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Ranking the NFL Chaos
With the way 2012 has gone, it's pretty difficult to figure out which teams are actually good — but we're going to try to do it anyway
By Bill Barnwell on October 15, 2012
Week 6 washed away a lot of what we thought we knew about the best teams in the NFL. That'll happen when underdogs win nine out of the week's 13 matchups outright and cover two more. Before Sunday, it felt like we had three clear candidates for the title of the league's best team: Houston, San Francisco, and Atlanta. Then two of those teams got blown out and the third delivered a tepid performance in a narrow win for the third consecutive week.
Now, there's a jumble of teams around the top, and varying cases to be made for the league's best team. Some might say that it doesn't matter; nobody was suggesting that the 4-2 Giants ranked among the league's best teams after Week 6 last year, and being anointed as the best team in football would ruin the surefire motivational tactic of "nobody believes in us," which seems to be the entire reason the NFL exists at the moment. If there's no top-ranked team, how can the players and coaches of the other 31 teams rest their heads at night knowing that there's some fan or media member out there who believes in another team more? We are in desperate need of some semblance of order!
I'm not prepared to borrow another Simmons construct and go through the league with a full, official Power Poll — the paperwork and bureaucracy in getting a Power Poll notarized as official is absurd — but I am prepared to go through the eight best teams in football and anoint one as my own personal choice for the NFL's top team. The reverse-jinx potential is enormous, but it's a task that simply has to be completed. To be the man, we … have to identify which man it's necessary to beat first and then beat him. So let's get to that.
Just on the outside of the top eight are the Dolphins (missing due to offensive inconsistency/performance issues), Chargers (who have played a slate of cream puffs), Vikings (after a very disappointing loss to the Redskins), and Seahawks (who look like the NFC West's best team at home and its worst team on the road). Teams whom those four beat are in the top eight, and some are ranked ahead of teams who beat them, because figuring this stuff out isn't based solely on what happened when one team played another.
Let's start with the league's Jekyll and Hyde team, the one that fluctuates between dominant and ordinary from quarter to quarter:
8. Green Bay Packers (3-3)
Is it harder to get a grip on any team at the moment? What are the Packers? Are they the team that just pulled off the most impressive win of the season on Sunday night, blowing out the undefeated Texans at home by three scores? The team that held Arian Foster to 29 yards on 17 carries without B.J. Raji while losing two starting linebackers during the game? Or are they the team that capitulated against the Colts, helplessly watching as Andrew Luck threw pass after pass to Reggie Wayne? How can that same offensive line allow Rodgers to be sacked eight times in 47 drop backs against the Seahawks and just twice in 39 trips against the Texans? Will they start consistently creating takeaways on defense again, something that's eluded them in three out of their first six games?
I think Green Bay is better than they've seemed so far because they've played a pretty tough schedule; their six opponents are a combined 17-10 in games that haven't involved the Packers. Over the next three weeks, they travel to St. Louis before facing the Jaguars and Cardinals at home; three comfortable wins in those three games will make their record look a lot better. And if they can't run the table before their Week 10 bye, it should tell us more about their credentials as a contender.
7. Baltimore Ravens (5-1)
6. New England Patriots (3-3)
How are the Ravens behind the Patriots, a team that they beat by a point in Week 3? Well, start with that fact: They won by one point on a last-second field goal at home. Since Vegas values home-field advantage as being worth about three points, looking at that one result suggests that the Patriots would be about two points better than the Ravens on a neutral field. Truthfully, I wouldn't read too much into that one game, but I think there's evidence that there's very little separating these two.
Look at Baltimore's five wins. There's the blowout victory over the Bengals in Week 1, a truly impressive performance, followed by the narrow win over the Patriots in Week 3. After that, Baltimore's beaten the Browns by a touchdown, the Chiefs in a 9-6 affront to modern football, and the Cowboys by two points in a game they nearly threw away. (More on that later.) After his hot start against the Bengals, Joe Flacco has completed exactly 60 percent of his passes and thrown six touchdowns against four picks.
The Patriots, meanwhile, have a 3-3 record that includes more impressive victories. Beating the Titans by 21 isn't much, but they also dropped 52 points on the Bills and went up 31-7 on the Broncos before some garbage time scoring. Their three losses are by a combined four points. New England's opposition has gone 17-12 in games that don't involve the Patriots. Baltimore's opposition has gone 12-17 in games that don't involve the Ravens.
The biggest reason why the Ravens rank behind the Patriots, though, is injury. Since these are supposed to be forward-looking rankings, it's impossible to talk about the Ravens without discussing how their defense appears ready to fall apart. The defense was already missing star pass rusher Terrell Suggs, out with an Achilles injury that he's going to struggle to come back from this year. On Sunday, while Haloti Ngata suffered a mild MCL sprain, the bigger news came in with serious injuries to two other defensive stars. Lardarius Webb, the team's best cover corner, suffered his second torn ACL in four years. He's done for the season, and he might be joined by Ray Lewis, who might have torn his triceps during the win over the Cowboys. It's one thing to live without your star pass rusher, but the Ravens are a defense built around their five defensive stars, and even if Ngata's knee is fine, it looks like they're about to be down three of those five guys for the remainder of the season.
5. New York Giants (4-2)
4. San Francisco 49ers (4-2)
Yep. The Giants just smoked the 49ers at Candlestick in what was, until the Packers-Texans game, the most impressive 60 minutes by an NFL team this season. They took a 49ers team that had won their previous two games by a total of 76 points to the woodshed, winning 26-3 in a performance that was every bit as dominant as the score line indicated. The Giants even picked up the moral victory of getting Ahmad Bradshaw over 100 yards and into the end zone on a running play, becoming the first team to do either of those things against the 49ers at home during the Jim Harbaugh era.
So how can the Niners be ahead of the Giants? Because they've been much better over the other five weeks of the season. In addition to stomping the Bills and Jets, remember that the Packers needed a miracle flag pickup from the replacement refs to get within one score of the Niners in Week 1, and that the Lions offered little resistance a week later. When the Niners start beating a team, that team stays beat. Meanwhile, the Giants have losses under their belts to the mediocre Cowboys and Eagles, and while they made the Panthers look bad on Thursday night, they needed comebacks to fight off the Browns and Buccaneers at home. As great as the Giants looked on Sunday, it's not exactly sacrilege to suggest that they are an inconsistent team. And if they played the 49ers in San Francisco this upcoming week, the Giants might not be the seven-point underdogs in Vegas that they were this past Sunday, but they definitely wouldn't be favored, either. That's why the Niners are closer to the top.
3. Atlanta Falcons (6-0)
Just because a team has the best record — especially in a sample as tiny as six games — doesn't mean that they're the best team in football. It's actually pretty easy to poke holes in the Falcons' résumé. Their six games have included matchups against the Redskins, the Panthers, and the entire AFC West; when they're not playing the Falcons, those six teams have gone a combined 11-15, and that's not going to suddenly start looking much better as the season goes along. Atlanta has won those six games by a combined 58 points; only seven 6-0 teams in NFL history have had a worse point differential during their 6-0 start than Atlanta has. They're already 4-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less, and that includes the stunning benevolence of Ron Rivera that led to their razor-thin win over the 1-4 Panthers in Atlanta. If Cam Newton doesn't fumble and Carson Palmer doesn't throw that pick-six during Oakland's crucial drive in the fourth quarter on Sunday, the Falcons are 4-2 while having played at a virtually identical level of football. You don't just get to write those plays off the board and pretend they didn't happen, but it's also naive to suggest that every win is of equal value in projecting the future once they hit the board.
The gentle section of the Atlanta schedule ends with their bye this upcoming week. After the week off, the Falcons get games against the three best teams in the NFC East, five of their six NFC South matchups, and tilts versus the Lions and Cardinals. If they don't raise their game — especially both running the ball and stopping the run — they won't be undefeated for much longer.
2. Houston Texans (5-1)
As disappointing as their loss to the Packers was on Sunday night, the Texans remain the class of the AFC and a strong contender for the title of best team in football. While Atlanta's first five wins look worse and worse with each passing week, Houston's wins are beginning to look stronger. A 30-10 win over the Dolphins in Week 1 is actually pretty impressive when you consider that Miami is 3-2 with a point differential of plus-23 since then. Houston was blowing out the Broncos before giving up a pair of late garbage-time scores (and dropping four interceptions in the process), and even their 23-17 win over the Jets in the Meadowlands seems better after the Jets blew out Indy this past week. And if you're going to lose at home, it might as well be to a team like the Packers.
On the other hand, like every other team in the league, the Texans have question marks. Perhaps owing to changes on the offensive line and overusage of Arian Foster early in the season, the running game's lost much of its efficiency; Houston averaged 4.8 yards per carry in 2010 and 4.5 yards a pop last year, but they're down all the way to 3.8 yards per attempt this season. The team is basically holding open auditions at wide receiver across from Andre Johnson, which has led to double- and triple-coverage on their star wideout. And while J.J. Watt's been the unquestioned Defensive Player of the Year through six games, star cornerback Johnathan Joseph has been badly burned on multiple occasions during each of the last two games.
Houston is also in the middle of its toughest stretch this season, a four-game, five-week run that includes games against the Packers, Ravens, Bills, and the no. 1 team on my list …
1. Chicago Bears (4-1)
Yes, that's right, the Bears. The same Bears who capitulated in Green Bay in Week 2 and briefly became a national punch line because Jay Cutler threw four interceptions. That's a rough loss, but it also came in a game where Matt Forte left with an injury during the opening drive of the second half. That forced the Bears to change their offense on the fly and integrate Michael Bush into the starting lineup without many practice reps. As you might expect, the Bears are significantly better with Forte around; he's averaged a full 4.7 yards per carry this year, well ahead of backups Bush (3.6 yards per pop) and Kahlil Bell (2.7). When Forte is around, there's nothing the Bears don't do well. They're proficient running the ball, adequate throwing it, and well above-average in all facets of defense and special teams. The emergence of Henry Melton and Shea McClellin as secondary pass rushers has freed up space for Julius Peppers, while Tim Jennings has had a career year in five games at cornerback: He's set or tied career highs in interceptions (four) and passes defended (10) with 11 games left to go.
And while everybody else has a close call or two on their résumé, the Bears have been dominant in their four wins this season. In their three wins against average-or-better competition — the Colts, Cowboys, and Rams — Chicago won by a minimum of 16 points. Their one game against a cream puff, the Jaguars, resulted in a 41-3 shellacking. Every other team on this list, besides perhaps the Texans, had at least one game in which a change on one play would turn their win into a loss. That hasn't been true for the Bears. They've had some luck in producing five defensive touchdowns in five games this year, but the defense would still be good and the margins of victory would still be impressive without the bonus touchdowns from the defense.
If you want to hop on the Bears bandwagon (a place where I admittedly have to hide, myself), now's the time. Over the next three weeks, Chicago is home for games against the Lions and Panthers before traveling to Tennessee. At that point, the Bears might very well be 7-1, but their schedule will become something resembling punishment: Their next six games include matchups against the Seahawks (thankfully, in Chicago), Texans, Packers, 49ers, and a home-and-home with the Vikings. They might not have the best record in football by the time they're through with that month and a half of hell, but if they can go 3-3 or 4-2 across that stretch, I wouldn't budge them from this spot.
Of course, it also probably says something about how flawed even the league's best teams are that the team I chose for the top spot on this list is the one that was out of sight and on a bye this week. The Bears could very well lose to the Lions next Monday night and create an AFC East–esque logjam in the NFC North, and we'll all have to revisit this whole conceit again. Until that upset happens, the best team in football resides in the Windy City.
Thank You for Not Coaching
Jason Garrett did it again! During last year's loss to the Cardinals, Garrett bungled his timeout usage on the final drive of the game before icing his own kicker, Dan Bailey. Most memories of the botched coaching job seem to revolve around the self-icing, but as I noted in my column on the fiasco last year, icing the kicker has no real impact, anyway. The far bigger mistake Garrett made was not using his timeout to run another offensive play and create an easier kick for Bailey, who missed what would have been a game-winning 49-yard field goal at the end of regulation.
Now, 10 months later, Garrett has made the same mistake. After the Cowboys miraculously recovered an expected on-side kick and advanced the ball to the Baltimore 34-yard line through a pass interference penalty, they were in a stunningly advantageous position. With 26 seconds left, one timeout, and a two-point deficit, the Cowboys had the ability to throw the ball short to the sidelines or deep to the middle of the field to try to create an easier kick for Bailey. A 51-yard field goal under normal conditions isn't a very friendly option; kickers only convert from 51 about 54 percent of the time. Even picking up as few as eight yards would be enough to improve Bailey's chances to about 72-73 percent. While the Cowboys might have risked a turnover by trying to advance the ball, it would have dramatically improved their chances of winning the game.
Instead, the Cowboys went into their 25-second offense, sponsored by every sports-talk radio station in the Dallas area. They threw underneath to Dez Bryant for one yard, who didn't get out of bounds … and let the clock run. They could have called a timeout at 20 seconds and, on second down, tried to get one more pass to the sidelines to make Bailey's kick easier. Alternatively, they could have spiked the ball and had 12-13 seconds on the clock with the timeout in hand, enabling them to run a play over the middle before using their timeout and kicking on fourth down. Both of those options are clearly preferable to running down the clock and kicking from 50 with six seconds left, but that is exactly what the Cowboys did.
Garrett also preceded that late-game fiasco with a new contender for one of the league's worst challenges this season, when in the first quarter he challenged that a Felix Jones run, which was ruled out on the 1-foot line, was actually a touchdown.
Even if you're 99.9 percent sure that the play is going to be reviewed and come back as a touchdown, this is a really bad usage of a challenge in the first quarter. Even if you're right, you've still cost yourself one of your two challenges, limited your ability to guess in a key moment on your second challenge (out of fear that you won't have a third later in the game), and barely improved your status in the process. Given first-and-goal from the 1-foot line, teams are going to score a touchdown close to 80 percent of the time. Brian Burke's win probability calculator estimates that the Cowboys had a 60 percent chance of winning with the ball on the 1-yard line without challenging; with a successful challenge, a touchdown, and an average kickoff,1 the Cowboys' chances of winning improved all the way to … 62 percent. It's giving away a potentially enormous asset for virtually no gain.
Garrett was not the only one who settled at the wrong time and place. Two2 other coaches entered the preposterous field goal derby on Sunday and got drastically different results, although each ended up losing by the time their respective games finished up.
It's understandable that the Rams would be comfortable sending rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein out for a few long field goals; after all, he's represented most of St. Louis's offense this year. And while Zuerlein had missed two field goals before the Rams launched their final drive of the day, a three-point deficit basically ensured that Zuerlein would eventually come out for a game-tying field goal attempt.
Zuerlein did make his way onto the field, but it was under bizarre circumstances. As it often does, the Rams' drive stalled when Sam Bradford took a sack on third down. This sack, though, placed the Rams in no-man's land: They had a fourth-and-7 from the Miami 48-yard line, and had just 30 seconds left on the clock with a lone timeout to stop it.
Now, the obvious play here is to call your timeout immediately and debate your options. None of them are particularly appealing, but the choice between a 66-yard field goal — three yards beyond anything ever successfully hit in NFL history — and converting for seven yards on fourth down seems pretty clear to me. You go for it, try to get the first down, spike the ball, and maybe get one more play off before sending Zuerlein in for a vaguely plausible 59-yarder. Even if you somehow decide that kicking from 66 is the right move, calling the timeout immediately at least gives you time to think about it. If the Rams line up with 30 seconds left, they also leave the possibility of a fake in their bag and get a slower rush on Zuerlein, too.
Instead, Jeff Fisher let the clock bleed down to four seconds before kicking the field goal. Think about the hubris involved with that decision and the only upside it allows for. "We're going to put this field goal through the uprights, and we're so confident about it that we need to bleed clock to make sure that you don't advance the ball for a game-winning field goal in the 20 seconds we'd leave out there." If Zuerlein hit a 66-yarder, the game should have ended by immediate acclamation, And1 mixtape style. By letting the clock run, Fisher hurt his own team's chances, not the opposition's.
Ken Whisenhunt's decision to let Jay Feely kick a 61-yard field goal was even more bizarre. His Cardinals were down three points with 1:14 left and a fourth-and-10 on the Buffalo 43-yard line. They were in similarly rough shape to the Rams, but unlike St. Louis, Whisenhunt's team had all three timeouts and a kicker with a shorter range. While I normally encourage teams to be aggressive, Whisenhunt could have very easily justified punting, attempting to stop the Bills with his defense and timeouts, and then fielding a punt with Patrick Peterson before trying to set up a shorter field goal. The Cardinals instead lined up for a 61-yard field goal and the Bills, for some bizarre reason, called timeout. The Cardinals lined up for one of the dumber decisions of the year and the Bills wanted to give them time to think about it. Sure enough, the Cards came back out and kicked anyway, and Feely booted his 61-yarder through the uprights for a game-tying field goal.
In fact, the Cardinals ended up simulating exactly what would have happened with a punt on the ensuing drive. The Bills were sacked on first down and then ran two plays for a minimal gain, and when their punt away from Peterson was gruesomely bad, the Cardinals took over on their own 47-yard line with 50 seconds left to play. That would have been a much better situation than attempting to kick a 61-yarder.
Chan Gailey and the Bills might have had the worst decision-making day of all. Gailey's first rough decision was a play call that saw him — protecting a three-point lead with an effective running game deep in the fourth quarter — bring in Brad Smith to launch a bomb into the end zone out of the Wildcat. While announcers constantly talk about how Smith can throw whenever he comes into the game, he simply hasn't been an effective deep thrower at the pro level. Jets fans will remember him completing a bomb to Jerricho Cotchery for 45 yards in the 2009 AFC Championship Game, but even that was an underthrown pass to a wide-open receiver that would have been a touchdown if it were on time. Smith's ill-advised pass went straight into the hands of a waiting Peterson and gave the Cardinals a free shot at a drive for the win.
After Gailey's unconscionable timeout before the 61-yarder, he stayed out of the way until overtime. There, he made another baffling series of decisions. The Bills won the coin toss and threw the ball four times to start their drive, producing two incomplete passes, a seven-yard completion, and a 21-yard DPI. Then, on second down, they remembered that they were allowed to run the ball and handed it off to C.J. Spiller for 17 yards, producing a first-and-10 on the Arizona 35-yard line. With the Cardinals blitzing up the A-gaps on most every play, the running game averaging five yards per carry, and the proposition of adding even a few yards of field position representing enormous value, what did the Bills do? Why, they went with an empty backfield and threw three more incomplete passes, with one of the passes dropped by rookie T.J. Graham. That stuck them with fourth-and-10 from the 35-yard line on the opening drive of overtime, when you can't even end the game in OT with a field goal anymore, and they chose to … punt. Punting from inside your opposition's 40-yard line in a dome should be cause for immediate firing, regardless of the circumstances. Gailey's decision was bailed out when John Skelton forced a throw and created an interception for Jairus Byrd, but remember: A ball on the 35-yard line represents a 52-yard field goal. If you don't have enough confidence in your kicker to hit from 52 yards out in a dome, you need a new kicker. Judging from his decisions, the Bills might also want to add a new coach to the shopping list.