not a serious playoff contender. But they're playing good football.

11. St. Louis Rams [17] — The idea of power ratings is to look beyond a team's record, considering factors like margin of victory and strength of schedule. The Rams just won 52-0. They beat the Broncos by two touchdowns. They beat the Seahawks. Everyone they've lost to since the opener has a winning record.

The Rams began the season dealing with injuries and taking it slow with their rookies. Now they're healthy, and getting major contributions from those rookies. This is not the same team that began 1-4. If they'd started a little faster and didn't play such a challenging schedule, the Rams would be a dangerous playoff contender.

12. Dallas Cowboys [10] — Season-low in rushing for DeMarco Murray, who gained less than half as many yards (73) as LeSean McCoy (159). At least Murray didn't get caught picking his nose on national television.

13. Detroit Lions [14] — It was a happy Thanksgiving in Detroit, where the Lions scored more points in the first half (24) than in their previous two games combined (15). Calvin Johnson was particularly impressive, making highlight-reel catches and bringing his career total to 10,052 receiving yards — after only 7½ seasons. He averages 1,399 yards per 16 games, or 1,487 yards if you exclude his rookie season. Again, that's his average over the past 6½ years.

14. Cincinnati Bengals [15] — Last season, they went 8-0 at home and 3-5 on the road. This year, it's 4-1-1 at home, 4-2 away. The Bengals just won three games in a row, all on the road. They have a tough remaining schedule, every game against an opponent with a winning record, but they're a game and a half up in the AFC North.

15. San Diego Chargers [18] — Had to play their fifth center of the season, Trevor Robinson, after Chris Watt left the game with an injury. From Weeks 2-6, the Chargers won five consecutive games. Then they lost three straight. Now they've won three in a row again, their third streak this season of at least three games.

16. Baltimore Ravens [13] — The pivotal interference call against Anthony Levine was certainly questionable. Dan Fouts was sure it was a bad call; Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison were sure it was correct. I can see it either way. If it were up to me, I would have let it go.

But let's address something that should worry Baltimore going forward. Casual fans may wonder why I wrote about the injury to cornerback Jimmy Smith for three weeks in a row. Here's why: Weeks 1-7 (with Smith) and Week 8-13 (without). The stats below are defensive: points allowed per game, passing yards allowed per game, and passer rating allowed.

Chart

Over the last two games, the Ravens have allowed 69 completions for 803 yards and 6 TDs. The Chargers went 9/11 on third downs, including 7/7 in the first half. They gained 440 yards, 31 first downs, 34 points. That doesn't happen because of one shaky call by the refs. This defense can't stop anyone right now.

17. New Orleans Saints [19] — I hate when people base their rankings on head-to-head results any later than Week 2 or so.

Week 9: Steelers 43, Ravens 23
Week 12: Ravens 34, Saints 27
Week 13: Saints 35, Steelers 32

18. Houston Texans [20] — On college football's rivalry weekend, the Texans won the Oilers Bowl, defeating the team that moved from Houston almost 20 years ago. Ryan Fitzpatrick, benched less than a month ago, returned in place of the injured Ryan Mallett and promptly passed for 358 yards, 6 TDs, and a 147.5 passer rating. DeAndre Hopkins caught all nine of his targets, for 238 yards and 2 TDs. J.J. Watt had six hits on the quarterback, including two sacks.

19. Pittsburgh Steelers [11] — Most passing TDs allowed in a game since Chuck Noll was the head coach. It was a bad weekend for their elder statesmen on defense. Ike Taylor got burned, and Brett Keisel suffered a triceps injury that will end his season and probably his career.

20. San Francisco 49ers [16] — The last time they won by more than six was October 13th, Week 6. Since then, they've faced four teams with losing records, and couldn't really put any of them away.

21. Atlanta Falcons [22] — They're 3-1 since the bye, and their last two losses were by a combined three points. The NFC South probably comes down to their Week 16 matchup at New Orleans.

22. Cleveland Browns [21] — Johnny Manziel played! He scored a touchdown and sort of didn't commit any turnovers. Speaking of which, I saw someone call Brian Hoyer a turnover machine. That was true the last two games, when he threw 5 interceptions. But that equaled Hoyer's total of five INTs in the first 10 games combined, when Hoyer ranked fifth among full-time starters in INT% (1.5%), well ahead of Peyton Manning (2.2%), Tony Romo (2.2), Andrew Luck (2.3), Drew Brees (2.4), Philip Rivers (2.4), and Nick Foles (3.2), among others. Hoyer's not an exciting quarterback, but characterizing him as a turnover machine is inaccurate and unfair.

23. Minnesota Vikings [23] — Scored on two blocked punts this week. The Vikings have three wins in their last five games, and their last three losses were by a combined 12 points.

24. New York Jets [25] — Jon Gruden: "The Jets are doing everything they can to lose this football game."

25. Chicago Bears [24] — Lance Briggs, battling a groin injury, was placed on injured reserve this week, ending his season and perhaps his career. It's been a great one, and I hope the excessive attention paid to pass-rushing outside linebackers won't keep Briggs out of Canton. He's had a Hall of Fame career.

26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [26] — Lovie Smith has a proven track record. He was 83-61 in Chicago, with three division titles in nine seasons. He was Coach of the Year in 2005, coached in the Super Bowl in 2006, went 29-19 his last three seasons. Lovie Smith is an above-average head coach. His team is 2-10 and has been outscored by 94 points this season. Maybe we were a little hard on Greg Schiano.

27. Jacksonville Jaguars [32] — Scored two defensive touchdowns in a game for the first time in franchise history, coming back from a 21-0 deficit to win 25-24. Blake Bortles took 7 sacks but had no turnovers and rushed for 68 yards.

28. New York Giants [28] — Seventh consecutive loss, the longest streak in the league. MLB's San Francisco Giants have won nine times since the New York Giants' last win. The Los Angeles Dodgers have won more recently than the football Giants.

29. Tennessee Titans [29] — Worst in the NFL in third down percentage (29%) and average time of possession (26:58). Rookie QB Zach Mettenberger left this week's game with a sprained throwing shoulder. Jake Locker replaced him, playing for the first time since Week 5, and was not sharp. It's not clear, at this writing, who will start next week.

30. Washington [27] — Three items:

1. Washington forced three first-half turnovers against Indianapolis and still went into the locker room down by double-digits, 21-10. That's almost inexplicable. DeSean Jackson left the game with a leg injury; Dianna Russini reports that "DeSean Jackson probably won't practice this week, but he should play on Sunday."

2. This was supposed to be Andrew Luck vs. RG3. Actually, thanks to the Trent Richardson trade, the top three draft picks from 2012 were all on hand for Sunday's game. Only one of them has worked out.

3. Something else that hasn't worked out: Jay Gruden. He inherited an offense with Robert Griffin, Alfred Morris, DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garçon, Jordan Reed, and — other than right tackle — a pretty good offensive line. That explosive offense hasn't topped 30 points in a game since September 21st (with Kirk Cousins at QB). I can't remember ever seeing a quarterback regress with a new coach like RG3 and Gruden. General manager Sycophantic yes-man Empty suit Bruce Allen should punch himself in the head for recommending condoning that Daniel Snyder hire Gruden. It is apparent at this point that Gruden and Griffin were never a fit, and it's hard to believe that Allen and Gruden didn't know that 10 months ago.

31. Carolina Panthers [30] — Since their Week 6 tie with Cincinnati, they're 0-6, including losses to the Saints, Falcons, and Vikings. They lost those six games by a combined score of 174-87. Some of them, like Green Bay (38-17) and Philadelphia (45-21), were even worse than the score implies.

32. Oakland Raiders [31] — There have been six 50-point shutouts since the 1970 NFL/AFL Merger:

Nov 1972: Dolphins 52, Patriots 0
Dec 1976: Rams 59, Falcons 0
Sep 1989: Browns 51, Steelers 0
Oct 2009: Patriots 59, Titans 0
Dec 2012: Seahawks 58, Cardinals 0
Nov 2014: Rams 52, Raiders 0

Worst losses in Raider history, by point differential:

1. Nov 2014: Rams 52, Raiders 0
2. Jan 1991: Bills 51, Raiders 3
3. Sep 1961: Chargers 44, Raiders 0
4. Dec 2007: Jaguars 49, Raiders 11
5. Oct 2009: Jets 38, Raiders 0

This was a historic loss, and arguably the single lowest point in the 55-year history of a once-proud franchise.

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