Tuesday, October 31, 2017

2017 NFL Week 8 Power Rankings

By Brad Oremland

Week 8 Game Balls

Offense — Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks. Produced 476 total yards and passed for 4 touchdowns, with a 123.2 passer rating.

Defense — Carlos Dunlap, ER, Cincinnati Bengals. A sack and an interception, the latter returned 16 yards for a game-winning touchdown.

Special Teams — Orlando Scandrick, ST, Dallas Cowboys. His 86-yard return of a blocked field goal was the turning point in their win at Washington, flipping a probable 16-7 deficit into a 14-13 lead.

Rookie — JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers. Gained 193 receiving yards, including impressive wheels on a 97-yard touchdown.

Honorable Mentions — WR DeAndre Hopkins, DB Marcus Peters, P Michael Palardy

Five Quick Hits

* Several moderately big names got moved before this year's unusually busy trade deadline, including Duane Brown, Marcell Dareus, and Jimmy Garoppolo. As a fan, that's fun; trades are interesting and the NFL's deadline is typically dull.

* Matthew Stafford looked sharp on Sunday night, but the Lions only managed 15 points. Stafford gained 411 net passing yards, with no touchdowns. If only they had a premier red zone target, someone like Calvin Johnson.

* Halfway through the first quarter of MNF, Jon Gruden was outraged by an unnecessary roughness call on Justin Simmons. It was a good call, but I still have mixed feelings about the defenseless receiver rule. In that situation, Simmons essentially has to stop playing defense and let the opponent make a catch.

* Bob McNair claims his now-infamous comment was ''referring to the relationship between the league office and team owners and how they have been making significant strategic decisions affecting our league without adequate input from ownership over the past few years.'' Yeah, sure. Who are the "prisoners" in that analogy?

* This column is still alive in survivor pools, having taken the Bills, Seahawks, Patriots, Cardinals, Eagles, Texans, Titans, and Bengals. That eliminates some really appealing Week 9 choices. I'm trying to save the Saints (vs TB), so the pick this week is the L.A. Rams, at New York to face the Giants.

Deshaun Watson

I believe in Deshaun Watson. He's tied for the league lead in pass TDs (19), he's tied for 4th in TD/INT differential (+11), and his passer rating is 103.0., plus he's rushed for 269 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Texans have scored at least 33 points for five games in a row, lead the NFL in points per game, and they're the only visiting team besides the 2015-16 Cardinals to score more than 30 points at CenturyLink Field in Seattle in the last six years.

But we have this tendency, in evaluating quarterbacks, to focus on raw numbers. Against the Seahawks on Sunday, Watson passed for 402 yards and 4 touchdowns. Wow! But he also got sacked 5 times and threw 3 interceptions including a pick-six, and his longest completion (a 72-yard TD to DeAndre Hopkins) was all Hopkins, a great run after the catch rather than a great throw. I don't believe there's such a thing, in 2017, as a great game in which you throw 3 picks (one of them returned for a touchdown), take 5 sacks, and your team loses. 400 yards! 4 TDs! Yeah, but...

Watson is an obvious and significant upgrade to Houston's offense. He's a good player already, and a contender for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Isn't that enough for the media hype machine? Watson is an exciting player; it's unnecessary and dishonest to make him even more than he is.

Week Eight NFL Power Rankings

Brackets show previous rank.

1. Philadelphia Eagles [1] — Lost two of their best players, Jordan Hicks and Jason Peters, in their Week 7 MNF win against Washington. Both are out for the season. They didn't need Hicks and Peters to top the hopeless 49ers, but those absences will hurt as the season continues.

2. New Orleans Saints [2] — As well as Deshaun Watson and Kareem Hunt and Leonard Fournette have played, no rookie has done more for his team this year than Marshon Lattimore. The Saints' ranks for yards allowed and points allowed — 2014: 31st and 28th, 2015: 31st and 32nd, 2016: 27th and 31st. That's bottom-six in every category, and bottom-two in at least one of them, for three years in a row. The stat I keep quoting, that blows me away, is that for three straight seasons, the Saints led the NFL in offensive third down percentage, but finished 7-9. Lattimore, and to a lesser extent A.J. Klein, have turned the Saints into an above-average defense. Lattimore is not only a Defensive Rookie of the Year contender, he's an all-pro candidate.

3. Seattle Seahawks [3] — Russell Wilson rushed twice for 32 yards. The rest of the Seahawks rushed 17 times for 3 yards. Their offensive line has been a disaster, and if Wilson weren't such a singular talent, they would be in serious trouble. What's frustrating is that this problem was apparent for years, and kept getting worse instead of better, as the team declined to address it through the draft or free agency. They gave up a lot in the trade for Duane Brown, including cornerback Jeremy Lane, but they had to. It was a smart trade.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers [4] — Tony Dungy called them the best team in the AFC: "I think they have the most complete team." I agree with him on both counts, but right now Pittsburgh's defense is carrying the load; the offense has too much talent not to put more points on the board.

5. New England Patriots [5] — Early in the season, defense was a problem. But their last four opponents have scored a combined 51 points (12.8/gm), and none more than 17.

6. Minnesota Vikings [6] — Six weeks in a row, and seven of their eight games, they've allowed under 20 points.

7. Los Angeles Rams [9] — Offense has improved about as dramatically as possible. Fewest points per game, 2016:

32. Rams, 14.0
31. Browns, 16.5
30. Jets, 17.2
average: 22.8

Most points per game, 2017:

1. Texans, 30.7
2. Rams, 30.3
3. Chiefs, 29.5
average: 21.9

The league average has dropped by nearly 1 point per team per game, but the Rams are scoring 116% more points per game, and they've moved from last — by a lot — to within a field goal of the league lead.

8. Kansas City Chiefs [7] — Generated 5 takeaways and only won by 10. They didn't score an offensive touchdown in the final 54 minutes, despite starting five drives in Denver territory.

9. Buffalo Bills [8] — They're +14 in turnover differential. No one else is better than +10. Former Packer Micah Hyde leads the NFL with 5 interceptions.

10. Houston Texans [11] — So much for team unity. Thirty-six players knelt or sat in protest of owner Bob McNair's recent comments, while 10 stood, nine of them white and one (Xavier Su'a-Filo) of Samoan descent. That's not unity, it's identity politics: black-vs-white. The players that remained standing were: Su'a-Filo, Breno Giacomini, Ryan Griffin, Shane Lechler, Greg Mancz, Nick Martin, Brian Peters, Jay Prosch, Tom Savage, and Jon Weeks — mostly offensive linemen and specialists.

11. Jacksonville Jaguars [10] — Acquired DT Marcell Dareus from the Bills for a low draft pick in 2018 (fifth or sixth round depending on performance). Dareus is a two-time Pro Bowler, and he's only 27.

I understand why people are excited about the Jags, even wondering if they might be one of the best teams in the NFL. But keep in mind, they've played seven games and their longest win streak is 1.

12. Dallas Cowboys [15] — With Sean Lee in the lineup, they're 4-1 and allow 18.2 points per game. In the games Lee missed, they went 0-2 and allowed 35 both times, nearly double their average with Lee. I have no idea what's going on with Ezekiel Elliott's suspension at this point, so this rank is probably either too high or too low.

13. Carolina Panthers [13] — Fourth game this season holding the opponent without an offensive touchdown. They held the 49ers, Bills, and Buccaneers to three points each, while the Bears got two defensive touchdowns and a field goal.

14. Detroit Lions [14] — It would help to have a coach who isn't scared of his own shadow. In the third quarter, Jim Caldwell boldly went for a touchdown on 4th-and-goal from the 1, but Matt Stafford took a sack and they lost the ball. On the next drive, same situation, Caldwell elected a 19-yard field goal that made the score 20-15. That was also the final score, with Pittsburgh winning. On Detroit's last possession, the Lions had to go for it on 4th-and-7 from the 8-yard line, since they had passed up 4th-and-goal from the 1 earlier. That's a terrible trade-off.

Alternatively, if the Lions had kicked both times, they might have faced a manageable 20-18 deficit, with a lead-changing field goal opportunity on that final possession. Caldwell just has no guts about these things. Pick a plan and stick to it; don't get into a hole and then turn conservative.

15. Cincinnati Bengals [16] — Overcame two lost fumbles and a blocked field goal to edge the Colts. They're -10 in turnovers, second-worst, and if they clean that up they're a playoff contender, even in the deep AFC.

16. Los Angeles Chargers [17] — Travis Benjamin has the dumbest play of the year so far. In the second quarter, he muffed a punt at the 11-yard line, recovered it at the 8, and then ran backwards into his own end zone, where he was tackled for a safety. Let's run through their nine kickoff and punt returns:

1: Kickoff returned to 20-yard line
2: Punt downed at 12-yard line
3: Kickoff run out of end zone to 15-yard line
4: Travis Benjamin
5: Kickoff run out of end zone to 12-yard line

Let's pause here to remember that a touchback starts you at the 25.

6: Touchback!
7: Touchback!
8: Fair catch on a punt, but the Chargers get two different penalties and start at their own 9-yard line
9: Kickoff returned to 21-yard line

Three punts resulted in one safety and two starts inside their own 15-yard line. All six kickoffs pinned them at their own 25 or worse, include two potential touchbacks run out to the 15 and the 12. That kind of bad field position is hard to overcome, and safeties are momentum-shifts.

17. Green Bay Packers [19] — Needed this bye, as their many injured players heal up, but they're still without Aaron Rodgers for most or all of the season. Even with a 4-3 start, it's hard to see them making the playoffs.

18. Washington [12] — Slot-receiver Jamison Crowder and third-down back Chris Thompson accounted for 217 of their 285 yards. They have no downfield passing game, partly because Terrelle Pryor and Josh Doctson have disappointed, but also because their offensive line is so beat-up right now. They finished this game missing four of the five linemen who started last week. Kirk Cousins failed to adjust, repeatedly holding the ball too long. It seems like he's scared to throw the ball away.

19. Atlanta Falcons [21] — Next week is their third road game in a row (at Patriots, at Jets, at Panthers). About a month from now, they'll have three home games in a row (Bucs, Vikings, Saints). That seems like bad scheduling by the league. I'm also not thrilled that they play the Saints twice in three weeks (Wks 14 and 16).

20. Oakland Raiders [20] — Started the season 2-0, but 1-5 since. They've been held to 17 points or fewer in each of their five losses, compared to 26 or more in each of the three wins.

21. Miami Dolphins [18] — I've written this year about Jay Cutler's struggles, so let's be clear: to the extent I was recommending that Matt Moore play, it's because he was Cutler's backup, not because I think he's the next Marino. Miami has been shut out twice in seven games. Only two teams — the Giants and Bengals — have two regular-season shutout losses more recently than Miami has four.

Date of second-most-recent shutout loss:

MIA — Oct 2017
HOU — Jan 2016
CIN — Oct 2014
NYG — Dec 2013
ARI — Dec 2012
NYJ — Sep 2012
RAM — Dec 2011
WAS — Oct 2011
OAK — Oct 2011
KC — Dec 2010
CLE — Nov 2009
TEN — Oct 2009
TB — Sep 2009
BUF — Dec 2007
SF — Nov 2007
SEA — Oct 2007
NE — Dec 2006
PIT — Sep 2006
GB — Sep 2006
PHI — Dec 2005
JAX — Dec 2004
ATL — Dec 2004
DAL — Oct 2003
IND — Jan 2003
CHI — Dec 2002
CAR — Oct 2002
DET — Dec 2001
MIN — Jan 2000
SD — Oct 1999
NO — Oct 1998
BAL — Nov 1997
DEN — Nov 1992

There have been 131 shutouts since Dan Marino retired. Twelve of them (9.2%) were by the Dolphins, tied with Cleveland for most of any team, compared to a league average of four.

22. Chicago Bears [24] — Their defense is good, good enough to give them a chance every week. But four games in, let's look at Mitchell Trubisky. He ranks 35th in passing yards, behind two different 49ers, two Browns, and Mike Glennon, who leads him by 321 (63%). And among the 36 players with at least 60 pass attempts:

* Trubisky is the only one to complete fewer than half his passes.

* Trubisky's 13.8 sack percentage is the worst.

* Trubisky's 23.1 first down percentage is the lowest.

* Trubisky's 66.2 passer rating ranks 33rd, ahead of DeShone Kizer, C.J. Beathard, and Matt Moore. All 32 teams have a qualified passer with a higher rating than Trubisky.

For comparison, Mike Glennon completed 66.4% of his passes, with a 5.7% sack rate, 28.4% first down percentage, and 76.9 rating. The problems aren't exclusively on Trubisky: the supporting cast leaves a lot to be desired, and Glennon isn't exactly Sid Luckman waiting in the wings. But Trubisky isn't helping the team win; it's all on the defense and Jordan Howard.

23. Baltimore Ravens [27] — My feelings on the Joe Flacco/Kiko Alonso play are more-or-less expressed in this article by Yahoo!'s Jay Hart. Essentially, it says that if quarterbacks are going to squeeze every last inch out of their scrambles and slide at the last second while going full speed, defenders don't have a fair opportunity to avoid hitting them. If Flacco wanted to make sure he didn't get hit, he needed to slide about two yards earlier.

A fine for Alonso would be inappropriate, and a suspension indefensible.

24. Tennessee Titans [25] — Tight end Delanie Walker, who leads the team in receptions, suffered a bone bruise in last week's win over Cleveland. He's expected to be ready for Week 9.

25. Denver Broncos [23] — Ugly performance, losing a winnable game on repeated mistakes: dropped passes, off-target passes, fumbles... they have 11 turnovers in the last three games.

26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [22] — Fourth loss in a row. Offense was their biggest problem in Week 8, but they also failed to sack Cam Newton, who had taken multiple sacks for six games in a row. Tampa's defense is last in the NFL in sacks and sack percentage. Their starting edge rushers, Robert Ayers and William Gholston, have combined for just 1 sack this season.

27. New York Jets [26] — NBC reported that Josh McCown is the first Jets QB to throw at least 2 TDs in 4 consecutive games since ... Ray Lucas, in 1999.

Surprise #1: Chad Pennington and Ryan Fitzpatrick never had a month-long streak like that.
Surprise #2: Ray Lucas did.

28. New York Giants [28] — Like the Packers, they had a bye this week, despite home games in Weeks 7 and 9. I realize that coordinating 32 schedules is tricky, but I wish the league would arrange byes so they're more beneficial to teams, arranged before Thursday night games or synced up with road trips.

29. Arizona Cardinals [29] — Came into this season with playoff aspirations, after going 31-16-1 the last three seasons, but missing the tournament last year. They're terrible right now, but they're 3-4 and this is probably their last chance to make a miracle postseason run before a massive roster overhaul and rebuild. Drew Stanton knows the offense, and he is a known quantity, albeit not a very impressive one.

To me, this is the optimal fit for Colin Kaepernick, who has been mediocre the last few years, but brings a spark, and big-play possibilities. There's no way the Cardinals make the playoffs with Stanton (and I don't like their chances with Kaepernick, either), but Kaepernick is clearly the one with more upside — and the Cardinals need massive upside if they're going to be relevant in December and January. Maybe I'm naive about the politics of all this, but I don't see the downside. What, are they afraid if they sign Kaepernick they might miss the playoffs? They should have signed him a week ago so he could learn the offense during their bye.

30. Indianapolis Colts [30] — Frank Gore rushed for a season-high 82 yards. He is the 13th-oldest player to rush for at least 80 yards in a game. Gore is 34. The king of old running backs, John Riggins, had 14 games with 80+ rushing yards after turning 35.

31. San Francisco 49ers [31] — Traded their 2018 2nd-round draft pick to New England for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, cutting Week 1 starter Brian Hoyer to make room. C.J. Beathard will start in Week 9 and possibly Week 10, but Garoppolo will be under center when they come back from the bye in Week 12.

32. Cleveland Browns [32] — 0-8 start in back-to-back seasons. The only other teams to do so are the 1976-77 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1983-84 Houston Oilers, 1993-94 Cincinnati Bengals, and maybe the 1943-44 Chicago Cardinals, who merged with the Steelers in '44 because of World War II player shortages.

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