Tuesday, December 19, 2017

2017 NFL Week 15 Power Rankings

By Brad Oremland

Week 15 Game Balls

Offense — Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams. Rushed for 144 yards and 3 touchdowns before halftime, on the road against the league's most efficient run defense. He finished with 180 yards from scrimmage and 4 TDs as the Rams blew out the Seahawks in Seattle.

Defense — Marcus Peters, DB, Kansas City Chiefs. Two interceptions, a forced fumble, and 74 INT return yards.

Special Teams — Robbie Gould, K, San Francisco 49ers. Made six field goals, including four of at least 45 yards, in their 2-point victory over Tennessee. Gould connected from 50, 48, and 45 yards in the fourth quarter, including the game-winner as time expired.

Rookie — Kareem Hunt, RB, Kansas City Chiefs. Gained 206 yards from scrimmage and scored 2 TDs.

Honorable Mentions — TE Rob Gronkowski, DL Aaron Donald, P Sam Koch

Too many running backs had great games this week to give them all game balls, but C.J. Anderson, Devonta Freeman, Kareem Hunt, and Mark Ingram all had big games. On special teams, the Rams' Pharoh Cooper continues to show that he's the best return man in the league right now, but there wasn't room for him, either.

Five Quick Hits

* With about 8:00 left in the Chiefs' victory on Saturday night, Trent Green praised a run by Kareem Hunt, "One of the key things he does is he stays in bounds." How did Green play 15 seasons in the NFL without knowing that going out of bounds only stops the clock in the last 5:00? Furthermore, Green said this while the clock was stopped because of an injury. It's enough to make you miss Phil Simms.

* Just kidding. Simms is a tumor in the CBS studio — far, far worse than he was in the announcing booth. It's time to get that family off television entirely.

* Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson will sell the team in response to allegations of sexual misconduct and the use of a racial slur. Richardson, the only owner in team history and the only owner to have played in the NFL, joins the growing list of otherwise admirable men who failed to consistently treat the people around him as human beings.

* Marvin Lewis is leaving the Bengals after this season, a tenure that with two games to go stands at 123-112-3. Lewis delivered seven playoff appearances in 15 years, a remarkable achievement for a franchise with 12 consecutive losing seasons before he took over, including 2-14 in the season before he was hired. Lewis ranks 27th all-time in coaching wins, just ahead of Sid Gillman (122) and Mike Ditka (121).

* The Panthers won a replay challenge on the basis of a butt cheek that "clearly and obviously" hit the ground before its partner.

The NFL is Broken

I have loved football for as long as I can remember. I grew up going to games with my grandfather. I would play every day after school; if there was no one to play with, I would run around by myself with a Nerf football. As soon as I learned to read and write, I wrote a book about Super Bowl history, complete with elementary misspellings like "Vickings" for Minnesota's team.

Nothing changed when I got older. I started writing my own power rankings when I was in high school. I played wide receiver in Division-III. This is my 16th season in a row covering the NFL as a sportswriter.

Every year, I love football a little less. I don't know how much longer I want to be involved in anything to do with this league; probably not very much longer, at this point. There are still moments that captivate me, but there are just as many that infuriate me, and the nonsensical end to Steelers/Patriots was pretty close to the last straw.

In a wildly misguided effort to shield referees from criticism, the NFL has a criminally unintuitive definition of what constitutes a catch. Everyone who has ever watched football knows what a catch is, but the same league that entrusts game results to officials' judgment — we'll get back to that — doesn't trust referees to decide what a catch looks like.

An uncharacteristically riled Tony Dungy decried the policy that deprived Jesse James of a touchdown, and Pittsburgh of a hugely consequential win: "Any place you play football except the NFL, it's a touchdown ... he got penalized for making an athletic play." When Dallas challenged a similar play on Sunday night, an obvious catch that, after several steps, appeared to come loose as the receiver fell to the ground, Al Michaels noted that it looked like a catch but lamented, "After today, what do we know? What does anybody know?"

Not only is the NFL's definition of a catch the worst rule I'm aware of in any sport, a rule so terrible that referees have a moral obligation to enforce the spirit of the law rather than the letter, I've watched the play with James dozens of times, and I don't see clear and obvious evidence that the ball hit the ground. It definitely moved, but it looks like his right hand remains under the ball. Later, when the ball finally touches the ground, it looks like James has control. I don't see how that play can meet the "clear and obvious" standard the league pretends to use. Enforcing an already-terrible rule on a disputable maybe is immoral.

Fundamentally, the problem is that the NFL isn't a sport any more. I've written numerous times about what constitutes a sport; at its simplest, my definition boils down to this: "If you need judges from seven countries to vote on who won, your activity is not a sport." The competitors must determine the result, with minimal interference. The NFL, as it is currently constituted, has way too many games decided by unaccountable referees and corrupt Mafia stooge Alberto Riveron.

Take the Sunday night game, Cowboys/Raiders. Late in the first quarter, Maliek Collins was called offside when he flinched on a hard count and a Raider lineman jumped out of his stance, pointing. But Collins never entered the neutral zone — that's not offside, it's a false start on the offense. The play wasn't a big deal, but it could have been, and it's not reviewable. In the second quarter, an exasperated Cris Collinsworth responded to a pass interference penalty, "I don't know any more," and Michaels added, "Seems like pass interference decides a lot of these games now." He's right, and that's awful. Penalties and replays are not exciting; they're a distraction from the game. But more and more, they define the game rather than guiding it.

Later in the SNF game, a P.I. call resulted in a 55-yard penalty. The call was correct, but again, not reviewable. A 55-yard reception would be reviewable, so the league could apply its psychotic definition of a catch, but a 55-yard penalty is set in stone no matter what a replay might show. And in a comic illustration of how futile the NFL's efforts toward precision are, officials later guessed where to spot a rush by Dak Prescott, the chain gang walked in trying to keep a straight line, and then Gene Steratore tested whether he could fit a folded-up piece of paper in between the sticks and the football. There are about half a dozen ways to gain or lose a critical half-inch in that measurement. Finally, Derek Carr's fumble out of bounds in the end zone ended Oakland's comeback attempt, because in that part of the field — but no other — a fumble that goes out of bounds is a turnover.

SB Nation's Louis Bien captured the problem:

Rules need revisiting from time to time, however, especially when they get in the way of a fun thing from happening. That was the biggest problem Sunday. James and Carr did exactly what any non-nihilistic fan would want them to do. And for making extra efforts, both players were disproportionately punished. Both could have tucked the ball and fallen around the 1-yard line, putting their teams in great positions to win. Instead, by doing the very things that coaches, fans, and the sport itself encourage them to do, they hastened losing efforts. Rules are dumb when they violate the spirit of the game and human nature.

Maybe it sounds heartless that out of all the NFL's many problems — head injuries, suppressing the players' movement for racial justice against state-sanctioned police brutality, making a human turd like Roger Goodell obscenely wealthy — the ones I can't get over are the rule about what constitutes a catch and the failure to uphold a "clear and obvious" standard for replay. But this isn't the sport I've always loved; I'm not sure it's a sport at all any more. When athleticism and effort are punished so dramatically, when key plays are determined equally often by players and by over-involved and subjective officials — or the league's corrupt head of officiating — that's not a sport, and it's not something I can support for very much longer. The league has glaring and urgent problems with obvious solutions, and it can't go any longer without fixing them.

Week 15 NFL Power Rankings

Brackets indicate last week's rank.

1. Minnesota Vikings [3] — Held the Bengals to 161 yards, 8 first downs, and a meaningless fourth-quarter TD. They scored at least 30 points for the fourth time in the last six games, and held their opponent to single-digits for the third time in the last five.

2. Philadelphia Eagles [2] — Granted that the Giants have a weak defense, but Nick Foles passed for 4 TDs with no turnovers, and the Eagles scored 34 points — compared to their season average of 31.1 — in a road game with 35° game-time temperature.

Carson Wentz is getting the kind of hype now that Andrew Luck did his first few years. In 2014, Chris Berman informed Monday Night Countdown viewers, "Andrew's gonna win about three, four Super Bowls." It's not that Luck was a bad player, or that Wentz is now — it's that their press exceeds their performance, which no player could justify, and which neither has come close to justifying. Wentz is above-average and still improving, but he's replaceable.

3. Los Angeles Rams [4] — In Week 6, the Seahawks came to L.A. and beat the Rams 16-10. This weekend, the Rams went to Seattle and won 42-7, a blowout that could have been worse if the Rams had so chosen.

4. New England Patriots [1] — They lost to Pittsburgh. I know the NFL says otherwise, but the Patriots lost that game. Facing a team missing its best offensive player and its best defensive player, the Patriots needed a series of miracles, including Sean Davis' dropped interception, Rob Gronkowski going into god mode, and an obscene rules perversion. This comes after their lackluster performance in a loss to the Dolphins. Maybe it's just a two-week blip, or maybe they're slipping at the wrong time. This was their third road game in a row, so maybe that's it.

5. Carolina Panthers [9] — Their success is kind of weird. Statistically, their offense is average, and their defense is good but not elite. They've allowed at least 20 points for five games in a row, and that includes some underwhelming opposition.

6. Jacksonville Jaguars [10] — When Leonard Fournette doesn't play, they're 3-0, outscoring opponents 95-14 (an average of 32-5), and rushing for 158 yards per game (compared to 146 per game with Fournette). Fournette isn't among the top three rookie running backs, to say nothing of Offensive Rookie of the Year.

7. Atlanta Falcons [8] — A little sloppy on Monday night, but they've won five of their last six. The running game looked great against Tampa, and their defense is better than last year. Matt Ryan and his receivers aren't in sync, but if they get hot the Falcons could be the best team in the league.

8. New Orleans Saints [6] — Vulnerable over the last month. They beat the Panthers, but also won a miraculous comeback against Washington, lost to the Rams and Falcons, and got an uncomfortably close win over the Jets.

9. Pittsburgh Steelers [7] — If they were healthy, I'd rank them number one. But they're missing their best offensive player (Antonio Brown, probably out until the playoffs) and their best defensive player (Ryan Shazier, out for the season). I believe the Brown-for-MVP hype, and Shazier's absence was painfully obvious as Rob Gronkowski carved apart the Pittsburgh defense.

10. Los Angeles Chargers [5] — With 1:41 remaining, the Chiefs led 30-13 and had the ball in Chargers territory. The game's over; you're not going to score three times — more points in the last minute-and-a-half than the first 58 — even if you have the ball, which the Chargers didn't. Rather than let KC run out the clock, Anthony Lynn called all three timeouts. That's disrespectful and rude. At best it's a waste of everyone's time — players, coaches, fans, officials, team personnel, families, journalists — and at worst someone gets injured because you've artificially extended a game whose result is not in question. You know that scene from Full Metal Jacket where they beat Pyle with soap? Someone should do that to Coach Lynn.

11. Dallas Cowboys [14] — Not impressive in their paper-thin victory on Sunday night, but they're getting Ezekiel Elliott back. In Elliott's absence, Alfred Morris carried 99 times for 431 yards (72/gm) and 1 touchdown. Tyron Smith sprained a knee on Sunday night, and his status for Week 16 is unclear.

12. Baltimore Ravens [13] — Punter Sam Koch played brilliantly. Three of his five punts pinned the Browns inside the 5-yard line, one of them setting up a safety.

13. Green Bay Packers [11] — Aaron Rodgers, playing for the first time since Week 6, obviously wasn't 100% on Sunday. He certainly gives them a better chance to win than Brett Hundley does, but the wise choice at this point seems to be protecting Rodgers' health in anticipation of a tough division battle in 2018.

14. Kansas City Chiefs [20] — Swept the Chargers for the fourth season in a row. From 2014-present, the Chiefs are 8-0 against the Bolts, outscoring them 209-110, an average of 26-14.

15. Detroit Lions [16] — They're 7-0 against losing teams and 1-6 against winning teams. I counted the 7-7 Packers as a losing team, since that was a Brett Hundley game.

16. Seattle Seahawks [12] — Their homefield mystique is gone, at least for the rest of this season. Seattle has now lost three of its last four games at CenturyLink Field, after going 42-6 at home from 2012 until its Week 9 loss at Washington. On Sunday, the Rams out-gained them by over 200 yards and led 34-0 at halftime.

From 2012-present, the Seahawks are 53-18-1 (.743) in the regular season when the Legion of Boom is intact, compared to 6-4-1 (.591) without Kam Chancellor, 3-4 (.429) without Earl Thomas, and 2-3 (.400) without Richard Sherman and Chancellor.

17. Buffalo Bills [18] — 3-1 since restoring Tyrod Taylor as starting QB. The defense had four takeaways and eight tackles for loss against Miami. Tre'Davious White had 3 passes defensed with an interception, while Shareece Wright had an INT and a fumble recovery.

18. San Francisco 49ers [22] — 3-0 with Jimmy Garoppolo. They've been close wins over pretty bad teams — the Niners need to start scoring touchdowns — but this team has obviously turned around, and has cause for optimism for the first time since Jim Harbaugh's firing.

19. Oakland Raiders [21] — Fourteen penalties for 105 yards, and that doesn't even get into the index card controversy or Derek Carr's fumble for a touchback. I thought the officiating was fair, but I understand why Raiders fans would be livid right now. Late in the second quarter, Jared Cook's TD was nullified by offensive pass interference, and they missed a field goal. At the beginning of the second half, Cordarrelle Patterson's KR TD was called back for a penalty.

Seething Raider fans should keep in mind that officials upheld Seth Roberts' 28-yard gain on 3rd-and-9, and that Dallas was called for the longest penalty in the NFL all season, a 55-yard pass interference by Jourdan Lewis against Michael Crabtree. I thought the spot on Dak Prescott's keeper was conservative, and the index card seemed like a reasonable way to handle kind of a dumb situation. The turnover on a fumble out of the end zone is excessively punitive, but it's an established rule that's not really subject to referee interpretation.

20. Arizona Cardinals [15] — In the last three games, Blaine Gabbert has taken 20 sacks for 131 yards. There are half a dozen full-time starters — Blake Bortles, Drew Brees, Derek Carr, Case Keenum, Philip Rivers, and Matt Ryan — who haven't taken 131 sack yards all season. Bruce Arians announced on Monday that Drew Stanton will replace Gabbert as the Cardinals' starting quarterback.

21. Tennessee Titans [17] — Back-to-back losses against opponents with losing records confirm that they're a dumptruck, not a Corvette. The Titans still have to play the Rams and Jaguars, so this loss probably killed their playoff chances.

22. Miami Dolphins [19] — Jay Cutler gonna Jay Cutler.

23. Denver Broncos [28] — Back-to-back wins, immediately following an eight-game losing streak. C.J. Anderson was a monster on Thursday night (30 att, 158 yds), facilitating Brock Osweiler's effective performance in relief (147.7 rating).

24. Washington [23] — Swept the NFC West. They were held to 218 yards and 1/9 on third downs, but they harassed Blaine Gabbert and played good red zone defense. Injuries continue to hold them back; Trent Williams and Zach Brown missed Sunday's game.

25. Chicago Bears [26] — Held to 14 points or less for the third time in the last four games. It's hard to see Mitchell Trubisky ever justifying his draft position, but I would have said the same thing about Jared Goff last year. The Bears need to give Trubisky the same kind of help the Rams gave Goff. A standout offensive tackle and a game-breaking WR are offseason priorities.

26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [27] — They're running out of players. With Lavonte David and Gerald McCoy on the sidelines in street clothes, the Bucs saw 10 more players exit the game with injuries, including four offensive starters, among them both tight ends. DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard are among the players questionable for Week 16.

27. Cincinnati Bengals [24] — Second straight loss by at least 26 points. They're last in the NFL in offensive yardage and third down percentage, and they're 0-6 without Vontaze Burfict.

28. New York Jets [30] — Held up valiantly for 58 minutes. I forget who I heard on tv this weekend — probably one of the nitwits at CBS — praising head coach Todd Bowles. The 5-9 Jets have slightly exceeded expectations this season (I projected them at 4-12), but part of the reason expectations were low is because Bowles has been so disappointing. His clock management is disastrous, and he's a mental dinosaur who would rather lose two close games than win once but lose a blowout, and he's a terrible fit for a rebuilding team. I'm normally really conservative about firing coaches, but I have to believe the Jets can do better. "The team hasn't quit" is not sufficient reason to retain an ineffective coach.

29. Houston Texans [25] — Last year, they led the NFL in fewest yards allowed. This year — with A.J. Bouye in Jacksonville, Vince Wilfork in retirement, and Whitney Mercilus joining J.J. Watt on injured reserve — they've allowed the most points of any team in the league (380, 27.1/gm). Playing with backup receivers, Blake Bortles passed for 326 yards, 3 TDs, and a 143.8 rating. They were out-gained 464-186, 25 first downs to 9, and 45-7 on the scoreboard.

30. New York Giants [31] — Valiant offensive effort wasted as their defense couldn't stop Nick Foles (4 TD, 115.8 rating). All-Pro safety Landon Collins left with an ankle injury for the second week in a row. They should probably shut him down as a precaution for 2018.

31. Indianapolis Colts [29] — Of the four most basic team stats — points scored, points allowed, yards gained, and yards allowed — they rank in the bottom three of all. 30th in yards allowed is their best team rank.

32. Cleveland Browns [32] — Two weeks left to win a game. They're 6½-point underdogs at Chicago.

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