NFL Rankings, Week 13

Week 13…  one month to go until the end of the season!

With five games left to play this season, things are certainly heating up but some teams are cooling down.

As mentioned last week, the Bears (#7, 4.24) struggled without Jay Cutler at the helm, and may be at the beginning of a skid with their offense in the very unsure looking hands of Caleb Hanie. Their defense and Matt Forte will keep them in games, but with Hanie looking like Rex Grossman minus the talent, turnovers may kill this team’s hopes of playing in January.

Lucky for the Bears the Lions (#10, 2.00) also lost a star player when Ndamukong Suh decided to curbstomp the Packers’ backup guard Evan Deitrich-Smith on Thursday.  After grabbing Deitrich-Smith’s head and smashing it into the turf a few times, Suh was pulled away from the guard by other players.  Suh was not quite finished and with clear intent stomped on Deitrich-Smith’s arm while the player was still on the ground.  Suh was immediately ejected in the loss, and for the brutality of the infraction as well as his apparent lack of remorse for the act (he later claimed to be trying to regain his balance, but has since admitted his mistake) he has been suspended for the next two games as well.

The Texans (#6, 5.48) are on a roll and with the Colts (#32, -12.10) finally out of their way the AFC South title seems to be in their grasp.  But two weeks ago Matt Schaub’s season ended with an injury, and last week his replacement Matt Leinart, who was playing well, also succumbed to a season ending injury.  Tyler Yates finished the game and is slated to start this week, but Yates is just not the guy to inspire confidence in a team as they come down the homestretch and into a playoff run.  Kellen Clemens has been brought in as a virtual 4th string quarterback in the event that Yates’ season also ends abruptly, but do not expect big things out of either player.  Even though the Texans have thrived on solid defense and a dynamic running game, Yates invites opponents to stack the box against the run and put Houston to the test.  With only a two game lead over Tennessee (#13, 0.86) the Texans might be headed for more heartbreak than glory.

Oakland (#14, 0.30) is playing well and looked good driving the ball against Chicago’s stout defense last weekend.  Unfortunately for them, the Tim Tebow tide is taking over.  The Broncos (#18, -1.25) are nipping at the heels of the Raiders in terms of The Power Rank, and after a four game win streak are only one game behind the division leader, and are only one game out of the second wild card spot as well.  The real secret to Tebow’s success, unless you believe in divine intervention, is a combination of an emerging defensive powerhouse led by this year’s second-overall draft pick, Von Miller, and Tebow’s excellent ball security.  Denver’s defense has allowed Tebow’s anemic offense to win games in spite of averaging less than 20 points per game.  It’s not so much that Oakland is hurting…  in fact, they are doing fairly well under veteran replacement Carson Palmer.  It’s more that Denver seems to be getting hot at the right time.  If they keep their momentum going Oakland may take a back seat in the division and miss a shot at the playoffs.

Finally, the Giants (#17, -0.70) are starting to match their record with their mediocre rank on The Power Rank.  Our numbers have shown them to be overachievers all season long, and they have finally allowed slow starting Dallas take control of the NFC East with their recent three game losing streak.  With a probably loss at home against Green Bay (#1, 12.54) this weekend, the Giants will fall to 6-6, a mediocre .500 record that matches their inconsistent play this year.

Expect these downward trends to continue as the season winds down.

NFL Rankings, Week 12

Rodgers, Manning twice
Quarterback, changes destiny
Happy Turkey Day

Happy Thanksgiving Power Rank readers!

Here are the rankings for tomorrow’s menu:

1.  Turkey legs  10.43

2.  Stuffing  8.74

3.  Turkey breast  5.21

4.  Mashed potatoes and gravy  4.98

5.  Pumpkin Pie  3.16

6.  Cranberry sauce  -25.47

Just kidding!

On a more serious note, here is something I’m very thankful for this year:  19 years of the Packers (#1, 12.14) having a future Hall of Fame quarterback under center.  Not every fan base is as lucky as the one I am proud to be a part of, and it is good to reflect on that unbelievable fortune from time to time.

The Colts (#32, -12.18) are at the opposite end of that spectrum, losing their future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning to neck problems this year, sending them from a top-tier AFC powerhouse to the worst team in the league by almost every metric available.  For fans who have seen Peyton taking snaps every week since 1997, this season is quite a shock to the system.

Other teams haven’t been so stable at the quarterback position over the years, and their ups and downs have shown it.  The Bears, for instance (#5, 5.39) have always seemed to have trouble finding a reliable trigger in spite of years of talented defenses and running backs.  Chicago fans largely applauded the coming of Jay Cutler, the best quarterback talent the Windy City has seen since Jim McMahon.  Now Cutler is likely out for the rest of the regular season, and possibly a portion of the postseason, with an injured thumb.  The Power Rank has been measuring the Bears success with a competent starter leading the offense. With backup Caleb Hanie, their true power is likely diminished, which will show in the coming weeks both in their record and in their ranking.  For this week, do not count on the raw numbers as Chicago is favored over Oakland (#17, -1.15) by 4.5 on the road.

Another team made a big change under center this week.  The Kansas City Chiefs (#31, -8.22) have acquired the benched Kyle Orton from their division rival Broncos (#22, -2.35) to fill in for an injured Matt Cassel.  Tyler Palko was given a shot on Monday night to take the reigns, but a performance that yielded no touchdowns and three interceptions sent the Chiefs looking elsewhere.  Personally, I believe that not only is Orton an upgrade over Palko, he’s an upgrade over Cassel.  This is sure to be controversial, but I think Orton can deliver a ball to gifted receivers, which the Chiefs have in Dwayne Bowe and Steve Breaston.  It may not be enough for them to beat the Steelers (#8, 3.71) this week, but it may be enough for the Chiefs to start climbing out of the cellar and back into playoff contention.

Finally the Eagles (#13, 1.59) have been struggling all year, but managed to beat the Giants (#14, 0.99) with backup quarterback Vince Young last week.  This improbable loss helped bring the Giants’ division leading record closer to what the Power Rank has expected of the G-Men all year (mediocrity) and they are now tied for the lead with Dallas (#10, 2.85).  The Power Rank has considered the Cowboys a strong team all season in spite of a slow start with a tough schedule, but as things shake out they are rising to the top and The Power Rank expects this trend to continue.

That is, of course, assuming that Cowboys fans give their thanks tomorrow to ensure that Tony Romo can stay healthy for the remainder of the season!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

NFL Rankings, Week 11

Here we are, week 11 in the NFL.  In spite of the fact that Aaron Rodgers is on pace to post a record breaking season in almost every statistical category for a quarterback, Tebowmania is sweeping the nation.  But while Rodgers’ Packers (#1, 13.13) are all but a lock for a playoff spot, Tebow’s Broncos (#24, -2.81) are more questionable.  How questionable?  Well, let’s take a look a the current playoff picture by NFL standards:

Currently Denver is not quite making the cut, but with a win over the Jets (#17, -0.03) last night they are only half a game behind division leader Oakland (#18, -1.83) and are 1.5 games out of the wildcard spot.  If they were baseball those numbers would be more encouraging, but with only 6 games left it will be difficult but not impossible for the Denver Tebows…  i mean Broncos…  to make the playoffs.  Also just missing the cut are the Bills (#16, 0.39) who have fallen flat after a fantastic start to the season, and the Titans (#15, 0.54).

But this is just what the records of the teams are, and those are going to change significantly over the coming weeks.  Less likely to change is each team’s Power Rank.  So let’s take a look at what the Power Rank predicts for the 2011 playoffs.

When the Power Rank is used to predict the teams that will make the playoffs some interesting things happen.  Denver is not even on the map.  Oakland is predicted to win the abysmal AFC West in spite of their negative rating.  Tennessee has the 6th best rating in the AFC, but Oakland gets the nod because a team from every division has to be represented.  (How bad is the AFC West you ask?  Every single team in it has a negative point differential this year.  Ouch.)

In the NFC a big change occurs in the NFC East.  Dallas (#9, 2.93) overtakes New York (#13, 1.44) for the division title, and the Giants go from division winner to watching the playoffs from home.  Detroit (#11, 2.17) hangs on to a wildcard berth, but barely.  Given the team’s recent slide and the fact that Jahvid’s Best’s return is not yet in sight it is reasonable to expect them to continue falling, meaning there may be room for the Falcons (#12, 1.51) or another NFC East team to sneak in later in the season.

Ok.  Now for a word on this Tebow guy and the triple option.  The triple option isn’t the newest thing to hit the NFL, it’s one of the oldest things to hit the NFL.  The Broncos are taking advantage of a league that is focused on the passing game, that has pass cover corners who struggle to take on strong runners (did you see Revis get trampled last night?) and smaller, faster defensive linemen who focus on rushing passers.  The Miami Dolphins (#27, -4.93) did the same thing in 2008, wowing the league with the “Wildcat”, a variation of the single wing formation that was popular when leather helmets were still used. Where is the Wildcat featured now?  In the same place that the triple option will be featured in a couple of years:  nowhere.

The truth is that the triple option doesn’t present a team with a ton of options.  So if teams feel threatened they will just stock up on a couple 350lb+ defensive linemen who eat up double teams and destroy any kind of surge to offensive line attempts to create.  If Tebow’s center and guards’ backs are being pushed into his face he can’t make his reads or execute his options, and as we’ve seen there’s not a whole lot else that guy can do.

At least on the field.

Leading the Broncos across the Delaware

Raising the flag at Tebow-jima

NFL Rankings, Week 8

This week I am going to take a page out of the Fox News playbook.

Hey?  Where are you going?  Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to sell you Food Insurance.  I just want to focus this week’s discussion on the key battleground divisions the way news networks look at swing states while ignoring the rest of the country.  So Rams fans can breathe easy, I won’t be taking so many shots at your team this week.  Besides, you should all still be celebrating the (baseball) Cardinals victory!

Battleground Division #1 – NFC North

The NFC North is stacked with talent this year, led by the Super Bowl champion and The Power Rank leader Green Bay Packers (#1, 11.55).  Normally having a team like the Packers in a division would settle matters, but this year it does not.  The reason is that the Lions (#4,  5.17) are right on the Packers’ heels, and the Bears (#9, 3.78) are not that far behind.  That’s three top ten teams in one division.  The Lions may have a hard time keeping up their pace especially with their oft-injured quarterback having ankle problems last week, and the Bears are legendary for pulling wins out of thin air.  Just ask Dennis Green!  Even if the Packers’ high level of success continues and they lock up the division title early, the Bears and Lions will both still likely be in the playoff hunt, in fact if the playoffs started today both teams would receive a wildcard berth.  With a lot of division games left the NFC North division is going to be an interesting one to watch.

Battleground #2 – AFC North

What’s with the North being so good at football?  Although the AFC North doesn’t feature three top ten teams as the NFC North does, it comes very close.  This division is led by the Baltimore Ravens (#3, 7.80) but they are actually a half-game behind the Steelers (#11, 2.58) and only a half game ahead of the Bengals (#12, 1.69).  Now, I know nobody talks about the “top twelve” of any lists, but it is nonetheless impressive that this tight grouping all falls within the top 12 teams in The Power Rank.  It’s hardly a revelation to NFL fans that the Steelers and Ravens are going to be battling for a division title, or that the loser is likely to grab a wildcard spot.  What is unlikely is the upstart Bengals sticking their noses into the mix.  With a third solid team to contend with the Steelers and Ravens will not be able to take anything for granted this season, and the fight for a playoff berth may get ugly in this division that is known for misconduct both on and off the field.

Battleground #3 – NFC East

The NFC East doesn’t carry nearly as many strong teams as the NFC and AFC North divisions do, but with some schedule oddities the team that The Power Rank picks as the clear division favorite is lagging behind in the actual standings.  The Cowboys (#8, 3.85) should be running away with this division in light of the fact that their closest competition should be the Eagles (#18, -0.89) who are also struggling to find wins.  Instead the Giants (#24, -3.29) are leading the division with a 4-2 record.  True, it’s early in the season.  And yes, we at The Power Rank do think that as things shake out the Cowboys’ record will start to match their apparent strength.  Even so, with poor starts from teams with high expectations and surprising starts from teams with low ones, everyone is in the mix here and every game is going to be an especially heated contest.

Non-Battleground – AFC East

The Power Rank is scheduled to get some East Coast bias with our next software upgrade.  If you want to hear how this is the only division that matters this year (or any other) tune into ESPN.  We apologize for the inconvenience.  Sure, the AFC East has a lot of strength in top ten teams New England (#2, 9.77) and New York (#7, 4.36) but in spite of what some sports news anchors would have you believe, this is not news.  The addition of the up and coming Bills (#16, 0.41) is shaking some fans’ confidence in the Patriots and Jets getting their perennial playoff spots, but The Power Rank thinks otherwise.  The Bills are indeed a good team right now but good is not enough in a division that has contained two top ten (and usually top five) teams for the last few years.  This division will get down and dirty where it normally does (in the playoffs) with the teams it normally sends (the Pats and Jets).  Until then, my attention will be elsewhere.

NFL Rankings, Week 7

Effect of lockout
What does The Power Rank say?
Have good leadership

Through the first six weeks of the season the results are decidedly lopsided.

Some of you faithful of The Power Rank are scratching your heads and thinking “Tom is off his rocker this week, doesn’t he remember that the average of all The Power Rank ratings always equals zero”? Even more of you must think I am insane, as the Power Rank shows that 18 teams have a rating over zero, while only 14 are below that magical mean.

But there is more to The Power Rank than just averages.  To illustrate the lopsidedness of the league so far this season I created the following graph which shows the distribution of NFL teams by their rating (rounded to the nearest integer):

As you can see, the “0” row, which should be at the center of the main bulk of the teams, is actually closer to the high side of the middle of the main pack of teams.  The reason for this are the transcendent outliers, the top three teams:  #1 New England (10.63), #2 Green Bay (10.11), and #3 Baltimore (9.27).  These three teams have been so consistent and solid that the Power Rank shows them as head-and-shoulders above all other competitors.

To be fair, there is a team that is as transcendentally bad as the top three are good (Sorry Temple).  The Rams (#32, -9.68) are just struggling as a franchise even though the recent acquisition of Brandon Lloyd may provide the team with a target for Sam Bradford and the spark they have been missing.  Until that turnaround happens St. Louis is still stuck in their hole far below the rest of the Power Rank field.

After removing these outliers the mean of the remaining 28 teams drops from 0 to -0.76, a fairly significant drop in Power Rank terms.  Only six pairs of teams in the Power Rank are separated by a rating gap of more than 0.76:

#2 Green Bay (10.11) and #3 Baltimore (9.27)

#3 Baltimore (9.27) and #4 Detroit (6.58)

#5 San Francisco and (6.12) and #6 New York Jets (4.08)

#19 Washington (-0.28) and #20 Atlanta (-1.50)

#21 New York Giants (-1.64) and #22 Minnesota (-3.44)

#31 Kansas City (-6.93) and #32 St. Louis (-9.68)

0.76 rating points are significant enough that adding them to #18 Philadelphia (0.24) would move them four steps higher to #14, just ahead of current #14 Chicago (0.98).

To make matters worse, emergent powerhouses Detroit (#4, 6.58) and San Francisco (#5, 6.12) are stranded somewhere in the no-man’s-land between the blob of average teams and the island of Super Bowl favorites.  Personally I think they belong with the majority of teams, but we may have some Lions or Niners faithful in the audience that would beg to differ.  To please those fans, I also calculated the average ratings of only the yellow teams, making the assumption that the Lions and Niners are poised to continue their meteoric rises to join the ranks of the Patriots, Packers, and Ravens.

The average rating of the 26 yellow teams comes out to an unimpressive -1.27, a full half a point lower than the average with Detroit and San Francisco in the group.  That means that the average performance rate of the yellow teams fall somewhere between the Redskins (formerly) Grossman powered team, and the Atlanta Failcons.

A lot of people went in to this season expecting chaos due to the lockout, players not being ready, and teams being in turmoil with new staff unable to get familiar with their athletes.  I think what we are seeing here is a graphic representation of that chaos.  The teams at the very top (New England, Green Bay, and Baltimore) all have had very few roster and organizational changes between this year and last.  Stadium lockouts didn’t prevent Aaron Rodgers from calling a captain’s practice with Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson.  I’d bet my left hand that Ray Lewis was on top of his teammates, making sure they stayed fit and ready to come back and win.

On the other hand teams without strong veteran leadership, teams that made significant roster moves (Eagles), and especially teams that are under new head coaches have been left adrift in this sea of yellow.  One thing is certain.  12 teams are going to be in the playoffs.  It is likely that the cream of the early crop, the teams highlighted in blue and green, will make the cut.  But that will leave seven spots for teams from the yellow blob of mediocrity.

Are the 2-3 Cowboys (#7, 3.86) a playoff team?  Their record would suggest that they are not.  In fact, their record is tied with the #31 Chiefs (-6.93).  And what about the future of the 4-2 Giants (#21, -1.64)?  The Power Rank is not impressed, but they are getting wins.

Keep your eyes open.  The surprises of the 2011 season are just beginning, and truly anything can happen.  Just ask the Bengals and their newly gained draft picks…