Tuesday, November 1, 2011

NFL Power Rankings (Through Week 8)

Are we sure this isn't actually Peyton in a Giants uniform?
 By this point in the NFL season, I feel like I should have a better idea of what’s going on. Unfortunately, I don’t. Thanks to the St. Louis Rams and (almost) the Miami Dolphins, I am thoroughly confused as to who is good and who isn’t.

A lot of people will point to this and proclaim the greatness of parity. I suppose parity has its benefits, especially when you’re a fan of a sad-sack team. Imagine being a Kansas City Royals fan and never having a prayer of being a World Series contender! Yes, I’m sure parity has been great for Bills fans, 49ers fans, and Lions fans. Honestly, I’m not sure it does much for me.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the variety in the NFL. Its fun to have nice stories like the Bills, and it’s interesting to have fresh contenders like the Lions. For years I’ve been convinced that the difficulty in building a winner in the NBA has severely hampered the growth of the league in many potentially great markets. That’s definitely not a problem in the NFL. Small markets like Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and others can not only be sustained, but they can thrive thanks in large part to the ability to keep their fan bases engaged with winning football. After all, why would you expect fans in Buffalo to spend money to sit in the snow and watch a 4 win team? Believe me; I think it’s great that this part of parity is around! I’m not trying to be Scrooge!

Unfortunately, there’s another side of parity that is not so exciting. Mediocrity. Think about how the league is set up; the NFL is a league based on quickly eroding products (players with short careers) that must be equally distributed to 32 different franchises. That certainly makes it difficult to build a truly great team. Even the “great” Patriots, Colts, and Steelers teams of the past decade were severely flawed teams that wouldn’t have a prayer of stacking up against the overall quality of the 1980’s 49ers or the early 1990’s Cowboys.

Please note, this isn’t a conversation about comparing eras. I have no idea if a team from the 80’s would hold up in today’s NFL. All I’m referring to is the stand-alone greatness of a team in the context of their era. The 49ers were a complete football dynasty. The Cowboys were a complete football dynasty. Nobody from the past 15 years can boast that type of long-term quality. The reason? Parity.

 Since I’ve started Boris Diaw Time, I’ve spent more time studying and researching the NFL. That, and the NFL Sunday Ticket, has allowed me to obtain a much broader scope of the NFL landscape. As I said before, what I’ve seen is widespread mediocrity. The line between good and bad seems to be paper thin at times, and many of the games I watch are full of sloppy football. Defenses are hamstrung, offensive lines are turnstiles, penalty flags litter the field, receivers are dropping passes, and coaches are going out of their way to look dumb.

I love the NFL, but I have to be honest and say that this hasn’t been a great season for me. I haven’t enjoyed a lot of the games and I’m kind of sick of feeling confused. When a team like the Rams can manhandle a supposedly superior Saints team, you know there are issues. Every team in the NFL, save Green Bay, has looked extremely beatable at times.

Regardless, there’s plenty of NFL left to play. Perhaps some of these teams will rise up and take control the rest of the way. Let’s sort through the confusion and see who ranks where:

10. Buffalo Bills (5-2)

Two weeks ago, I had a rough time deciding between several different teams for the #10 spot. This time, it wasn’t that hard. To this point, I feel like Buffalo has clearly separated themselves from Chicago, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Houston, and the AFC West pack. Honestly, I came pretty darn close to ranking them several spots higher! Still, there’s a legitimate “collapse” concern, as some of the peripheral numbers paint a not-so-rosy picture of this team. Buffalo’s 23rd ranked defense has some obvious holes that could very well end up being the undoing of this squad. Thus far, they’ve survived on an AFC leading +9 TO margin, but that luck could turn anytime. The schedule softens a bit down the stretch, so I expect the Bills to get to 10 wins.

Keep an eye on…Ryan Fitzpatrick’s performance down the stretch. A quick look at Fitzpatrick’s 2010 game log shows that, from Halloween on, he threw at least one INT in 7 of 9 games, had a QB rating of 83.0 or lower in 6 of 9 games, had a completion percentage of 51.1% in 4 of 9 games, had a Y/A of 6.78 in 7 of 9 games, and closed out the season with a 12 TD to 11 INT ratio. This makes sense considering the effect poor weather has on his not-so-strong arm.

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. I’ll give them 1%.

9. New York Giants (5-2)

The Giants make their debut in the Power Rankings thanks to the best season of Eli Manning’s career. By far. To this point, Manning is on pace to set or come close to setting personal bests in completion percentage, Y/A, yards, TD’s, INT’s, and passer rating. In fact, Manning has been so good that he’s currently 6.3% above his career completion percentage, and 1.90 Y/A over his career Y/A average. Considering the across-the-board injuries and the Giants’ inability to run the ball (85.6 YPG, 30th), Manning’s impact cannot be underplayed. As we know, a good QB can take a team a long ways. Add in the re-emerging pass rush and the Giants look like they could be here to stay.

Keep an eye on…The schedule. Three of their wins are against St. Louis, Arizona, and Miami. Not impressive. While their other two wins (at Philly, vs. Buffalo) certainly show they are legit, it doesn’t they can survive the gauntlet that begins this week. The rest of their schedule looks like this; at New England, at San Francisco, vs. Philadelphia, at New Orleans, vs. Green Bay, at Dallas, vs. Washington, at New York Jets, vs. Dallas. Wow!!! That’s a combined opponent record of 39-25…without accounting for the fact that Philadelphia is likely to be emerging. Good luck with that one, Eli.

Super Bowl Chances: We’ve seen the Giants make a crazy run to the Super Bowl before, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility. If Eli can continue his Peyton impersonation, the Giants could definitely navigate their way through this schedule and win the NFC East. With all the injuries, however, I’m not betting on them. I’d say 1%.

8. Baltimore Ravens (5-2)

In the last Power Rankings, I was much harsher on the Ravens than most, placing them at #6. I ripped on Flacco and said they were too inconsistent to take them very seriously. Since then, they’ve lost a shockingly awful game to Jacksonville and dug a 21 point hole to Arizona. Do I feel proud of myself? Yes, yes I do. That having been said, the sky is NOT falling in Baltimore. They’re still 5-2, they still have an incredibly strong defense, and they still have plenty of talent on the offensive side of the ball. While I continue to maintain that Flacco is not a championship caliber QB, this team has shown they can win games with him at the helm. With two games each against Cleveland and Cincinnati, along with games against Seattle and Indianapolis, it would be shocking if Baltimore didn’t get to 10 or 11 wins. Regardless of record though, it’s impossible for me to envision them as real threats in the long run.

Keep an eye on…The run game. Baltimore always has a reputation as a strong running team, but they haven’t lived up to that reputation in recent years. Last year, the Ravens had one of the lowest team Y/A averages in the league. This year, it’s not much better at just 4.1 Y/A. Ray Rice in particular has to get better, as his 4.3 Y/A aren’t anywhere near where his talent level suggests he should be at. With Flacco being Flacco, the running game HAS to be their main offensive weapon. 19th in the league just isn’t getting it done.

Super Bowl Chances: I’ll say 3%. I’m not Wacko for Flacco.

7. Philadelphia Eagles (3-4)

OK, hold off on the execution for a moment and just hear me out! I know it’s unconventional to rank a 3-4 team at 7th, but I feel strongly that Philly has turned this thing around. Obviously beating the Cowboys isn’t a huge accomplishment, but dismantling them in the way they did is certainly impressive. It’s impossible to say for certain what was going on early in the season, but reality seems to be very far off from common perception. The fact is that the Eagles had Atlanta beat in Week 2, had San Francisco beat in Week 4, and had Buffalo beat in Week 5. They should be 6-1! Obviously you can’t play the “could have” “should have” game in the NFL, and all those teams beat Philly fair and square. All I’m suggesting is that the Eagles are a much better team than their record suggests. They rank 4th in total offense and a surprising 10th in total defense. With upcoming home games against Chicago and Arizona, it seems a good bet that Philly will be over .500 for a potential NFC East deciding game at the Giants in Week 11.

Keep an eye on…DeSean Jackson. Jackson has been targeted 50 times this season, but has only managed to bring in 27 of them for catches.  For a player of Jackson’s caliber, that is an unacceptable catch rate. The problem is, it’s been the norm for a player who is massively overrated. Jackson has never had a catch rate higher than 53% in his career, and he posted a shockingly low 49% catch rate last season. Whatever the issue is, he needs to figure it out soon.

Super Bowl Chances:  I fully believe they’ll take over the division by beating the Giants in Week 11 and they’ll never look back. They’re too overwhelmingly talented to continue losing games to the likes of Chicago, Arizona, Seattle, Miami, New York (Jets), and even Dallas. Since those are all upcoming opponents, I’d say Philly still finds a way to win 10 or 11 games. As much crap as Andy Reid takes, he’s won a lot of games in his career and he’s proven to be a good coach. Still, there’s a big difference between winning the NFC East and winning the Super Bowl. In the end, their weaknesses on the offensive line and at linebacker, along with Vick’s inconsistency and their inability to take care of the ball or convert in the red zone, will likely be their undoing. I’d say 5% chance of raising the Lombardi Trophy.

6. San Francisco 49ers (6-1)

I’m moving them up one spot this week as I slowly but surely buy into an Alex Smith led team. The question isn’t going to be their record, as their remaining schedule raises optimism for a 12 win season. The question will be how they stack up against the best of the best. The win against Detroit is obviously impressive, and it’s a big part of why they’re #6 in this ranking. Good showings against the Giants in Week 10, the Ravens in Week 12, and, especially, the Steelers in Week 15 will likely tell a much truer tale of how far this team can go. My current prediction of a first round bye followed by a home loss in the Divisional Round still sounds right, but I’m far more open to the idea of a legit 49ers team than I was before. That’s mostly because the NFC sucks, but still. The defense is obviously great, but the offense leaves a lot to be desired. Sure, they score points (26.7 PPG), but a meager 309 yards per game makes me wonder how the heck they’re doing it. I guess Ted Ginn and Andy Lee are the offensive MVP’s! No, seriously, they might be…(and you wonder why I’m scared to rank them higher!)

Keep an eye on…Alex Smith’s protection. Despite starting the season 2-1, the 49ers had some serious issues on offense, averaging a horrendous 213.7 YPG in those wins. And you wonder why people thought they were a fluke! Not coincidentally, the offensive line acted like a giant turnstile, allowing Alex Smith to be hit an average of 6 times per game and sacked nearly 4 times per game. In the 4 games since, however, the line has dramatically improved, allowing Smith to be hit only 1.5 times per game and sacked only 3 times per game (half of the sacks coming in one game). And the 49ers offense? 380.5 YPG. If there’s a more telling stat out there, I’d love to know it.

Super Bowl Chances: I’m trying hard to buy into this team, I really am. At the end of the day though, it’s still Alex Smith. Honestly, I think they’re a slightly better version of the Ravens, so I’ll give them 5%.

5. Detroit Lions (6-2)

After dropping a couple straight games, it seemed like a lot of people were filing towards the exits of the bandwagon. Truthfully, I stared at those exits myself, going so far as to stand up out of my seat so I could start shuffling that way. After further review, however, I’m gonna sit right back down in my chair and let everyone else do the bailing. While there are some definite concerns on this team (3rd down conversion, running the ball, stopping the run), there’s not a lot of evidence to suggest they’re frauds. While they might not be the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams just yet, they do rank in the top 10 in passing offense and scoring offense (4th). Even better, they hold opposition passers to a league low 5.8 Y/A and rank 4th in QB Rating against (72.3). It’s not like they lost to Miami or something…they lost to San Francisco and Atlanta. Every now and then, you’re gonna lose to good teams. That’s all.

Keep an eye on…Nate Burleson and Titus Young. For this passing offense to be truly special, they need a receiver opposite Calvin Johnson who can force defenses to account for him. Right now, Johnson is getting far too much attention, and nobody else has stepped up on the outside. Burleson was supposed to be that guy, but his meager 245 yards and 9.4 Y/C average suggests he’s not capable. Rookie Titus Young could be that guy someday, but his low catch rate of 50% makes him a borderline slot guy, much less a reliable #2 threat. Unless there’s a random Miles Austin stashed on their roster, waiting to break out, one of those two must step up their games or Detroit will likely have consistency problems down the stretch.

Super Bowl Chances: I feel the same about Detroit as I did two weeks ago. They have major holes at key points and many of their young players still have some developing to do. I wouldn’t be shocked if they pulled an upset in the Divisional Round (rematch with San Francisco?), but rolling all the way to a championship is probably not in the cards this year. One more year Detroit fans…these guys will be monstrous in 2012. This year, I’ll say 6%.

4. New Orleans Saints (5-3)

I feel so bad about putting them at #4 after last week, but I don’t know what else to do. There’s so much mediocrity in the NFL that I couldn’t justify putting any of the above teams ahead of the Saints. After all, I’ve seen them do it before! It was just two years ago (though it feels like an eternity, doesn’t it?)! I can’t possibly explain to you what happened against St. Louis. Maybe they looked past them. Maybe they had a crappy day. Maybe Sean Payton and Drew Brees are secretly fraternal twins and their connection caused Brees’ knee to blow up the exact moment Payton’s knee was getting trampled. Who knows? Fact is, they just might not be a good team. My guess is that’s not the case, and I’m willing to give a proven winner like New Orleans the benefit of the doubt.

Keep an eye on…Drew Brees’ interceptions. Yes, this is the same one I used two weeks ago. Sue me! Really, it’s the biggest issue for New Orleans. Their defense isn’t great, but they’ve had plenty of success with a mediocre defense before. No, the difference between now and Super Bowl Saints is the fact that Drew Brees can’t stop throwing the ball to the other team. He’s already got 10 INT’s this year. With a tough four game stretch on the horizon (vs. Tampa Bay, at Atlanta, vs. New York Giants, vs. Detroit), he’s going to need to protect the ball much better or the Saints could find themselves staring at another road game in the Wild Card round.

Super Bowl Chances: I feel far more pessimistic about them this time around, so I’ll say 9%.

3. New England Patriots (5-2)

New England gets smacked by the Steelers, thus they must drop below them in the Power Rankings. We can talk all day about Tom Brady and the “Patriot Way,” but at the end of the day, if they don’t figure out a way to stop someone from throwing the ball all over them, they aren’t getting out of the AFC.

Keep an eye on…Pass defense. I don’t even care that I’m double dipping on this. Things are so bad for New England that nothing else really matters at this point. Thinking back to the Super Bowl days, when Ty Law and Co. locked everything up downfield, it’s almost inconceivable that New England could be giving up 323.1 YPG through the air. What’s more surprising is how passive their current scheme is. For whatever reason, Belichick insists on playing a soft coverage, and Big Ben carved up that joke of a defense on Sunday. It was almost as if New England was conceding passes shorter than 15 yards! Something must be done or the Pats could be in for another short playoff run.

Super Bowl Chances: You can never count out Brady and Belichick, but you can severely reduced your made-up odds. I’ll give them 15%.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2)

I feel extraordinarily vindicated for ranking them so high in my last Power Ranking. After rolling through New England, the Steelers now have the best record in the AFC, and appear to have solidified many of their weaknesses. The running game seems to be on track, the defense is back to its usual tricks, and, most importantly, the offense is putting up points. It seems amazing after the rough start, but Pittsburgh ranks 5th in both total offense AND total defense. Not bad for an old, washed up team!

Keep an eye on…Rashard Mendenhall’s explosiveness. Mendenhall received a massive workload last season, and there was plenty of concern that it would negatively impact him in 2011. So far, it clearly has. He’s never been a big YPC guy (3.9 last season and this season), but he’s had the explosiveness to break big runs and make key plays. Last year, Mendenhall had 11 runs of 20 yards or more (5th) and accounted for 61 first downs (7th). This year, he has just 2 runs of 20 yards or more (t-23rd) and accounted for only 18 first downs (24th). He’s already had some nagging injuries this year, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he broke down at some point.

Super Bowl Chances: Clearly they’re primed for another run. I’ll give them 20%.

1. Green Bay Packers (7-0)

There’s not much for me to say about the only undefeated team left. Aaron Rodgers is the clear cut MVP of this season 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 32.9 PPG while also putting up well over 400 yards per game.

Keep an eye on…I really don’t know what to say here. I guess I could mention that they give up a bunch of passing yards, but a lot of those yards came in the first 2 games of the season, while much of the rest is garbage time stats. I guess I could mention that the running game is lackluster, but it was last year too…and they won the Super Bowl. How about this; watch Aaron Rodgers every chance you get because he’s having a historic year.

Super Bowl Chances: They’re the favorites. Enough said.

1 comment:

  1. Speaking of "could have" "should have," I would like to present the undefeated 49ers!!! Just kidding. Actually, since Bloomy is certain to visit here shortly, we may as well throw in the Browns, too!

    Seriously though, I actually can't complain with your rankings as much this time. Truth is, I believe the 49ers just played their worst game of the year. That would probably shock a lot of people, but I watched the entire game, and let me tell you, there's no reason this team didn't win 34-3.

    Anyway, it's good that you point out the offensive line. That is the #1 factor carrying them from a highly questionable 2-1 start to dismantling the Bucs and knocking a team out of the undefeated column in a tough road environment. Fact is, USC pretty-boy Chilo Rachal was a huge weak link in this line. The moment he was benched in favor of Oregon-tough Adam Snyder, the entire line suddenly looked like they could actually handle their assignments, because Snyder isn't constantly getting beat. Now suddenly Mike Iupati looks like a beast and big Joe Staley is catching 17-yard passes!! This will only make Alex Smith better. Watch out.