After slow starts, the highly-hyped Patriots and Steelers have rebounded enough to avoid major deficits, while the quick-starting Jets and Ravens both lost to fall to 3-1. The biggest story through four weeks may be the combined record of 0-7 from the Titans and Panthers, who combined to go 25-7 last year. Not everyone expected these teams to repeat last year’s success, and I was in fact one of the biggest critics of both teams. But not even I expect them to both be winless though four weeks. Just goes to show the importance of the quarterback position, and the flakiness of the NFL.
Parity has already been created early in the season, at least in terms of the NFL Standings. In the NFC, the Giants, Saints, Vikings and 49ers have already established themselves as frontrunners to win their divisions; Indianapolis and Denver have done the same in the AFC with commanding two-game leads. The two most interesting division thus far are tied at 3-1 at the top: the AFC East, where the Jets and Pats are both 3-1, and the AFC South, where surprisingly, the Bengals and Ravens sit a game above the Steelers. Nothing is certain after four weeks, and hardly anyone outside of Colorado expects the Chargers to stay behind the Broncos for very long, but when the two teams play head-to-head, a Denver victory could spell disaster for San Diego.
Before I move on to my First Quarter NFL Power Poll, I’d like to run through a few quick First Quarter of the NFL Season Questions and Thoughts:
Best Team in the NFC: New York Giants.
Best Team in the AFC: The Colts.
Best Team Not Led by a Manning: The Saints.
MVP: Peyton Manning, narrowly over Drew Brees. Peterson, Flacco, and Eli Manning round out the top five.
Defensive MVP: I should probably say Elvis Dumaveril, the dude on the Broncos who already has eight sacks, but I’m actually going to say Darren Sharper of the Saints. As good as Drew Brees has played, the Saints defense has been the key in the past two wins, especially against the Jets on Sunday. Sharper’s 99-yard pick-six was the single biggest play of the season. Period. Filling out the top five are Jared Allen, Patrick Willis, and Darelle Revis.
Most Disappointing Team: Has to be Tennessee. They’ve already lost more games than they lost in all of 2008, as I’m sure you’ve heard.
Most Surprising Team: Denver. Wins are wins, no matter who you play, and they are 4-0. Good for them.
Most Disappointing Player: From both a fantasy and a real-life standpoint, it’s LaDanian Tomlinson. He might not even be the second best running back on San Diego. Albert Haynesworth is the most disappointing defensive player by a long shot. Here’s an interesting question: at $32 million dollars this year and over $100 million for the next five years, how much will Big Al be paid per tackle for the next five years in the NFL? It seems to me that somewhere between $300,000 and $600,000 is a safe guess, pending his health. And if he continues to overplay this current “injury”, maybe we should start referring to him as The One Million Dollars Per Tackle Man. If I was allowed to commentate NFL games, I would say the things that I wish real commentators would say. Such as, “…And Haynesworth brings him down in the backfield for a five-yard loss. That play had to be worth AT LEAST Two and a Half Million Dollars to the Redskins!”
Most Surprising Player: Tie between Giants receivers Steve Smith and Mario Manningham, who have combined for 85 catches and 900 yards and 20 touchdowns through four games. Or something like that. Looks like Plaxico shooting himself in the leg wasn’t such a big deal for New York after all.
Most Overrated Media Story: You could pick anyone between Owens, Ochocinco, or Vick … but I think the least deserving, most annoying, please-go-away media story that has garnered waaay too much attention has been … that one quarterback for the Vikings. You know, Sage Rosenfels. What a drama queen.
On that note, this is what I like to call my First Quarter of the NFL Season Power Poll:
(similar to Power Rankings except more fun)
32. St. Louis Rams.
They have officially reached the ever-important role in fantasy football of “Team to Pick On.” Last year it was the Lions and this year it’s the Rams … San Fran scored three touchdowns ON DEFENSE Sunday. That’s just silly. The only thing left to say is … With the first pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, the St. Louis Rams select …
31. Cleveland Browns.
For a crappy, crappy team, the Browns have glimmers of hope here and there. Massaquoi played a really good game Sunday as did Jerome Harrison; with Joe Thomas holding down the left tackle spot the Browns have some pieces to build with. But their quarterback situation has been handled by coach Mangini about as delicately and intelligently as how Kennedy handled the Bay of Pigs. For a guy who used to be nicknamed “Man-Genius,” it’s funny that Eric Mangini is hands-down the worst coach in the NFL. (Editor’s note: Browns have traded Braylon Edwards to Jets as of this morning – not sure yet what they receive in return. I don’t think this can hurt the Browns. When you’re as bad as they are, sometimes the best thing to do is dump big salaries and start all over. This gives Robiskie and Massaquoi a chance to develop as legitimate starters. I think it’s a good move for both teams.)
30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
How stupid do you think they feel for firing Jon Gruden?
29. Oakland Raiders.
They are the worst team to have won a game this year, which is sort of a backhanded compliment. There are a lot of bad QBs in the league this year, and I mean A LOT of them, but no one is worse than JaMarcus Russell. He truly is the worst. If his legacy is anything, it’s the extremely costly lesson (literally, as in $70 million in cost) that the NFL and the NCAA are truly different sports. Arm strength is king in college, but without pocket presence and a brain, you can’t be an NFL winner. To make matters worse for the Raiders, their one All-Pro player has been playing injured and playing sub-par all season, making their defense even less effective than usual.
28. Kansas City Chiefs.
The team that Oakland defeated is ranked ahead of them, but not by much. Getting murdered in consecutive weeks by NFC East beasts was probably not very enjoyable for any of the Chiefs, but they may have some friskiness in them when they play lesser opponents. However, Crazy Keith summed up the 2009 Chiefs expertly on Sunday with these six succinct words: “ I told you Matt Cassel sucks.”
27. Buffalo Bills.
Their defense can’t stop anybody, not even Chad Henne. And their offense is just not clicking at all. TO not catching the ball means things are going to get even worse, plus they have to spread the ball around to both Jackson and Lynch even though Jackson is clearly a better player. What a mess.
26. Detroit Lions.
Hey, this might not be a great ranking, but it’s progress. Stafford needs to learn how to play both halves of the game. Last year’s mega-weaknesses, the defense and the offensive line, have actually been vastly improved. The pieces are there for 8-8 next year. We just need to draft wisely.
25. Carolina Panthers.
Surprised? You shouldn’t be. This isn’t last year’s team. Jake Delhomme is without question one of the five worst starting QBs in the league, and the defense is doing next to nothing week after week. How they bounce back after the bye week will tell us a lot about their team and John Fox’s future as their coach.
24. Washington Redskins.
After losing to the Lions, the Skins barely beat Tampa Bay at home. They don’t have injuries to blame this on. It’s just flat-out bad playing. They have a talented enough roster on both sides of the ball and their just not getting it done. And that is all why Jim Zorn is sitting on the hottest hot seat of all NFL coaches right now.
23. Tennessee Titans.
I’m sorry, but when you’re 0-4 you can’t be ranked any higher than this, no matter how well you did last year. With an imminent loss to the Colts ready to make them 0-5, the question is: how bad will they finish? Can they bring the season back to 8-8? Or will they fall from 13-3 to 3-13, as I prophesied that they would several months ago? Is there any way Vince Young makes it back onto the field? The truth is, they haven’t played all that badly this year, but you have to play better than not-that-bad to win in the NFL, especially in the tough AFC South.
22. Miami Dolphins.
Pennington’s injury plus having the hardest schedule in the NFL are two bad ingredients towards a 5-11 season. Chad Henne was going to be the starter in 2010, though, so giving him a year to learn the ropes isn’t the worst thing in the world. Miami still has Jake Long to build around for the future.
21. Chicago Bears.
After getting romped in week one by Green Bay, the Bears have reeled off three straight and stayed alive for the playoff hunt. However, that doesn’t mean they’ve played exceptionally well. That defense is stopping nobody and they would be 2-2 if Jeff Reed made an easy field goal, and possibly 1-3 if Hasslebeck didn’t get hurt. Give credit to Cutler though for not throwing any interceptions since his four-INT opener.
20. San Diego Chargers.
This might seem a little harsh, but you can’t tell me they’ve played well enough to beat any of the teams ranked ahead of them so far this year. The Phillip Rivers to Vincent Jackson deep ball is the one thing about San Diego that I like (well, and Antonio Gates, obviously). The defense is horrible. Absolutely horrible. And LaDanian Tomlinson isn’t even a top 100 running back in the NFL. Or in the NCAA. If he were a high school running back, he wouldn’t even be all-conference.
19. Jacksonville Jaguars.
If this Power Poll had been written after week two, the Jags would have found themselves somewhere in the 26-30 range. By whipping the Titans in week four, they move up significantly. David Garrard found his rhythm and found his new favorite target, and the defense played with more aggression and focus. A lot of people wrote the Jags off after an 0-2 start, and that may be the best thing they have going for them.
18. Seattle Seahawks.
This Power Poll factors in injuries, and Matt Hasslebeck missing time doesn’t give them a very good chance to win games. Seneca Wallace may be fast, but he’s not really an NFL quarterback. Seattle is your archetypal middle-of-the-road team: hard to beat at home and should win 7 or 8 games and just miss the playoffs.
17. Arizona Cardinals.
Not where they hoped they’d be after last year, but better than I thought they’d be. It’s going to be tough to see the playoffs again with San Fran owning the NFC West, but the way for the Cards to do it would be establishing an identity. Coach Whisenhunt wants to “establish the run,” Kurt Warner wants to pass the pass in high volume, and Anquan Boldin just wants a large paycheck. And apparently Larry Fitzgerald’s main desire is to appear on every football magazine and website known to man.
16. Houston Texans.
Middle of the road in every aspect. Fitting that they rank 16th out of 32 teams.
15. Denver Broncos.
Quite possibly the lowest ranking you’ll ever see from a 4-0 team, but this Power Poll isn’t completely about record, it’s also about performance, and likelihood of winning the Super Bowl in February. All Denver’s done so far is beat two crappy teams, win one extremely lucky game, and defeat the ghost of Tony Romo in Denver. In reality, what they’ve accomplished is the right to get slaughtered in the first round of the playoffs, unless San Diego starts winning some games and steals back the division that is rightfully theirs.
14. Dallas Cowboys.
Speaking of Romo, what’s the matter with him? After torching the Bucs in week one, he has played like an absolute buffoon. The Cowboys can’t work the ball effectively to their wide receivers and have become very one-dimensional. The run the ball extremely well and have the best 1-2-3 RB combo in the league, but Roy Williams just flat out stinks.
13. Cincinnati Bengals.
If Brandon Stokley doesn’t catch that immaculate pass and make the miracle play in week one, it’s Cincy instead of Denver that is 4-0. But even in that case, we still can’t call the Bengals a top ten team. Winning in Lambeau was impressive, and they showed excellent resolve winning against Pittsburgh with a minute to play, but they needed to dominate Cleveland to be considered more threatening in the big picture. Winning in the waning seconds of overtime is not impressive. But what has been impressive, believe it or not, has been the Bengals defense. I know, right? If they keep it up the defensive intensity it’s going to be tough for them to be ignored in the AFC playoff picture.
12. Atlanta Falcons.
Twelve might not seem like a great ranking, but there is a chasm from 13 to 12 that really separates the contenders from the non-contenders. Atlanta will have to play very well to keep pace with New Orleans, but they have more playmakers than just about any other team on offense and they can score. Tony Gonzalez is a great fit there and the defense has played pretty well in patches, but not great overall, hence the #12 ranking.
11. Green Bay Packers.
The Pack are 2-2 and have fallen behind the Bears for second place in the NFC North. Big deal. They are still the second best team in the division and a serious contender for the NFC’s wildcard berth. The new 3-4 defense has looked brilliant at times and shaky at others, but at the end of the day they have the talent and the personnel to be very successful this season. Aaron Rodgers really is a great young quarterback and he may have the deepest arsenal of weapons to throw to in the entire league. I wouldn’t give up yet on Green Bay.
10. New York Jets.
As good as their defense is, and as good as Mark Sanchez played for three weeks, he looked so rookie-ish against the Saints that I’m scared to rank the Jets any higher than this. Make no mistake, they are legit. Revis, Jenkins, and Scott are three elite defensive players and the whole defensive unit is extremely disciplined and well-coached. You can tell by watching them that Rex Ryan really is a defensive guru. But the running game isn’t clicking and Sanchez was rattled in a big way on Sunday. The synopsis on the Jets from the get-go was simple: play great D, run the ball, and don’t let Sanchez make mistakes. Through three games it worked like clockwork; but now that Sanchez has had his one big stinkeroo, how he responds will be the difference between 12-4 and 8-8. As eyes are on you Mark.
9. San Francisco 49ers.
They could be ranked even higher than this coming off a 35-0 butt-whooping of the Rams, and in fact would be 4-0 if not for the Favre miracle in week 3. Shaun Hill is now 10-4 as a career starter and if all doubts about his ability to play quarterback have not been erased, I don’t know what else he has to do. Is he a Pro Bowler? No. Is he the future of the Niners franchise? Probably not. But for Peter’s sake, he’s a good quarterback and a proven winner. Isn’t that what it’s all about? With or without Crabtree this is a pretty dangerous offense, and Glen Coffee should be able to fill in the Gore-sized void for a few weeks. Patrick Willis is a beast of all beasts and whether he wins any accolades or not, he is hands-down one of the very best linebackers of our generation, in the class of Ray Lewis and Derrick Brooks.
8. New England Patriots.
The Pats lost to the Jets, yet are ranked ahead of them. The Pats also beat the Ravens, and are ranked behind them. That’s just the way it is for New England – they are the total mystery. Nearly everyone in America expected them to play in the Super Bowl now that Super Tom is back and healthy, but now it is in question whether they will even win the AFC East. Brady has yet to have a Brady-esque game in his first four starts, and the defense looks average at best, particularly in the secondary. That was the fear before the season, and it’s been grim since the season began. Granted, Wes Welker missed two games and when he has played he’s been slowed with a leg injury, and he sort of is the spark that makes the offense ignite. When Welker is 100%, we’ll know more about these Pats and whether they are serious contenders or pretenders.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers.
At 2-2, you may think this ranking is much too high, especially considering how sloppy and unorganized they have looked on both sides of the ball. But, Troy Polamalu is the man that makes them the league’s best defense, and he should return from a knee injury very soon. His impact will be felt immediately. Rashard Mendenhall broke out of his slump in a big way and will very soon replace Willie Parker as the go-to guy in the backfield, and Roethlisberger is having a career year passing the ball. The signs are mostly positive for the remainder of the season. Plus, the Steelers are scheduled to play Detroit and Cleveland the next two weeks, so they can coast to 4-2, and play catch-up with the Bengals and Ravens.
6. Philadelphia Eagles.
They’ve only played three games and one of them was a home loss to New Orleans, so how much do we really know about them? Enough. The defense was rocked by Drew Brees, but that’s forgivable. For the most part they look like the same Jim Johnson-led defense that puts pressure on the QB and forces mistakes; they won’t face a test as tough as Brees for the rest of the season. Kevin Kolb played like a true pro in McNabb’s absence and proved how deadly this offense really is. Top to bottom this is just a great team with playoffs written all over them.
The Top Five
5. Minnesota Vikings.
Favre looks significantly better than he ever looked as a Jet. Jared Allen doesn’t look like the pretty good player he was last year; he looks like the best DE in the league. Adrian Peterson is as dominant as ever and the best non-quarterback in the NFL. They can run and stop the run, but now they have this extra dimension where they can … throw... It’s a riveting new phenomenon for the Vikings and as much as it probably kills Vikings fans to see Favre in purple, they know as well as I do that this is the best shot they’ve had at a title in a long while.
4. Baltimore Ravens.
If they had beat New England they just might be ranked #1. And you know what, they should have beat New England. Ray Lewis complained after the game about the “roughing the passer” penalty against the Ravens, and he was absolutely right. It was an egregious call, a blatant overreaction to Brady’s injury from last season, and a ridiculous penalty in a game played between men, not girls. The “roughing” penalty wasn’t even rough enough to knock Tom down, nor was it a late hit. It was just momentum. And I lost a lot of respect for Brady when he pleaded to the ref for the penalty and celebrated when the flag was thrown. Have some respect for yourself Tom, and as Rodney Harrison said on Sunday Night Football, “Take off your skirt.” But back to the Ravens … they are clicking on both ends of the ball. Joe Flacco is playing like a definite Pro Bowler. Ray Rice is running well and Willis Freaking McGahee of all people has seven touchdowns through four games. The defense still looks dominant and if they continue to play they way they've been playing, it's going to be tough for Pittsburgh to catch them in the AFC South.
(3. New Orleans Saints.
Thanks Andy for catching the mistake -- I've got the Saints ranked third, and it's not just because of Drew Brees. True, he is playing unbelievably good this season, but he threw for over 5,000 yards last season and the Saints still finished in last place in the NFC South. This year it's a total team effort. Greg Williams has the defense playing better than any Saints defense I can ever remember, and Darren Sharper, as I noted earlier, is making more big plays than any defender in the NFL. The running game is much improved too. Total team effort. That's what they're going to need to stay ahead of Atlanta. )
2. Indianapolis Colts.
Peyton Manning is destroying defenses with such ease and such candor that it reminds me of an early 90s Michael Jordan. He's ruthless and methodical from both a physical and mental standpoint and plays at such a cerebral level that even defensive coordinators don't know what to expect until it's too late. Dallas Clark has quietly amassed some 25 catches and 350 yards through four games, and Manning has made Garcon and Collie look great in Anthony Gonzalez's absence. The offense is absolutey on fire and no one has slowed them down. The defense, well that's a different story. They haven't been bad. For the most part they've done what they need to do, shutting down offenses to the tune of 15 points per game, fourth best in the league. But they could be better, and it would certainly help their case if they were so banged up. They need Bob Sanders at 100% health to be completely effective. But don't get me wrong, the Colts have been pretty magnificient.
1. New York Giants.
The Giants are just a well-oiled machine in every way. Their the best defense in the league a top five offense .They're extremely well-coached and well-disciplined. Their an elite offense in both passing the ball and running, and their offensive line is one of the best in the league. Eli Manning is playing the best football of his career (not saying much), and is receivers have really, really stepped it up. Quite simply, the Giants are just bigger, faster and stronger than everyone they play against and are making it look easy. In the sense that football is a team sport, the Giants are the best team in the NFL through four games.
Onto the Week Five Picks
Cincinnati @ Baltimore
A good battle of 3-1 teams in the AFC South. It sure seems like Baltimore is the better team, but the Bengals aren’t just going to roll over and lose. But, since the Bengals were barely able to beat the Browns in overtime they should feel lucky to be 3-1 instead of 2-1-1. Joe Flacco continues to roll in this one, and Baltimore’s angry defense handles Palmer. Ravens 31-17.
Minnesota @ St. Louis
Two teams going in completely opposite directors. The only question here is how many yards will Adrian Peterson amass before being pulled for Chester Taylor in the second half. My guess is around 170, but it could be more. It could be a lot more. Vikings 35, Rams 13.
Tampa Bay @ Philadelphia
McNabb and Westbrook are both expected to return for this game. Tampa continues to start Josh Johnson at QB. This should be quite a lopsided affair, especially with the Eagles coming off a bye week. Eagles 28, Bucs 12.
Washington @ Carolina
This is one of those matchups where it’s hard to believe somebody’s gotta win. Neither Jake Delhomme or Jason Campbell is playing like a winner. But with a week off to think about their 0-3 start, I’m betting Carolina comes out and crushes a Washington team that has looked dreadful for the past three weeks, despite playing against the Rams, Lions and Buccanners. Carolina smashes them to smithereens, by a score of 38-10. Jim Zorn, your job is officially in jeopardy. Again.
Pittsburgh @ Detroit
I liked the Lions slim chances just a little bit before watching Rashard Mendenhall go berserk last Sunday night. Now that the Steelers seem to have found an offensive balance and are better able to control the time of possession, combined with injuries to Stafford and Megatron and Sims, mixed with the tremendous imbalance of talent, size, strength and speed in this game, and also the fact that the Lions special teams are horrendous, I’m going to go ahead and take a wild guess that Pittsburgh manhandles Detroit in this game. Shoot, the last time they played at Ford Field they won the Super Bowl. The Lions are not ready to compete with a team like this. Pittsburgh 27, Detroit 6.
Oakland @ New York Giants
Another blowout. Giants by at least two touchdowns. I’ll say NY 30, OAK 10.
Dallas @ Kansas City
Wouldn’t it be interesting if KC snagged their first victory in this game and really sent the Tony Romo doubters into a frenzy? It could happen. Dwayne Bowe is back to 100% and Arrowhead is never an easy place to play. But Marion Barber should also be back to full health and he could control this game and take all the pressure off Romo. It’s hard to imagine Dallas losing this one. ‘Boys win it 20-13.
Cleveland @ Buffalo
Derek Anderson against Trent Edwards … be still my heart. But seriously, if Buffalo ever wants to be taken seriously, they absolutely must win this game. At home, against a Braylon-less Browns team which is terrible. This game promises to be sloppy and virtually unwatchable. I’ve got to go with the Bills, 17-9, but I honestly couldn't care less.
Atlanta @ San Francisco
What a great NFC matchup between two good but not great teams. I really can’t wait to see who wins this one. Frank Gore’s absence might prove important in this one, as Atlanta’s defense has really stepped it up this season and Paul Coffee didn't like as amazing last week as a lot of us thought he would. A lot of interesting matchups and storylines in this game. Michael Turner against Patrick Willis. Roddy White against Nate Clements. Michael Crabtree’s first game after a month-long holdout (maybe.) I like Matt Ryan in this one; there seems to be a connection between great quarterbacks and playing great after bye weeks. I’ll take Atlanta on the road, 27-17.
Houston @ Arizona
In my Power Poll I have them ranked at 17th and 16th. This has all the makings of a very high scoring game as neither team will be able to do much to slow down the opposing offense. However, in those sorts of games you usually see a goofy 13-10 final score, so who knows what will happen. I see Arizona winning, mostly because they’re at home and coming off a bye. I’ll take the Cards by a touchdown, 35-28.
Jacksonville @ Seattle
Team #19 against team #18 in another battle of mediocre teams. The Jags are hot and Hasslebeck’s still hurt, so I’ll give this one to Jacksonville, 20-14.
(Editor's Note: Hasslebeck is active and playing in this one. I thought long and hard about changing my pick to Seattle, but after much consideration I am sticking with the Jags. By 3.)
New England @ Denver
New England faces an undefeated opponent for the third week in a row. After taking down Atlanta and Baltimore in consecutive weeks, they now provide the first real test for the 4-0 Broncos. Josh McDaniels faces his former pupil, although it could be argued that Brady actual taught McDaniels, and not vice versa. Either way, Bill Bellichek is the mastermind who created McDaniels, and he usually has pretty good success against his former assistants. The Pats offensive line is going to have a real test against a vastly improved Broncos front seven, but not as tough a test as their games against the Jets and Ravens. Will this be the week where Tom Brady finally plays like Tom Brady, and the Pats don’t kick four field goals? Actually, yes, it will be. New England wins 31-17.
Indianapolis @ Tennessee
It's usually not smart to pick against Peyton Manning in a night game. I know Tennessee is 0-4 and needs to win like no other, but it’s not happening this week, no matter how well they play. I expect a great game out of them, I really do, but it won’t be enough. Mr. Commercial is in full-fledge Destroy Defenses mode. The Colts win again, 27-18.
New York Jets @ Miami
How Mark Sanchez bounces back from his first bad game of his NFL career will tell us a lot about him. But he needs to remember, all he has to do is not force anything, take it easy, and let the defense win the game for him. Will he calm down and just manage the offense, even though he's got a new receiver (Braylon) and he's playing on Monday Night for the first time? I think he'll be just fine. As for Chad Henne, he's in for a real stinker; the Jets defense are going to totally shut down Miami. Jets win, 30-15.
Those are your week five picks.
Go Lions. I'm going to Ford Field to see them be slaughtered by the Steelers, but at least I have a new Barry Sanders jersey to wear.
PS. Tigers stink