|Poor Jay! Just when everybody in Chicago was finally starting to not hate you...|
At this point in an NFL season, crying over injuries is like complaining about getting your nose broken in a fight. You play football for 11 weeks and guys are gonna get hurt. By this point, your team has probably lost a key offensive lineman, productive linebacker, a hard hitting safety, or some combination of those three. Heck, you might have lost a star running back or receiver as well!
While replacing Andre Johnson isn’t really feasible, it’s possible to continue winning with nothing more than a Band-Aid in place. It’s not that Johnson isn’t valuable; it’s that the NFL is full of interchangeable parts. While a random WR off the street likely won’t turn into Andre Johnson, a good scheme adjustment or a valuable backup can offset the damage.
So your star running back is out…Michael Bush will do just fine. So your star wide receiver is out…short passes to tight ends and more involvement from Arian Foster in the passing game will offset the damage. For nearly every player in the NFL, there is a way to make up for their loss.
Unfortunately for two teams, there is no way to make up for the loss of a good QB.
Just ask the Colts, who went from AFC contender to potential worst team in history in a matter of an offseason. No matter what adjustments the coaches tried, no matter what random guys they brought in, there is simply no way to replace what Peyton Manning did for the Indianapolis Colts. It’s like replacing your eyeballs with Super Ball. Sure, they’re round and colorful just like your eyes, but they most certainly aren’t going to work the way your eyes were intended to.
Much like the Colts, the Chicago Bears and Houston Texans are faced with the prospect of living without their QB. To be fair, neither Jay Cutler or Matt Schaub are in the same league as Manning, but I doubt that is any comfort to their respective teams. Even though neither QB is elite, they were both having excellent seasons. Cutler had shaken off some early struggles and had finally shown signs of being the franchise QB the Bears thought they traded for. Certainly, Chicago’s recent win streak has a lot to do with Cutler’s improvement. As for Houston, they were in line to receive a first round bye in the AFC, largely due to Matt Schaub’s brilliance. Despite the loss of Andre Johnson, Schaub ranked among the league leaders in nearly every category.
Now, instead of Jay Cutler and Matt Schaub leading a playoff charge, their respective teams will have to rely on Caleb Hanie and Matt Leinart, trying desperately to cling to a playoff berth.
Maybe I’m forgetting something, but I can’t remember a two week stretch of QB injuries like this. Two contenders losing two QB’s in the most critical moments of their season. Absolutely stunning. Complain about your team’s injuries if you like, but count yourself lucky if you aren’t a Bears or Texans fan.
Still, there’s plenty of NFL left to play and each team is very much in the playoff hunt. As we approach the stretch run, we should start to see a clear separation of the contenders from the pretenders. Let’s sort through the confusion and see who ranks where:
10. Houston Texans (7-3)
With a healthy Matt Schaub slinging it to a healthy Andre Johnson, the Texans are an easy pick for #5 in the Power Rankings. With a healthy (and maybe drunk) Matt Leinart…not so much. Houston still ranks fairly high on the strength of their running game and surprisingly dominant defense, but dreams of a Super Bowl have all but faded. After all, Matt Leinart was beaten out by Derek Anderson last year. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Keep an eye on…Matt Leinart. I’m not even going to try to be creative here, because Leinart’s ability to suppress his awfulness is the only thing anyone needs to focus on. Even though I have a weird feeling Leinart will be alright (not good…just alright), that doesn’t mean he’ll seamlessly replace Matt Schaub, who was quietly having an outstanding season. Even without Andre Johnson in the lineup, Schaub kept the offense humming, ranking 5th in QB Rating, 2nd in Y/A, 9th in TD’s, and 5th in INT’s. That level of production went a long way towards opening up the Texans’ powerful running game. Unless Leinart can figure out a way to drive the ball downfield, Arian Foster and Ben Tate will see a lot more eight man boxes.
Super Bowl Chances: With Schaub, they had a fantastic shot of getting out of the AFC. Now, it seems like they’ll be lucky to get out of the first round. Their remaining schedule is very manageable, giving them a decent shot at a first round bye, but even that seems like a long shot right now. Sorry Texans fans, I’m giving you 0%.
9. Oakland Raiders (6-4)
I felt good about the Raiders after the Carson Palmer trade, ranking them 9th in the Power Rankings at the time. One million interceptions and a Darren McFadden injury later, I felt regret. Now, I’m back on board, wishing I had stuck to my guns the entire time. Even with McFadden still on the shelf, the Raiders have stuck to their gameplan and are pretty much the exact team we all thought they’d be. Palmer’s role is sufficiently scaled down to diminish his mistakes, and the power running game is going full throttle with Michael Bush in the backfield. Since McFadden’s injury early in Week 7, Bush has produced 461 yards on 96 carries, an average of 4.8 Y/A. If that weren’t enough, he’s also added 150 receiving yards and one TD catch to pair with his two TD runs. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Keep an eye on…Run defense. The biggest thing keeping the Raiders from joining the AFC’s elite is a dismal defensive unit that allows 25.4 PPG. Maybe next week we’ll talk about their awful pass defense, but this week we’ll focus on their awful-er (not a real word) run defense that allows 131.6 YPG. As bad as that sounds, the most shocking number is the 299 rushing yards they allowed to Denver a couple weeks ago. Seriously, how can you give up that many yards to Denver? THEIR QB CAN’T THROW!!! YOU KNOW THEY ARE RUNNING EVERY PLAY!!! Seriously, how is it possible???
Super Bowl Chances: I like their offense quite a bit, and it will only get better with the return of Darren McFadden. On that basis, I’m giving them a chance to take home the Lombardi Trophy…but not much of one. Unless Carson Palmer turns into 2005 Carson Palmer, or unless they land Aaron Rodgers in a week or so, the offense simply isn’t good enough to carry their atrocious defense. I’m giving them a 1% chance.
8. Detroit Lions (7-3)
Just when everybody was ready to jump off the Lions bandwagon, Matt Stafford steps up and reminds everyone that he’s one of the best up-and-coming QB’s in the NFL. Certainly, after two early INT’s and a huge early deficit to Carolina, it appeared as if Detroit was ready to pack it up and wait till 2012. After all, they’ve been less than impressive since their 5-0 start. Hard to say where this offense has been the last four weeks, where they’ve hit 20 points just once, but at least we know it’s still in there. Yes, the Panthers D is beyond awful, but 495 total yards and 49 points (in just 3 quarters!) is darn impressive.
Keep an eye on…Third down offense. I pointed this out a couple Power Rankings ago, and it’s worth highlighting again. The Lions currently rank 31st in the NFL in third down efficiency, converting a miniscule 29.9% of their chances. Only the Rams are worse, and they’re only 0.7% off the pace! Most pundits cite the Lions pedestrian running game as the reason, but I don’t buy it. Green Bay has a nearly identical rushing attack, but still finds a way to convert 51.2% of their third down tries. Matt Stafford is obviously not Aaron Rodgers (who is?), but he’s certainly better than Colt McCoy, whose Browns convert 40.8% of their third downs. Whether it’s poor play calling, poor scheme, or poor execution, the Lions have to figure out a way to keep a higher percentage of drives going.
Super Bowl Chances: Too many big holes at this point to take them seriously. I’ll give them 2% just because they have “blow-up” potential on offense. Of course, an impressive showing against Green Bay on Thanksgiving would go a long way toward changing my perception.
7. Dallas Cowboys (6-4)
I honestly can’t believe I’m ranking them this high, but the emergence of DeMarco Murray has significantly altered the team’s fortunes. Instead of relying on the mistake-prone Tony Romo for the majority of the offensive production, Jason Garrett can now implement a much more balanced scheme that highlights all of Romo’s good qualities while minimizing the bad ones. Sunday’s near-miss against Washington notwithstanding, the ‘Boys have actually fared pretty well against the league’s elite. Losses against Detroit and New England could just as easily have been wins, especially considering the fact that Dallas held late leads in both games. Even better, a “so-so” win at San Francisco in Week 2 is now one of the most impressive wins any team can boast. The talent is clearly there and it looks like things are finally falling into place. And yes, I’m fully anticipating a disastrous collapse…and yes, I’ll still be emotionally ruined by it even though I know it’s coming.
Keep an eye on…DeMarco Murray’s health. At 6’0” and 213lbs, Murray certainly looks the part of a work-horse back. In his five starts, he’s more than filled that role, toting the rock an average of 20 times during that stretch. Unfortunately, Murray’s spotty injury history indicates this might not be the best course of action. Murray suffered significant injuries in both his freshman and sophomore seasons at Oklahoma, and even started his Cowboys career on the non-football injury list with a hamstring problem. I’ve certainly got my fingers crossed on this one, because this team is not the same with Felix Jones carrying the load.
Super Bowl Chances: Talent wise, you’d have to think they have a legit shot. Still, I’ve been down this road with them too many times before, and I’m certainly not ready to forget all the failures of the past. The fact is, Tony Romo has yet to perform capably in an important game and the defense still has far too many holes in the secondary to be considered a championship unit. I’ll lump them in with the Lions and say they have a 2% chance.
6. Baltimore Ravens (7-3)
Any team in the 6 to 2 range could probably be considered interchangeable, but the Ravens utter lack of consistency is what forced me to drop them to the bottom of the group. And really, when you sit down and think about it, it’s an absolute mystery why this team can’t be the 49ers of the AFC. They have gobs of talent on both sides of the ball and have had great success against top level teams. Already this year, the Ravens have defeated Pittsburgh (2x), New York, Houston, and Cincinnati. On record, they belong much higher on this list, but their uneven performances against the likes of Jacksonville and Seattle seriously put into question their ability to advance deep into the playoffs.
Keep an eye on…Joe Flacco. I know, I know; I’m entirely too uncreative with these. Regardless, I think we’re all in agreement that Flacco is the make-or-break player on this team. Thanks to Torrey Smith’s emergence, the offense has every last weapon you could possible ask for, and the excuses for Flacco have run out. The defense is great, the offense is loaded, and the window for winning is right now. Sorry, but a 55.4% completion percentage and a 77.6 QB Rating just aren’t going to cut it.
Super Bowl Chances: Based on their talent, I’d be justified in giving them a double digit chance. Based on their unfathomable ability to look like Superman one week and Clark Kent the next, I’d have to cut that percentage in half. Until Flacco proves he’s capable of putting together an extended stretch of excellence, I’m giving the Ravens a piddling 5% chance.
5. New Orleans Saints (7-3)
The Saints are not as talented overall as the Ravens, but they get a boost from having a real life NFL QB. Their random/horrific loss to St. Louis notwithstanding, the Saints have fared pretty well against good competition, knocking off Chicago, Houston, and Atlanta (on the road), while also standing toe to toe with Green Bay in the season opener. They certainly have their fare share of defensive woes, and Drew Brees’ interceptions are as alarming as ever, but their ability to put up tons of points is irrefutable. Upcoming matchups against the Giants and Lions should give us a better idea of how they stack up.
Keep an eye on…Turnovers. New Orleans has always been known as an “opportunistic defense” in the past, riding that train all the way to a Super Bowl victory a couple seasons ago. The real truth of the matter was that the Saints were a below average unit that finished second in the NFC with 39 turnovers. This year, the defense is once again a slightly below average unit, ranking 20th in total yards allowed. The difference is they’re close to last in the NFC with a -5 turnover margin. I never felt like the Saints were the best team in 2009, but the ball always seemed to bounce their way. I feel the same way about them this year, so we’ll see if luck turns for them again.
Super Bowl Chances: You can never count Drew Brees out, but something seems to be missing with this team. Maybe it’s the ongoing INT onslaught from Brees, or maybe it’s just the after effects of losing to A.J. Feeley. Whatever it is, my enthusiasm for New Orleans has waned considerably. Still, they’ve done it before and I won’t be shocked if it happens again. I’m giving them 10%.
4. New England Patriots (7-3)
Believe me, it was hard to pull the trigger on dropping them below San Francisco, but I have to be consistent with what I’ve been saying. Pass defense is absolutely crucial to success in the NFL, and I think I might feel more comfortable going with an Alex Smith-led passing game over this New England pass defense. You can make the argument that the Pats beat a similar team in the New York Jets, but Mark Sanchez isn’t a fair comparison at this point. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to see a “renaissance” in the Pats defense and we’re going to hear a lot of “experts” jump back on the Belichick bandwagon, once again bestowing genius status on him for fixing the defense. Sorry, I’m not buying it. Starting from last week, the Pats stretch of opponent QB’s features Mark Sanchez, Tyler Palko, Michael Vick/Vince Young, Curtis Painter/Dan Orlovsky, Rex Grossman/John Beck, Tim Tebow, Matt Moore, and Ryan Fitzpatrick. There’s still a lot to like about this team, and I definitely won’t be shocked if they find a way to add ring #4, but I also won’t be shocked if they get housed in a Divisional Round matchup against the Steelers.
Keep an eye on…Injuries. This particular one is not so much an informed observation as it is a weird hunch. The Pats have an aging core and they need to be wary of their guys breaking down. Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski both have injury histories and they’ve likely been over-used this season. Furthermore, the Patriots have gotten most of their pass rush from Andre Carter (32), and they can’t afford to have him go down. Even young guys like Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty, and Patrick Chung have battled injuries this season. Contrary to popular opinion, New England has the talent to win right now, but they don’t have the depth to replace key guys.
Super Bowl Chances: If Tom Brady is Tom Brady, and the offensive line can keep him upright, the Patriots will have a chance to win every game. I think we’ve all seen him do it enough to not rule them out. And hey, who knows, maybe some of the young guys on the defense will step up in time for the playoffs. It’s possible. I’ll give them 14% until I see more from the D.
3. San Francisco 49ers (9-1)
I’m sorry, Casey. I fully intended on ranking them #2, but when it came time to put them above the Steelers, I got scared. Really, can you blame me? As impressive as the ‘Niners have been, they really don’t have a win that makes me jump out of my seat. Beating Detroit was impressive, but the Lions took a lot of the thunder out of that win with a recent slide. Taking down the Giants was nice, but New York followed that up with a terrible loss to the Eagles. My biggest hold-up in making them #2 is the offense. No surprise there, as San Fran puts up just 322.5 yards per game. They’re efficient, they avoid mistakes, they often control the clock, but they lack the explosive element that puts them in the elite class. What is elite, however, is their defense. Honestly, I wouldn’t have San Francisco in the top 10 if their defense was just “good.” Thanks to Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Justin Smith, and others; this defense is absolutely terrifying. The most impressive thing is that they never, ever take a week off. While the offense was looking forward to next week’s showdown against the Ravens, the defense was busy going to town on John Skelton. You have to love a unit so committed to dominance as they are.
Keep an eye on…Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh. Seriously, you have to love that this is happening! Not only that, but it’s actually a huge game! Both the 49ers and Ravens have questions to answer, and this is the perfect time to do so. To me, it seems like these teams are near-doppelgangers of one another, with the exception that the Ravens THINK their QB is Peyton Manning. I honestly have no idea how this game will play out, but I do know that win or lose, this will be the most beneficial game to date for the 49ers.
Super Bowl Chances: I will never give Alex Smith high odds to win. Just won’t. You can read me any stat you want to read me, but I watch enough games to know that Smith is a game manager, no matter what Jim Harbaugh wants me to believe. That having been said, it would be foolish to rule them out. Their defense it that god. Unfortunately, Green Bay might be the worst possible matchup for the 49ers, and they’ll almost certainly have to face them in Lambeau before it’s all said and done. Still, I’ll give them 16%.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-3)
Call it stubbornness, but I still think they’re the best team in the AFC. No, they might not win their division, and no, they haven’t been overpowering like last year’s team. Nevertheless, I’ve seen them do this too many times before to get sucked in this year. Statistically, they look like a dominant team, ranking 2nd in total defense and 9th in total offense. Thankfully, a Week 15 matchup against the 49ers lies around the corner, and it should give us a better idea of which team is better (though not definitive).
Keep an eye on…Holding a lead. Usually a staple of every good Pittsburgh team, this year’s version has struggled mightily to maintain leads. For example, the Steelers looked like they were going to house the Bengals last week, but quickly gave back their 14-0 lead before finally closing the door in the second half. Similarly, they struggled late against Baltimore, losing that one on a late TD drive, and New England, nearly allowing the Pats to come all the way back from a 13 point 4th quarter lead.
Super Bowl Chances: Again, it’s absolutely foolish to count out the Steelers. Big Ben has plenty of offensive weapons and I fully expect them to be healthy and ready to roll come playoff time. I’ll give them a healthy 20% chance.
1. Green Bay Packers (10-0)
Since I’m running out of ways to praise the last undefeated team, let me just point out that Green Bay’s average margin of victory is more than two touchdowns.
Keep an eye on…35.5 points per game is a lot. A lot.
Super Bowl Chances: They’re the favorites, and I have them at 34%. Aaron Rodgers has had a QB Rating of 100+ in each of his first 10 games, and unless someone figures out how to slow him down, they’re almost impossible to beat. Not even sub-par protection has been enough to faze Rodgers! He gets hit one play; he throws a TD the next. Guy is not human.
In case you missed it, Prince and I broke down the NFL playoff picture in the Week 11 Recap podcast. You can listen to it here.
In case you missed it, Prince and I broke down the NFL playoff picture in the Week 11 Recap podcast. You can listen to it here.