The week 9 recap is coming to you about 48 hours later than it usually does because my life is an absolute mess right now.
Instead of working no jobs, which is my preference, I’m now working two jobs and interviewing for more while trying to keep up with my writing schedule.
Instead of spending this past Sunday in the confines of my own home surrounded by TVs and nothing else, I was up in San Francisco…still watching football all day but not nearly as locked in and focused as I usually am.
And now that I don’t live in San Francisco, every time I return it’s an event. I party with my friends harder and stretch myself thinner than I normally would because I only have a couple nights to spend there. This past weekend also coincided with the going away party for one of my friends who’s moving back to the East Coast from the Bay Area. So there was even more beer chugging, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey swigging and general buffoonery than usual.
I guess “my life is an absolute mess” is the wrong way to say it. I think “I’m busy” is more appropriate. So that’s why you’re getting a late recap blog.
The sad part about the friend who’s leaving California is that he was the definition of “wildcard” when it comes to my sports gambling group of friends. He was the guy who’d burst into the man cave three minutes before kickoff on Sunday mornings with all 65 of his bets written down on a piece of a Triscuit box that he decided would make for a good piece of scrap paper. He was the guy who would make futures bets during our Vegas trip (picking the winner of the upcoming Super Bowl, college basketball & football national titles, World Series, etc) and then lose the bet slips in his apartment two months later. He was the guy who would make a bet on Sunday morning, not remembering that he made a bet during an Ambien stupor on Tuesday night that directly contradicts this new bet.
While the rest of us would plod away with small, conservative bets, just trying to grind out a little profit over the course of the NFL season, this guy would have weekly swings so drastic that if we were talking about a bank account instead of a gambling account, that bank would put a hold on all of his assets due to suspicious activity.
For a group of degenerate gamblers, he was the life of the party. He will be missed. And we will be holding tryouts for the rest of the football season for anyone who would like to take a stab at replacing him.
At this point in the week, I see no need to dig into the details of each individual week 9 game. Instead let’s take a step back and look at the season as a whole…the half that’s been played and the half that’s still to come. Let’s go team by team and try to figure out who’s in the best position for a Super Bowl run, who should just be happy to be in the playoff hunt, and who should be looking at the 2014 draft as the next relevant moment on their team’s schedule. Call it Power Rankings if you want. But unlike other power rankings, I’m putting a ton of stock in injuries and each team’s upcoming schedule. I’m trying to predict who will finish in the best position for that Super Bowl run.
In the interest of saving you time, the bottom 12 teams come with no explanation. These teams are already eliminated from playoff contention in my mind (which means at least one of them will definitely make it). And then from #20 through #1, I’ll try to give some reasoning on why this team is in the position it’s in. Here we go:
31 Tampa Bay
29 St. Louis
25 NY Giants
You could argue some other teams deserve to be in the top 20 over the Ravens (Philly and Cleveland come to mind), but with five home games remaining (including the Jets, Steelers and Vikings in consecutive weeks) this team could still make a little run. They may also get the benefit of facing a Bengals team that’s locked into its playoff position in week 17. Marvin Lewis has a history of resting his starters. So despite their best efforts, the Ravens aren’t dead yet.
We all know the Dolphins aren’t making the playoffs at this point so let’s instead consider this now-realistic scenario that I would have never thought possible just one week ago: On Monday night, the Dolphins will travel to Tampa Bay for a nationally-televised game. But instead of Greg Schiano getting fired the following day after a loss, what if Miami loses and more stories continue to trickle out about the environment that Joe Philbin has allowed the Dolphins’ locker room to become, and HE GETS FIRED INSTEAD? That would be the biggest reversal of coaching fortunes I’ve ever seen. I’m now rooting for this to happen.
We won’t know anything about this team until they host the Colts in week 11. Since his return, Jake Locker has lost to San Francisco and beaten St. Louis. Now he gets Jacksonville at home in week 10. They will officially be in the playoff mix if they can beat Indy in two weeks.
17 San Diego
Just know this: For at least the past seven years, the team to finish dead last in Football Outsiders’ defensive efficiency rankings has not made the playoffs. And that’s where the Chargers sit right now. Not to mention they still face Denver twice, Kansas City twice, Cincinnati, the Giants, Oakland and Miami. They’ll need at least five wins in there to make the playoffs. When passing is your only weapon, things usually fall apart in November and December.
This seems aggressive for the Redskins, I agree. But when I look at all four NFC East teams’ remaining schedules, Washington actually has it pretty easy. They face two teams with a winning record (San Francisco, Kansas City) at home and don’t have any difficult road games. If they can win on Thursday at Minnesota and then 10 days later at Philly (where the Eagles still haven’t won a home game in approximately 17 years), they’re 5-5 and suddenly the playoffs become a possibility. It’s not probable, but it’s possible.
Incredible that the “best team” in a division sits outside the top 12. The only reason I have the Cowboys ranked highest among its divisional brethren is because of the quarterback. Tony Romo is easily the best quarterback in the division and when everything else involved among the four teams is an absolute crapshoot, you gotta give the edge to the team with the most stability at that position. The Cowboys’ remaining schedule is not friendly: @New Orleans, @Giants, home Oakland, @Chicago, home Green Bay, @Washington and home Philly. I still think there’s a chance all four NFC East teams finish 7-9 (fingers crossed).
14 NY Jets
It makes me queasy to pencil the Jets in as a peripheral playoff team, but at 5-4, I can’t deny that they’re at least average. Aren’t the Jets essentially a less-disciplined version of the Chiefs? Very solid defense, tries to run the ball to avoid exposing its passing deficiencies, has a QB you’re unsure about if he has to lead the team to a big comeback. The only differences are the Jets lead the league in penalties, they have a -10 turnover differential compared to the Chiefs’ +15, and they’ve actually had a harder schedule. But the schedule softens for New York the rest of the way and it looks like 9-7 is very doable.
Several weeks ago I predicted that the Cardinals would be 6-4 after week 11. Their next two games are home against Houston and @Jacksonville. Those are winnable games that would make me look like a genius. Whether this team can get to 9-7 and battle Carolina for the one up-for-grabs wildcard spot will all hinge on either beating Indianapolis at home or winning at Tennessee in week 16. And if the 49ers rest their starters in week 17, this Cardinals team could amazingly get to 10 wins. By the way, I’d rather be the #6 seed in the NFC and have to travel to Chicago, Detroit or Green Bay than be the #4 seed and “get” to host San Francisco or Seattle. That’s why the Cardinals are ranked higher than the best NFC East team.
12 Kansas City
Well since the 9-0 Chiefs are very likely to make the playoffs, I have no choice but to rank them in the top 12. But I’ll continue to patiently wait for their inevitable demise. Teams that can’t occasionally win a shootout or come back from a 14-point deficit should be very concerned. Some of the best defensive teams in 2012 (Seattle and San Francisco come to mind) had to get the offense going in the playoffs in order to advance. The same challenge will present itself to KC eventually (for instance, what if they get the #5 seed and travel to New England in the 1st or 2nd round of the playoffs). I have no faith in them.
Side Note: In 2012, I gave this exact same treatment to Baltimore. From about week 4 on, I constantly picked against them, noting how they weren’t very good and were getting luckier than any team. I bitched about their schedule being too easy and that they’d be one-and-done in the playoffs. So if you’re still looking for that Super Bowl bet, I’d go big on the Chiefs. My recent history almost guarantees that they win it all.
11 Green Bay
Let’s go ahead and group all these teams together since the fate of each of them depends on one man: Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay drops to the back of this pack because Rodgers is out probably a month. And let’s not forget they’re also missing key guys like Randall Cobb, Clay Matthews and Jermichael Finley. Oh, and the F word’s been floating around with this team…Flynn. As in Matt. As in “Matt Flynn might be the best option to start at QB while Rodgers is out.” They might be in serious trouble.
Chicago gets the nod over Detroit because their defense is better and the Lions lack that second reliable receiver that Alshon Jeffrey has become for the Bears.
I don’t think the Panthers are a worse team than their NFC South rival who happens to be one spot ahead of them on these rankings. I just think their current situation is worse. They already have three losses and they have upcoming games at San Francisco, home New England and home & away New Orleans. Football Outsiders actually has Carolina ranked as the 3rd best team in all of football. My preseason Super Bowl bet on them has me irrationally invested in their success. I think they make the playoffs for the first time in the Ron Rivera-Cam Newton era. But the #6 seed would mean a likely trip to New Orleans for the inexperienced team. Don’t see them getting farther than that.
7 New Orleans
It’s no secret this team struggles on the road. And it really doesn’t feel like they’re getting home-field advantage in the NFC. If they’re the #3 seed, they’ll get to host one playoff game before going on the road for two possible games. I still don’t buy into the defense entirely, and it seems like every week an important offensive player is getting hurt. First it was Jimmy Graham, then Marques Colston and now Darren Sproles. If everything breaks right, they’re a contender. I just don’t see everything going their way.
The Bengals are at a fork in the road. Now that we know they might be playing in the second worst division in football, it’s up to them to pull away from those sub-.500 lurkers or end up in a dog fight to see if they can beat out the Ravens or Browns for that elusive 9-7 division-winning record. The reason I stuck them a spot below New England, despite having beaten the Patriots already, is because of the two enormous defensive injuries that they haven’t had to really deal with yet. Leon Hall and Geno Atkins are out for the year and unless Andy Dalton plays the rest of the season like he did in the month of October, chances are they’re heading towards 10-6 and a 2nd round playoff game at Denver.
5 New England
As a devout Patriots fan, it was great seeing a healthy Gronk and Amendola doing what they’re supposed to do while Tom Brady finally looked like his usual self. That was fun. But it’s not the reason I’m so bullish on this team. The defense is the reason. Yes, the defense that lost Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly (Wilfork’s replacement) to season-ending injuries. And really it all rests on one player: Aqib Talib. I know the Pats are suddenly susceptible to the inside running game, but please tell me which team is going to march up and down the field ever-so slowly against New England by running for 4-5 yards at a time. This isn’t a league where a run-only team wins. You’ve gotta be able to throw, and if Talib’s healthy, this team is tough to throw on. And if that offense really is rounding into form, any team that wants to beat New England in January will have to throw a lot. Good luck to them.
An astute observer will notice that the Colts have beaten the top three teams in my rankings, and yet here they sit at #4. Why? It’s not because I think their second half schedule’s tough or they’re due for much of a drop off (I see 11-5 as their worst case). It’s because they beat all those contenders with a healthy Reggie Wayne. I know they won in their first try without Wayne, but eventually they’re going to miss him. And once they do get to the playoffs, we’re talking about a very young team that has little to no experience playing multiple games in January/February. For that reason I have to put them as the worst of the final four.
If I’m saying the NFC West juggernauts are the top teams in the conference, it would make sense to have the Seahawks ranked over the 49ers. But I’ve gone the opposite way. Seattle scares me just a tiny bit. They are very beatable on the road, and what the hell was their problem at home against Tampa Bay last week? Maybe they peaked a little early and we all just assumed they’d roll to the Super Bowl? I’ll admit that if they find a way to stay ahead of San Francisco for the division (and likely the top seed in the NFC), it’s going to be tough to beat them in January. But they won’t stay ahead of the 49ers because…
2 San Francisco
The 49ers are going to win the rest of their games! That’s right, a 13-game win streak to close out the season for San Francisco. If that happens, it’ll mean getting revenge on the Seahawks for their week 2 shellacking in San Francisco on December 8th, and a big road win in two weeks at New Orleans. The 49ers might sneaky be the best team in football. They’re getting fully healthy at the right time and they’ve just been flying under the radar, handling their business (if handling their business = winning each of their last five games by an average of 22.6 points).
They’re the best bet to be playing in February because they are relatively healthy compared to their closest contenders, they have more offensive weapons than almost any other team and their schedule is easy enough that 12-4 is their worst case scenario. They have road games against San Diego, New England and Kansas City coming up. Those are the only three possible losses. They’ll likely have the #1 seed in the AFC.
(Stands back, admires his work)
And that’s how you nail a power rankings column.
Week 10 picks coming up on Thursday.