|These guys look like they'll make great teammates.|
Just when you think the NFL might be getting at least a tad bit predictable (though not much), something comes down the pipe that rocks the entire landscape. Today’s breaking news that the Bengals have shipped holdout QB Carson Palmer to the Oakland Raiders for approximately 300 cents on the dollar definitely qualifies as such an event.
Whether you’re a Bengals fan, a Raiders fan, a fan of another team, or just a person who casually enjoys sports, you probably had an opinion about the Carson Palmer holdout situation. Anytime a multi-millionaire star athlete decides to hold out unless his demands are met, it draws plenty of attention. For the most part, the athlete is publically skewered and the whole lot of “greedy/spoiled/arrogant/whiny/childish/whatever else” athletes gets thrown into the fire as well. Sometimes they deserve it, other times they do not. The actual facts of the situation rarely matter to the general public. All that matters is that a person who plays games for a living, and earns infinitely more money than you or I could ever imagine for doing so, is complaining about their job situation. Crazy, right?
Well, the Carson Palmer situation seemed to take on a life of its own, becoming an incredible lightning rod for all kinds of various viewpoints. Some people supported Palmer in his quest to free himself of the Bengals “stink.” Others berated Palmer for failing to live up to his contract. Personally, I felt that there was plenty of blame to spread around. Palmer DID sign the contract and the manner in which he conducted himself was completely unprofessional. It was unfair to the team who had already invested millions upon millions into him, and it was unfair to his teammates who didn’t deserve to go through such a mess. On the other hand, can you really blame a guy for wanting to get out of that situation? Mike Brown is the worst owner in sports…maybe in all of sports history! Here we are in 2011 and this guy still doesn’t have an indoor practice facility or a scouting staff. What a joke! As I said, plenty of blame to go around.
Whatever opinion you held or whatever side you stood on, there was one concrete fact that everyone knew to be absolutely and totally inviolable; Mike Brown was NOT going to give in to Carson Palmer. No matter what, no matter the offer. He would NOT trade him, he would NOT cut him, and he would NOT play him. Palmer would sit and rot for the duration of his contract. Journalists, writers, and bloggers all across the country criticized Brown’s stubbornness in the situation, using it as another clear example of his incompetence as an NFL executive. As late as yesterday evening, people in the sports media were sounding off on the stupidity of Brown’s non-action. Yes, the trade deadline would most assuredly come and go, and Mike Brown would NOT trade him.
Even as people were thinking of new Mike Brown jokes this morning, news of this mega-deal was spreading throughout the Twitterverse. To the best of my knowledge, Fox Sport’s Jay Glazer first broke the story this morning. The shockwaves can still be felt this afternoon, and they will continue to be felt for the duration of the season. It’s too early to know the exact events that precipitated this deal (other than the terrifying prospects of entering a playoff chase with Kyle Boller as the starter). What we do know is that Mike Brown has emerged out the other side of this thing looking quite dapper. The man who was butchered (and rightfully so) in the sports media for his gross mishandling of the situation is suddenly looking like a genius. That’s not to say this was his “plan” all along…after all, this is Mike Brown we’re talking about! Still, to net a first round pick and a conditional first (2nd at worst) for your team’s second best QB isn’t bad.
Long term, this is clearly a huge win for Cincinnati. Short term, this could be huge for Oakland. Yes, they paid a severely steep price for a guy who may or may not be a top 10 QB, but their on-field chances in 2011 look much brighter today than they did yesterday. Say what you will about Carson Palmer, but he’s certainly an upgrade over Kyle Boller. A BIG upgrade!
Even with this shake-up, the sample size that we have is enough to start making some concrete judgments. Again, I’m not claiming anyone has the NFL figured out at this point. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. What I am saying is that we have a better look at the landscape…that’s all. Now that we’re through Week 6, let’s take a closer look at that landscape with the inaugural Power Rankings.
10. Buffalo Bills (4-2)
I could easily put either the Giants or Bucs into this spot and not really care, because I don’t think Buffalo is a legit contender. The win against New England is great and all, but you can only survive on turnovers so long. Eventually, Tom Brady isn’t going to have a bunch of tipped passes fall into your arms. What they do have going for them is a legit MVP candidate in Fred Jackson. Jackson, along with Harvard Man and “God made me drop it” Johnson, have combined to lead an offense that scores an unbelievable 31.3 points per game. In today’s NFL, having an offense as potent as that makes them a top team, no matter what your defense is doing. That’s a good thing since Buffalo ranks next to last in total defense. Of course, that’s somewhat negated by their NFL leading +9 turnover margin, but again, that type of “fortune” is tough to sustain.
Keep an eye on…Fred Jackson’s touches. As good as Fitzpatrick has been, the Bills passing game is only 15th in the league. Jackson is the engine that makes this team go. He’s currently on pace to get 346 touches this year between rushes and receptions. 346 isn’t a terrible high number, but it easily eclipses the 253 touches he received last year and even breaks his previous high of 330 two season ago. This wouldn’t be a huge issue, except that Jackson turned 30 this year. Time will tell if he has the stamina to maintain his effectiveness through an increasing workload, but Buffalo would be wise to let C.J. Spiller take some of the burden off their star.
Super Bowl Chances: Eh. I’m not wild about the team despite their success. Until they show they can get some stops by means other than tipped ball interceptions, I’m not taking them serious. Great story, not a happy ending.
9. Oakland Raiders (4-2)
Believe me; they wouldn’t have made this list 24 hours ago. Heck, they wouldn’t have made this list if Jason Campbell had a Wolverine-like ability to instantaneously heal from any and all injuries. Oakland ranks a meager 24th in passing offense, which is a sure fire way to not beat good teams in today’s NFL. Yeah, the 4-2 start is great and all, but beating Denver and Cleveland is nothing to brag about. Even the “quality” wins against the Jets and Texans (sans Andre Johnson) aren’t so great. But, as I detailed above, the acquisition of Carson Palmer changes the picture. Now, I’m not going to get carried away and pretend that landing Palmer is the equivalent of getting Tom Brady. Truth is, Palmer has been pretty mediocre the last few years. Still, there have been some extenuating circumstances (TO, Ocho, Bengals) that likely depressed his ability to perform. Whether that is truly the case is yet to be determined. Either way, he’s got to be an upgrade over Jason Campbell.
Keep an eye on…Darrius Heyward-Bey, Jacoby Ford, and Denarius Moore. Other than the Eagles, no team has a faster or more explosive group of WR’s. All three of them, most notably Heyward-Bey, have shown significant flashes this year. A big armed QB like Palmer could be exactly what these guys need to truly utilize their abilities. Say what you will about TO and Ochocinco’s “production” the last few years, but Palmer was much more effective when working with a great downfield weapon. That guy used to be Chris Henry and a younger, faster version of Ochocinco. At the end of last year, Palmer once again showed is ability when working with Jerome Simpson. Now, he has all kinds of speedy weapons to throw to. It will be interesting to see if any of these guys are real receivers, or if they’re just track stars in pads.
Super Bowl Chances: Tough to say until we see how Palmer works on the team. I will say this however; if Palmer gels with his receivers and turns back into a reasonable semblance of the old Carson Palmer, then Oakland MUST be taken seriously. Until then, let’s withhold judgment.
8. San Diego Chargers (4-1)
The Chargers currently sit at 4-1, but for whatever reason it feels more like 2-3. Philip Rivers, typically among the NFL’s leaders in passing, has had a rough go of it thus far and is a huge the Chargers have had so many close calls. Rivers is on pace to throw 22 interceptions, which would shatter his previous high of 15. Simply put, Norv Turner isn’t anywhere near clever enough to overcome that type of adversity. Still, it has to be mentioned that a 4-1 start for a Norv Turner team is like the Yankees starting a season with a 20 game win streak. The offense is still scoring 24 PPG and it’s doubtful Rivers will continue to struggle like this throughout the season.
Keep an eye on…The run defense. The Chargers are 17th in the NFL in run defense, giving up 113.6 yards per game. That’s not going to keep them out of the playoffs or anything, but with two huge divisional games against run-heavy Oakland still looming, it has to be an area of attention. Even with Palmer on board, they’re sure to emphasize the running game. An inability to contain McFadden could easily cost them the division.
Super Bowl Chances: Is Norv Turner still the coach? There’s your answer.
7. San Francisco 49ers (5-1)
I’m gonna take heat for not having them higher, but hey, it’s my Power Rankings! The win over Detroit was absolutely impressive, but Alex Smith did very little to inspire confidence. As has been talked about on the podcast, passing Y/A is one of the biggest indicators of future success in today’s NFL. With Smith producing a meager 6.9 Y/A, it’s hard to buy the ‘Niners as a truly great team. Also, San Francisco has been relatively unsuccessful in stopping the pass, giving up 261 passing yards per game (21st). That’s another important area that they just don’t quite measure up in.
Keep an eye on…Michael Crabtree. The oft-troubled/injured receiver could very well be the key to San Francisco’s entire season. Given Alex Smith’s limitations in downfield passing situations, they badly need Crabtree to quickly develop into the big after-the-catch threat that he looked to be in college. He was targeted 15 times against Detroit and converted 9 of those into catches. 77 yards on 9 catches isn’t exactly the stuff of legends, but it’s an excellent start for a guy who badly needs to get his confidence back.
Super Bowl Chances: It’s so hard to look past Alex Smith. Soooo hard. Teams just don’t win with bad QB’s anymore, so I want to say 0%. But then again, this is probably a good year for “good teams with bad QB’s.” They’ve got a shot, but not a good one.
6. Baltimore Ravens (4-1)
Continuing with my theme of going against the grain, I present the Ravens at several spots lower than the popular media has them. There’s a lot I like about this team, starting with Ray Rice, a good offensive line, a decent group of pass catchers, and excellent leadership on the defense. They haven’t always made things look pretty, but they find a way to score plenty of points (29.6 PPG) and they certainly can stop other teams from scoring (14.2 PPG). That having been said, we’ve been down this road with the Ravens many times before and the story always remains the same. Year 4 Joe Flacco is not a single bit better than Year 1 Joe Flacco, and there’s simply no excuse. He’s got a great line in front of him, a solid running game to compliment him, and plenty of weapons to get the ball out to. And yet, he still sucks.
Keep an eye on…Joe Flacco. Nothing else is even worth looking at. Flacco is currently completing passes at an anemic 51.4% clip, has a career low QB Rating of 79.6, continues to fail at getting the ball downfield (7.39 Y/A), and is on pace for career highs in interceptions and fumbles. Other than that, things are looking great!
Super Bowl Chances: I personally don’t there’s much difference between Flacco and Alex Smith right now. In fact, I might rather have Smith. Either way, Baltimore needs to take a hard look at their future after this season and consider moving on. As for right now, it’s tough to peg this team. Given their inconsistency, I’d say they don’t have much of a chance to win the Super Bowl.
5. Detroit Lions (5-1)
Even if they had beaten San Francisco, I would have put them at #5. The result did not matter in this circumstance. So please, don’t say I’m overreacting. Look, you’re going to lose games to good teams at some point. It’s just the way it is. Detroit still has a ton of offensive talent and that alone makes them a top team in the NFL. What confuses me about this team is that they consistently dig themselves into first half holes. The small deficit against San Francisco wasn’t really a huge deal, but the bigger ones against Dallas and Minnesota are potential killers against “real” teams. I haven’t done enough research to make a definitive statement, but it always seems like they struggle to get Calvin Johnson going in the first half. Perhaps they need to focus on getting him more targets on their first few drives and maybe the rest of the offense will open up. Just a thought.
Keep an eye on…Matt Stafford’s accuracy. This was a big knock on him coming out of Georgia and it’s something he’s had struggles with thus far in his NFL career. To this point, he’s seemed to make great strides, but I’ve been noticing more and more errant throws lately. A quick look at his game log shows that he’s completed only 57% of his passes in his last three games. That’s a big drop from the 67% he was completing in his first three. Also troubling is his dramatically decreased Y/A, where Stafford has had fewer than 6 Y/A in two of his last three games. Stafford needs to get on track for Detroit to contend against other top teams.
Super Bowl Chances: In 2012, I think their chances are outstanding…in 2011, I’m not sure. For all the huge positives they’ve shown, there have been enough negatives to make you wonder which team they really are. I definitely think they have the capability of taking anybody down, but I’m not sure they’re quite ready to roll through an entire playoff. Still, I like their chances much better than Baltimore’s.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-2)
Everyone else is killing them, but once again, it’s my Power Rankings. They’ve overcome a horrific line and a spate of tough injuries to post a solid 4-2 record, and I have every confidence they’ll hit their stride sooner rather than later. Lost in the race to declare this team dead is the fact that Pittsburgh’s “old and slow” defense is only allowing 17 PPG…despite only forcing 2 turnovers! Think about that for a second! That’s an incredible performance! With Mendenhall back and Roethlisberger looking healthy, the offense is sure to come around. When that happens, the Super Bowl talk will kick up once again.
Keep an eye on…Turnover margin. I’m kinda double dipping here since I already mentioned turnovers, but it’s the biggest issue they’re facing right now. Shockingly, Pittsburgh ranks dead last in the NFL in turnover margin at -10. Yeah, -10. It’s absolutely incredible that they’re 4-2. They still have a lot of their defensive playmakers and James Harrison will be back soon. Expect this number to revert to the mean pretty soon.
Super Bowl Chances: The Steelers made it to the Super Bowl with the same team and many of the same issues and I don’t see why they can’t do it this year as well.
3. New Orleans Saints (4-2)
The loss to Tampa Bay is a bit disconcerting, but I haven’t forgotten how well they played Green Bay in Week 1. Just a cursory glance at their roster gives you a clear picture of how talented this team is, and I’m always inclined to take talent at this point in the season. I’m a little surprised at the relative lack of defensive success they’ve had given their offseason additions, but some of those numbers are skewed thanks to facing ‘Super Aaron Rodgers.’ Also, both of their losses were on the road to division leaders, so it’s not like their dropping games to Indianapolis or anything. Speaking of which, they have a tasty home game against the winless Colts this week that should bring back all the idiot bandwagon jumpers.
Keep an eye on…Drew Brees’ interceptions. Seriously man, this is getting out of hand. Brees has thrown an astounding 24 INT’s in his last 16 games. I don’t need to tell you this, but the Saints aren’t winning anything with their star QB coughing it up at that clip. I haven’t watched a ton of Saints games this year (other than GB in which he threw 0 INT’s) so I can’t really speak to what is going on. All I know is that Brees needs to look less like Eli Manning and more like Drew Brees in order for this team to reach its potential.
Super Bowl Chances: They have the requisite talent, a great coach, a potentially great QB, and plenty of playoff experience. There’s no reason to believe New Orleans won’t be there in the end.
2. New England Patriots (5-1)
Shocking to see them near the top of another Power Ranking, right? Well, they’ve clearly proven they are once again the class of the AFC. In defeating San Diego, Oakland, and New York; the Pats have been wholly impressive in their onslaught of fellow conference contenders. With Pittsburgh and Buffalo left to come, they’ll have an opportunity to get a good look at nearly every possible playoff foe they’ll face. Of course, even at 5-1 the Patriots aren’t without issues. After a historically low INT rate in 2010, Tom Brady has already doubled his interception total from last year with 8 in his first 6 games. Against Buffalo, his 4 INT’s cost them what could turn out to be an important game (though likely not). Even more troublesome is a pass defense that allows 322 Y/G, dead last in the NFL by a large margin. At some point, Devin McCourty and Co. have to get their act together or they could once again be exposed on a big stage.
Keep an eye on…Run to pass ratio. After the Buffalo disaster, New England put a bigger priority on establishing the run, racking up over 30 carries against Oakland and the Jets. Not surprisingly, the more balanced offense was extremely effective in taking those teams down. Last week against the Cowboys, the Pats threw 41 times and ran only 25, struggling again with turnovers and offensive inefficiency. As amazing as Tom Brady is, this is an offense that needs to establish the run. It helps them take advantage of TE mismatches, it helps keep their anemic defense off the field, and makes them more effective in the red zone. If they insist on throwing 40-50 times a game, then don’t be surprised with another untimely playoff exit.
Super Bowl Chances: I’m not wasting time here…they’ve got a GREAT shot.
1. Green Bay Packers (6-0)
There’s not much for me to say about the only undefeated team left. Aaron Rodgers is the best in the business and he has more than enough weapons to dismantle any defense set in front of him. It’s no surprise then that Green Bay leads the NFL in scoring at 32.8 PPG while also boasting an impressive +7 TO margin.
Keep an eye on…Left tackle. Chad Clifton is out indefinitely and has been replaced by 2010 5th round pick Marshall Newhouse. While Newhouse has performed well thus far, it remains to be seen how well he will hold up when not facing the Rams. If you remember, protecting Rodgers was a serious issue a couple years ago and the re-emergence of a finally healthy Clifton was a big reason that problem subsided. All the weapons in the world won’t mean a thing if Rodgers is eating portion of the turf, so Newhouse’s success is an absolute must.
Super Bowl Chances: They’re the favorites. Enough said.