Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Updated NFL Power Poll

Heading into week 17, the playoff picture is abundantly clear in the NFC (Saints, Vikes, Eagles, Cards, Cowboys and Pack) while the AFC is a muddled mess of 8-7 teams. This is the time of year when the phrase "loss or tie" is used way too often. Can't we just agree that ties in the NFL only happen once every decade and stop acting like it's a distinct possibility? Anyway, my NFL Power Poll needs a Season Ending Edition and it may end up looking quite a bit different than you might expect. Both Cleveland and Tampa are on two game winning streaks, and Oakland has won 3 of their past 6 games. Meanwhile, both Minnesota and New Orleans have looked average at best over the past four weeks. This Power Poll is not based on the standings or playoff positioning. It's based on who I believe are the best teams in the NFL right now, ranked 1-32, and which playoff teams I feel have the best chance at winning in February. Without further ado ...

The "Teams Picking in the Top Three of the NFL Draft Three Years in a Row"

32. St. Louis.
I realize the Rams beat the Lions head-to-head for their only victory this season, but I'm still ranking them behind Detroit, even though Steven Jackson is an MVP candidate this season and they have a coach that I would trade straight up for Jim Schwartz in less than a heartbeat. But the absolutely sweeping void of talent in St. Louis is so staggering that they have been rendered completely uncompetitive in every single game this season (except the Lions game) and will be picking #1 in the draft barring an unlikely win over San Fran on Sunday. The only question: will they take Suh, or risk their fortunes on a quarterback? Clausen is a tool and Bradford is an injury risk. Maybe they'll go with Tennessee safety Eric Berry, since as Crazy Keith pointed out, they are already spending about $15 million next season on two defensive lineman (Chris Long and Adam Carriker) who were both top 15 picks in 2008 and 2007, respectively. Adding Suh to that mix would risk a lot on the defensive line and leave the secondary in shambles. I really think they'll consider drafting Berry, who has drawn a lot of comparisons to Ed Reed. Clausen is also a possibility, since they have no prospects at the quarterback position, but they may choose to draft a QB in the second or third round in the interest of saving money. But that's enough about the Rams...

31. Detroit Lions.
They have moved progressively downward in the Power Poll all year, thanks to a massive decrease in motivation and effort and a current 1-11 streak, with the one win being a buzzer-beater against the Browns. I blame poor coaching more than I blame injuries. True, a lot of starters went down, but with the exception of Megatron none of replacements were significantly less talented than the starter. Injuries on the O and D lines may have actually improved the Lions personnel by removing worthless drubs like Pederson, DeVries and Cook, and injuries in the secondary to Manuel and King allowed guys like Will James and Marvin White to play, and there's no question that they were improvements. DeAndre Levy even did a very commendable job filling in for Ernie Sims for 11 games, and the constant shuffling on the defensive line wasn't a real factor since there was no pass rush to begin with. No, injuries were not the problem this season. It was a clear lack of leadership and direction and identity, and it all starts with Jim Schwartz, who seems more focused on his fohawk than his gameplan. What is it with the Lions and hiring incompetent coaches and coordinators? Don't they interview these guys?

The defense was obviously horrid this season, giving up almost as many points and yards as they did during the infamously bad 2008 campaign. Gunther Cunningham's alleged "blitz packages" were no where to be seen, and aside from a few Louis Delmas bone-crunching hits and Larry Foote's constant presence, there was nothing to get excited about on the defensive end. That's why fans like myself are so excited about the possibility of adding Ndamakong Suh, a guy who could be dominant as a rookie. In fact, with the promising play of Levy this year, I've been giving a lot of thought to the Lions coming out in a 3-4 scheme next season, with Peterson and Levy on the outside, and Sims and Foote as the interior linebackers. That gives Delmas more freedom to make tackles and not worry as much about pass coverage, and makes Peterson's pass rushing skills more utilized. If we land Suh, he is the perfect nosetackle for the 3-4. If not, Grady Jackson is big enough to do the job for one year. It's not like the 4-3 scheme is working, so a change might be what we need. You know, a real change, instead of all the "culture of losing" change we've heard about all season. How about an actual, tangible change? That would be nice.

On offense, there's a lot of blame to go around. Stafford was inaccurate, indecisive, and skittish - all the things you expect a rookie QB to be. He threw a dreary 13 TDs and 20 INTs, but we certainly missed him when Daunte Culpepper played. The running game was non existent for most of the season and Calvin Johnson was made out of porcelain. The other receivers and backs did nothing whatsoever and freaking Casey Fitzsimmons was targeted an ungodly amount of times. You can rightly blame the stupid blocking schemes, the quarterback, the offensive line, or the general lack of talent, but as for me, I blame Scott Linehan and his preposterous play-calling. How many times did the Lions run the ball on 2nd and 10 this year? Five hundred times? On obvious passing downs, Linehan dialed up a screen because he had no confidence in the downfield passing game. It was sad and predictable and futile, and it made it abundantly obvious why Linehan was 3-17 in his last 20 games as a head coach in St. Louis. I don't think the offensive line is as terrible as folks say it is; if you don't have a quarterback who can step up in the pocket and buy 1 or 2 seconds for themselves, the O-line is going to look a lot worse than it really is. Stafford’s pocket presence began the season at a D- and improved to maybe a D+. The Lions are ranked 31st for now and I have little doubt that if the season continued another two weeks, they'd be back in last, where the spent all of 2008. It's been a rough decade folks. Hopefully picking #2 in the draft won't be the curse it has been in years past. Maybe we can even trade down and acquire multiple picks, in the interests of saving money as well as not mortgaging our future on one pick panning out. I am so sick of draft busts as a Detroit fan. Expect another busy but ultimately ineffective offseason.

The "Really, Really Bad Teams"

30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
I know they've won two in a row, including an impressive win over the Saints last week, but they're still god-awful. I certainly give them credit for not tanking for a better draft pick and playing until the final week. But their future is bleak and coach Raheem Morris is in way over his head.

29. Kansas City Chiefs.
During the offseason, I liked KC as a sleeper, and it pains me to admit it, but I was wrong. Way wrong. A lot of people still don’t realize just how awful they were this season on both sides of the ball. They’re on their way to finishing 3-13 with several losses to really bad teams. Matt Cassel was a $63 million dollar mistake, and I’m starting to wonder if it’s a coincidence that 3 of their last 4 first round picks came out of LSU, and they’ve all been busts? Maybe LSU just doesn’t produce good NFL players. Remember, a certain big dumb Raiders quarterback is from LSU too. Looks like a trend to me. The one bright side for the Chiefs season: Jamaal Charles. He was an absolute beast when he filled in for twitter-twit Larry Johnson midway through the season; through seven starts LJ had accrued just 44 measly fantasy points, while Charles put up 130 fantasy points in eight games.

28. Cleveland Browns.
Four weeks ago I announced them as the heirs to the #1 overall pick, and ever since they made me look stupid with 3 straight wins behind the legs of Jerome Harrison and Josh Cribbs. Make no mistake, the Browns are a terrible team, but considering that they should have beat Detroit and also Cincinnati in week 4, and this could be a 6-10 football team. The Browns have one of my favorite fan bases; I sympathize with them for their long-suffering, and any group of people who gather together to hate the Steelers have my respect. Wouldn’t it be ironic if they drafted Jimmy Clausen with their top 5 pick, replacing Brady Quinn as the Franchise QB and continuing the tradition of drafting pretty boy QBs out of Notre Dame? I hope they do it for comedy’s sake. But they probably won’t. They’re a good landing spot for Berry or McCoy. Going to be an interesting offseason for them; Mike Holmgren is in as team president, and could have a Parcells-like influence by restructuring the entire team. Starting with the inevitable firing of numbskull Eric Mangini.

27. Oakland Raiders.
With Bruce Gradkowski behind center, the Raiders are actually a respectable football team. They’ve won 3 of their last 6 games, and beaten some playoff-bound teams. Unfortunately, it took them ten weeks to replace the incurably inept JaMarcus Russell, who has become nothing more than a living punchline at this point in his sad, sad career. The Raiders actually have some very good players: Nnamdi Asomugha, Kirk Morrison (a wildly underrated linebacker), Zach Miller, and the best punter in the NFL, Shane Lechler. Unfortunately, they are the Raiders, and that means that they’ve been plagued by the craziest owner in pro sports, and also the most erratic draft tactics. Darrius Heyward-Bey with the seventh overall pick in 2009 will go down in history as one of the worst picks of all time. Seriously. I remember the morning of the draft, hearing Mel Kiper Jr. talk about Heyward-Bey as an intriguing sleeper worth a pick in maybe the fourth or fifth round. And then the Raiders drafted him ahead of Crabtree, Maclin, Harvin, Nicks and Britt – five legitimate NFL receivers. Not to mention dozens of legit NFL players at other positions. Just a ridiculous, horrible, inane pick. The Raiders are plagued by crazy drafting, and I can’t wait to see what they do this year. What a strange team.

26. Buffalo Bills.
Buffalo is another one of those ‘cursed’ franchises that just can’t seem to turn the corner year after year. They fired their offensive coordinator a week before the season started, and then decided to run the no-huddle offense even though they didn’t have a competent quarterback or experienced offensive line. It was a predictable disaster. Plus, Buffalo fans have to constantly look over their shoulder and worry about the team moving to Toronto, a nasty rumor that just won’t go away. The defense was okay this year, but when your team isn’t scoring points, you aren’t winning, and that’s that.

The problem for chronically crappy teams like Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland is that to rebuild in the NFL, you can’t just rely on free agency. You have to draft better. You bring in a big-name guy like Marcus Stroud in 2008 and it improves you defensive line, but you’re bound to lose somebody else. You bring in TO in 2009, but at what price? You have to trade Jason Peters (your only Pro Bowler and stud left tackle) to make room. Buffalo struggled all season to protect the passer as a result, and first round pick Eric Wood wasn’t exactly a wonder rookie. He was drafted as a center but played guard all season, until a season ending injury midway through the year. Whoopee. Their previous draft picks haven’t been awful, but they haven’t been enough. They’re still recovering from taking JP Losman in the first round in 2004. Look at the consistently elite teams: how often do you see Indy, New England or Pittsburgh botch a draft pick? How about never. The other problem in Buffalo is coaching. Dick Jauron is the opposite of inventive. He’s just your typical C-minus coach who doesn’t really improve your chances of winning in any perceivable way. They’ve got to shake things up, but it’s hard because no coach or player wants to move to frigid Buffalo. Maybe Don Beebe will be interested in making a comeback …

The “Disappointingly Terrible Teams”

25. Chicago Bears.
Ranked this low for one reason and one reason only. You guessed it. I don’t even have to say it. But I will anyway. Jay Cutler. 26 INTs and still one game to go. Too bad it’s against the Lions or he might have a shot at 30. He’s also been sacked 33 times and has a passer rating of 73. Good season you ass. And to think, Denver had the audacity to consider trading you! How dare them! (BTW, Orton’s QB rating is 89, he has just 9 picks to 20 TDs, and has thrown for only 19 less yards than Cutler on the season. Just something to think about.)

24. Seattle Seahawks.
They used to be famous for their intimidating home-field advantage, but at Qwest Field they were only 4-3 this year (one game remaining against Tennessee), with two of the wins against St. Louis and Detroit. On the road, they got shellacked by any team that could pass the ball, losing games at Indy, Dallas, Arizona, Minnesota, Houston, and Green Bay by scores of 17, 21, 24, 26, 27, and 38. Yikes. They also lost AT HOME to Tampa Bay by 17. Just not a good season for them at all.

23. Washington Redskins.
There were a lot of candidates, but I believe Washington wins this years “Most Disappointing Team’ award, at least in my eyes. As you may remember, they were my super sleeper all offseason. I really believed in Albert Haynesworth. And Jason Campbell. And Jim Zorn. If you saw what Haynesworth did in 2008 in Tennessee, my feelings were understandable. I even argued vehemently at the fantasy draft in August that they were the team to watch, and suffered ridicule as a result. What went wrong? Well, besides the emasculation of their head coach and the subsequent lack of cohesion and identity, there was also the complete lack of offensive production for the first eight weeks of the season. It wasn’t until week 10 against Denver that they finally scored twenty points. Then they got hot, and ALMOST beat the Eagles, and then ALMOST beat the Saints. Then they just gave up and got pasted the past two weeks. Now it appears about 95% certain that Mike Shanahan will be their coach next year (which means a reuniting with Clinton Portis and the good old zone-blocking scheme), and a retooling of the entire offense. If I’m not mistaken, that will mean Jason Campbell’s sixth different offensive coordinator in seven seasons. Or something like that. How do you expect the guy to improve under those circumstances? It was an up-and-down year for Washington, with a heavy emphasis on the down. Losing to Detroit is about as bad as it gets. They did show some signs of promise, though, and I really like their prospects of using an effective two tight end formation next year with Cooley and Fred Davis. Either that, or trade Cooley. Because Davis looked really good after Cooley got hurt.

The “Promising Start, Disheartening Finish” Teams

22. San Francisco 49ers.
They swept Arizona and lost only one division game (assuming they’ll beat the Rams this week), and still are going to finish just 8-8. That’s a whopping three wins outside of the division, and those were against Detroit, Chicago and the Jags. So basically, San Fran went all of 2009 and only beat one good team – Arizona (twice). That qualifies them as a crappy team, despite the 8-8 record and the fact that they only lost by 10 or more points twice. One of the best what ifs of the season: how different would things have been if San Fran hadn’t lost to Minnesota on the Favre-to-Lewis pseudo-hailmary in the closing seconds of week 3? San Fran would have had enough momentum to make a serious playoff run, and the Favre-Vikings lovefest wouldn’t have lasted three months and been so gosh darn annoying. At least this season gave us the return of Alex Smith and the emergence of Vernon Davis this year. That was fun. I will laugh at whomever drafts Davis in the sixth round next year assuming a repeat of this year’s Pro Bowl season. Ain’t gonna happen.

21. Denver Broncos.
Forget all about the 6-0 start. This is not the same team. That was a fluke. And I’m glad they fell apart, because Josh McDaniels is a cocky dude and I never liked him from the beginning. All you need to know about Denver is that prior to their ultra-important game against the Chargers in week 11, McDaniels was trash-talking the Chargers players right before kick-off, shouting “We own you!” over and over. Then San Diego went ahead and kicked the crap out of them, 32-3. That’s the season in a microcosm.

20. Jacksonville Jaguars.
One of my preseason picks to make the AFC Playoffs, the Jags were in good shape a few weeks ago when they were 7-5; now they’re 7-8 and need a miracle to make it in. They’ve had a very mediocre season, which is better than most people thought they would do. For the most part, they’ve beaten the bad teams and lost to the good teams, and with the level of talent they have, that’s all you can ask of them. Garrard is about as mediocre a quarterback as there has ever been; he ranks 18th in QB rating, 16th in completion percentage, 15th in yards per game, and 16th in yards per attempt. Excruciatingly average.

19. Atlanta Falcons.
Another candidate for Most Disappointing Team, Atlanta was the consensus favorite to win the NFC South this year. Nothing they could do to stop the Saints from going 13-0, but they could have at least stayed competitive in the wildcard race. Hard to pinpoint what happened to them. Gonzalez contributed, Roddy White was great, Turner was good. The offense was expected to produce and for the most part, it did. It just wasn’t quite enough. Matt Ryan made too many mistakes and degressed in just about every statistic from a year ago: he dropped in TDs, yards and completion percentage while his INTs went up. The defense made some major steps backwards as well. Allowing Michael Vick to come into Atlanta and score two touchdowns must have been devastating for the Falcon faithful. They have my sympathies.

The “Frisky But Flawed”

18. Miami Dolphins.
It was a foregone conclusion that the Fins wouldn’t win the AFC East a second straight year, but they did all they could to keep it interesting. They smoked the Jets twice. Beat the Pats once. Stayed competitive despite losing Pennington early and Ronnie Brown midseason. Played hard on defense despite starting rookies at both cornerback positions. They probably did more with less talent than any other team this year, and recovered from an 0-3 start and will finish either 7-9 or 8-8. Jake Long had another Pro Bowl year at left tackle. The Wildcat was just as perplexing as it was last year. Good for Miami for competing week in and week out. They have a chance to end Pittsburgh’s season on Sunday and I certainly wish them the best.

17. Carolina Panthers.
It was really the tale of two season for the Carolina Panthers in 2009: 4-7 with Jake Delhomme and his 18 interceptions, and 3-1 with Matt Moore, with the lone loss being at New England. They are a team, like Oakland, that would have fared much better if they had made the quarterback switch much earlier in the season. The running game was consistently solid and the defense was better than people realized. They actually had the fourth best defense against the pass, thanks in large part to a rejuvenated Julius Peppers who racked up 11 sacks and 5 forced fumbles despite constant double teams. The real problem all season was Delhomme, who may have garnered more ‘boos’ than any single player in the NFL. His numbers are staggeringly bad, and it makes it even worse that Moore played so well in his four starts: 7 TDs, 1 INT and a QB rating of over 100.

16. New York Giants.
After a blistering 5-0 start in which they completely destroyed everyone they played, New York fizzled out to an 8-8 finish (possibly 9-7 if they beat the Vikings), thanks to injuries on the defense and Eli on the offense. Remember when I spent the entire offseason making fun of Eli Manning, calling him ‘Dopey” and saying that despite the fluke Super Bowl run he still wasn’t a top 20 NFL QB? For five weeks he made me eat my words and I had almost turned the corner and became a believer, and then … Three straight games with a QB rating of less than 62. He didn’t have a horrid season, in fact his overall numbers look pretty decent. But costly turnovers and a mediocre completion percentage plagued the offense. As for the G-men’s defense, things went downhill as soon as Antonio Pierce went down with a neck injury in week 9. For all the hype about the Giants’ superior depth on defense, they seemed unable to replace Pierce from that point on and failed to make the playoffs. This whole season proved what I’ve been saying all along: if the Giants QB was named Eli Jones, he would be an average guy in the group of Garrard-Campbell-Orton and people would be saying “How did they win a Super Bowl with that guy?” Instead, he’s doing Oreos commercials with Donald Trump.

15. Tennessee Titans.
As unbelievable a season as Chris Johnson has had through 15 games (1872 rushing yards, 483 receiving yards, 14 TDs and a psycho YPG of 5.8) the Titans have suffered all season from an inadequate passing attack, especially in the first six games of the season – all losses. It was the same story we saw last year with Minnesota. Vince Young’s improbable return to glory and five-game winning streak was fun, but ultimately 0-6 proved to be too big a hole to climb out of. If they hadn’t played Indy and San Diego they might be 9-6 right now with a great shot at the playoffs. But they did play those teams and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. Maybe next season they’ll go after Brett Favre …

“The Playoff Darkhorses”

14. New York Jets.
Back in August, I summarized the Jets season by saying this: “Idiot Coach + Rookie QB + a few stud players + difficult division = 7-9 season.” Well, it’s either going to be 8-8 or 9-7, but my synopsis was still pretty accurate. And the Jets probably would be 7-8 right now if the Colts hadn’t forfeited last week’s match. Not too many teams have a 1-6 stretch (with the one win being Oakland) and still make the playoffs, but that what the Jets are poised to do. But the real story about the Jets this season, and one that’s gone largely unnoticed, has been the dominance of the defense, especially Darelle Revis. Does it surprise you that the Jets have the best defense in the NFL in terms of both points and yards allowed? Per game, they give up 20 less passing yards than any other team. Assuming they win the finale against Cincinnati and squeeze into the playoffs, I wouldn’t count them out. Any team that can run the ball and play defense is a threat, even with a rookie QB. The Ravens made the AFC Championship last year with Flacco. Revis will be covering either Moss or Ochocinco in round one, and either way he’ll make a big difference. But ultimately, yeah, Sanchez is probably going to screw this up.

13. Cincinnati Bengals.
The worst division-winning team, Cincinnati played its best football from about week 6 to 12, and has been average ever since. Remember they should have won week 1 if not for that crazy Brandon Stokey play, and that would have given them a 5-0 start. They key to the season was obviously the 6-0 record in the AFC North, including four huge wins over the Steelers and Ravens. That’s what won them the division and landed them in the playoffs. As a matter of fact, if Troy Polamalu doesn’t get injured and miss the two Bengals-Steelers games, Cincinnati probably isn’t in the playoffs.

A lot of the discussion this year was about the “resurgence” of Cedric Benson’s career, but that’s a point I’d to contend. Yes, through week 7 he was leading the NFL in rushing yards and was a fantasy darling. But look at what he really did this season: scored only 6 touchdowns, caught only 17 passes, and worst of all, averaged a measly 4.2 yards per carry. That’s simply not a good average, especially for someone who carried the ball more than 300 times. Of all the backs who rushed for 1,000 yards, Benson had the worst average per carry, and the amazing thing is that I typed that before even checking to make sure it was true. And sure enough, it was. The guy stinks; he stunk in college, he stunk with Chicago, and he still stinks. He’s the primary reason why I don’t like Cincy’s chances in the playoffs regardless of who they play.

12. Houston Texans.
Just like last year, Houston had an explosive offense, a middle-of-the-road defense, and a .500 record. Well, if they lose to New England on Sunday they’ll be 8-8 - for the third straight season. But, they’ll probably win on Sunday, because it sounds like the Pats are keeping Brady, Moss and Welker on the bench. So that's good luck for Houston, and it’ll be 9-7 and a possible playoff berth (depending on the fortunes of the Jets and Ravens). Not too much difference between this season and the past two; Schaub still throws for a ton of yards and has a terrible hair cut; the running game is still in random shambles; Andre Johnson is still a beast who draws no attention to himself; Mario Williams continues to rack up sacks (his third straight year with at least 8, and you know he’s getting double teamed every snap); and the secondary still, after a consistent decade of being the teams’ primary weakness, can’t stop anybody. They are the perennial team that everyone loves to peg as a sleeper, and slowly but surely, they are getting better. I think…

11. Baltimore Ravens.
Their task is simple: beat the Raiders, make the playoffs. And I probably should wait until Monday to post these rankings, because if they lose to the Raiders they lose my respect and drop down to the “Frisky/Flawed” division with the Dolphins, Panthers and Co. But if they beat the Raiders, they’re a team no one wants to face in the playoffs. They have what it takes to play postseason football: great coach, great running game, and leadership – in the form of Ray Lewis. My only concern is Flacco. His statistics improved in every way from a year ago (more than can be said for his counterpart, Matt Ryan), but I still don’t trust him. I watched enough Baltimore games this year to see glaring inconsistencies in his game and a tendency to make costly mistakes. Also, those eyebrows are just brutal. Seriously, you earn $30 million dollars (plus endorsements from Reebok and Pizza Hut) and you can’t afford to have your eyebrows waxed?! It only costs like twelve bucks. Uh… not that I would know …

10. Dallas Cowboys.
This season can be summarized in just two words: Miles. Austin. What began as a ho-hum season and a lethargic offense was changed forever in week 5 at Kansas City, when a Roy Williams injury stuck Austin in the starting lineup for his first NFL start, and 250 magical receiving yards later the Cowboys had found the deep threat they so desperately needed. (Sorry to sound so cheesy, but that’s really what happened.) Austin went on to have a Pro Bowl year despite missing the first four games, and in my opinion is a top 10 MVP candidate because of the way he saved the Cowboys’ season and made them a 10 win team. He probably saved both Romo and Wade Phillips’ jobs for at least another season. He made the front office look like geniuses, even though they are the same buffoons who experimented with TO, Pacman and Tank, as well as the almost equally inane Roy Williams. Austin might be the best receiver in the NFL at picking up yards after the catch (it’s either him or Brandon Marshall) and for a guy out of Monmouth College to miss the first four games and still lead the NFC in receiving yards is pretty freaking incredible. Great story. I love Miles Austin. And not to switch gears completely, but unfortunately, I don’t think Dallas and their cutely-dimpled quarterback have much of a chance in the playoffs. The NFC is too solid.

“The Super Darkhorse” / “The Team That I Hate”

9. Pittsburgh Steelers.
Let me start by saying this: I hate the Steelers, their fans and their players. And everything about them. Okay, now that I’ve got that out of the way … they really scare me. I mean, they dropped 5 straight games, plummeted down to 6-7, and STILL might make the playoffs. It would require a win and quite a bit of help, but until it’s a mathematical impossibility, I cannot rest. And if they do make the playoffs, that will give Troy Polamalu just enough time to recover back to 100%, and if that happens, then God help us all. We’ve seen what they can do in the postseason. In 2005 they won the Super Bowl after an 8-8 record and the 6th seed. They’re a bunch of lucky bastards. All the breaks go their way. And I hate to ever say this, but they really are a good team. Better than Dallas, Baltimore, Cincinnati or a few other playoff teams. Roethlisberger knows how to win, no matter how ugly and stupid and dastardly he is. And that defense is dominant when Polamalu is on the field. And Tomlin’s a great coach. He really is. And they know how to win on the road, which they’d have to do if they did sneak into the playoffs. Oh man. I just can’t bear to watch those idiots fans celebrate another undeserved Super Bowl. I can’t talk about this anymore …..

“Deserving Playoff Teams, But Lacking Something”

8. Green Bay Packers.
When Aaron Kampman and Al Harris both suffered season-ending injuries in the same game, I thought the Packers season was over. But the defense has actually held its own, and honestly they haven't had to do much thanks to a crazy good season from Aaron Rodgers. He’s a guy who really doesn’t get the credit he should, and is another top 10 MVP candidate in my mind. (In fact, I’ll list my top 10 at the bottom of the Power Poll if you’re interested.) Rodgers finished in the top 5 in both passing yards and touchdowns, and threw only 7 interceptions – the fewest of any starting QB. He progresses through his reads and finds the open receiver better and faster than any quarterback other than Brees. He spreads the ball around brilliantly. They run with Ryan Grant just enough to keep defenses honest. That offense is a machine. It’s like the Philly/Indy/New Orleans offenses, but with one flaw: the offensive line. And that’s a big flaw. 50 sacks allowed is the most in the NFL, and Rodgers has been rattled enough times that he can’t be considered a safe QB in the playoffs. He might be one sack away from “Screw This, I’m Going Gunslinger” mode, and thus dooming the Packers.

7. Arizona Cardinals
Well, looks like the Super Bowl losers finally broke the curse. Something like 9 of the past 10 SB losers did not make it back to the playoffs the following year, but Zona is headed for either 10-6 or 11-5, thanks in large part to a cakewalk division. Can they repeat last year’s magic? I certainly doubt it, but I’ve been a doubter all season and they’ve proved me wrong before. There’s nothing special or mysterious about them: they pass the ball like crazy (third in passing attempts), run the ball sparingly (fourth least rushing attempts) and play average at best defense (18th against the run, 22nd against the pass). But you have to respect a team that makes no secret about its gameplan, and says “Yeah, Warner is going to throw to Boldin and Fitzgerald fifty times. Try to stop us.” And they are tough to stop. But Warner is prone to giant stinkbombs and when he throws 2 or more picks they’re 0-4. The NFC is much better than it was a year ago, and a trip back to the Super Bowl is less than likely for Cards.

“The Prideful But Dangerous”

6. New England Patriots.
I can guarantee you that no one wants to play against Tom Brady in the playoffs, even if this season has been far below his expectations. His playoff record is 14-3, the second best percentage of all-time. (The only one better: Bart Starr, 9-1). They seemed to play half-hearted throughout most of the regular season, reminiscent of an NBA team that knows they are playoff-bound and is just saving up energy. That’s risky in the 16-game NFL season, but New England did just enough to clinch the AFC East and now just has to focus. They can beat anybody. They can also lose to anybody if they’re lazy enough. There’s nothing else to say about them. Except that if Wes Welker can somehow catch 22 passes in week 17 he will break the single-season record. I wouldn’t put it past Belichick to try.

“The Team Nobody Wants To Win The Super Bowl, Not Even Vikings Fans”

5. Minnesota Vikings.
Why not? Because the world might spontaneously explode from all of the Brett Favre love and boyish charm and people saying the phrase "he's like a kid out there." I can’t take anymore of this. None of us can. Even Marc Dykstra wants you to retire. Please, Brett, just leave our lives forever. Incidentally, a few Vikings-related things have gone largely unnoticed because of the overwhelming Favre-mania this season: one, Adrian Peterson’s YPC dropped to a modest 4.4 and his fumbling problems actually made him a liability; two, Jared Allen is the most dominant pass rusher in the NFL and is virtually unblockable; three, what used to be the Vikings’ biggest weakness is now one of their biggest strengths, and I’m not talking about quarterback play. I’m talking about the wide receivers. Rice, Harvin and Berrian are as dynamic a threesome as there is in the league.

“The Super Contenders”

4. New Orleans Saints.
I’m actually not that worried about the current 0-2 slump they’re in (which could EASILY be an 0-4 slump). I’m worried enough to drop them below the Eagles and Chargers, but not so worried to say they can’t win the Super Bowl. Losing to Tampa in week 16 might be just the wake-up call they needed. Then again, Drew Brees and Sean Payton have very little playoff experience between the two of them. Then again, they do have home-field advantage throughout. Then again … Well I don’t know. Let’s just say they’re fourth in the Power Poll and move on.

3. Philadelphia Eagles.
The facts: they’ve won six straight games, scored at least 24 in each of them, and have the third highest scoring offense in the NFL. They also have a top five defense in terms of sacks, interceptions, and yards allowed. People don’t love to talk about the boring old Eagles, but NFL purists like myself recognize the Super quality they have to score fast and hold on to a lead. They can run the ball to keep a lead; they can throw the ball if they’re down. That’s huge. You can’t say the same for Indy, New Orleans or New England. They have studs all over the defense and a coach/quarterback combo who have been to 12 playoff games together. And here’s an interesting factoid that I can pretty much guarantee you did not know: Donovan McNabb is the least intercepted quarterback of ALL TIME in terms of INTs per attempt, at right around 2.12%.

2. San Diego Chargers.
Started 2-3. Won 10 straight. They have everything. Tons of motivation. Star quarterback. Explosive offense. Major X-factor (Darren Sproles). Slightly-past-his-prime veteran to dedicate the playoff run to (LT). Decent defense – they certainly aren’t great, but they’re not a liability. My main concern is Norv Turner. His face is just weird looking.

“The Favorite”

1. Indianapolis Colts.
It’s been their season from the beginning. This is Manning’s year. And I sort of have the feeling that he won’t be stopped. Which leads me to …

My 2009 Offensive MVP Top 10

1. Peyton Manning (also deserves consideration for Coach of the Year)
2. Drew Brees
3. Chris Johnson
4. Phillip Rivers
5. DeSean Jackson
6. Brett Favre
7. Miles Austin
8. Aaron Rodgers
9. Ray Rice
10. Maurice Jones-Drew

(Honorable Mention: Matt Schaub, Steven Jackson, Wes Welker)

Defensive MVP
1. Jared Allen
2. Darelle Revis
3. Charles Woodson
4. Darren Sharper
5. Elvis Dumervil

Thank you for reading this and have a great 2010!

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