Tuesday, January 2, 2018
2017 NFL Week 17 Power Rankings
Week 17 Game Balls
Offense — JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR/KR, Pittsburgh Steelers. Playing with a backup quarterback, Smith-Schuster caught 9 of 10 targets for 143 yards and a touchdown, plus he returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown.
Defense — Kevin Byard, DB, Tennessee Titans. Two interceptions and 30 return yards in Tennessee's must-win victory over Jacksonville.
Special Teams — Phil Dawson, K, Arizona Cardinals. Made four field goals of at least 42 yards in the Cardinals' 2-point victory.
Rookie — JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR/KR, Pittsburgh Steelers. Smith-Schuster just barely edged the Saints' Alvin Kamara, who had another amazing game, with 128 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns.
Honorable Mentions — QB Philip Rivers, DL Tyson Alualu, K Matt Bryant
Five Quick Hits
* Best announcers this season: Jim Nantz and Tony Romo. The newcomer, Romo, is the star, but Nantz deserves some credit for his partner's smooth transition into broadcasting.
* Drew Brees set the NFL record for completion percentage for the third time (72.0%), breaking Sam Bradford's record set last year. That we pay any attention at all to this is asinine: a meaningless stat whose record gets broken every other year.
* The Saints led the NFL with 72 pass plays of 20 yards or more. The Patriots were a distant second, 63, and the league average was 48.
* Every team in the NFC South went 1-1 the last two weeks. Atlanta beat Carolina but lost to New Orleans, while Tampa Bay lost to Carolina but beat New Orleans.
* Super Bowl LII: Patriots over Vikings in the first ever homefield Super Bowl.
Week 17 NFL Power Rankings
Power ratings apply to current strength, not season-long performance. Brackets show previous rank.
1. Minnesota Vikings  — "Defense wins championships." Do you believe it? The Vikings led the NFL in fewest points allowed and fewest yards allowed, the first team to do so since the 2013-2014 Seattle Seahawks, who reached back-to-back Super Bowls, winning one and losing the other in the final moments. Minnesota passed for more yards than its opponent in 14 of 16 games.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers  — This rank assumes Antonio Brown is healthy following their first-round bye. Absent the travesty against New England, the Steelers have won 11 in a row. They were the only team to sweep its division in 2017.
3. New England Patriots  — Led the NFL in offensive yardage (6,307) and offensive touchdowns (48). They enter the playoffs with homefield advantage, on the heels of back-to-back 20-point wins.
4. Los Angeles Rams  — Led the NFL in scoring (478), just one year after finishing last (224). They went 4-4 at home and 7-1 on the road, their Pro Bowl kicker is injured, and I think resting starters disrupts rhythm more often than it keeps players healthy, so I'll take the playoff-tested Falcons in an upset, winning by 2.
5. Philadelphia Eagles  — The sky is not falling. The Eagles got shut out in Week 17, but they rested key players, having clinched homefield advantage the week before. Nick Foles has not played well the last two weeks, but the Eagles can win with defense as long as Foles takes care of the ball and picks up a few third downs. Of course the Eagles would be better with Carson Wentz, but they're a dangerous team even without him.
6. Kansas City Chiefs  — Won their first five games and their last four games; went 1-6 in between. On their good days, the Chiefs can beat the toughest team in the league. The Titans are not the toughest team in the league; Chiefs by 10.
7. Atlanta Falcons  — Only NFC team returning to the playoffs. Their defense is better than last year, although Adrian Clayborn is questionable with a calf strain. Their offense took a step back, but they still led the NFL in third down percentage (44.7%), and if Andy Levitre is back at something close to full strength, their offense could look like it did in last year's playoffs. They've beaten two NFC playoff teams in the last four weeks.
8. Carolina Panthers  — Their passing game is so inconsistent (28th in yards, 24th in passer rating), it's hard to see them making a Super Bowl run. Cam Newton hasn't passed for 300 yards in a game since Week 5, and he's had a passer rating under 75 in eight of their last 11 games. He's been running great, but I don't think that will be enough against playoff defenses. Saints by 4.
9. New Orleans Saints  — I forget which commentators I heard talking up the Saints as a dangerous team in the playoffs, given their balance and the experience of their quarterback and head coach. It was a well-made point, but the Saints have also lost three of their last six games, and it would have been four of seven without their miracle comeback against Washington in Week 11, when they were losing by 15 points with under 3:00 remaining.
10. Jacksonville Jaguars  — Yannick Ngakoue's fourth-quarter fumble return was their seventh defensive TD of the season, most in the NFL. They held opposing passers to a collective 68.5 passer rating, lowest in the NFL (and about the same as C.J. Beathard), and ranked 2nd in sacks. They also ranked second in fewest points allowed and fewest yards allowed, and they led the NFL in rushing.
11. Los Angeles Chargers  — Led the NFL in passing yards and took the fewest sacks in the NFL this season, 18. The Chargers went 9-3 after their 0-4 start, including 6-1 over their final seven games.
12. San Francisco 49ers  — Building on what I wrote about them last week, they should be playoff contenders next season. Having said that, their five-game win streak included the 5-11 Bears, the 1-9 non-Deshaun-Watson-Texans, a mediocre Titans team they beat on a last-second field goal, and a team resting its starters. The only really impressive win was over Jacksonville, but even the Jags are up-and-down rather than excellent. I write this column, and like power rankings as an alternative to won-loss records, because strength of schedule is hugely significant in this league. The Niners' run is about as unimpressive as you can be while going 5-0.
13. Dallas Cowboys  — Went 5-1 in the NFC East but missed the playoffs. The same thing happened to Detroit, which went 5-1 in the NFC North.
14. Arizona Cardinals  — Head coach Bruce Arians retired with a 58-33-1 record and two Coach of the Year awards. Arians' retirement could influence veterans like Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald as they evaluate their futures in Arizona. Arians is the winningest coach in Cardinals history.
15. Baltimore Ravens  — Following the draft last May, I noted, "They had four draft picks in the first two days (Rounds 1-3), and used all four on defense ... Defense is only half the game, and I'm not sure how the Ravens are going to score points. Fumble return TDs?" Sure enough, the Ravens scored 8 non-offensive TDs this season, tied for most in the league, and only 81% of their TDs came from offense, the lowest percentage in the NFL. Baltimore led the NFL in takeaways (34) and turnover differential (+17), but also played one of the easiest schedules in the NFL this season. The Ravens went 0-5 against playoff teams and were never a serious contender even if they had held on against Cincinnati.
16. Detroit Lions  — Fired head coach Jim Caldwell, who was 36-28 and had three winning seasons in four years, after a 9-7 campaign. I've never been a big Jim Caldwell fan, but it seems very optimistic to think their next coach will be more successful. The Lions ranked last in the NFL in rushing, for the second time in the last three seasons — they had a bottom-five rush attack every year under Caldwell. I like Matthew Stafford, too, but that's not a sustainable formula for success.
17. Tampa Bay Buccaneers  — Worst in the NFL in yards allowed, opponents' third down percentage, and sacks — but they closed the season strong. In the last five weeks, they beat the Saints, lost by a field goal three weeks in a row against opponents who finished with winning records, and lost in overtime. They're four plays away from a five-game winning streak against a tough schedule. It's not obvious to me that they've played any worse over the last month than San Francisco, whom I ranked 12th.
18. Seattle Seahawks  — Lost four of their last five home games and finished outside the top 10 in the two most basic defensive stats (points and yards). Obviously injuries were an issue, but this team appears to be on the decline. Offseason priorities: offensive and defensive line, in that order. I'd also love to see them add a new weapon for Russell Wilson to throw to.
19. Tennessee Titans  — Mike Mularkey can't catch a break. He resigned from the Bills after only two seasons as head coach, and got fired from the Jaguars, who were terrible before he got there, after only one. He never really got a chance to turn either team around. Now Ian Rapoport reports that Mularkey is in danger of losing his job. Mularkey took over a team that went 5-27 from 2014-15 and led them to back-to-back winning seasons, including the team's first playoff appearance since 2008. Firing him would be unfair, and a massive error.
20. Buffalo Bills  — Made the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Unless you're a Ravens fan, check out the celebrations when Andy Dalton hit Tyler Boyd for the game-winning TD that put the Bills in the postseason. You have to feel good for Kyle Williams, who has spent his entire 12-year in Buffalo. Cheers also to the hundreds of Buffalo fans who donated to Dalton's charity, raising over $30,000 after Dalton and the Bengals helped end the Bills' postseason drought.
Congratulations aside, the Bills are not really a playoff-caliber team. They ranked below average in points (22nd), yards (29th), points allowed (18th), and yards allowed (26th) — and that was with LeSean McCoy, who injured his ankle on Sunday and is unlikely to play in Jacksonville. The Jags are 8-point favorites, and that might be conservative. Jaguars by 10, even though the wild card round is an even-numbered week.
21. Cincinnati Bengals  — Back-to-back wins, a rosy finish to the presumed end of Marvin Lewis' head coaching tenure. The Bengals gained the fewest yards in the NFL, bottom six in both passing and rushing, and finished last in average time of possession, nearly a minute worse than the 31st-place Browns. Andy Dalton was under constant pressure against the Ravens, and offensive line is an obvious need this offseason; they really felt the loss of Andrew Whitworth.
22. Chicago Bears  — Fired head coach John Fox after a disappointing 14-34 tenure. The Bears ranked last in the NFL in passing yards and pass TDs. Part of that was rookie QB Mitchell Trubisky, and maybe part of it was Fox and his coaching staff, but the Bears need to pick up some weapons in the receiving corps this offseason. A good pass-blocking left tackle would help, too. Their defense is young and talented, but you can't win if you don't score.
23. Oakland Raiders  — Lost four in a row, and fired head coach Jack Del Rio despite a four-year extension in February. Just last year, Del Rio led the Raiders to their first winning season since 2002, and he is the first Raiders coach with a winning record (25-23) since Jon Gruden, who is expected to replace him. Del Rio's own success appears to have created unrealistic expectations. Whoever the new coach is, he'll need to improve a pass defense that allowed a 101.8 rating to opponents in 2017.
24. Washington  — Worst rush defense in the NFL, but the offseason focus will center on quarterback Kirk Cousins. I've expressed skepticism about Cousins before, and on Sunday saw another example of Cousins' problem: like Steve DeBerg, he plays just well enough for you to lose. Early in the first quarter, Washington had 3rd-and-7, and Cousins threw a 6-yard pass. That looks nice in the stats, but it led to a punt. Cousins takes too many sacks, doesn't make enough plays on third down and in the red zone, and throws prayers to the middle of the field when he's under pressure. He's a good quarterback, but not good enough that it's worth destroying your salary cap to keep him. There are likely to be half a dozen quality QBs available in free agency this offseason, and I suspect that Cousins will command the highest price tag. He's not worth it.
25. Green Bay Packers  — Played one of the hardest schedules in the league. The Packers went 3-7 with Brett Hundley and ranked 25th in passing offense, under 200 yards per game. In response, they fired defensive coordinator Dom Capers and demoted GM Ted Thompson.
26. Miami Dolphins  — Outscored by 112 points, 4th-worst in the NFL. They tied for 29th in turnover differential (-14) and had the worst third down percentage in the league, 31.7. They managed only four rushing TDs, tied with Seattle for worst. They have a lot of problems, mostly on offense.
27. Denver Broncos  — Finished -17 in turnover differential, worse than everyone but the Browns. Their defense played well, but seemed less aggressive than it was under Wade Phillips. They could use a complementary pass rusher to line up across from Von Miller, but the offseason priority has got to be quarterback. Landing someone like Alex Smith could make them an immediate contender.
28. Indianapolis Colts  — Ranked in the bottom three in points, yards, points allowed, and yards allowed. They fired head coach Chuck Pagano, who leaves Indianapolis with a 53-43 record, but three straight seasons at or below .500. The Colts finished second-to-last in sacks (25) and opponents' third down percentage (45%).
29. New York Giants  — Ranked 31st in scoring. They were held under 20 points in six of their last seven games. I would think quarterback, offensive line, and linebacker are their offseason priorities, not necessarily in that order.
Eli Manning is now 111-103 as a starter (.519), compared to 135-63 for Ben Roethlisberger (.681) and 106-86 for Philip Rivers (.552). The Giants have won a playoff game in only two of Manning's 14 seasons.
30. New York Jets  — Went 2-9 over their last 11 games, including a four-game losing streak to end the season. In response, they signed head coach Todd Bowles to a two-year extension through 2020. I'd bet against Bowles making it all the way through next season.
31. Houston Texans  — Lost their last six games, held below 20 points in all six. This team obviously should have signed Colin Kaepernick, but owner Bob McNair would rather go 4-12. I know they're excited about Deshaun Watson, but they traded away the 4th overall pick in the 2018 draft to get him.
32. Cleveland Browns  — The 2008 Detroit Lions went 0-16, got outscored 517-268 (an average of 32-17), and lost by double-digits 10 times. Their strength of schedule was .559, and they faced seven playoff teams. The offense, with an emerging Calvin Johnson, wasn't terrible. The defense ranks among the worst all-time, giving up at least 30 points 11 times.
The 2017 Cleveland Browns went 0-16, got outscored 410-234 (an average of 26-15), and lost by double-digits nine times. Their strength of schedule was .520, and they faced five playoff teams. The Browns ranked last in scoring and the defense allowed a league-worst 102.2 passer rating, but the critical problem was turnovers. Cleveland committed 28 more turnovers than its opponents, by far the worst in the NFL, and never got adequate QB play.
The Browns are 1-31 over the last two seasons, the worst two-year record in NFL history, and now have the longest active streak of seasons without a playoff appearance (15).
Happy new year to fans of all teams — enjoy the playoffs.