Tuesday, December 13, 2011

NFL Power Rankings (Through Week 14)

Yes, Cris. We heard you the first hundred times. We get it. Eli is good. Thank you.

Much to the delight of everyone, we’ll take a break from our normally scheduled “lashing of the NBA” to talk some football.

With only three weeks left in the regular season, it seems like we should have a pretty solid idea of where each team stands. Unfortunately, a bunch of conflicting results and a muddled group of 10 win teams makes determining the NFL’s landscape fairly tough. Thankfully, the measuring stick for each team is far clearer than in most seasons. For example, figuring out last year’s contenders was an exercise in sifting through seeding, matchups, and scenarios. This year, the only consideration is how a team matches up against Green Bay. Simple enough. Let’s see where things stand after Week 14:

(Note: Please everyone, be rational and don't assault me for not putting Tebow in the Top 10. I love him as much as anybody, and I've been on the bandwagon long before there even was a bandwagon. Some of you might remember the podcast last year where I bet Laney that Tebow would make a Pro Bowl before his rookie contract expired. I am as convinced as ever that Tebow can be an effective QB in the NFL, no matter what anyone else says. That having been said, they just aren't there yet. Tebow still needs time to develop, the coaching staff needs time to figure out how to make a solid game plan for him, the talent around Tebow needs to be upgraded, and the entire organization needs to have enough confidence in Tebow to actually let him do his thing.  Why Denver can't figure out that Tebow is spectacular in a true spread is beyond me, but maybe someday it'll hit them square in the face. Anyways, Denver is NOT a top ten team right now. If they take down New England this week, I'll obviously reconsider that stance. Until then, don't kill me for trying to be realistic.)

10. Atlanta Falcons (8-5)

While the Falcons have certainly fallen well short of expectations this season, the extreme top-heavy nature of the NFC has given them playoff life. With various Bears going either down (Cutler, Forte) or out (Marion Barber), Atlanta is sitting pretty as the NFC’s first Wild Card team. That having been said, they’re just 2-4 against teams with winning records, including an ugly loss to Houston in T.J. Yates’ first career start. Not sure if you’ve ever seen the NFL Playoffs before, but they generally feature teams with winning records. (Generally. Thank you, Seattle.)

Keep an eye on…Roddy White’s Catch Rate. White led the league in targets last season at 179. That seemed to work pretty well for Atlanta, as he converted a league leading 115 of those for catches (64%). White is once again leading the league in targets this year, having been thrown to 139 times already. The difference is that his catch rate has dropped to a substandard 54%. For comparison, Wes Welker has been targeted just three fewer times than White, but has caught 25 more balls. In the Atlanta games I’ve seen, White has missed his fair share of catchable balls, so I’m going to assume at least part of Matt Ryan’s decline can be attributed to a lack of production from his top target. If Atlanta is to have a chance, White will have to be as efficient and dominant as he was last season.

Super Bowl Chances: Believe me; I stared at my paper in disbelief after slotting Atlanta in at #9. They’re not even good. And what chances do I give a “not-good” team to win the Super Bowl? None…0%.

9. New York Jets (8-5)

Along with the Dallas Cowboys, the Jets are the best long-con in sports. Call them the “anti-Cowboys” if you will. New York plays like crap for most of the season, pulling out a few cheap victories along the way to technically stay alive in the playoff hunt. Then, when you’re least expecting it, they string together a few wins and barely inch their head above the giant muck of mediocrity in the AFC. However, people jumping onto the Jets bandwagon need to slow down, as they’ve beaten only one team with a winning record. Ironically, that was a cheap win against their antithesis (Dallas) in Week 1.

Keep an eye on…Shonn Greene. Greene appeared to be a big bust after the first few weeks of the season, but he’s quietly bounced back. Starting in Week 5, Green has ran the ball 156 times for 711 yards (4.6 Y/A). With the Jets just 2-4 in games where Sanchez throws 35 times or more, Greene’s continued effectiveness is a must if they are to finish out the season strong and make their seemingly annual playoff run.

Super Bowl Chances: There’s really no way to explain how they made two straight AFC Championship games, but there are a lot of ways to explain how it won’t happen a third time. Sanchez still sucks and the Jets have been clearly outclassed when facing quality opponents. Basically, they’re the exact same team as Atlanta, and I’ll give them the same 0% chance.

8. New York Giants (7-6)

On one hand, the Giants have a similarly poor record against quality opponents, having won just 2 of their 5 games against teams with a winning record. On the other hand, they’ve acquitted themselves much better in those games than either of the two previous teams. Yes, the Saints game was pretty ugly, but close losses to San Francisco and Green Bay could have easily gone the other way. Above all, the Giants boast a true championship caliber QB that is capable of winning any game. Still, being capable of winning games and actually winning those games are two totally different things.

Keep an eye on…Pass defense. Dallas’ secondary is taking all the criticism right now after Manning treated them like a practice squad defense, but things weren’t much better on the Giants end of things. Tony Romo piled up 321 yards and 4 TD’s, killing them deep downfield the withering pressure applied by the Giants front four. And don’t forget, the Giants secondary was bailed out BIG TIME by Romo’s overthrow of a wide-open Miles Austin. You can say that their pass defense stats are skewed by facing both Brees and Rodgers, but who do you think they’ll  have to go through to win the NFC?

Super Bowl Chances: In case you weren’t sure after hearing Cris Collinsworth say it six dozen times, Eli Manning is having a REALLY good season. And in case you weren’t sure after seeing the graphic of his 4th quarter numbers on the screen in between every single play, Manning has been killer at the end of games. For that reason, and that reason only, I give the Giants a slight sliver of a chance. After all, we’ve seen them piece together a completely illogical run to the championship before. Still, that chance is very slim…1%.

7. New England Patriots (10-3)

It seems weird to see a 10-3 Pats team this far down in the rankings, but I would argue that this is easily the worst Pats defense since their run started. Its one thing to give up yards and points to Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning, as the Pats did several weeks ago. It’s another thing altogether to give up yards and points to Dan Orlovsky and Rex Grossman, as they did the past two weeks. Pats fans can make up all the excuses they want about the defense and they can declare their trust in Belichick’s “genius” all they want…all I know is that, from my vantage point, I see a totally untalented secondary that would need to be coached by God himself to have a chance at improving. Ironically, they face Tim Tebow this week, so there isn’t much chance of that happening.

Keep an eye on…Pass defense. Let’s not get cute with this one. New England can score points, as always. Problem is, they can’t stop you from scoring points. Maybe they should try using their unused rookie RB’s at safety…

Super Bowl Chances:  The more I watch this team play, the more I think their loss to Pittsburgh is very representative of how good their playoff chances are. If they can secure the #1 seed in the AFC (possible because of their schedule) then they’ll avoid playing either Pittsburgh or Baltimore until the AFC Championship game. With Tom Brady, it certainly is possible for them to blow up against one of those teams, but taking that secondary into a shootout with Green Bay certainly seems like a death sentence. I won’t completely discount Brady, but I can’t give them any more than a 3% chance and keep my conscience clear.

6. Houston Texans (10-3)

The more I watch Houston play, the more I feel bad for them because of Schaub’s injury. With Schaub running the show, I honestly feel that they would not only be the best team in the AFC, but that they could pose a legitimate threat to Green Bay in the Super Bowl. And even though I kinda like T.J. Yates, it’s just too big of a drop-off to envision them rolling through the AFC, much less upsetting the Packers. However, the jury is still very much out on Yates. He made several huge plays in leading Houston to a come-from-behind victory over Cincinnati, and he clearly looks far more competent than anyone anticipated.

Keep an eye on…Andre Johnson’s Injury. I’m pretty much convinced that Yates doesn’t suck. That’s not to say I believe he’s good, but I definitely think he’s more than adequate to not totally crush their playoff chances. That conclusion, however, is predicated on the healthy return of Andre Johnson. Johnson has missed the vast majority of the season with various hamstring injuries and, while the Texans offense has more than survived in his absence, his dynamic playmaking is severely missed. Yates might not be the most accurate, but he has a big arm and can definitely get the ball down the field to Johnson. That might be enough to open up running lanes and give the Texans enough points to squeak by the rest of the AFC.

Super Bowl Chances: This is where my enthusiasm for T.J. Yates must end. I like the guy, I think he’s pretty solid, I think there’s a chance he develops into a pretty decent QB down the road. Super Bowl winner? In his rookie year? Probably not. Since the defense is strong and the running game is great, I won’t completely rule them out. I’ll give them 3%.

5. San Francisco 49ers (10-3)

The loss to the Cardinals doesn’t really concern me, as just about every team will have one of those “we didn’t really take them seriously” types of dumb losses in a season. The loss to Baltimore however, is a different matter. To that point, it isn’t the loss itself that makes me concerned, it’s the way Baltimore physically dominated the 49ers offensive line and blew up their protection from start to finish. This was a major concern for the 49ers heading into the season, and it looks like it might come back to bite them in the end. Alex Smith has been more than solid this season, but it’s kinda tough to complete passes when you’re at the bottom of a dog-pile. On the flip side, the vaunted 49ers defense more than kept them in the game, and even a slight improvement in protection could have flipped that result upside down.

Keep an eye on…Offensive Efficiency. I’ve talked about San Fran’s overrated offensive production all year, and the numbers are definitely there to show a very inefficient offense that has benefitted greatly from the field position provided by the defense and special teams. The 49ers currently rank 31st in 3rd down efficiency, converting just 29.2%. They also rank dead last in red zone TD%, scoring TD’s on just 35.6% of their red zone opportunities. I mean, David Akers has already attempted 42 FG’s, leading the league in both total attempts, attempts from 20-29 yards, and attempts from 20-39 yards. For comparison, Mason Crosby of the Packers has only attempted 4 FG’s from 20-29 yards. Simply put, the 49ers have GOT to stay on the field longer and put the ball in the end zone a lot more if they expect to hang with Green Bay or New Orleans.

Super Bowl Chances: Their chances increase greatly if they can secure home field in the Divisional Round, as I honestly believe they can take down New Orleans in an outdoor game. Even then, I just don’t think they match up very well with either the Saints or Packers. Defenses are just too handcuffed by the rules to truly shut down those teams, and the offense just isn’t capable of scoring enough points. Still, there’s something about this team that makes me believe they could string together a few upsets and win it all. I’m not giving them a great chance, but 8% seems about right.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3)

Our friend Nate Dunlevy from 18to88.com keeps talking about how poorly it speaks of the AFC that Pittsburgh might be their best team, and I can’t disagree at all. I stuck by them early in the season, but somehow it doesn’t even feel like the 10-3 record proves my initial gut reaction to be correct, as the Steelers resume is tattered with wholly unimpressive narrow victories against the Colts, Jags, Chiefs, and Browns. Still, despite their struggles, Pittsburgh currently ranks third in Football Outsiders DVOA rankings, behind just Houston in the AFC. As is usually the case, Pittsburgh seems to be the best mix of offense and defense in the AFC, and that has typically been an excellent formula for winning

Keep an eye on…Ben Roethlisberger’s Health. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like Big Ben has suffered some random injury in literally every game this year. He has yet to miss a game, which is obviously a good thing, but the Steelers need him at 100% in order to win the AFC. Roethlisberger’s ability to extend plays is apparently the stuff of legend (though his inability to just get rid of the ball apparently isn’t), and it’s a huge part of the offense since the O-line was replaced with a cheap crowd control barrier a few years back. If Roethlisberger is limited in this aspect, downfield threats like Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown become relatively meaningless and the Pittsburgh offense becomes relatively harmless.

Super Bowl Chances: It’s a good practice to keep Pittsburgh in the discussion, no matter how lackadaisical they look in their wins. At the end of the day, the Steelers just always seem to be there. Still, even if they roll through the AFC, there’s no reason to think an encore Super Bowl matchup against Green Bay would end any differently. I’ll give them just 10%.

3. Baltimore Ravens (10-3)

You might as well just re-read what I wrote for Pittsburgh, because they’ve pretty much had the exact same season. The only difference, of course, is that Baltimore beat Pittsburgh twice. For that, I’ll give them the slight edge this week. Also, the rest of their schedule is extremely manageable; meaning they very well might end up with home field throughout the playoffs. The separation between Baltimore and the rest of the AFC is paper thin, so home field could very well play a huge part in who goes to the Super Bowl.

Keep an eye on…Checkdown Joe. I make jokes about Joe Flacco’s penchant for going to his check down far too quickly, but things are seriously getting ridiculous. This guy can’t get the ball to his WR’s! Baltimore WR’s have caught just 100 passes, while RB’s/TE’s have caught 163! I didn’t tally up this number for every team, but I’m assuming you can understand that this isn’t a good ratio, especially for a team without a dominant TE.

Super Bowl Chances: I feel like they are the exact same team as the Steelers, so I’m also giving them 10%.

2. New Orleans Saints (10-3)

The Saints have been on fire recently, scoring mountains of points and beating four straight teams with a winning record. Add in their early victories against Chicago and Houston, and New Orleans has a very impressive 6-1 record against teams with a winning record. The only loss? Green Bay. That seems unfortunate since they’ll almost assuredly have to go through them to make it out of the NFC. On one hand, they played the Packers very tough in that game, coming painfully close to sending it to overtime. On the other hand, the weather in Green Bay for that Week 1 game is not even remotely representative of the conditions they’ll face the next time around.

Keep an eye on…San Francisco. The Saints don’t play another outdoor game until the postseason, so it seems safe to assume they’ll roll to a 13 win season. Unfortunately for them, the 49ers hold the tie breaker should their records be the same. That would mean they have to go through San Francisco AND Green Bay in order to make the Super Bowl. While the focus will obviously be on the tough conditions in Green Bay, San Francisco in January is certainly no walk in the park. All three of the Saints losses are on the road, and there’s no denying that they are a completely different team when playing in the Superdome. It’s impossible to boil it down to an exact number, but it kinda feels like home field is worth a couple TD’s to them. You can bet everyone on the Saints is a huge Steelers fan this week, as putting together one outdoor upset is far less daunting than doing it twice in a row.

Super Bowl Chances: Even as I talk about the difficulties of winning in San Francisco, I’d still take New Orleans to pull that off. Drew Brees is playing at such a high level right now, and this little run feels pretty darn familiar. I obviously don’t like them over Green Bay, but they clearly showed they can hang with them in a shootout. Remember, Rodgers has to play in the cold too. I’ll give them 20%.

1. Green Bay Packers (13-0)

Well, we’ve finally reached that magical time of year when everyone decides it’s boring to praise the Packers for being the best team in the league, and reverts to making up reasons why they’re “vulnerable” or “not as good as it might seem.” Look, I’m not saying they are DEFINITELY going to win the Super Bowl. Every team, even historically great ones, has bad days. Just ask the 2007 Patriots! That having been said, no matter how things turn out, they ARE every bit as good as it might seem. Rodgers IS having the single greatest season ever by a QB, and they ARE NOT truly vulnerable. People want to talk bad about their defense, but a lot of the points and yards they allow are garbage time stats after the game has been decided. Don’t buy into what the media is trying to sell. Once again, it’s a classic case of over-thinking the obvious.

Keep an eye on…Injuries. This is literally the only thing people need to watch. It will be interesting to see how they approach these final games, especially after Greg Jennings got nicked up in the second half last week.  

Super Bowl Chances: The clear favorites. I’ve upped them to 45%.

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