Tuesday, September 26, 2017

2017 NFL Week 3 Power Rankings

By Brad Oremland

Week 3 Game Balls

Offense — Chris Thompson, RB, Washington. Led all players in yards from scrimmage, 188, showcasing speed, acceleration, agility, and toughness. He's a vital weapon for a successful offense.

Defense — DeMarcus Lawrence, ER, Dallas Cowboys. Three sacks, six hits on the quarterback, and consistent pressure and disruption in the Cardinals' backfield.

Special Teams — Jake Elliott, K, Philadelphia Eagles. Made a 46-yard field goal to tie the game with under a minute left, then a 61-yard field goal to win as time expired.

Rookie — Kareem Hunt, RB, Kansas City Chiefs. Rushed for 172 yards and a touchdown. In his three-game career, Hunt has at least 1 touchdown and over 100 yards from scrimmage every week.

Honorable Mentions — QB Tom Brady, ER Jadeveon Clowney, ST Sherrick McManis

Apologies to kickers Matt Prater and Stephen Hauschka, both of whom went 6/6 on Sunday, including 3/3 from at least 40 yards and 2/2 from 53 yards or more. Normally, that kind of performance earns a game ball, or at least an honorable mention. McManis recovered a muffed punt, setting up Chicago's first touchdown, and blocked a field goal, depriving Pittsburgh of an easy three points and setting up a Bears field goal before halftime. That's a 13-point swing he facilitated, in a game his team won in overtime.

Five Quick Hits

* It was reported this week that former Patriot Aaron Hernandez, who died at age 27, had Stage 3 CTE. The NFL needs to do more to protect players, but I increasingly believe that the bigger problem is youth football; we need better safety standards at all levels.

* It would help, of course, if the NFL honored its commitments to CTE research and stopped trying to sabotage or whitewash that research.

* I want to strangle the dude in the new Verizon commercials. I don't understand the marketing strategy behind a spokesperson who is annoying by design. Maybe the "can you hear me now?" guy was right to switch networks.

* I hate ESPN broadcasts. From corporate know-nothing Suzy Kolber and 1950s-tv-dad Sean McDonough to their stubborn refusal to show replays of important penalties, it's an unpleasant viewing experience from start to finish.

* If you're in a survivor pool and you haven't used the Seahawks yet, they're the obvious play this week, at home against the no-Luck Colts. I did use Seattle already, so I'm going with Arizona and a prayer. The Cardinals host the 49ers.

Donald Trump vs. the NFL

I try to keep this column focused on football. In this week of upsets, though, the biggest story in football was the league's show of solidarity against the latest outrageous suggestion by President Trump. The idea of the president calling for the firing of private citizens — that is, people not employed by the government, not funded by taxpayers — is outrageous in the most literal sense of the word. It's completely inappropriate, to say nothing of block-headed and insensitive. If Trump was trying to prove Jemele Hill right, he's on the right track by attempting to silence the First Amendment rights of Black athletes protesting racial injustice, and calling them sons of bitches.

This is the latest example of Trump promoting divisive and inflammatory conflicts among the American people. This needs to stop.

It's not good for anyone except racists, white supremacists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and maybe Trump himself. This isn't a partisan issue; "white supremacy is bad" should be something we can all agree upon. "Black folks shouldn't get murdered" is not a controversial proposition. This Administration seems intent on dividing its citizens and appealing to people's worst impulses. This week, I kneel in solidarity with NFL players, coaches, executives, and owners — not against the country or the flag or against all police — but against racism, violence, incivility, and division, and against all those who promote hatred and deter unity.

Back to football, and the Week 3 NFL Power Rankings. Brackets show last week's rank.

1. Kansas City Chiefs [1] — One of two 3-0 teams, including wins over two teams (the Patriots and Eagles) who are 4-0 in their other games.

2. Atlanta Falcons [4] — Squeaked by the Bears and Lions, but the Falcons are defending conference champions, and they and the Chiefs are the only 3-0 teams. This weekend, Atlanta overcame three Matt Ryan interceptions, including a pick-six, to win on the road against a 2016 playoff team that started 2-0. If you can win when you're -3 in turnovers, you're a dangerous team.

3. Green Bay Packers [5] — Handcuffed by injuries, including both offensive tackles, two of their best defensive players, and Randall Cobb. If they ever get fully healthy, they might be the best team in football.

4. New England Patriots [2] — Last year, they led the NFL in fewest points allowed. So far this season, they've allowed more points than any other team in the league. Rodney Harrison criticized the defense as playing "a lot of sloppy football ... they depend on Tom Brady to bail them out."

5. Denver Broncos [6] — This isn't a loss to panic over. They had 2 turnovers, an unsuccessful fake punt on 4th-and-2, 10 penalties for four Buffalo first downs, and three red zone field goals. Tighten things up a little, a little less bad luck, and it's all good.

6. Oakland Raiders [3] — Two of their seven first downs came by penalty. They went 0/11 on third down, though they did convert a 4th down. Washington out-gained them 472-128.

7. Tennessee Titans [12] — Week 4 might be their most important game of the year, at Houston. A win would give them the inside lane to their first division title since Chris Johnson was a rookie (2008).

8. Dallas Cowboys [11] — Only 15 first downs, including 2/9 on third downs. I'm not sold on their offense, and they rise in the rankings only because several of the teams above them suffered upset losses.

9. Detroit Lions [13] — Matt Prater is the first player to make two field goals of 55+ yards in the same game since Brandon McManus in opening week of 2015, playing in the thin air of Denver. The only other players to do so are Greg Zuerlein (2012), Neil Rackers (2004), and Morten Andersen (1995). Prater is 4-for-4 this year from 55 yards and beyond — compared to 3-of-5 for the rest of the league combined — and he's only two shy of Sebastian Janikowski for the all-time lead in 55+ yard FGs (13).

10. Pittsburgh Steelers [8] — The bad news is they lost a game they probably should have won, they've been unimpressive twice in three weeks, and they rank 30th in rushing. The good news is the AFC North collectively went 0-4 on Sunday, and they remain division favorites.

11. Minnesota Vikings [15] — No Sam Bradford? No problem. Case Keenum passed for 369 yards, 3 TDs, and a 142.1 passer rating, plus 18 rushing yards.

12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [7] — Wherefore art thou, Brent Grimes? Missing their best defensive back, the Bucs got shredded by Case Keenum. To make matters worse, star linebacker Lavonte David has an ankle sprain and will likely miss at least one game. Add sidelined LB Kwon Alexander, who last year led the NFL in tackles, and the Buccaneers are without three of their four best defensive players. Alexander should be back next week, but with David subtracted from the lineup, that's treading water, not improving.

13. Philadelphia Eagles [14] — Lead the NFL in average time of possession, 34:12, and they already have a 2-0 division record.

14. Seattle Seahawks [9] — Punted on their first six possessions, including 5 three-and-outs. Charged with 11 penalties for 98 yards and six Tennessee first downs. Seattle's defense generated no sacks, no interceptions, and no fumbles.

15. Miami Dolphins [10] — Punted on their first seven possessions, gaining only 3 first downs along the way. They went 1-of-15 on third and fourth downs, and were held scoreless until the final play of the game, losing 20-6 against a team widely regarded as the worst in the league. I'm giving them one more week, but if they can't put 20 points on the scoreboard against New Orleans, they're going to plummet in these rankings.

16. Jacksonville Jaguars [20] — It made me giggle, but running a fake punt when you're up 37-0 is pretty cold. The new-look Sacksonville defense leads the NFL with 13 sacks. Calais Campbell is an early Defensive Player of the Year contender.

17. Washington [21] — Just before the end of the first half, a generous spot gave Vernon Davis a first down at the Oakland 39-yard line. The offense set up at the line, and then Kirk Cousins fiddled with some stuff until Oakland threw the challenge flag, for a pretty easy replay review that made it 4th-and-1 instead of 1st-and-10.

Teams need to run a play there. Run up the middle, spike the ball, it doesn't matter. Any low-risk play is better than allowing the replay review. Something similar (but worse) happened to the Patriots and Bengals in Week 12 last year. It's unbelievable that with all the sophistication of NFL game-plans, teams don't have standards in place to avoid squandering opportunities like that. The difference between 1st down and 4th down is gigantic, and if that situation arises once all season, it was worth setting aside a little practice time to have a signal that means, "Hurry up and run a play!"

Like the NBC announcers, I was also surprised that Washington took a delay of game penalty following the replay review. It's 4th-and-1 at the opponent's 40-yard line, :22 left. Why not snap the ball just before the play clock runs out, and try to pick up the first down? If it works, you can probably get into field goal range before halftime. If not, well, the Raiders have 47 yards and 2 first downs. Are they going to drive 25 yards in under :20 and set up their own field goal if you don't make it on 4th down? I like Washington's odds in that situation.

Obviously it wasn't a big deal in such a one-sided game — but it could have been.

18. Buffalo Bills [24] — Lead the NFL in fewest points allowed, 37. They've only allowed two touchdowns in three games — everyone else has allowed at least four — and no one has scored more than 16 points against them.

Stephen Hauschka made four field goals this weekend, including three from 49 yards or beyond.

19. New Orleans Saints [19] — Defense ranks worst in the NFL in third down percentage, allowing a 55% conversion rate, compared to a league average of 39%.

20. Baltimore Ravens [16] — Without Marshal Yanda, their offense is probably one of the worst in the league. Joe Flacco has one decent season in the last four, and he was a disaster on Sunday. Three players passed for more yardage in Week 3 than Flacco has all season.

21. Houston Texans [22] — Ka'imi Fairbairn made four field goals, all 40 yards or less, and they lost by 3. If just one of those field goals had become a touchdown instead, Houston might have won. Bill O'Brien chose to kick on 4th-and-2 from the 21, 4th-and-3 from the 13, and 4th-and-1 from the 18.

22. Carolina Panthers [17]Per Chase Stuart, over Cam Newton's last 16 games, his stat line is: 279/520, 3,528 yards, 16 TDs, 16 INTs, and 42 sacks for 337 yards. That's just 5.68 net yards per attempt, and a 72.5 passer rating. He does have 4 rushing touchdowns in that span.

23. Los Angeles Rams [27] — They're 2-1, but the teams they've beaten are the Colts and 49ers. They allowed 39 points to a team that scored 12 in its first two games combined. I'm not impressed.

24. Cincinnati Bengals [25] — A.J. Green got both his 500th catch and 50th TD reception in Sunday's loss to the Packers. How common is that, 10% of receptions going for touchdowns?

For an elite receiver, it's about average, historically. More recently, it's an impressive touchdown rate. Andre Johnson retired at 6.6%, which is very low. Reggie Wayne retired at 7.7%. Wes Welker was at 5.5%, Anquan Boldin was at 7.6%, Roddy White 7.8%, Steve Smith 7.9%, Brandon Marshall's at 8.6%, Larry Fitzgerald's at 9.2%, Marques Colston 10.1%, Calvin Johnson 11.4%. Green's 10.0% looks good in that group. Comparing Green to his peers, he's ahead of Antonio Brown and Julio Jones (both 7.8%) and Demaryius Thomas (9.2%), but behind Dez Bryant (14.6%) and Jordy Nelson (12.9%).

25. Chicago Bears [28] — Thanks for overtime, Marcus Cooper.

26. New York Giants [18] — Last in the NFL in average time of possession, 25:09. Everyone else is at least a minute better than that. They're worst in rushing yards per game (48.7), and worst in rushing yards allowed (153.3). They get out-rushed by over 100 yards per game! They're 0-3 and they rank 31st in points per game. Let's recognize two things:

1) The Giants stink right now. They're not trying to make the playoffs, they're hoping they don't have a top-five draft pick next May.

2) The finger-pointing is silly. When your offense is this bad, it's not just the quarterback, or the head coach, or the offensive line, or anything else. Everyone on this offense, everyone except Odell Beckham, is part of the problem. None of them are good. The front office declined to upgrade the offensive line or RB corps this offseason. The coach failed to fix long-standing problems that date back at least to last season. Eli Manning is a below-average quarterback. They don't have a starter-quality running back. The line can't run-block or pass-block. Brandon Marshall has been invisible. Blaming any one or two of those, without including all the others, is silly.

27. Los Angeles Chargers [23] — Close losses are still losses, and their schedule is tough all year.

28. Arizona Cardinals [26] — Couldn't handle a three-man pass rush, and the defense had some sloppy breakdowns.

29. Indianapolis Colts [29] — Even after their 3-point home victory over the Browns, they have the worst point differential (-37) in the NFL. When you're +2 in turnovers, you expect to win by more than a field goal. The Colts had 6 three-and-outs and in the second half produced only 75 yards and 3 points. Against the Browns.

30. New York Jets [32] — Lost a shutout on the final play, but at least they don't have to worry about 0-16.

31. Cleveland Browns [30] — Tied with Cincinnati for the worst turnover differential in the league (-5). When the Browns host the Bengals in Week 4, something's gotta give. The bet here is that "something" will be rookie QB DeShone Kizer.

32. San Francisco 49ers [31] — Late in the third quarter, the Rams' Tayvon Austin scored an apparent touchdown on an end-around, despite a horse-collar tackle by Ray-Ray Armstrong. That would have given the Rams a TD plus a 15-yard advantage on the ensuing kickoff. Replay review showed that Armstrong's personal foul had dragged Austin down just outside the end zone. That meant that his penalty — a dangerous play that is a foul because it can result in broken legs and other serious injuries — resulted in a matter of inches. It prevented a touchdown, with no consequence. When there is no disincentive against a dangerous personal foul in a critical game situation, that's a bad system.

The NFL needs a better way to handle penalties, especially dangerous penalties. The league should get rid of half-the-distance-to-goal enforcements. Penalties should go the full distance, as far as the 1-yard line. Commit a 15-yard penalty at your own 20-yard line, that should go to the 5, not the 10. If an offense commits a false start at its own 6, the next play shouldn't move to the 3, it moves to the 1. An offensive penalty at or inside the team's 1-yard line should result in a safety, while a defensive penalty inside the defensive 1-yard line should result in a touchdown. This creates more scoring plays, encourages cleaner play near the end zones, and prevents teams from abusing the rules.

Furthermore, personal fouls should result in yellow cards, similar to a yellow card in soccer. A player who gets a yellow card is fined, and two yellow cards results in a red card. A player who draws a red card is ejected from the game and loses his game check. His team continues to field 11 players, however; the side does not play a man short as they do in soccer. Especially dangerous plays, like head-hunting or fighting, would earn an immediate red card.

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