Tuesday, December 23, 2014

NFL Week 16 Power Rankings

By Brad Oremland

Five Quick Hits

* After last year's intense, dramatic Week 17, the final week of this season feels like a bit of a letdown, with 10 of the 12 teams already decided and only a few interesting battles for seeding. By far the most interesting race, I think, is for the final wild card in the AFC. Here's how each contending team can get in:

Chargers: Beat KC
Ravens: Beat CLE + SD loss
Texans: Beat JAC + SD loss + BAL loss
Chiefs: Beat SD + BAL loss + HOU loss

* Jimmy Claussen has a concussion, so after one week on the bench, Jay Cutler is back in as the Bears' starting QB. That's a little awkward.

* Three teams struggled on the ground this weekend. Well, "struggled" might not be strong enough. Failed. Withered. Embarrassed themselves. The Buccaneers rushed 14 times for 16 yards, while the Bills carried 13 times for 13 yards. But neither can match the futility of the Colts, whose 10 rushes against the Cowboys produced 1 yard. That was the worst rushing performance since a meaningless Week 17 matchup in 2007, when Dallas gained only 1 yard on 16 attempts.

* Sen'Derrick Marks' $600,000 sack came on a three-man rush. Man, how do you give up a game-ending sack on a three-man rush?

* The Broncos signed Emmanuel Sanders for a fraction of what the Jets are paying Eric Decker, and Sanders is outplaying anything we've seen from Decker. Great signing.

Week 16 Rant: Simms is Right, Simms is Wrong

Phil Simms is right

"You know, you almost wonder sometimes, if you said, 'Don't block anybody, let's fair catch it,' if you wouldn't end up being better, because the number of penalties..."

You wouldn't actually fair catch every punt, but you do see a ton of penalties on kick returns, so I get what Phil Simms was saying here. In fact, if you applied his reasoning to kickoffs, I think he's on to something. You obviously don't want to fair catch any kind of normal kickoff, but it's standard practice right now to return kickoffs even from deep in the end zone, and that's where Simms is right.

So many things can go wrong on a kickoff. You could fumble and give the other team outstanding field position. You or a teammate could get hurt. Injury rates are higher on return plays, which is why the league moved kickoffs back to the 35-yard line, to create more touchbacks and reduce injuries. You could fail to reach the 20-yard line, where you would have gotten automatically by taking a knee. And your team could commit a penalty. I don't want kickoff returners measuring their depth from the goal line right before fielding a kick, and I'm sure Phil Simms doesn't either, but running kicks out from more than halfway deep in the end zone seems like a foolish risk, where many more things can go wrong than right.

Phil Simms is wrong

"If you go for it in a situation like this, your owner's gonna come down after the game and go, 'what were you thinking?'"

That was with a little under 1:30 remaining in the Thursday night game. Jacksonville led 21-13 and had 4th-and-1 at the Titans' 37-yard line, with Tennessee out of timeouts. Let's review the different directions you can go here:

1. Go for it. If you gain the yard, you can kneel to run out the clock. If you fail, Tennessee gets the ball at or near its own 37, with about 1:10 to go and no timeouts.

2. Try a field goal. It's a 55-yard kick, which is in Josh Scobee's range, and if he makes it you're up by 11, almost certain of victory. But Scobee's had three blocks this year, and even a normal miss gives Tennessee possession at its own 45.

3. Punt, the course Simms recommended. Barring a fumbled return, Tennessee definitely gets a chance to tie, working with about 1:05. A good punt might leave them around the 10-yard line, while a touchback would net only 17 yards and leave them at the 20. Punter Bryan Anger had one blocked last week, his second of the season. A block would be disastrous.

Now let's rank scenarios, best to worst...

1. Go for it and get the first down. You kneel out the clock and the game is over.

2. Make a field goal. You're up by 11 and you will win.

3. Punt it and pin them deep. They've got a ton of ground to cover, not much time, and their offense stinks.

4. Punt it for a touchback. You only changed field position by 17 yards. That was kind of pointless.

5. Go for it and get stuffed. The Titans have 63 yards to go.

6. Miss a field goal. 55 yards to go.

7. Turnover that allows a return. Sack-fumble, interception, blocked kick or punt.

Simms mocked every choice except the punt, but I disagree, pretty strongly. Simms was sure it was the only option, and I don't even think it was the best. Anger is terrible about avoiding touchbacks. This season, he has 11 punts down inside the 10, compared to 9 touchbacks and 2 blocks. Your odds of substantially improving field position are only 50-50, and a blocked punt would be catastrophic. The best course of action is to go for it. If you make it, you win. Even if you don't make it, that's only about a 17-yard swing compared to a touchback. I would go for it every time.

Head coach Gus Bradley agreed with Simms, though, and sure enough, Anger booted a touchback. Tennessee's drive fizzled out at the Jacksonville 45-yard line, and the Jags won anyway, but it was an unnecessary risk. Going for it gives you a good chance to clinch victory, and the downside is minimal. A block is disastrous and a touchback is pointless, but gaining one yard ends the game. Punting didn't cost them the game, but it was the wrong decision.

Simms not only disagreed with the best course of action, he made fun of it. It's this kind of backward thinking that helps intelligent coaches like Bill Belichick stand out.

Phil Simms is sarcastic

On Sunday, Jim Nantz mentioned the Cowboys' interest in Johnny Manziel, that Jerry Jones wanted to draft Manziel instead of Zack Martin. Simms deadpanned something to the effect of, 'That would have been great.' Martin has excelled, and Manziel has fizzled. But I'm glad the world is now acknowledging how foolish it would have been to replace Tony Romo with Manziel. I don't have any ill will toward Johnny Football, I just don't think he made any sense for Dallas.

2014 Week Sixteen NFL Power Rankings

Teams are rated by current strength, not season-long performance. Brackets show previous rank.

1. Seattle Seahawks [1] — "I hope people didn't go to bed early tonight, because we have seen a show here in the second half ... They are the team to beat, Al."

In dealing Arizona its only home loss of the season, the Seahawks gained 596 yards and won, 35-6.

2. New England Patriots [2] — Third straight week with a different leading rusher. LeGarrette Blount looked to be the man after he led the team in Weeks 12-14, but Jonas Gray led in Week 15 and Shane Vereen against the Jets. On the off chance that you made your fantasy league's championship game with Patriot RBs in the lineup, Bill Belichick wanted to make sure you wouldn't win. The real Patriots have clinched home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

3. Dallas Cowboys [7] — Third straight game scoring at least 38 points. Playing with a broken hand, DeMarco Murray carried 22 times for 58 yards, his second straight week averaging 2.6 per attempt. The Cowboys were up 14-0 before Murray touched the ball, and it was clear before halftime that they would win easily. Why give such a heavy workload to an injured player? I can only guess that the Cowboys were trying to prove a point, which is incredibly misguided. Discretion is the better part of valor.

4. Denver Broncos [3] — Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden did a nice job in the MNF announcing booth this year, but they were totally wrong this week. Like, factually wrong. They repeatedly mentioned that the Broncos were running more this season, which just is not true.

Chart

The Broncos ranked 15th in rushing last season — above average — and if you exclude runs by the quarterback, Denver ranked fourth in the NFL in 2013. Fourth. I just don't see any need to be dishonest about these things; why make up lies for your viewers?

Their dedication to the "Denver is running more" storyline made the second half narrative even more puzzling ... it was all about how the Broncos couldn't get their run game going, so Peyton Manning had to start airing it out. C.J. Anderson finished the game with 18 carries for 83 yards (4.6/att) and a touchdown. More of that was in the second half, but it wasn't like the run game was totally ineffective. The stats just didn't bear out the story.

This offense looks best, though, when Manning is throwing the ball. They need some balance on the offense, but there's just no way this team makes a playoff run with some magic from Peyton Manning. I am really questioning the way they handled the Julius Thomas ankle injury in Week 11. I think they tried to get him back too quickly, and he's clearly not 100% right now. In hindsight, they should have taken it easy with his recovery time and just made sure he'd be ready for the playoffs.

5. Green Bay Packers [5] — Home field hasn't provided an obvious advantage in recent playoffs. Since 2008, teams that went 8-0 at home during the regular season are 4-5 at home in the postseason. Teams with a sub-.500 road record in the regular season have a better record on the road (10-7) than teams that went 7-1 at home do in their own stadiums (10-8). Here are the 8-0 losses:

2013: 4-4 SD beat 8-0 CIN
2011: 5-3 NYG beat 8-0 GB
2010: 6-2 NYJ beat 8-0 NE
2009: 3-5 BAL beat 8-0 NE
2008: 3-5 ARI beat 8-0 CAR

So it makes sense to be skeptical of home field advantage in the playoffs. And yet, you have to believe home field will be a big deal in the NFC postseason. Check out the home and away marks for the five teams we know are in:

Chart

The Packers, Cardinals, Lions, and Seahawks are all significantly scarier at home, while Dallas appears to maintain a bizarre home field disadvantage. Playoff history aside, I wouldn't want to face the Seahawks in Seattle, or the Packers in Green Bay.

6. Indianapolis Colts [6] — A blowout from the start. They trailed 28-0 before gaining a first down, and removed Andrew Luck in the third quarter, already down 35-0. The 42-7 final was the team's worst margin of defeat, and first time scoring 7 or fewer points in a game, since drafting Luck in 2012.

7. San Diego Chargers [12] — Despite a bulging disk in his back, Philip Rivers will play at Kansas City in Week 17. The Chiefs are favored by a field goal.

8. Pittsburgh Steelers [15] — Antonio Brown leads the NFL in receptions (122), receiving yards (1,570), and receiving first downs (80). He's also tied for third in TD receptions (12). Meanwhile, Le'Veon Bell has 2,115 yards from scrimmage, 11 TDs, and a 4.8 rushing average. And of course, Ben Roethlisberger is having one of his best seasons. Who is the MVP of this team?

9. Cincinnati Bengals [16] — Won a huge game without their best player. A.J. Green was on and off of the field, basically a part-time decoy, and they never wavered. The Bengals were noticeably fired up for this game; they seemed more motivated than the Broncos. Cincinnati defenders were credited with 8 hits on Peyton Manning (4 of them by Carlos Dunlap), which is a lot, but it seemed like even more. They also had four interceptions, one of them returned for a touchdown. Yet I'm hesitant to say they won with defense. When the final score is 37-28, can you really say you won with defense?

10. Buffalo Bills [4] — Kyle Orton reached two career milestones on Sunday: 100 passing TDs, and 1,000 sack yards lost. Among active QBs, he is the 19th with triple-digit TDs, and the 22nd with 1,000 sack yards. A team like Buffalo beating the Packers and losing to Oakland in back-to-back weeks is why we have the expression any given Sunday.

11. Detroit Lions [13] — Dominic Raiola is trash. He claims to have stomped on Ego Ferguson by accident, but this is the same Raiola who admitted taking cheap shots at the Patriots a month ago. Raiola has not earned the benefit of the doubt. The NFL suspended Raiola for Week 17 against Green Bay, but it should have also included the Lions' first playoff game. If the league is at all serious about player safety, meaningful punishments for dirty players are 100 times more important than 15-yard penalties for accidentally touching the quarterback's head. We were all horrified in August, when the league gave longer suspensions for marijuana use (4 games) than domestic violence (2 games). It's even more incongruous, I think, that the league punishes recreational drug use more harshly than on-field violence (1 game). What Raiola did happened in a game, and injured an opponent. All weed does is hurt the league's image. I guess we know which one the commissioner thinks is four times as important.

12. Philadelphia Eagles [8] — Booing injuries is not okay. Let's say the guy's faking it nine times out of 10 — and it's nowhere near that often, but let's say it was — that one other time, you're booing a human being who has a torn ACL, or a concussion, or a dislocated shoulder. One of these days, Philly fans are going to boo somebody like Darryl Stingley or Kevin Everett. The shame of booing someone who is seriously injured is 100 times worse, immeasurably worse, than whatever positives we can draw from booing the fakers. I would remind fans of every team to act in a way that you can be proud of, that your kids can look up to. When I was growing up, my dad taught me you always cheer for an injured player when he leaves the field, even if he's on the other team. What did your dad teach you?

13. Atlanta Falcons [18] — Week 11 was remarkable for blowout upsets: four 8-point underdogs won by at least 15. This weekend wasn't quite as shocking, but it still saw three six-point favorites lose by double digits: the Giants covered the spread against St. Louis by 16½, the Texans covered against Baltimore by 18, and the Falcons beat the spread against New Orleans by 22.

14. St. Louis Rams [9] — I don't understand. How does a team that's gone three weeks in a row without allowing a touchdown suddenly give up four to the Giants? New York gained 514 yards, the most all season, and the most St. Louis had allowed all year. Eli Manning set season-highs for yardage (391) and passer rating (148.8).

The Giants more than tripled the score allowed by St. Louis in its previous three games. This is a weird league sometimes.

15. Baltimore Ravens [10] — Effective red zone defense prevented a blowout. The Texans kicked six short field goals, all 40 yards or less, in their 25-12 victory over the Ravens. The first half was particularly ugly. Joe Flacco went 3-of-18 for 27 yards and 2 INTs, with a sack for -10 yards. Altogether, Baltimore gained just 31 yards in the first half. Actually, Houston wasn't much better. Case Keenum completed under 50% of his passes, for under 200 yards, and the teams combined for 761 punt yards.

16. Arizona Cardinals [11] — Second straight game without a touchdown. The defense is a lot better than we saw in the fourth quarter on Sunday night, but you can't win if you don't score.

17. Houston Texans [22] — Won the Kubiak Bowl, shutting down the offense coordinated by their former head coach. Houston still has a realistic shot at the playoffs. If the Chiefs beat the Chargers (they're favored), and the Browns upset the Ravens (weird things happen in division rivalries), and Houston holds serve against Jacksonville (they're double-digit favorites), the Texans are in, for the third time in four years. It's not likely, but it is a realistic possibility.

18. Kansas City Chiefs [14] — Lost four of their last five. Last year's Chiefs started 9-0, but finished 11-5 and lost their first playoff game. This year's Chiefs began 7-3 and are now 8-7. It's disappointing to see a team that humiliated the Patriots and beat the Seahawks struggle so badly down the stretch, for the second year in a row.

19. Miami Dolphins [17] — Four of their last five opponents have scored four or more TDs. Ownership announced that Joe Philbin will get a fourth season as head coach. I don't understand why people think this is such a terrible decision.

1. If you pay any attention at all, it is obvious that the most successful teams tend to be those who are patient with coaches, and that the least successful teams are those who change the head coach every two seasons.

2. The Dolphins had a losing record in 2009. They had a losing record in 2010. They had a losing record in 2011. Under Philbin, they've gone 7-9, 8-8, and if they beat the Jets at home in Week 17, 9-7. How do you fire a coach who's showing improvement each season?

20. New York Giants [23] — Three straight wins since they blew that lead against Jacksonville. But really, let's just talk about Odell Beckham some more. Beckham has out-gained the opponents' leading receiver for eight games in a row. Over those eight games — exactly half a season — Beckham has 1,014 receiving yards. In the past three weeks, Beckham has at least 130 yards and 1 TD in every game. The Giants are favored against Philadelphia.

21. Minnesota Vikings [19] — Back-to-back two-point losses. Actually, their last five losses combined were by only 17 points. They haven't lost by double-digits since Week 6. It's easy to blame this one on long snapper Cullen Loeffler, but when your defense gives up 36 first downs, 493 yards, and 5 touchdowns against a mediocre Dolphins offense, you've got to spread that blame around.

22. Carolina Panthers [26] — Three consecutive wins, and four would guarantee a second straight NFC South title, the first team ever to repeat in that division. They outgained the Browns 404-228 and 27 first downs to 8.

23. Oakland Raiders [27] — Started 0-10, but they're 3-2 since, including wins over the Chiefs, 49ers, and Bills. How do you only win three games, but they're all against pretty good teams? Watch out, Broncos.

24. San Francisco 49ers [21] — Four straight losses, and they haven't beaten anyone with a winning record since Week 5. Four points from their Saturday night loss to San Diego:

1. Holy cow, how many injuries in that game? Both teams are beat up heading into the regular season finale.

2. The 49ers really miss their injured linebackers. They played this week without NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, and Ahmad Brooks — and it showed.

3. Colin Kaepernick makes a ton of mental errors. He's especially poor about anything related to clock management. In the fourth quarter, with the Niners leading 35-28 and 3:38 left on the clock, Kaepernick rolled left and ran out of bounds for a one-yard loss. He lost yardage and stopped the clock! Slide! Or throw the ball away! What are you doing?

4. If I didn't already know that referee Jeff Triplette was the King of Incompetence, I would have been sure he was drunk. Triplette's hesitant, stuttering announcements were painful to listen to. He didn't seem sure where he was or what was going on.

25. New Orleans Saints [20] — They've lost four straight home games, and won three straight road games. That would be weird for any team, but even more so for a team that typically has a colossal home field advantage. From 2008-13, the Saints were 37-11 (.771) in New Orleans, and 26-22 (.542) away. The trend held in the first two months of the 2014 season: the Saints began this year 3-0 at home (including a three-TD win against the Packers, their first loss after R-E-L-A-X), but 0-4 on the road. Evidently something changed around Halloween, but no one knows why.

26. New York Jets [25] — Fewest TDs in the NFL, 23. The defense played well against New England, but the offense went 0/3 in the red zone. You just can't settle for short field goals and expect to win, especially when you're playing a good team. The underdog has to take chances.

27. Cleveland Browns [24] — Could play Week 17 without either of their top QBs. Johnny Manziel missed the second half with a hamstring injury and will not play against the Ravens, while Brian Hoyer suffered a shoulder injury and his status is uncertain. There are no other QBs on the roster, meaning practice squad rookie Connor Shaw, undrafted out of South Carolina, could start the finale in Baltimore.

That was a heads-up play by Jordan Poyer, on his didn't-count TD return. It's a shame that got called back.

28. Washington [31] — If Cody Parkey had made his 34-yard field goal, it might have gone to overtime. If Parkey had also made his 46-yard field goal, the Eagles might have won outright. That said, Washington played smart and did a good job of avoiding big mistakes. The team is 4-11, but it takes some of the sting out when you've defeated your two biggest rivals.

29. Jacksonville Jaguars [30] — Rich Eisen said this after the game and I didn't believe it could be true, so I checked. Jordan Todman's 62-yard TD was not the longest rush by a Jaguar since 2000. Fred Taylor alone topped that run half a dozen times, and it's pretty obvious what happened: Eisen either misread a card or he was shown a typo. Todman's run was the longest since 2010, when Rashad Jennings took off for a 74-yard TD against the Raiders. 2010, not 2000.

30. Chicago Bears [28] — They went 5-11 in Lovie Smith's first season, but he was taking over a bad team. In eight subsequent years with Smith, the Bears were at least 7-9 every season, won three NFC North titles, and appeared in Super Bowl XLI. After a 10-6 record in Smith's final season, Chicago has dipped to 8-8, and now 5-10. Oops.

31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [29] — Out-gained 431-109 and 23 first downs to 6. They averaged 1.1 yards per rush and took 7 sacks in just 33 dropbacks.

32. Tennessee Titans [32] — All three QBs have roughly the same number of pass attempts. How do they compare statistically?

Chart

I included sacks in the Attempts and Yardage categories. Rushing TDs count in that column, and INTs also include lost fumbles. I did not count rushing yardage, which would favor Locker. But it seems obvious that Whitehurst has been the most productive. I don't mean to suggest that he's their quarterback of the future, but I think a lot of people have been too hard on Whitehurst, who's been reasonably effective in a low-potency offense. He's at least earned a job as someone's backup.

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