Wednesday, December 19, 2012

NFL Playoff Power Rankings: Week 16

Almost.  It almost happened.  But then came (ironically enough) LaMichael James’ kickoff return, the Crabtree touchdown, and the overthrow of Woodhead on a 4th and 2 that won’t be remembered as bitterly as other failed 4th and 2’s.  But life could be worse – you could be this poor bispeckled guy.  Or any St. Louis Rams fan, for that matter.  Here, as always, are my playoff seeding projections for Week 16.

AFC Playoffs

1. Houston Texans (12-2; projected 13-3) The Texans looked like their old selves in what was likely their last meaningful regular season game Sunday, taking care of business through superb running and a rigid defense that held Andrew Luck to a season-low 186 yards passing.  What they did allow, however, was their first 100-yard rusher (Vick Ballard) since Week 4.  This week’s home matchup with the ridiculous Adrian Peterson will be an intriguing matchup.

2. Denver Broncos (11-3; projected 13-3) Like the Texans, Denver’s run defense has been amazing in the last few weeks, not only holding Ray Rice to 38 yards Sunday, but limiting opponents to under three yards per rush through the last three games.  I’ve been skeptical of their weak schedule, but wins against the Panthers, Bengals, and Saints are looking more impressive as the season goes along.  Home matchups in the next two weeks against the Browns and Chiefs are practically gift-wrapped, as the Broncos will likely prepare for a first round bye.  2012 was a good year to be a Broncos fan – could 2013 bring a title?

3. New England Patriots (10-4; projected 12-4) There are three reasons I’m not overly concerned with the mildly heartbreaking loss Sunday night.  First, the Patriots were able gain 520 total yards against a defense which, going into the game, allowed an average of 275.5 yards per game.  Secondly, the 49ers needed the win more than New England.  And finally, playing close games against tough opponents – even if the result is a loss – is good for this team.  Remember when they ended 2007 and 2010 winning every game 42-7 and coming out stale after their bye weeks?  There’s also rumors that Gronk may be coming back this week, and these next two games could give him some valuable playing time on the field before he returns for significant games in January.  And if we play the 49ers again in the Super Bowl . . . well let’s just say we’ll be ready.  That is, after Vince Wilfork opens up his gifts.

4. Baltimore Ravens (9-5; projected 10-6) Baltimore finds itself in a very interesting position as the potential fourth seed.  Instead of hosting Pittsburgh, to whom they lost at home, they will host Andrew Luck’s first playoff game.  And instead of traveling to New England or Denver for their second-round game, a matchup with unpredictable Houston (who they beat in the playoffs last year) could be to the Ravens’ benefit.  Last year at this time, the Giants entered the final two weeks of the season with the playoffs on the line, coming off a disappointing loss against the Redskins, and eventually clinched the four seed.  And although this team has already clinched playoff berth, it doesn’t seem like the Ravens to simply fold when pressure is on the line.  If I were in Vegas, this would be the time I’d start putting some money down on them.

5. Indianapolis Colts (9-5; projected 11-5) The Colts now rank dead last in the NFL in takeaways (10).  They rank 18th and 24th in points scored and points allowed, respectively.  Only one win this season has come by more than a touchdown (against Jacksonville) and four of their five losses were by an average margin of 23 points.  Andrew Luck may be a great story, but the reality is that he is tied for the league lead in interceptions thrown.  The only team with a winning record that Indianapolis has beaten is Green Bay, which took a miracle finish.  The Colts’ 2012 season has been a wonderful story, but in three weeks when they go to Baltimore, it will all be over.

6. Cincinnati Bengals (8-6; projected 10-6) Just as Bill Simmons is gloating about his preseason Super Bowl pick featuring the Seahawks, I can now boast about my preseason prediction that the Bengals would make the playoffs (ignore the fact that I thought they would be the top seed).  The defense has been outstanding the past several weeks, and as a unit, they lead the NFL in sacks.  Although the offensive line has been spotty, Andy Dalton has thrown more touchdown passes and fewer interceptions than Tony Romo, Philip Rivers, or Eli Manning.  The Bengals are 5-2 on the road this year, and despite my pessimistic nature, I feel very good about Sunday’s trip to Shittsburgh.

In Contention

Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7; projected 8-8) The Stealers’ loss Sunday also made the Patriots’ defeat easier to stomach. A loss in Sunday’s game against the Bengals will eliminate them from postseason contention (under Roethlisberger, they’ve only missed the playoffs in 2006 and 2009).  They’ve lost four of their last five games, and in their last four matchups, they’re rushed for a total of 283 yards.  To put this in context, Adrian Peterson has rushed for 292 yards in his last 45 attempts (over a total period of only seven quarters).  Since the beginning of 2011, Pittsburgh is -27 in turnover differential (even Kansas City, Oakland, and the Mark Sanchez-led Jets have better ratios).  In the words of Ray Liotta in GoodFellas, it is a glorious time to be a Steelers hater. 

New York Jets (6-8; projected 6-10) Oh wait.  They’re not in contention.  They suck.  Just wanted to remind everyone.

What is the more flattering comparison -- Marge Simpson or Beldar Conehead?
NFC Playoffs

1. Atlanta Falcons (12-2; projected 13-3) Yes, the Giants’ secondary was banged up, but the Falcons win on Sunday was dominant enough to make us believe that maybe, just maybe, they are the best team in the NFC.  They are top ten in the league in points scored, points allowed, giveaways, takeaways, and penalty yards.  Since 2008, Atlanta is 33-4 at home, with those four losses coming by an average of five points.  Is it possible that 2010’s home playoff blowout by the Packers was bad luck?  Well, put it this way: Each of Atlanta’s last four playoff defeats (Philadelphia ’04, Arizona ’08, Green Bay ’10, New York ’11) came to the team which eventually represented the NFC in the Super Bowl.  Like Colts fans asked in 2003, how many years can you be a dominant team without winning a single playoff game?

2. San Francisco 49ers (10-3-1; projected 12-3-1) Even if the 49ers lose to the Seahawks (which they won’t), they still have Arizona at home in Week 17, and the last I saw, NatePoole is no longer on the Cardinals’ roster.  Now let’s talk about Colin Kaepernick: 14-25, 216 yards, 4 touchdowns, 28 rushing yards.  All on Sunday night in New England.  Forget the fact that the Patriots haven’t lost a December game in Foxboro in a decade.  That wasn’t only impressive, it was downright masterful.  Like their Monday night game last year against the Stealers (leaving us with two indelible images), this was a performance that put the rest of the league on alert.  On paper, San Francisco is the best team in football and should be the favorites to win Super Bowl XLVII.

3. Green Bay Packers (10-4; projected 11-5) The win over the Bears in Chicago was a good one, but the running game is still inconsistent (Alex Green was the Pack’s top rusher for 35 yards against a defense Adrian Peterson ripped through two weeks ago).  And speaking of Alex Green, according to Wikipedia, combine scouts criticized him for his "lack of ball control, lack of power, and the fact that he played in a pass-happy 'pistol' offense featuring wide splits against porous WAC defenses and that he was never asked to handle a heavy workload." Now that sounds like a guy you gotta draft! (I’m surprised the Patriots didn’t pick him up to play in the secondary).  In other quirky news, James Jones has the chance to become only the second player in 50 years to have more than 12 touchdown receptions and less than 700 yards receiving. 

4. Washington Redskins (8-6; projected 10-6) Did anyone think after their 3-6 start (later coupled with the injury to Robert Griffin III) the Redskins would be the odds-on favorites to win the NFC East?  Yes, RG3 has a QB rating of 104.2, but in this year of the successful rookie quarterback, Kirk Cousins has a QB rating of 101.6.  RG3 and The Butler have rushed for more yards than . . . well, Adrian Peterson.   They lead the league in fewest turnovers, and the defense looks sensational.  They now control their own destiny in the NFC East, and look likely to host the first playoff game in Washington D.C. since January 2000.  Good thing they won't have to square off against a team containing the words "St. Louis" or "Cardinals" (too soon.)

5. Seattle Seahawks (9-5; projected 10-6) Scoring 50 points in two straight games is impressive . . . if the opponents weren’t the Cardinals and Bills.  And the fake punt when leading by thirty?  Cold-blooded and vicious.  Karma will come back to bite this team; trust me, as a fan of the 2007 Patriots, I know.  The stats show them as one of the league’s best teams, but the reality is they will have to go on the road come playoff time, and unless the team the face is Carolina, Chicago, or Buffalo, a win doesn’t seem likely.

6. Minnesota Vikings (8-6; projected 9-7) Can we change the name of the Vikings to ‘Adrian Peterson?’  Adrian cannot clinch a playoff berth this weekend (a tough matchup in Houston), but if he can beat Green Bay at home (where Adrian is 6-1) in Week 17, he may be able to sneak in. Adrian’s quarterback, Christian Ponder, has the unique, Roethlisberger-esque distinction of going 3-1 when passing for under 115 yards.  In a season when LeSean McCoy, Ryan Mathews, and Maurice Jones-Drew have a combined four rushing touchdowns, Adrian alone has four rushing touchdowns of 60 yards or more.

In Contention

Dallas Cowboys  (8-6; projected 9-7) The Vikings have a better conference record than the ‘Boys at the moment, giving them the advantage in tiebreakers.  Such is the life of Cowboys fans, at once desolate after a 3-5 start, ecstatic in the last two weeks, and will inevitably be suffering when Dallas loses by 20 in Washington in two weeks on national television. 

New York Giants (8-6; projected 9-7) Hard to believe how much Sunday’s loss to the Falcons hurt them.  If they lose in Baltimore this weekend and Washington wins, they are eliminated from NFC East championship contention.  But if they win, suddenly they host the Eagles in Week 17, and the Redskins-Cowboys matchup could cancel out both teams. Unlike most other Giants’ seasons, New York has played poorly on the road this year, and has struggled against the AFC (losses to the Bengals, Steelers, and overcoming a ten-point deficit to Cleveland).  But picking against this team when they appear dead in the water is a mistake.

Chicago Bears (8-6; projected 8-8) Remember when this team was 7-1, had three 40+ point offensive performances, and a defense that scored eight touchdowns?  Yeah, me neither. 

At this point, I wouldn't mind a Super Bowl XX rematch.
            Thoughts?  Disagreements?  Are you one of the many non-existent people in Kansas City who think the Chiefs should trade for Mark Sanchez as their starting QB? (Odds of this happening: 60%)  Let me know below.

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