Tuesday, January 5, 2016

2015 NFL Week 17 Power Rankings

By Brad Oremland

Week 17 Game Balls

Offense — Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers. Rushed for 2 touchdowns, passed for 2 touchdowns, and only threw 5 incomplete passes. That's more incompletions than TDs, but barely.

Defense — J.J. Watt, DL, Houston Texans. Three sacks, 2 pass deflections, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery, plus he led the team in tackles, as Houston held the Jaguars to a season-low 6 points.

Special Teams — Tyler Lockett, PR, Seattle Seahawks. First return went 22 yards but was nullified by a questionable penalty. Next three went 66 yards, 27 yards, and 31 yards. That's four outstanding returns in four tries.

Rookie — Jamison Crowder, WR, Washington. Crowder and Miami's DeVante Parker both had 100 yards and a TD, but Washington took its foot off the gas pedal in the second half, or Crowder's day might have been even better.

Honorable Mentions — QB Russell Wilson, LB Jerrell Freeman, P Brad Wing

Five Quick Hits

* No NFL team swept its division this year.

* Surprising stat: the Atlanta Falcons led the NFL in average time of possession, 32:20. The Eagles were last, of course (26:06), followed by the 49ers (26:42).

* For most of the season, people were freaking out about the NFC East and AFC South champions making the playoffs. Both divisions produced a champ with a winning record. Washington and Houston belong in the postseason.

* The Broncos are the top seed in the AFC playoffs, but they've already lost to both wild card teams.

* Super Bowl 50: Cardinals over Patriots. I have no faith in anyone from the AFC.

2015 Week 17 NFL Power Rankings

Brackets show last week's rank. These rankings are for right now, end-of-year strength, not a season-long power rating. Check back tomorrow for Sports Central's 2015 NFL All-Pro Team.

1. Seattle Seahawks [2] — Fewest points allowed in the NFL. They also ranked 2nd in yards allowed, and 4th in both points and yards gained, and they've been playing their best football at the end of the season, rebounding from a 2-4 start. Their last four wins came by a combined 139-32, and that includes a 38-7 win at Minnesota last month.

Everything I know about football tells me the Seahawks will beat the Vikings on Sunday. But oddsmakers want you to bet on the Seahawks. The initial line out of Vegas was Seattle -3½. That's -5½ now, and it will probably hit 6 before this weekend. I'll take the bait — I can't pick against Seattle right now — but I'm nervous. Seahawks by 3.

2. Carolina Panthers [4] — Led the NFL in scoring (500) and point differential (+192). They also led in takeaways (36) and turnover differential (+20). They were the only team to go 8-0 at home, and — what do you know? — they have homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. But looking at the brackets, they'll probably have to beat the Seahawks and Cardinals just to get to the Super Bowl.

3. Arizona Cardinals [1] — Just last week, Bruce Arians said, "I don't think you get anything out of resting guys." So naturally, the Cardinals mailed it in for Week 17, suffered their worst home loss since 2003, and ended their league-leading nine-game win streak.

4. Kansas City Chiefs [3] — Ten wins in a row, but the last seven were all against teams with losing records, and most of them by single-digits, including three of the last four. The Chiefs have done what they had to do, but what will happen when they face elite competition in the playoffs? In my head I'm comparing them to Michigan State and Iowa; sure, they had a nice run in the regular season, but what's going to happen when they play an SEC team?

5. Pittsburgh Steelers [6] — Won four of their last five, including victories over the Bengals and Broncos. DeAngelo Williams was carted off the field this Sunday, but Williams suggested that he could have returned to the game. He's considered day-to-day, but the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Williams only has an "outside chance, albeit a small one" to play against the Bengals on Saturday. Pittsburgh lost in the first round of the playoffs last year, partly due to the loss of RB Le'Veon Bell. Will that play out again this weekend? I'll say no: the Steelers win in the final minute, dealing Cincinnati its fifth straight one-and-done in the playoffs.

6. Minnesota Vikings [7] — Earlier this season, Peyton Manning completed a left-handed pass. Teddy Bridgewater should stick to throwing righty.

7. Denver Broncos [9] — Led the NFL in interceptions. The bad kind. But if they can limit turnovers in the postseason, the Broncos could be a title contender. Brock Osweiler is good enough for Denver to win some games, but I can't see him leading the team to a championship right now. Peyton Manning might, and he's the obvious play going forward.

8. Cincinnati Bengals [8] — Fewest points allowed of any team this season, 263. The Bengals and Panthers were the only defenses with more interceptions than passing touchdowns allowed. Cincinnati doubled last year's sack total, from 20 to 41.

Peter King reported that Andy Dalton was "optimistic" he'll be able to play against the Steelers, but it sounds like the smart money right now is on A.J. McCarron to start this week's playoff game.

9. New York Jets [5] — A good team that sometimes seemed to lose focus. Here's what I wrote after Week 7: "The Jets only have two remaining games against teams with winning records, the Giants in Week 13 and a home rematch with the Patriots in Week 16. Barring some epic collapse, the Jets will make the playoffs, probably as the top wild card." The Jets lost three of their next four after that, to the Raiders, Bills, and Texans. Not easy, but all winnable, and a victory in any of them would have put New York in the playoffs. The Jets did some good things this year, but they also lost a bunch of games they should have won. Todd Bowles was fine as the new head coach, but he doesn't deserve any Coach of the Year consideration. The Jets improved because they added Darrelle Revis, Brandon Marshall, and Ryan Fitzpatrick.

10. Houston Texans [15] — Won seven of their last nine, including three in a row, with the last two by a combined 64-12. Their best offensive lineman, LT Duane Brown, has a torn right quad. He should be ready for Week 1 next season, but not for Kansas City on Saturday. The Chiefs have the longest win streak in the league, 10 in a row, and it's probably insane to pick against them, but I'll take the Texans by a field goal.

11. Washington [11] — Fourth win in a row, and they went 6-2 at home this season. I believe. They'll beat Green Bay in a low-scoring nail-biter.

12. Oakland Raiders [12] — There were seven new head coaches in 2015: Todd Bowles (NYJ), Jack Del Rio (OAK), John Fox (CHI), Gary Kubiak (DEN), Dan Quinn (ATL), Rex Ryan (BUF), and Jim Tomsula (SF). They went a combined 56-56, but Kubiak and Bowles were the only ones to produce winning records. Tomsula has already been fired.

13. Detroit Lions [13] — 1-7 before the bye, 6-2 after the bye. Before the bye, they played Arizona, Denver, Kansas City, Seattle, and Minnesota twice. After the bye, they faced one playoff team, the Packers, splitting the series 1-1. It's almost like strength of schedule affected their record.

14. New England Patriots [10] — NFL Network's Albert Breer reports that Tom Brady has a high ankle sprain. Julian Edelman and Sebastian Vollmer may return for the playoffs, which could be a game-changer for the reeling Patriots, who have lost four of their last six.

15. Buffalo Bills [16] — Second 22-17 win over the Jets this season. There were two 22-17 games in the NFL this season: both were by Bills, and both were against the Jets. The Bills also beat the Jets 22-17 in 2004. Since the league expanded to 32 teams, there have been 11 22-17 games in the NFL, and three of them were Bills over Jets. That is strange. Congratulations to Rex Ryan on sweeping his former team and knocking them out of the playoffs.

Last year, they led the league in sacks (54). This year, they dropped to 31st (20). By sack percentage, they were dead last (3.4%). Some of that is regression to the mean, and some is Kyle Williams' injury. But holy cow, how do you go from best to worst in one year?

16. Green Bay Packers [14] — Got swept at home by their division opponents for the first time since 1991, but swept their division on the road. Weird.

The Packer offense, and Aaron Rodgers in particular, have struggled badly for the last two months.

Rodgers before the bye: 7.36 net yards per attempt, 115.9 passer rating
Rodgers since the bye: 5.03 net yards per attempt, 81.9 passer rating

Rodgers has gone seven games without passing for 300 yards, eight games without 3 or more TD passes, and 10 straight games with a passer rating below 100. The Packers went 4-6 after the bye, and they haven't scored more than 30 points in a game since September.

17. New Orleans Saints [20] — For the second year in a row, led the NFL in third down percentage but finished 7-9. Turning a top-ranked offense into a losing record takes a special kind of awful in other areas, and the Saints' defense is a really special kind of awful. Top priority: cornerback. If the Saints spent their top two draft picks on CBs, I wouldn't bat an eye.

18. San Diego Chargers [17] — Only team to go 0-6 in division play. This is their second year in a row dealing with a massive number of injuries. There's some luck in how these things go, but I'm starting to wonder if there's an organizational issue that puts the Chargers at higher risk for injury. It seems strange to me that we don't know whether or not this team will play in Los Angeles in 2016. The Chargers will pick third in the upcoming draft. Offensive line is an obvious need.

19. St. Louis Rams [18] — Only team in the NFL to average under 300 yards of offense per game. The Cardinals and Saints averaged more than 400. The Rams were also the only team to convert under 30% of their third downs, and they were way under 30, just 26%. This despite a dynamic rookie RB in Todd Gurley. This team's problem is the same as it has been ever since they lost Torry Holt: there's no passing game. They need a better offensive line, and they should try to upgrade at QB, but most of all, they desperately need some receivers.

20. Philadelphia Eagles [22] — Fired Chip Kelly after last week's power rankings had already posted. It doesn't make any sense to hire someone like Kelly, who runs a unique system, put him in charge of personnel, and then fire him less than one season later, despite a 26-21 record. The Eagles caught some bad breaks this year. Kelly's personnel decisions look terrible, but he got good results as a head coach.

21. Atlanta Falcons [21] — Fewest sacks of any defense, 19. Last week's upset winners came back to earth. The Falcons, who beat Carolina in Week 16, lost to the Saints. The Jets beat the Patriots last week and lost to the Bills on Sunday. The Rams beat the Seahawks but couldn't handle the 49ers. It's like the universe is trolling us. Seriously, how are you supposed to predict the playoffs?

22. New York Giants [19] — Tom Coughlin resigned, and is now being hailed as the greatest coach since Vince Lombardi. Coughlin was a good coach, but let's not deify the man. He coached the Giants for 12 seasons, and they won a playoff game in only two of those 12 years.

23. Chicago Bears [23] — Maybe the most remarkable home/road split of any team, 1-7 at home and 5-3 away. Say goodbye to offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who is on the wish list of every team with a head coaching vacancy.

24. Baltimore Ravens [26] — This season wasn't a blip, Raven fans. Your team needs a rebuild. Some key players got injured, but there are gaping talent deficiencies on this team even when it's healthy. Baltimore went 3-7 with Joe Flacco and 2-4 without him.

25. Miami Dolphins [31] — Only division win of the season. This team is in desperate need of stability. Every year, they overhaul the roster or the coaching staff or both. Commit to something and give it a chance to work.

26. San Francisco 49ers [28] — Win in Week 17 couldn't save Jim Tomsula's job. The 49ers dropped from 12-4 to 8-8 to 5-11 (they have the 7th pick in the draft), but I don't understand why Tomsula got the job in the first place if the team is giving up on him so quickly. The York family got lucky with Jim Harbaugh, but this organization is so clueless, I can't see it succeeding again any time soon. If I were a head coaching candidate, I would not accept a job offer from the 49ers. There's no talent on the roster, and you're going to get fired in two years, setting back your career. It's a bad job.

27. Indianapolis Colts [29] — Played their fourth and fifth quarterbacks of the season, Josh Freeman and Ryan Lindley, yet won, because the Titans are a trainwreck. The Colts went 8-8 in a weak division, an extremely disappointing season for a popular Super Bowl pick. Hopefully Andrew Luck comes back 100% in 2016.

Both head coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson signed contract extensions on Monday.

28. Dallas Cowboys [24] — Fewest takeaways in the NFL (11), and by far the worst turnover differential (-22). No one else was below -14. The Cowboys threw 22 interceptions this year, 2nd-worst in the NFL. That's 7 by Matt Cassel, 7 by Tony Romo, 6 by Kellen Moore, and 2 by Brandon Weeden. Moore went 0-2 as starter, and his arm strength is visibly lacking, but he showed some good things. He has earned a job as somebody's backup.

29. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [25] — Tied with Buffalo for most penalties in the NFL (143). The Bucs were 6-6 a month ago, but lost their last four in a row to slump to their fifth straight losing season. They're in no immediate danger of tying the team record for consecutive losing seasons, set from 1983-96.

30. Jacksonville Jaguars [27] — Fifth consecutive season with a top-five draft pick. The offense is moving in the right direction, and the pass rush should improve if Dexter Fowler is healthy next year, but they desperately need defensive backs.

31. Cleveland Browns [30] — I forget who pointed this out ... maybe Mike Florio? Since 2008, five AFC North head coaches have been fired — all five by the Browns. Hey, successful coordinators! Looking to sabotage your own career? Come to a job where you have a terrible roster, tough division opponents, no GM, and an owner who may or may not be a criminal! You're almost guaranteed to get fired after two years! Unless you get fired after only one!

Agreeing to coach the Browns right now is career suicide.

32. Tennessee Titans [32] — Most turnovers in the NFL, and they'll have the top pick in May's draft. Their defense actually is not terrible, but they need help everywhere on offense. Trading out of the first pick would make sense if they can find a buyer.

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