Midseason NFL Power Rankings (Part 2): The Top 8

In case you missed it, I posted Part One of the Midseason Power Rankings earlier this week where I counted down from 17 to nine. Now we’re on to the final eight. A competent blogger would have saved the Broncos at #9 for part two because I’m lumping them in with the final eight as the only teams with a shot at winning the Super Bowl. And just like I struggled in part one with ranking the bottom of the group (Minnesota, Tampa, San Diego, Detroit), it was no easy task to choose who was better between the top teams (Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, New York). I will say that the NFC looks extremely powerful compared to the AFC at this point.

Anyway, enjoy the best of the best.

8). Pittsburgh

Record: 5-3

Rmurdera’s preseason prediction: 11-5

Nkilla’s preseason prediction: 10-6

Point Differential: +27

Record Against the Spread: 4-4

Season Highlight: Repeatedly throwing it in my face every time I write that their defense is too old and too injured. These guys just won’t die already.

Season Lowlight: Take your pick: a three-point loss to Oakland, a three-point loss to Tennessee, or rushing Troy Polamalu back in week 5 only to have him re-injure his calf and miss the last four games.

Direction They’re Heading: Just like Elijah Wood does as the character North in the movie North, the Steelers are heading north.

The Steelers may have screwed themselves in the long run with those losses to Oakland and Tennessee. They’re not completely unforgivable losses considering they were both on the road, but it hurts them big time with the conference record tiebreaker against a team like New England. Consider that their third loss was to Denver, another three-loss team, and you get the feeling that even if the Steelers win their division, they’re not getting a bye. With how well they play at home, they’d have a much better shot in the playoffs if Denver or New England had to go to them instead of the other way around. The counter argument is that Pittsburgh has a crazy easy schedule the rest of the way—five home games, and only two tilts against Baltimore as “challenging games.” But if you’re like me and believe Baltimore’s due for a big fall, those games don’t seem so tough either. If the Steelers run the table, they’re getting a bye. If not, they’ll have to settle for going on the road in round two.

7). Green Bay

Record: 6-3* (legitimately 7-2, but we already established in part one of this blog that legitimacy doesn’t matter in the NFL)

Rmurdera’s preseason prediction: 13-3 (If their record says 12-4 at the end of the year, I’m counting this as a win for me)

Nkilla’s preseason prediction: 11-5 (thought they’d have a shot at chasing an undefeated season…oops)

Point Differential: +52

Record Against the Spread: 4-5 (should be 5-5)

Season Highlight: Their season-saving beatdown of Houston in week 6.

Season Lowlight: The Seattle debacle is obvious (and may yet come into play at the end of the regular season), but I’d go with the injuries that seem to have happened to every key player except Aaron Rodgers.

Direction They’re Heading: North, but directly into a stiff wind.

On the surface all seems well with the Packers. They’re 6-3, they’ve won four in a row, they’ve got their bye week coming up to get some guys healthy, and their franchise QB is back to leading the NFL in touchdowns like he’s supposed to be. But there are a few reasons to worry. First of all, the injuries. They’re still missing Nick Perry and Greg Jennings, and now they might lose Clay Matthews for a couple weeks. Starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga could be out for a while, and Jordy Nelson is also banged up. Eventually this will catch up to them. Second, they face a pretty tough schedule in their final seven games: two against Detroit, two against Minnesota, one against the Giants and one against Chicago (Tennessee is the other opponent if you’re curious). That’s six of their final seven games against teams that are currently .500 or better. Assuming they don’t jump the Bears and have to settle for the 5th seed in the NFC, that means they’re playing wildcard weekend at either San Francisco, Chicago or New York. Not ideal at all.

6). New England

Record: 5-3

Rmurdera’s preseason prediction: 15-1 (yeah, yeah, total homer prediction)

Nkilla’s preseason prediction: 13-3 (not as big of a homer prediction, and still an outside chance of happening)

Point Differential: +92

Record Against the Spread: 5-3

Season Highlight: Tricking people in the preseason into thinking their offensive line was going to be the biggest area of concern, which totally deflected attention away from their secondary for about two weeks.

Season Lowlight: Two losses to the NFC West. Specifically losing at home to Arizona, who by season’s end will be a 5-11 team…or…Making Mark Sanchez look like an NFL quarterback.

Direction They’re Heading: Holding steady

It’s too bad that the Patriots’ 5th-ranked passing offense, 4th-ranked rushing offense and 8th-ranked rushing defense is being completely overshadowed by their 28th-ranked passing D. But that’s life in the NFL. Patriot fans are freaking a little because the team “already has three losses,” but it still seems like a worst-case scenario has them 11-5 at the end of the regular season. I’m trying my hardest not to be one of those spoiled Patriots fans who throws a tantrum if they don’t get one of the top two seeds in the AFC, but they really have conditioned us to expect as much. I’m committing to being happy as long as they make the playoffs because as we’ve all learned over the past five years, you just gotta get there and then anything can happen.

5). San Francisco

Record: 6-2

Rmurdera’s preseason prediction: 10-6

Nkilla’s preseason prediction: 9-7 (I also happen to know he named one of his Pick ‘em League team names “NoPlayoffsFor9ers.” Not too smart.)

Point Differential: +86

Record Against the Spread: 5-3

Season Highlight: Out-Tebowing the Jets with their own version of Tebow, Colin Kaepernick (I kinda feel like Jim Harbaugh would vote for his over-thinking of the end of the Seattle game as the season highlight (aka my personal season lowlight)).

Season Lowlight: The recurring disaster that their offense becomes if they fall behind by two touchdowns. It happened in Minnesota and it happened against the Giants. They can’t play catch up very well.

Direction They’re Heading: They’re flying a little too close to the sun right now. Probably heading slightly south.

Sometimes it’s so simple you feel crazy for thinking it’s as simple as it is. If the 49ers get to play their type of game every week from now through the Super Bowl, they can win it all (“Alex Smith, Super Bowl Champion” has a weird, uneasy ring to it). But they’re not really able to adapt and play a different kind of game. Basically, like I mentioned above, if they fall down early by 14 or so to a competent opponent, they’re not getting an Alex Smith comeback. They can only grind it out and hope the other team’s offense slows down. During my preseason predictions, I wrote that San Francisco would struggle against the “elite offenses of the NFL.” I cited Green Bay, Detroit, the Giants, New Orleans and New England as the tough games for them. They’ve handled two out of three so far, with New Orleans and New England remaining. They could see three of those five in the playoffs if they make it to the Super Bowl. My picking against them when facing those teams could still look wise.

4). NY Giants

Record: 6-3

Rmurdera’s preseason prediction: 11-5

Nkilla’s preseason prediction: 8-8 (if Nkilla gets this right, someone’s getting fired in New York by week 17)

Point Differential: +69

Record Against the Spread: 4-4-1

Season Highlight: Officially wrapping up the NFC East on November 5th with Philly’s loss to New Orleans (random realization: All four NFC East teams lost last week, so technically, the Giants backed their way into the division title in week 9. Wow.)

Season Lowlight: The depressing possibility that two incompetent head coaches in their division (Jason Garrett of Dallas, Andy Reid of Philadelphia) may not be around for Tom Coughlin to coach circles around in 2013.

Direction They’re Heading: Swirling in the lingering hurricane winds

I’ll give you another random realization: the Giants lead the NFL in “number of wide receivers who have been owned in fantasy leagues.” I’ve got six for the Giants. Does any team have more? I doubt it. Anyway, they seem to be humming along, not drawing too much attention to themselves…every unit pretty much having an average-too-above-average year. They’re like the Patriots of the NFC, complete with their very own questionable passing defense and embarrassing early-season losses. They get the nod over the 49ers because they crushed the 9ers in San Francisco…and because I’m forever scared shitless of them.

3). Chicago

Record: 7-1

Rmurdera’s preseason prediction: 11 (can’t believe I’m gonna be wrong on the low end)

Nkilla’s preseason prediction: 10 (loved their offense, but was concerned about their aging defense)

Point Differential: +116

Record Against the Spread: 5-2-1

Season Highlight: Amazing that Brandon Marshall being on pace for nearly 1,600 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns (he currently ranks second in both categories) can be overlooked because of a defense. The entire year’s been a highlight for Marshall and the D.

Season Lowlight: Hasn’t happened yet, but the epiphany for Bears fans coming up in week 15 that their 2012 team is no different than their 2006 team (in that their offense stinks), is still pending.

Direction They’re Heading: Tough to go up after a 7-1 start, especially with games against Houston, San Francisco and Green Bay looming.

Not much negative you can say about the Bears, but let’s try. If they had just a regular above average defense, they’d be 5-3 right now. It’s worrisome for any team to think they have to rely on defense for a big chunk of their points. After a sneaky-easy first half schedule (starting in week 3, their last six opponents have combined for a 16-33 record), they’ll get to see where they stack up with their peers during back-to-back prime-time games starting this weekend—vs Houston and then at San Francisco. Their second half schedule checks in with their opponents’ current combined record at 47-23. Lucky for us gamblers, we should know everything we need to know about the real Chicago Bears by the time playoff betting rolls around.

2). Atlanta

Record: 8-0

Rmurdera’s preseason prediction: 9-7 (thinking I’m gonna be slightly off on this)

Nkilla’s preseason prediction: 10-6 (ditto)

Point Differential: +77

Record Against the Spread: 6-2

Season Highlight: I don’t have a good joke here. They’re 8-0, what more do you want?

Season Lowlight: I guess you could nitpick that five of their eight games have been decided by a touchdown or less.

Direction They’re Heading: About 472 miles southwest to New Orleans? I’m not talking just about their road game in week 10, but possibly their final destination in February.

I agonized over Chicago vs Atlanta in the second and third spot. Ultimately, I decided that what Atlanta does exceptionally well (pass the ball) is more sustainable than what Chicago does exceptionally well (cause turnovers and return them for touchdowns). The Falcons can also guarantee they don’t have to play outdoors at all in the playoffs if they can get the 1-seed over the Bears. With a four-game lead over their closest challenger for the NFC South, do the Falcons accidentally have a letdown game or two? Definitely possible.

1). Houston

Record: 7-1

Rmurdera’s preseason prediction: 13-3 (in case they only lose one game this year, I just want everyone to know that I told one of my college friends, while sitting in the Austin Airport three months ago, that I was having trouble finding even two losses on the Texans’ schedule)

Nkilla’s preseason prediction: 9-7

Point Differential: +100

Record Against the Spread: 6-2

Season Highlight: Realizing the Colts’ surprising 5-3 record would push them to keep their foot on the gas. In the preseason, the Texans were supposed to be in a division with Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker and a rookie. You can’t blame them for expecting to have the division wrapped up by week 9 and be bored for the rest of the season.

Season Lowlight: Getting absolutely demolished by a Packers team they should have had no problem getting motivated for.

Direction They’re Heading: When you’re on top, there’s only one way to go. The question is whether they’ll grab a shiny new trophy while they’re up here or not.

Isn’t it interesting that I have all NFC teams in numbers 2-6 in the power rankings? And since several of them have to play each other, and presumably a much harder conference than the AFC, you’d think maybe an NFC team should be at the top. I totally get your point, but I’m choosing to ignore it. When you really look closely at this Texans team, you see excellence in all phases of the game. Can’t really find a weakness. They run nearly as good as the 49ers, but if needed, they could dial up the passing game while still being able to rely on their defense most weeks. Gary Kubiak must feel like he’s on cruise control this season after dealing with four different starting quarterbacks last year. If they stay healthy, they’re the team to beat until further notice.

I can’t wait to see four of my top five teams lose in week 10 just to make these power ranking posts completely obsolete. Enjoy week 10, especially a legit potential Super Bowl preview with Houston at Chicago on Sunday night.

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