Tuesday, December 30, 2014

NFL Week 17 Power Rankings

By Brad Oremland

Five Quick Hits

* Normally, I name the best announcers of the season in my final power rankings, but I really wasn't crazy about anyone this year. Instead, let's go most improved: Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden. Tirico was badly off his game last year, and I've never cared for Gruden in the booth. But Tirico returned to form, and Gruden did some genuinely nice work as an analyst. Keep it up, guys.

* The Carolina Panthers have won back-to-back NFC South division titles, the first team ever to repeat in that division.

* After leading the Buffalo Bills to their first winning season in a decade, Kyle Orton has retired. It's been a strange career, with ups and downs, and perhaps never stranger than the timing of his departure from the game.

* 42-year-old Adam Vinatieri lost his perfect season in Week 17, pushing a 46-yard field goal attempt wide left.

* Super Bowl XLIX: Seattle Seahawks over New England Patriots. Normally, we like to root for underdogs, but come on — don't you want to see this game?

2014 Week Seventeen NFL Power Rankings

Teams are rated by end-of-season strength, not season-long performance. Brackets indicate last week's rank. Check back tomorrow for our 2014 NFL All-Pro team, plus awards including Most Valuable Player, Coach of the Year, and Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year.

1. Seattle Seahawks [1] — Got a scare against St. Louis, getting shut out in the first half and not taking a lead until the fourth quarter. Predictably, they won with defense: 245 yards allowed, no touchdowns, three turnovers, interception return for a touchdown. Only one of their last six opponents scored more than seven points.

2. Dallas Cowboys [3] — Fourth straight game scoring at least 38 points and winning by double-digits. They're the only team to beat the Seahawks in Seattle this season.

3. New England Patriots [2] — Maybe my memory is failing me, but I can't recall Coach Belichick resting his starters and giving away Week 17 in any previous season. I'm not a fan of that strategy, especially in combination with a first-round bye. Too many players get rusty. This also broke a streak the team could be proud of, 12-0 at home against the Bills since the new stadium opened in 2002.

4. Denver Broncos [4] — Scored 47 points without any touchdowns by Peyton Manning. Denver outgained the Raiders 451-199 and 25 first downs to 10. They've had a first-round bye in the playoffs in each of Manning's three seasons.

5. Green Bay Packers [5] — Led the NFL in turnover differential, +14. It helps when your QB only throws 5 interceptions. Best single-season TD/INT differentials in history:

1. Peyton Manning, +45 in 2013 (55 TD, 10 INT)
2. Tom Brady, +42 in 2007 (50 TD, 8 INT)
t3. Peyton Manning, +39 in 2004 (49 TD, 10 INT)
t3. Aaron Rodgers, +39 in 2011 (45 TD, 6 INT)
5. Aaron Rodgers, +33 in 2014 (38 TD, 5 INT)

Rodgers has led the league in TD/INT +/- for three of the last four seasons.

6. Pittsburgh Steelers [8]Last week, I wondered who their team MVP was. The players voted it to running back Le'Veon Bell, who left Sunday's game with a hyperextended knee. That's pretty mild as knee injuries go, but with a short week to prepare for Baltimore, it's a real question whether Bell will be ready to go. Speaking of injuries, Al Michaels seemed confused in the first quarter: "[Ben] Roethlisberger has been an iron man ... this is only the third time he's played 16 games in a season [because] he's been hurt so much." Roethlisberger is tough, but he definitely has not been an iron man.

7. Indianapolis Colts [6] — Won five of their last six ... against teams with a combined record of 25-55. The loss (to 12-4 Dallas) was a 42-7 blowout that could have been worse. T.Y. Hilton hasn't had a catch in two weeks, and Reggie Wayne is battling a groin injury. Their vulnerable run defense will now face the mighty Bengals of Cincinnati, featuring Jeremy Hill (three straight 100-yard games, 5.1 season average) and Giovani Bernard (over 1,000 yards from scrimmage).

The Colts have clear weaknesses and concerns, but they shut out the Bengals in Week 7 (27-0), the game's in Indianapolis, and the pressure's on Cincinnati to succeed in the playoffs. Colts by 3.

8. Cincinnati Bengals [9] — Last in the NFL in sacks (20) yet held opponents to a 75.8 passer rating, third-best in the NFL. The Bengals are battling multiple injuries in their receiving corps. A.J. Green, who struggled last week with a bruised biceps, now is in the NFL's concussion protocol, leaving his availability for the wild card in question. It's tough to imagine Cincinnati advancing without him. Tight end Jermaine Gresham left Sunday's game with a back injury, and Tyler Eifert was already out with a shoulder issue. It's a lot to overcome for a team seeking its first playoff victory in a quarter-century.

9. Buffalo Bills [10] — Buffalo ranked 4th in the NFL in fewest yards allowed and fewest points allowed, and led the league in sacks (54) and defensive third down percentage (33%). Their defensive front this season (Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, Jerry Hughes) was awesome. The Bills' leading passer, rusher, and receiver all changed from 2013.

10. Houston Texans [17] — Third winning season in the last four years. J.J. Watt had a team-high six tackles, with three sacks, a forced fumble, and a safety. Watt finished second on the team in tackles, with more sacks (20.5) than the rest of the team combined (17.5), and more than four times as many as any other single player. Here are some of the highlights from his insane season:

Week 1: 2 TFL, sack, FR, PD, blocked XP
Week 3: 5 tackles, 2 TFL, sack, PD
Week 4: INT, 80 ret yds, TD
Week 6: 3 TFL, 2 sacks, FR, 45 ret yds, TD, 3 PD
Week 8: 2 sacks, FF, PD
Week 11: 3 TFL, sack, FF, FR, rec TD
Week 13: 2 sacks, FF, FR, rec TD
Week 14: 4 TFL, 3 sacks, PD
Week 15: 5 tackles, 2 sacks, PD
Week 16: 7 tackles, 3 TFL, sack
Week 17: 6 tackles, 3 sacks, FF, safety

The Jaguars went 0/11 on third downs this week, and Houston ranked 3rd in the league in best defensive third down percentage (34%). For real, if Jadeveon Clowney stays healthy next year...

11. Baltimore Ravens [15] — At Pittsburgh for the first round of the playoffs. Since 2008, when John Harbaugh joined the team as head coach, the Ravens have met the Steelers 16 times, the most meetings of any teams:

2008: PIT swept, 3-0, including 23-14 in AFC Championship Game
2009: 1-1 split, both games by a field goal
2010: 2-1 PIT, including 31-24 in divisional playoff game
2011: BAL swept, 2-0
2012: 1-1 split, both games by a field goal
2013: 1-1 split, both games by a field goal or less
2014: 1-1 split, both games by 20 points

The Ravens have never beaten Pittsburgh in the playoffs. That streak continues this year: Steelers by 3. With Le'Veon Bell healthy, I'd take Pittsburgh by double-digits.

12. Carolina Panthers [22] — 148 defensive return yards and two interceptions returned for touchdowns against Atlanta. Cam Newton led the team in rushing (51 yds, TD). Pro-Football-Reference.com uses a simple rating system (SRS), based on strength of schedule and margin of victory, to evaluate teams. The result is like a point spread against an average team. According to the SRS, the 2010 Seattle Seahawks were the worst team ever to make the playoffs. The bottom five, excluding strike years:

1) 2010 Seahawks, -9.4
2) 1998 Cardinals, -7.4
3) 2004 Rams, -6.0
4) 2011 Broncos, -5.3
5) 1978 Falcons, -4.6

This year's Panthers, who won their last four games in a row, rated at -3.1. All five of the teams above won their first playoff game, and I thought I would be really clever, the one person picking the 7-8-1 NFC South champs to win in the playoffs. But with Arizona struggling and the game in Carolina, the Panthers are 4½-point favorites, and most people who've been paying attention are picking them. We can forget about whatever advantage they might have gained from being underestimated. I still believe they're playing better than the Cardinals, though. Panthers by a field goal.

13. Detroit Lions [11] — One week after Dominic Raiola stomped on an opponent, Ndamukong Suh stepped on Aaron Rodgers twice. The first one might have been an accident, but the second wasn't. Rodney Harrison was horrified: "That was dirty right there ... he put his whole weight on him." The league did the right thing by suspending Suh for Sunday's playoff game against the Cowboys. In a letter to Suh regarding the suspension, NFL vice president of football operations Merton Hanks wrote, "You did not respond in the manner of someone who had lost his balance and accidentally contacted another player who was lying on the ground." This is the ninth time Suh has been fined or suspended by the league for unnecessary roughness or unsportsmanlike conduct.

That stat from FOX about Matthew Stafford falling to 0-16 in road games against winning teams was pretty startling, and it does not bode well for next Sunday. The Lions, with their league-leading run defense, are a tough matchup for Dallas, but the Cowboys are playing too well right now. Dallas by 8.

14. Philadelphia Eagles [12] — Third in the NFL in scoring (29.6 ppg), 32nd in average time of possession (26:40) — more than half a minute behind 31st-place Jacksonville. They allowed 505 yards, including two 150-yard receivers, against the Giants in Week 17. Chip Kelly's style of play is interesting, and it's been effective, but the system also carries an inherent weakness, in the burden it puts on a defense. I wonder whether a team like that can ever really be the best.

15. Kansas City Chiefs [18] — Finished with a winning record, 9-7, and no touchdowns by wide receivers. Here's something else weird: at halftime of Packers/Lions, FOX showed a graphic on the Chiefs/Chargers game, with stats for Alex Smith: 10/14, 106 yards. I don't know where those numbers came from, since Smith didn't play this week.

16. New York Giants [20] — Most challenging team to rate this season, because they were super streaky: 2 L, 3 W, 7 L, 3 W, L. How do you sandwich a seven-game losing streak in between two three-game win streaks? All six Giants victories this year were by double-digits.

Odell Beckham missed the first four games of the season, recovering from an injury. But he led the NFL in receiving yards per game (108.8), finishing 10th in yardage (1,305) and tied for 4th in receiving touchdowns (12) — despite missing the first month of the season.

17. San Diego Chargers [7] — Lost to a team using Chase Daniel at QB. Daniel started the game on fire, too — he completed his first nine passes, for 73 yards, plus a pass interference for 6 yards and 2 rushes for 16 yards. The Chargers actually outgained Kansas City by over 100 yards, but they had three turnovers, plus two more turnovers on downs in the fourth quarter. The first of those particularly hurt, because an apparent 3-yard TD by Eddie Royal was reversed on replay, and instead of a touchdown the drive produced a turnover.

It was the first time since Philip Rivers became a starter that the Chargers had lost in Week 17. That's pretty remarkable, eight years without losing a season finale. Rivers did not play well against Kansas City (7 sacks, 2 INT, 62.3 rating), but he's been playing through injury and has an excuse. One of the league's other really elite QBs also had a very poor performance in Week 17: former Charger Drew Brees (3 INT, 61.4 rating).

18. St. Louis Rams [14] — Most penalty yards in the NFL this season: 1,139. The Rams have a talented defensive core in place. This offseason, it's time to load up on offense, especially players who will contribute in the passing game.

19. Atlanta Falcons [13] — Laid an egg in their most important game of the year. The 34-3 blowout was Atlanta's worst margin of defeat in the Mike Smith era, and it brought that era to an end. I disagree with the decision to fire Smith, but whoever the team brings in will need to improve the run game and especially the defense, which ranked worst in the NFL in yards allowed.

20. Minnesota Vikings [21] — Last year, they went 5-10-1. This year, they traded away Jared Allen, and Adrian Peterson got suspended. The team improved to 7-9, including three wins in the last five games, with both losses by less than a field goal. It's a nice start for head coach Mike Zimmer, but there's a talent deficiency on offense, and that needs to be addressed this offseason.

21. San Francisco 49ers [24] — Jim Harbaugh went 44-19-1 as head coach, with more Super Bowl appearances than losing seasons and more division titles than years missing the playoffs. We've all heard that Harbaugh is a tough guy to work with, but you have to think the team will want to keep most of its staff intact. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, offensive coordinator Greg Roman, and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula all could get consideration for the head coaching vacancy.

22. Arizona Cardinals [16] — Allowed 144 yards to Frank Gore and a 108.5 passer rating to Colin Kaepernick, but the real concern is their offense. Since the injuries to Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton, the Cardinals simply don't generate enough points to win in the postseason. Detroit could have a similar problem.

23. New York Jets [26] — Fired Rex Ryan. There's so much to say about Ryan: things he did well, things he did poorly, things he did that were interesting. His players always fought for him, and he's good for the league. I'll be interested to see what the future holds for him. In the meantime, the Jets' priority is surely to find a coach who can get their offense on track.

24. Oakland Raiders [23] — Worst turnover differential in the NFL, -15. The Raiders lost their games to Denver by scores of 41-17 and 47-14.

25. Miami Dolphins [19] — Mike Wallace claims he sat out the second half because he was benched. not because he refused to play. Anyone believe him? Also, what is up with pouty players taking themselves out of the game? If you want to be treated like a man, don't act like a child.

26. New Orleans Saints [25] — Led the NFL in offensive yardage and third down percentage, but finished -13 in turnovers and went 7-9 — with some help from the tanking Bucs. Turning the top-ranked offense in the league into a losing record takes a special kind of awful in other areas. To some extent, their struggles can be explained by injuries, but everyone has injuries. The Saints need to do something dramatic with their defense.

27. Jacksonville Jaguars [29] — Sen'Derrick Marks, the team's best player this season — he was the guy with the $600,000 sack last Thursday — tore his ACL in the finale against Houston. That's a long rehab, and even if Marks is able to play in next year's season opener, it's unlikely he'll show the same form we saw this year.

28. Cleveland Browns [27] — Led the league in opponents' passer rating (74.1). The Browns started 7-4, but collapsed and lost their last five in a row. Two of the Browns' most promising young players, Johnny Manziel and Josh Gordon, this week reinforced the idea that they're not mature enough to make positive contributions to the team. Highly regarded offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is a head coaching candidate, and the team could struggle to replace him if he's hired away. Despite the strong defense and some very good offensive linemen, it looks like a long rebuild for Cleveland. They need playmakers on offense — reliable ones. We say actions speak louder than words, and Manziel's words sound great, but so far he's not following through on the promises he makes.

29. Washington [28] — It sounds like the team will retain both Jay Gruden and Robert Griffin III for 2015. I understand both moves individually, but they don't make sense together. It seems obvious at this point that Gruden doesn't trust RG3, and that Griffin doesn't fit his style of offense. If Washington could go back in time and hire Darrell Bevell instead of Gruden, you have to think they would. It's hard to assess a young quarterback when your coach doesn't want to work with him.

30. Chicago Bears [30] — Fired head coach Marc Trestman, after only two seasons. Two years ago, when the Bears went 10-6 and fired Lovie Smith, I wondered who they could hire that would do better. I'm still wondering that, and apparently the Bears are, too.

31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [31] — Tanking has never really been a problem in the NFL, but after taking a 20-7 halftime lead, the Bucs pulled many of their best players (including Mike Evans and Lavonte David) for the second half, facilitating a 23-20 defeat and securing the first pick in next May's draft. I guess they really like Marcus Mariota, but in the meantime, they should be ashamed of themselves. The Buccaneers need to have a long talk with Herm Edwards.

32. Tennessee Titans [32] — Concluded the season on a 10-game losing streak. This offseason, they should target a wide receiver, pass rusher, and cornerback. Zach Mettenberger showed enough potential at QB that I'd like to see more of him, and no QB can succeed with a wideout corps led by Kendall Wright, Nate Washington, and Justin Hunter. Tight end Delanie Walker led the Titans in receptions and yards this season. Tennessee also needs impact players on defense. There's a nice core for the interior defensive line, with Jurrell Casey and Sammie Lee Hill, and a dynamic pass rusher would create major problems for opponents. The Titans also never replaced Cortland Finnegan, and could really use a standout to bolster the secondary. If the team can plug one of those holes in free agency, and two in the draft, it should be on the right track moving forward.

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