|Somehow, I feel confident Rodgers threw this pass 60 yards downfield, on a perfect spiral, for a TD.|
One more week.
After 16 grueling weeks of NFL regular season football, a stretch that left us with far more questions than answers, one week is all that remains for the NFL’s best and brightest to make a statement. Three divisions, one wildcard spot, three first round byes, and overall homefield in the AFC remain up for grabs heading into the last slate of games, making Week 17 an excellent primer for the upcoming playoffs. It should be fascinating to watch…unless, of course, you’re a Dallas Cowboys fan, in which case you enter Sunday night’s game with a morbid sense of dread and foreboding.
If you’ve followed my Power Rankings throughout the season, you’ll remember that I like to rank teams based on their ability to win the Super Bowl. After all, a Power Ranking is pretty ‘Power-less’ if it’s based on anything other than that…you know, since winning the Super Bowl is pretty much the point of the entire season. I definitely won’t be abandoning that in my final Power Ranking.
Speaking of powerless, here are two nebulous phrases we often hear come playoff time that have absolutely no relevance to anything, except to send me into a near-homicidal rage. I definitely WON’T be using them to rank teams…
“Peaking at the right time”
I am decidedly opposed to the idea of momentum in the traditional sense, especially as it relates to professional football. While I could buy into a ‘momentum factor’ in college sports, especially basketball, I find the idea that grown professionals would be so impacted by this nebulous concept to be laughable at best. I mean, seriously, how valuable is momentum when the announcers pinpoint a ‘seismic momentum shift’ approximately 27 times a game? One team scores; they have momentum. The other team scores on the very next drive; they have momentum. How is this still in our sports vocabulary? Ridiculous.
What’s even more ridiculous is the insistence that teams need to “peak at the right time” in order to win a championship. Uh…what? Can somebody please explain to me exactly what that means? Do you need to ‘peak’ in the playoffs, or slightly before the playoffs? Does everyone need to ‘peak’ at the same time, or can you get away with 75% of the team ‘peaking?’ For that matter, what the heck does ‘peaking’ mean in this context?
Fact is, there is absolutely no evidence to support either ‘momentum’ or ‘peaking’ as a significant factor in winning a championship. These are terms that analysts like to throw around when they have no real answers. Much to our dismay, sports do not fit into a nice little box, as the outcomes have much more to do with randomness and chance than many of us would like to admit. A combination of talent and luck is what makes a winner, not riding an undefined ‘hot streak’ at the end of the season.
Needless to say, I won’t be considering these things as I look at the playoff picture. Neither should you.
That having been said, let’s get to the Power Rankings:
10. Cincinnati Bengals (9-6)
Things get pretty bleak down here in the bottom of the top ten. With my choices being a bunch of teams I really, really don’t like (Jets, anyone?), I gave the nod to the only team with an offensive player that would scare the living daylights out of me if I were game planning against him. A.J. Green has singlehandedly turned several games in Cincinnati’s favor, and I would certainly not want to deal with him in any kind of elimination game. While the team certainly has a long ways to go in building a true contender, cracking the top ten of the Power Rankings, especially this late in the season, is a huge testament to how far they’ve come.
Keep an eye on…Andy Dalton. The Red Rifle hasn’t completed more than 58.1% of his passes or averaged more than 6.89 Y/A in his last four games, and the Bengals’ offense is stagnating as a result, averaging just 17.3 PPG in that stretch. Not that Dalton was particularly outstanding prior to that, but the passing offense has noticeably dipped lately. Facing a possible ‘do-or-die’ game this week against Baltimore, Dalton will have to do far better to lead his team to the playoffs.
Super Bowl Chances: It would certainly mean a lot for Cincinnati to make the playoffs in Year 1 of their latest rebuilding effort (much like the presidency, these terms cycle every four years), but it wouldn’t necessarily bring them any closer to true contention. The Bengals have far too many question marks to hang with the NFL’s elite, as their 1-6 record against fellow playoff contenders shows. Perhaps a few years down the road, but certainly not in 2011. I give them 0%. None at all.
9. Houston Texans (10-5)
It appears as if reality has finally set in for the Texans, as recent losses to both Carolina and Indianapolis have made an extended playoff run look severely doubtful. Sucks for them, as the AFC hasn’t been this wide open in years. New England, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore are all vulnerable, and a fully healthy Houston Texans team very well might be the best of the group. With T.J. Yates? Not so much.
Keep an eye on…Andre Johnson’s health. While Yates hasn’t been this decades version of Tom Brady, it’s clear that he has far more ability than some of the other replacement QB’s out there. I mean, would you rather have Yates, or Caleb Hanie? Lost in the rush to crucify Yates for the current losing streak is the fact that he hasn’t necessarily been given a fair shake thanks to the continued absence of Andre Johnson. After all, what do you expect a third string rookie QB to do when his best targets are Joel Dreessen and Jacoby Jones? I’m not saying all their passing woes will be gone once Johnson returns, but I have to believe they’ll have more offensive punch than the team that couldn’t break 20 against Indianapolis and Carolina.
Super Bowl Chances: Even if Andre Johnson comes back fully healthy, I just can’t buy into a team that loses to the Colts. For whatever reason, I really like T.J. Yates and I really want him to do well. Reality is reality though, and Yates just isn’t taking them anywhere. I’ll give them 0% as well.
8. Atlanta Falcons (9-6)
The fact that Atlanta is #8 on this list should tell you everything you need to know about the state of the NFL. I hate, hate, HATE this team, and it really does pain me to rank them this high. Still, they’ve consistently established themselves as perhaps the best second tier team, having taken care of business against similarly mediocre teams, while not really being competitive against the top teams, throughout the course of the season. Atlanta Falcons, I crown thee, ‘King of Mediocrity!’
Keep an eye on…Nothing. Literally nothing. Don’t watch this team. Don’t care about this team. Don’t pay attention to this team at all.
Super Bowl Chances: Even if they draw the NFC East winner in the first round of the playoffs – a game they would likely win – there is literally no chance for them to take down Green Bay, New Orleans, or San Francisco on the road. Again, I give this team 0% chance to win the Super Bowl, and I bestow the nickname ‘Matty Lite’ to the consistently overrated Matt Ryan.
7. Detroit Lions (10-5)
After a brief absence in the Power Rankings, the Lions have roared back thanks to a resurgence in their passing game. Matt Stafford hit a brief patch of trouble not long ago, tossing a Philip Rivers-like 10 INT’s in 4 games (1-3 in that stretch), but he has rebounded nicely in his last three, throwing 9 TD’s to 0 INT’s. Not surprisingly, the Lions have won all three of those games and have clinched their first playoff berth in over a century (wait, it hasn’t been that long?).
Keep an eye on…Playoff Seeding. A win for Detroit this week would guarantee them the #5 seed in the NFC, meaning they would face the NFC East winner in the Wild Card round. Thankfully for them, their opponent, Green Bay, has absolutely nothing to play for this week and will likely be resting a lot of their starters. That doesn’t necessarily mean a victory is guaranteed, but it certainly makes it more likely than if this game occurred last week. A loss, combined with an Atlanta win over Tampa Bay (a mortal lock), would give Atlanta the #5 seed thanks to a head-to-head victory. In that scenario, Detroit would face either New Orleans or San Francisco. On the road. Not good.
Super Bowl Chances: The Lions looked like a world beater early in the season, but inexperience and a lack of discipline has brought them back to earth and shown that they are clearly not ready to take the next step towards being a Super Bowl contender. Still, stranger things have happened. Detroit has a potentially explosive passing game when Stafford and Megatron are on the same page, and it only takes a short stretch of brilliance to take home the Lombardi Trophy. Of course, when that short stretch (potentially) goes through San Francisco, Green Bay, and New Orleans in succession…well, I wouldn’t say it’s likely. I’ll give them 2%.
6. New England Patriots (12-3)
There isn’t much left to say about these Patriots, as it appears as if they’ll once again be in prime position to waste the AFC’s #1 overall seed. Unlike in previous years, however, we should probably all see this one coming. Even in their current seven game win streak, the Patriots have been wholly unimpressive, having nearly lost to several crappy teams and having beaten nobody of note. The defense continues to suck, the offense continues to rely far too much on Tom Brady’s brilliance, and the injuries are starting to mount. It feels weird to talk so negatively of a likely 13 game winner, but there really isn’t much to get excited about other than Tom Brady. That formula hasn’t been working in recent years ,and I have no reason to believe it’ll work this year.
Keep an eye on…Pass Rush. New England’s pass rush has consistently been one of the league’s worst over the last few seasons, but things started to turn around this year thanks to a couple under-the-radar guys, most notably Andre Carter. That magical ride ended about a week ago when Carter was placed on IR. Surprisingly, the Pats were able to sack Matt Moore five times last week, even without their top player. The question is, can they keep it up, or will the pass rush fade without a dominant outside threat? With their secondary being as awful as it is, New England will be in big trouble if they can’t consistently bring pressure.
Super Bowl Chances: This team suffers from the same problems they did last year, only this time the problems are worse. Even with a fully healthy roster, I’d have a hard time ranking them inside the top five. The only saving grace for New England is that Tom Brady is more than capable of putting together a three game stretch of dominance and singlehandedly carrying the Pats farther than they have any business going. Am I betting on that? In a word, no. I’ll give them a 5% chance of winning.
5. San Francisco 49ers (12-3)
Honestly, I have no idea what to do with this team. You’d think an entire 16 game season would be enough to figure them out, but I honestly feel like I don’t know a darn thing about them. The Monday Night game against Pittsburgh was supposed to be the litmus test, but Big Ben’s injury all but invalidated the results. As a result, I have no idea how San Francisco will perform in the playoffs. Can they hold up against Green Bay, New Orleans, Baltimore, New England, or even a fully healthy Pittsburgh? Or will their offensive limitations come back to bite them? Fortunately for them, it appears as if they’ll secure a first round bye and have home field in the Divisional Round. Let’s just hope they don’t play in the night game…
Keep an eye on…Frank Gore’s Production. San Francisco is decidedly a run heavy offense, and Frank Gore is decidedly the straw that stirs their drink. When Gore is rumbling like he’s capable of, the 49ers can control the clock and dominate games the way the Baltimore Ravens used to do. When Gore isn’t rumbling…well, that’s when the ‘Niners find themselves in trouble. Unfortunately, it appears as if Gore is once again wearing out in the latter stages of the season.
First 8 Games – 159 ATT, 782 YDS, 4.9 Y/A, 5 TD’s
Those are MVP-type numbers right there. Not surprisingly, the 49ers were 7-1 in that stretch, scoring 25.8 PPG. However, both Gore and the San Francisco offense have shown serious signs of slippage since then.
Last 7 Games – 116 ATT, 420 YDS, 3.6 Y/A, 3 TD’s
The ‘Niners are still a very solid 5-2 in that stretch, but they’ve been very fortunate to face the bulk of their NFC West schedule at the right time as their offensive production has dipped to just 20 PPG. Gore has a lot of mileage on him at this point in his career, and he certainly has a history of wearing down. If that is truly the case, San Francisco could find scoring to be a big problem come playoff time.
Super Bowl Chances: I don’t believe in them. Not at all. They have yet to win a single game this season that makes me think they’re capable of going anywhere in the playoffs, and I honestly wouldn’t be shocked if they lost in the first round, especially since they’ll have to face New Orleans. Then again, their ability to make games ugly and win on defense does make them a pretty strong ‘spoiler’ candidate. I’m dubious as to whether they can do it three times in a row, but stranger things have happened. We’ll see if they can continue to get production out of Kendall Hunter, because Gore doesn’t appear to be the same guy he was early in the season. I’ll give them a shot, but not a good one. Let’s go with 5%.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-4)
Let’s say it one more time, with feeling! It doesn’t matter what happens to Pittsburgh when Roethlisberger is hurt! Simply put, he IS their offense. No logical judgment can be made when Big Ben is hobbling around like an 80 year old man, because the Steelers are pretty clearly not going to have success that way. When Ben is healthy, however…well, I think we all know what Pittsburgh is capable of at that point.
Keep an eye on…Ben Roethlisberger’s Health. For that matter, keep an eye on EVERYBODY’S health…especially James Harrison’s mental health. Look, the Steelers are not as good as they have been in the recent past. Heck, they probably aren’t as good as they were last year. Still, it’s a bit hard to judge them when all they’ve dealt with is injury after injury to this point in the season. And yet, despite those setbacks, Pittsburgh is still in a position to earn a first round bye should next week go their way. To me, that speaks of how solid they are across the board, and how prepared they will be to step it up in the playoffs…just like always.
Super Bowl Chances: I’m assuming Roethlisberger will be ready to roll in the playoffs, as they’re already saying he might be able to go as early as next week. With him, Maurkice Pouncey, James Harrison, Lamarr Woodley, and others likely ready for the postseason, I’m not counting out a team that has been there and done that plenty of times before. That having been said, I also have to acknowledge the concerns that come from depending on a team as banged up as the Steelers. A lot of things are going against my lofty ranking here, and I’m mostly doing this on previous performance and gut feeling. Since I’m literally terrified of both of those things, I’ll only give the Steelers an 8% chance.
3. Baltimore Ravens (11-4)
Baltimore and San Francisco are so eerily similar that I almost feel like copying and pasting the 49ers paragraph onto this one. Two great defenses, two great running games, and two unfortunately average QB’s that prevent their respective offenses from being much more effective. In this case, however, everyone expects Joe Flacco to be an ‘elite’ QB…which is funny because Alex Smith has far outperformed his this season. Overall, I can easily say Baltimore is better than both Pittsburgh and San Francisco, and I can point to more than just head-to-head matchups to back that up. The Ravens have an unbelievable record against top competition, going 6-1 against current playoff contenders. Those wins include two against Pittsburgh, one against San Francisco, and one against the Texans prior to Matt Schaub’s injury. That’s a heck of a resume! Unfortunately, the Ravens can also soil themselves at the drop of a hat, making them a near impossible read going forward.
Keep an eye on…Anquan Boldin’s Health. Without Boldin in the lineup Saturday, Checkdown Joe managed just two completions to WR’s. TWO!!! THAT’S IT!!! While Boldin isn’t the franchise type receiver they thought they were getting, he’s an extremely reliable weapon that has a massive impact on the Ravens passing game. Without him, Flacco is left with nothing more than checkdowns and deep bombs, making the passing game completely helpless against even an average defense.
Super Bowl Chances: The Ravens could have a tough time beating Cincy on the road this week, which would greatly impact their Super Bowl chances. If they can pull out a victory, they’ll earn a first round bye, giving Boldin an extra week to get healthy and back in the lineup. If they can’t, they’ll face the Bengals a second week in a row before hitting the road for the rest of the AFC Playoffs. I’m assuming they’ll win, since they’ve consistently handled their business against top competition. With that in mind, and Boldin likely ready for the playoffs, I’ll give Baltimore a 9% chance.
2. New Orleans Saints (12-3)
So, the Saints are pretty good. They’ve now won seven straight games, having beaten opponents with a winning record in five of those games. Drew Brees is giving Aaron Rodgers a legit challenge in the MVP race, the Saints offense is putting up 37.8 PPG in their last five games, and New Orleans is being anointed as the primary challenger to the mighty Packers. Whether that’s true or not remains to be seen, but there’s little doubt that Green Bay probably wants no part of them in the playoffs.
Keep an eye on…San Francisco. It appears as if a 13 win Saints team will not be getting a first round bye this season. That sounds weird, but the Saints have no one else to blame but themselves. After all, how can you really be mad when you drop games to Tampa Bay and St. Louis? As a result, New Orleans will have to go through San Francisco to get their shot at Green Bay. Matchup-wise, I love that game for the Saints, as the 49ers are just not built/ready to score with a team like that. However, we should all be very aware of how different the Saints are away from home. After all, both the Tampa Bay and St. Louis losses were on the road, as were surprising struggles against Carolina and Tennessee.
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 25%.
1. Green Bay Packers (14-1)
I don’t care how much hype the Saints are getting right now, the Packers are still the best team in the NFL. By far. Their recent loss to the Chiefs can be chalked up to nothing more than boredom, as nobody on Green Bay seemed particularly invested in that game. While it’s always a bit dangerous to flip the switch on and off like many of these dominant teams do at the end of a season, I make it a practice to give the benefit of the doubt to the best QB alive. With all due respect to Brees and Brady, that guy is Aaron Rodgers.
Keep an eye on…Offensive Line Health. Chad Clifton, Bryan Bulaga, and Derek Sherrod are all dealing with injuries at this point, leaving Green Bay dangerously thin at tackle. While both Clifton and Bulaga are expected back in time for the playoffs, there still has to be some serious protection concerns going forward. The only thing that can malfunction Aaron Rodgers and his offense is an inability to stay upright.
Super Bowl Chances: Let’s not overreact to the Kansas City loss or freak out about a few injuries. Barring further injuries, the offensive line will be mostly intact come playoff time and Greg Jennings will be back at WR. With home field guaranteed throughout, the Packers have a decided edge in their quest for a second straight Lombardi Trophy. Still the heavy favorites, I’ll give them 45%.