Thursday, December 18, 2014

NFL power rankings - Week 15

It's too late for the pretenders.

Now, Chrissie Hynde and company are doing just fine. It's the NFL's pretenders, however, that have found their way to the middle of the pack, and the list of teams with a realistic shot at a trip to Glendale this February dwindles with each passing Sunday.

The gaps between the haves and have-nots of the league are growing. It appears as though the AFC will be decided in another Manning-versus-Brady meeting, while the winner of Sunday's Seahawks/Cardinals game will likely clinch home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.

Gillette Stadium, CenturyLink Field and Sports Authority Field are unkind to visitors, and will almost certainly play host to one, if not both, conference championship games. The Arizona Cardinals, owners of the NFC's best record, won't be going quietly, and will make a spirited effort to be the first team in NFL history to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium.

1. New England (11-3) - New England will not relinquish its hold on the top of the Jargon's power rankings. No team in the NFL has as impressive a resume as the Patriots, and right now, no team in the AFC looks like they'll be able to stand between Belichick and Brady's sixth Super Bowl trip. (Prior rank: 1)

2. Seattle (10-4) - The champs have won seven of eight, including four in a row against teams that entered the contest with a winning record. No team has beaten the Seahawks by more than a touchdown since Week 2. NFC west powers Arizona and Seattle meet Sunday, with the winner just a victory away from home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs. (Prior rank: 5)

3. Denver (11-3) - The lopsided victories got closer, a couple of good teams took Denver to the limit, and suddenly, the Broncos have faded out of the spotlight. Peyton Manning and company have been on cruise control, and will likely remain that way until January. Don't sleep on the Broncos, though - only the Lions have a better rush defense, and Denver's total defense ranks fourth in the league. (Prior rank: 2)

4. Arizona (11-3) - Despite winning 11 games, Arizona's offense is terrible (23rd in the league) and its pass defense is worse. The Cards will face stiff challenges to close the season, facing two of the league's top four defensive units. Win Sunday against Seattle, though, and the Cardinals won't leave the state of Arizona until September 2015. (Prior rank: 4)

5. Indianapolis (10-4) - This team will go as far as Andrew Luck takes them. The Colts need to establish a running game, and need to meet the defensive standards of head coach Chuck Pagano. Until they do, the Colts will be a very good team trying to beat great teams in the postseason. Indy simply doesn't have what it takes to beat the Patriots or Broncos in January, but they can beat just about every other AFC team. (Prior rank: 6)

6. Detroit (10-4) - Thanks to a little help from Buffalo, the Lions now have the opportunity to enter Lambeau Field as the NFC North leader next Sunday. Detroit must not lose focus, though, as the Bears may end up being a substantial hurdle. Detroit's defense is the league's best, but it is Matthew Stafford's play that will dictate just how far the Lions will go. (Prior rank: 7)

T-7. Dallas (10-4) - There really isn't much between the Cowboys and Packers. Dallas must prove they have shaken the late-season funk that has plagued the team in recent years and dispatch the Colts in one of this weekend's premier match-ups. That task was made tougher Monday, when we learned MVP candidate DeMarco Murray will be at much less than 100 percent for Dallas' Week 16 contest, thanks to a broken hand suffered near the end of last weekend's victory over the Eagles. (Prior rank: 8)

T-7. Green Bay (10-4) - The blueprint on how to beat the Packers has been laid: Take away Aaron Rodgers' cozy pocket and play physical with Green Bay's wide receivers. It may seem simple, but it's been an awfully difficult plan to execute for most of Green Bay's opponents. The Packers will have to prove they can overcome a top-level defense, and it begins next Sunday against Detroit. With home-field advantage likely out of reach, a trip to Arizona or Seattle almost certainly stands between the Packers and Super Bowl XLIX. (Prior rank: 3)

9. Philadelphia (9-5) - I hate to beat a dead horse here, but Philadelphia's title hopes hinge on Mark Sanchez. That alone would submarine most teams. Philly's offense has been prone to lapses with Sanchez under center. Through a minor miracle, however, the Eagles still rank fifth in total offense. That up-tempo offense isn't going to help Philadelphia beat Green Bay, Detroit, Seattle or Dallas in the playoffs, though. (Prior rank: 9)

10. Pittsburgh (9-5) - Which Steelers team will we see in the playoffs: The one that walked all over Baltimore, Cincinnati and Indianapolis, or the one that lost to the Buccaneers, Jets and Saints? If you're looking for a team that could sneak into the Super Bowl discussion, this is probably it. If you're looking for a team that could lose a home playoff game as a significant favorite, this it probably it, too. (Prior rank: 16)

11. Baltimore (9-5) - In the time it took me to write this sentence, the Ravens put another cornerback on injured reserve. Baltimore's secondary has been decimated by injuries, which will almost certainly put an end to the Ravens' season come January. Baltimore's offense ranks 7th in DVOA and 10th overall, while the defense ranks third in both rushing defense and sacks. 2014 may end up being remembered as a season of what may have been in Charm City. (Prior rank: 14)

12. Kansas City (8-6) - Few teams in the league can match Kansas City's strength of victory this season, but the Chiefs appear to be fading. Kansas City has lost three of its last four, but the Chiefs' second-ranked pass defense could keep the Chiefs in the AFC wildcard race until the bitter end of the season. (Prior rank: 11)

13. Cincinnati (9-4-1) - The Bengals have beaten exactly one team with a winning record, and it's happened twice this season. That pair of wins over Baltimore came thanks to last-minute breakdowns by the Ravens' notoriously shaky secondary. With a game against the Steelers, and Baltimore's favorable schedule, the AFC North leaders seem the least likely to walk away with the crown. (Prior rank: 13) 

14. San Diego (8-6) - In the end, the Chargers can't be blame for their inevitable fall from the playoff field. Blame San Diego's schedule. No team had a harder home stretch than San Diego's last five contests. The Bolts beat St. Louis and Baltimore by a combined four points after beating Oakland by seven, and have dropped their last two games. Expect the Chargers to fall at least once more before the end of 2014. (Prior rank: 12)

15. Buffalo (8-6) - Sunday's upset of the Packers proved how good Buffalo could be with a competent quarterback. Instead, the Bills are buried up to their necks in the muddy AFC playoff race. Winning out and finishing with 10 wins still probably won't be enough to end Buffalo's lengthy playoff drought. (Prior rank: 17) 

16. Miami (7-7) - The seasons and players may change, but the story seems to remain the same in Miami. Joe Philbin's job security has come into question, and for good reason: The Dolphins should be better than 7-7. They've proven it in victories over New England and San Diego, as well as near misses against Green Bay and Denver. (Prior rank: 13)

17. San Francisco (7-7) - No team has given up on the 2014 season quite the 49ers. Head coach Jim Harbaugh is reportedly on his way out of a locker room that has reportedly given up on him. There are a lot of reports out of San Francisco, but none are about success. While San Francisco's defense has played well (again) this season, the offensive has been a mess. Ron Jaworski should be eating his words, as Colin Kaepernick looks nothing like the best NFL quarterback of all-time. (Prior rank: 10)

18. St. Louis (6-8) - The glaring hole under center finally caught up to the Rams. St. Louis' defense has been excellent all year, but the offense needs to support that top-level D. The front office must find an answer at quarterback, as well as running back, to take advantage of what should be a top-10 defense for the next few years. (Prior rank: 19)

19. Houston (7-7) - J.J. Watt won't win the league's Most Valuable Player award, but he should. No. 99 has kept the Texans afloat all season, and somehow, Houston remains in the playoff race. They won't be for long, however, when Baltimore comes to town and eliminates the overmatched Texans from the AFC wildcard race. (Prior rank: 18)

20. New Orleans (6-8) - The NFC South is notably terrible, but the Saints are the division's only team that may make some noise in January. New Orleans has shown glimpses of life in victories over Green Bay and Pittsburgh, but has shown little consistency outside of those victories. New Orleans controls its own fate, with games against Atlanta and Tampa Bay to finish the season. (Prior rank: 21)

21. Minnesota (6-8) - This team was supposed to be a doormat in 2014, but the Vikings haven't even been the worst team in their own division. Teddy Bridgewater is making strides as a rookie, and Mike Zimmer has taken Minnesota's plebian defense and made it competitive. Sunday's game against Miami will be tough, but a win puts the Vikings in good shape for a .500 season. (Prior rank: 23)

22. Cleveland (7-7) - Most people know that, if your team is 7-6 and in the midst of a wildcard race, you don't bench your season-long starting quarterback in favor of an immature rookie who hasn't played a meaningful snap all year. Mike Pettine is not one of those people. New season, same old Browns. (Prior rank: 20)

23. Atlanta (5-9) - Unlike the team directly below the Falcons in this ranking, Atlanta's problems are fixable. Their defense is a joke, and the running game isn't much better. After being eliminated from playoff contention by the Saints this weekend, the Falcons can start focusing on rebuilding their porous defense. They'll almost certainly start in the secondary, owners of the league's worst pass defense. (Prior rank: 22)

24. Chicago (5-9) - The Bears were ranked ahead of Atlanta before this week's benching of Jay Cutler. A locker room plagued by anonymous reports to the media got its second dose Thursday, after a pair of veterans reportedly expressed frustrations with Cutler's benching. The bottom fell out in a hurry for the Bears, who likely will be looking for a new coaching staff, and possibly a new quarterback, when the calender turns to 2015. (Prior rank: 24) 

25. Carolina (5-8-1) - Despite the litany of issues the Panthers have had, they're still in the chase for the NFC South title and a home playoff game. It's a special kind of year for that division. It's been a tough year in Charlotte, which was compounded after Cam Newton suffered transverse process fractures in his back during an auto accident. Newton is likely to play Sunday, according to head coach Ron Rivera, and he'll need to be as close to his normal self as possible if the Panthers hope to win their division once again. (Prior rank: 25) 

26. New York Giants (5-9) - Three of the four teams New York has defeated (the Giants beat Washington twice) have five or fewer wins. Both of the teams remaining on New York's schedule have more than five wins, and are exponentially better than the Giants on one side of the ball. Is another disappointing season enough to bring about change in the Big Apple? Probably not. (Prior rank: 26)

27. Oakland (2-12) - Their record may be awful, their cupboard may be bare, but the Raiders are remaining competitive. Well ... sometimes they're competitive. Both of Oakland's wins have come against teams at or above .500, which is pretty respectable for a team that has no decent coach, barely recognizable skill players and a rookie quarterback. (Prior rank: 32)

28. Jacksonville (2-12) - Their record may be awful, their cupboard may be bare, but the Jaguars are pesky. Well ... sometimes, but especially so lately. Jacksonville's offensive line has surrendered a staggering 62 sacks - nearly 4.5 per game - in Blake Bortles' rookie campaign. It's a miracle he's still standing. J.J. Watt may have something to say about that in the season finale, though. (Prior rank: 27)

29. New York Jets (3-11) - Somehow, this Jets team beat Pittsburgh, and hung around with Green Bay, Detroit and New England. Any ship captained by Geno Smith is headed directly for a watery grave. Smith's horrendous play ended up being the 16-game nail in coach Rex Ryan's coffin. The Jets are going to look a lot different in 2015, at least if owner Woody Johnson wants to see his attain some modicum of success. (Prior rank: 29)

30. Washington (3-11) - If Washington switched jerseys with the Jets, would anyone notice? Probably not. Washington is in an equal amount of disarray, highlighted by first-year coach Jay Gruden's decision to pin his success on the illustrious Colt McCoy. Washington's fans likely won't see a redux in 2015, as either Gruden or quarterback Robert Griffin III will likely leave town this winter. (Prior rank: 30) 

31. Tennessee (2-12) - The Titans lost Turd Bowl I last week to the Jets. They're poised to lose Turd Bowl II Thursday night against the Jaguars. Ken Whisenhunt's wildest quarterback fantasies may come true, as the suddenly available Jay Cutler may bring his cannon arm back to Tennessee. (Prior rank: 31)

32. Tampa Bay (2-12) - That putrid smell assaulting your nostrils? That's the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There is simply no excuse for this team to be as bad as it is. Lovie Smith is an accomplished head coach, they have a superstar in the making in Mike Evans, and their defense is led by two studs in Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David. (Prior rank: 28)

Fastest Risers: Pittsburgh (16th to 10th), Oakland (32nd to 27th)
Fastest Drops: San Francisco (10th to 17th), Tampa Bay (28th to 32nd), Green Bay (3rd to 7th)

Sunday, December 14, 2014

NFL picks - Week 15

Christmas may begin early for a handful of NFL teams.

Five teams can clinch a playoff spot this weekend. Arizona seems most likely to clinch, as they only need Sunday night's game in Philadelphia to end in anything but a tie. Denver, New England and Indianapolis can clinch division titles with victories, and can still clinch a playoff spot with some significant help.

Green Bay seems the least likely to clinch Sunday, as they require a victory over Buffalo, a Philadelphia victory over Dallas, and some additional help to sew up one of the NFC's playoff berths.

None of those five teams, however, have it easy in Week 15. The Cardinals struggled to score points in a hard-fought Thursday night victory, and the Broncos, Patriots, Colts and Packers will face stiff competition Sunday afternoon.

It's crunch time in the NFL.

Let's get to the picks.

St. Louis (6-7) over Arizona (10-3)
Line: St. Louis -3.5
Spread pick: St. Louis

Someone forgot to tell the Rams' offense to show up. Facing the depleted Cardinals, who lost their second quarterback of the year Thursday night, should have led to an easy victory for St. Louis. Instead, the Rams couldn't force a turnover and must only one sack in a lackluster 12-6 loss. Arizona remains in control in the race for home-field advantage in the NFC.

Pittsburgh (8-5) over Atlanta (5-8)
Line: Pittsburgh -2.5
Spread pick: Pittsburgh

If Atlanta's porous pass defense thought they had it bad last week against Green Bay's sixth-ranked pass offense, I'm afraid I have some bad news. The Steelers are second in passing offense, behind only the Colts. It's going to be another long day for the Falcons' secondary.

Green Bay (10-3) over Buffalo (7-6)
Line: Green Bay -5.5
Spread pick: Buffalo

If last week wasn't a wake-up call for the Packers, they're going to be in serious trouble this weekend. Atlanta's defense is pathetic - they're tied for last in team sacks, and they're allowing more than 12 yards per game more than the 31st-ranked Saints. That hapless defense still put enough of a grip on Green Bay's offense to nearly allow the Falcons to come back and win at Lambeau Field Monday night. Buffalo leads the league in sacks, rank second in defensive DVOA and fifth in total defense. Green Bay is 0-2 against the league's top defensive units, and if it weren't for Buffalo's pedestrian offense, they'd be 0-3.

Cleveland (7-6) over Cincinnati (8-4-1)
Line: Cincinnati -0.5
Spread pick: Cleveland

Andy Dalton is a disaster. Johnny Manziel hasn't been much better, and he hasn't started a single NFL game. Yet, somehow, both teams remain in the hunt for the AFC North title. The Bengals used to have a defense to make up for Dalton's shortcomings, but that unit now ranks 23rd in defensive DVOA and 28th in the league overall.

Indianapolis (9-4) over Houston (7-6)
Line: Indianapolis -6.5
Spread pick: Indianapolis

J.J. Watt is the league's most valuable player, but even he can't stop Andrew Luck by himself. It really doesn't help that Ryan Fitzpatrick is Houston's quarterback, who only has one 300-yard game all year. Watt will give Luck problems, but Luck and Indy's league-best offensive unit.

Kansas City (7-6) over Oakland (2-11) 
Line: Kansas City -10.5
Spread pick: Oakland

Oakland's defense really isn't that bad, ranking 15th overall in the league, ahead of eight playoff contenders. Unfortunately, the Raiders' offense is terrible. Kansas City has struggled mightily to stop the run, but the Raiders have struggled equally to move the ball on the ground. Derek Carr has shown promise, but he won't stand up to Kansas City's top-notch pass defense.

New England (10-3) over Miami (7-6)
Line: New England -7.5
Spread pick: New England

Bill Belichick's offense is rarely predictable. Do not be surprised, though, to see a heavy dose of LeGarrette Blount, Shane Vereen, Jonas Gray, or whichever running back tickles Belichick's fancy this Sunday. Miami's stout pass defense may force the Pats to win this one, and another AFC East title, on the ground.

New York Giants (4-9) over Washington (3-10)
Line: New York -6.5
Spread pick: New York

The race to determine the league's biggest disaster is being won by Washington. Rumors and reports indicate that either Jay Gruden or Robert Griffin III will be plying their trade elsewhere in 2015, but those same reports agree that Washington's franchise is in total disarray. That discord reaches to the field, where Washington hasn't put together a complete game since upsetting Dallas shortly before Halloween.

Tampa Bay (2-11) over Carolina (4-8-1)
Line: Carolina -5.5
Spread pick: Tampa Bay

Neither team has played especially well lately, but Carolina's troubles came with Cam Newton under center. Newton was injured in a car accident earlier this week, and will not play Sunday. Derek Anderson hasn't been the answer for any of his prior teams, and he won't be the answer for the Panthers.

Baltimore (8-5) over Jacksonville (2-11)
Line: Baltimore -13.5
Spread pick: Baltimore

Injuries have decimated Baltimore's secondary, pushing what once was a league-average unit into 31st place in the league. Baltimore finishes against four below-average passers, which may lead the Ravens back to the playoffs. It isn't going to be easy when Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck come calling, though.

Denver (10-3) over San Diego (8-5)
Line: Denver -3.5
Spread pick: Denver

It's been a rough couple of weeks for Peyton Manning, but the league surely isn't shedding a tear for the perennial All-Pro. Manning has thrown eight interceptions in the last five games, but the Broncos are still 4-1 in those contests. San Diego can exploit porous secondaries, but Denver's is anything but. Philip Rivers will make it interesting, but the Broncos clinch the AFC West with a victory Sunday.

New York Jets (2-11) over Tennessee (2-11)
Line: New York -1.5
Spread pick: New York

If you like watching terrible teams play football for three hours, don't miss this one! New York's defense is actually pretty decent, and that gives the Jets enough of an advantage to win this dumpster fire masquerading as an NFL game.

Detroit (9-4) over Minnesota (6-7) 
Line: Detroit -7.5
Spread pick: Detroit

Minnesota's offensive line has been underwhelming at its best, and a downright liability at its worst. Traveling to Detroit to face the league's top-ranked defense isn't really going to help Minnesota's offense sort out its woes in the trenches.

Seattle (9-4) over San Francisco (7-6) 
Line: Seattle -9.5
Spread pick: Seattle

This weekend's game will prove if the 49ers have given up on their coach ... and if their coach has given up on the 49ers organization. Seattle, the league's hottest team, should cruise past a disillusioned and disoriented San Francisco team.

Dallas (9-4) over Philadelphia (9-4)
Line: Philadelphia -3.5
Spread pick: Dallas

If you've read any of my articles over the past eight years, you know that I love statistics. You can probably find a half dozen statistical references in the picks above.

Some teams, however, defy statistics. College football pundits often reference the eye test, and these Eagles just don't pass the eye test. Mark Sanchez may have found a quasi-renaissance to his career in Philadelphia, but he's still Mark Sanchez. These teams are very similar, and Dallas will have revenge on its mind Sunday night.

New Orleans (5-8) over Chicago (5-8)
Line: New Orleans -2.5
Spread pick: New Orleans

Chicago's pass defense is nothing short of a liability. The Bears have allowed 30 or more points six times - nearly half of their contests to date - and have only stayed within a touchdown in one of those games. Chicago's total defense ranks three spots higher than the Saints' defensive unit, but the Bears offense cannot establish a run game and struggles with mental errors. The absence of Brandon Marshall will further hinder a vulnerable Bears offense.

Last week: 13-3
Last week v. spread: 10-6
Season record: 132-75-1
Season record v. spread: 101-107

Saturday, December 6, 2014

NFL picks - Week 14

We're all business this week. Let's get to the picks.

Dallas (8-4) over Chicago (5-7)
Line: Dallas -3.5
Spread pick: Dallas

There's no reason to believe Chicago has the ability to stop even an average offense. Dallas' offense - ranked 7th in the league overall and 8th in DVOA - was never going to struggle on Thursday night. DeMarco Murray ran everywhere he wanted to, and Tony Romo was about as efficient as any quarterback could be. December 29 cannot come soon enough for the Bears.

Pittsburgh (7-5) over Cincinnati (8-3-1)
Line: Cincinnati -3.5
Spread pick: Pittsburgh

When, exactly, has Andy Dalton led his team to a late-season victory in a game that actually matters? Dalton is nothing more than a league-average quarterback being paid like a top-10 signal-caller. The Bengals enter this weekend with a 1.5-game lead in the AFC North, but this will be their first game against the Steelers. It will also be Cincinnati's first loss against Pittsburgh.

Indianapolis (8-4) over Cleveland (7-5)
Line: Indianapolis -3.5
Spread pick: Indianapolis

For the first half of the 2014 season, the Browns looked like a new team. The dysfunction and erratic play is back, however. Mike Pettine can't seem to keep the same quarterback in for an entire game, and the issues stopping the run have continued to get worse. In the end, Andrew Luck will be the difference, as he so often is for the Colts.

Detroit (8-4) over Tampa Bay (2-10)
Line: Detroit -9.5
Spread pick: Tampa Bay

The old Detroit Lions would allow this game to be much closer than it should be. Tampa Bay's offense is ranked 26th overall and 31st in DVOA. Detroit's defense tops the list in both overall defense and defensive DVOA. This one shouldn't be close ... but it will be.

New York Giants (3-9) over Tennessee (2-10)
Line: New York -0.5
Spread pick: New York

The less that's said about this one, the better. Give me the quarterback who has won a Super Bowl over the one who hasn't won a start in the pros.

St. Louis (5-7) over Washington (3-9)
Line: St. Louis -2.5
Spread pick: St. Louis

Each passing day seems to bring a new report of dysfunction in the Washington organization. Regardless of who is or isn't around in 2015, both Jay Gruden and Robert Griffin III are around this month. That's not a combination that will provide success, especially against St. Louis' defense.

Miami (7-5) over Baltimore (7-5)
Line: Miami -2.5
Spread pick: Miami

Baltimore is still the only NFL team that ranks in the top 10 of all three major DVOA categories, and one of only three teams that rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive DVOA. Stats can't cover opposing wide receivers, and neither can the MASH unit left in Baltimore's secondary. Ryan Tannehill won't put up the type of numbers Philip Rivers did against the Ravens last week, but he'll do enough to lead the Dolphins to a crucial victory.

Minnesota (5-7) over New York Jets (2-10)
Line: Minnesota -5.5
Spread pick: Minnesota

There is no reason to believe the Jets will win again in 2014. The Vikings have leaned on their defense all season while Teddy Bridgewater acclimated himself to the NFL, and will ride that same defense to victory on Sunday.

New Orleans (5-7) over Carolina (3-8-1)
Line: New Orleans -9.5
Spread pick: New Orleans

Don't look now, but the Saints are coming on strong. Carolina had no answer for New Orleans when the Saints visited Charlotte October 30, which bodes poorly for the Panthers' chances when traveling to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. New Orleans' victory Sunday will force Atlanta's hand in a very tough Monday night match-up with the Packers.

Houston (6-6) over Jacksonville (2-10)
Line: Houston -4.5
Spread pick: Houston

Never mind what the national media says. J.J. Watt is the NFL's Most Valuable Player. Aaron Rodgers and DeMarco Murray are having great seasons, but Watt has done a little bit of everything (including playing offense) while looking like the most dominant player in the league. Jacksonville's offensive line, and rookie quarterback Blake Bortles, are going to have a bad day Sunday.

Denver (9-3) over Buffalo (7-5)
Line: Denver -9.5
Spread pick: Buffalo

Buffalo's defense sure isn't getting a lot of love. The way to trouble Peyton Manning (and Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers) is to pressure them and prevent them from processing coverages with a clean pocket. Instead, you have to force them into quick decisions. The Bills defense, ranked fifth overall and third in DVOA, is going to give Manning problems. The offense, however, will let Buffalo down, preventing the upset.

Arizona (9-3) over Kansas City (7-5)
Line: Arizona -0.5
Spread pick: Arizona

No Chiefs wide receiver has caught a touchdown pass. Dwayne Bowe leads all Kansas City wideouts with 569 yards, less than half the total receiving yards produced by Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas and Julio Jones. The Cardinals rank sixth in rushing defense, and will be operating with a serious chip on the collective shoulder. Things just don't add up for a Chiefs victory.

San Francisco (7-5) over Oakland (1-11) 
Line: San Francisco -7.5
Spread pick: San Francisco

Oakland's offense isn't going anywhere. San Francisco's defense will make bad things worse for the Raiders. At least Oakland fans will get a first-hand look at their 2015 head coach.

Seattle (8-4) over Philadelphia (9-3)
Line: Philadelphia -1.5
Spread pick: Seattle

Mark Sanchez versus the best defense in the league ... yeah, that's going to end well. Sanchez may be finding a new lease on his NFL career, but the Legion of Boom isn't going to stand idly by while a second-rate quarterback stands in between them and another victory.

New England (9-3) over San Diego (8-4)
Line: New England -3.5
Spread pick: New England

Baltimore's 10th-ranked offense put a hurting on San Diego's defense last week. The Patriots bring the league's sixth-ranked offense to San Diego, but unlike the Ravens, New England have a healthy and capable secondary. The ability to cover San Diego's wideouts will be enough for the Pats to bounce back and tally their 10th victory of the season.

Green Bay (9-3) over Atlanta (5-7)
Line: Green Bay -11.5
Spread pick: Green Bay

What happens when the league's worst pass defense tries to stop Aaron Rodgers? I'm not sure, but it won't be pretty. The creator of the Online Jargon will be in attendance at Lambeau Field to witness what is surely to be a one-sided affair.

Last week: 10-6
Last week v. spread: 6-10
Season record: 119-72-1
Season record v. spread: 91-101

Thursday, December 4, 2014

NFL power rankings - Chris Jacke edition

This post has been in the making for over seven years.

Not only is it still Chris Jacke week (post-mortem edition) but it is the 200th post in the history of the Online Jargon. In this 200th post, and second edition of the 2014 NFL power rankings, only 13 of the league's 32 teams sit under .500. Five of those 13 teams are only a game away from breaking even through 12 games.

Further, 11 teams have either eight or nine wins. Six of those 11 reside in the NFC, with a pair each in the NFC East, West and North.

A reminder before we get started: This list is not a reflection of the state of affairs during Week 13. It is a ranking more reminiscent of the college football polls, reflecting each team's effort over the course of the season.

Some teams are going to receive a little more love than you might think they deserve. Others will fall further down the rankings than expected, most notably a pair of teams from the Mideast.

1. New England (9-3) - Three of the league's five nine-win teams have lost to a team under .500. New England isn't one of them. Though their seven-game win streak was ended this past Sunday, the Patriots still sport wins over each of the three other AFC division leaders, all by 22 or more points. (Prior rank: 1)

2. Denver (9-3) - It seems as though the Broncos were written off in the two weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. Denver was pushed by the Rams and Dolphins in consecutive weeks, but those teams are hardly slouches. The road doesn't get easier, but the Broncos have proven throughout the season that they're up to the challenge. (Prior rank: 3)

3. Green Bay (9-3) - The Packers proved they can hang tough in their 26-21 victory over New England, but it was only Green Bay's second win of the season over a team with a winning record. A difficult trip to Buffalo looms before a Week 17 meeting with the Lions that may end up deciding the NFC North. (Prior rank: 8)

4. Arizona (9-3) - Arizona's remaining schedule is among the toughest in the league, but the Cardinals are hardly strangers to top-notch competition. The Cards have had a hard time stopping the pass, but their last four opponents specialize in running the ball. Don't write Arizona off yet. (Prior rank: 2)

5. Seattle (8-4) - It may have taken longer than expected, but the champs have woken up from their early-season slumber. Seattle's defense is as good as advertised, and few teams have an answer for Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks running game. Seattle remains only a Packers loss away from potentially reclaiming home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs. (Prior rank: 9)

6. Indianapolis (8-4) - If only the Colts had a defense. Potent passing attacks can have their way with the Indianapolis defense, something that has done the Colts in against teams like the Broncos and Patriots. If their defense gets hot, Andrew Luck can lead this team to special places. With Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in their way, though, it's going to be tough. (Prior rank: 7)

7. Detroit (8-4) - Good luck running on the Lions. Detroit is allowing 65.9 rushing yards per game, nearly seven yards per game better than second-place Denver, and more than 20 yards per game less than the third-place Jets. If only Detroit could get their talented offensive unit playing as it has in recent memory. The Lions control their own destiny, with three winnable games standing between them and a possible de-facto NFC North title game on Dec. 28. (Prior rank: 5)

8. Dallas (8-4) - Like their competition in the NFC East, the Cowboys have taken advantage of inferior competition. Unlike Philadelphia, however, Dallas has playmakers at all three offensive skill positions. A loss to the Eagles has the 'Boys a game back in the division, and on the outside of the hotly contested NFC playoff race, but a return bout in Philly can tilt the division back in Dallas' favor. (Prior rank: 6)

9. Philadelphia (9-3) - Play good defense, and you're probably going to beat the Eagles. Philly has feasted on inferior talent, running up high point totals against the likes of Jacksonville, Washington, Carolina and Tennessee. Last week's victory over Dallas was Philadelphia's first over an NFC opponent with a winning record. (Prior rank: 10)

10. San Francisco (7-5) - Losing to Seattle wasn't a fatal blow to San Francisco's playoff chances, but it surely didn't help. The Niners have every chance in the world to make their mark, with games against Arizona and Seattle remaining. San Francisco's defense is near the top of the league once again, but its offense will need to improve if the 49ers hope to avoid another loss, and the likely playoff elimination that comes with it. (Prior rank: 11)

11. Kansas City (7-5) - The Chiefs have the running game to make noise in the playoffs. They can get to the opposing quarterback as good as any team in the NFL. Unfortunately for Kansas City, they don't have the rush defense required to make a serious playoff run. 10-6 is within reach, but it may not be enough to finish in the top half of the AFC West. (Prior rank: 4)

12. San Diego (8-4) - No team has a harder finish to the season than the Chargers. They started with a crucial victory over the Ravens that may end up deciding one of the AFC's two wildcard spots. San Diego must find its early-season form if a return trip to the postseason is in the cards. (Prior rank: 15)

13. Cincinnati (8-3-1) - How can a team be one of only six to win more than 70 percent of its games, yet still be ranked outside of the top 12? A mediocre quarterback, a backfield-by-committee, and an underwhelming and underperforming defense will do the trick. Cincinnati hasn't looked impressive since the first half of the season opener, and will be ripe for a first-round playoff exit. (Prior rank: 16)

14. Baltimore (7-5) - Rare does the Ravens' defense let the team down, but the pass defense has been behind at least three of Baltimore's losses this season. The Ravens haven't beaten a team with a winning record since September. They'll need to beat two between now and the end of 2014 if they wish to return to the playoffs. (Prior rank: 14)

15. Miami (7-5) - A lot of people are sleeping on the Dolphins, but they better take notice. Miami can, and will, be a handful. Ask New England, San Diego, Denver and Green Bay. Miami welcomes the Ravens to town this Sunday, with the loser suffering a devastating blow in the wildcard race. Ryan Tannehill has the ability to lead a late-season push. He must prove it, and it begins this Sunday. (Prior rank: 13)

16. Pittsburgh (7-5) - Three of Pittsburgh's five losses have come to teams under .500, while three of their seven wins have come against teams with a winning record. Needless to say, the Steelers still don't make any sense. Two games with the Bengals gives Pittsburgh control of its own destiny. (Prior rank: 12)

17. Buffalo (7-5) - Three of Buffalo's final four contests are against the teams sitting atop this list. It seems like the Bills are headed for a crash landing, but Buffalo's defense gives the Bills a chance in all of their games. If they can shake Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and/or Aaron Rodgers, they have a great chance at a huge upset. Or two. Or three. (Prior rank: 17)

18. Houston (6-6) - If not for J.J. Watt, the Texans would be 3-9 or worse. Watt is the league's most valuable player, but almost certainly will not win the award. It's a shame - few defensive players have a season quite like Watt is having in 2014. (Prior rank: 19)

19. St. Louis (5-7) - The stats may not look favorably on the Rams, but the schedule says it all. St. Louis is the proverbial thorn in NFC playoff contenders' collective side. Arizona and Seattle both face rematches with St. Louis before the season ends. Don't be surprised if the Rams rally to finish 8-8. (Prior rank: 20)

20. Cleveland (7-5) - Quarterback roulette rarely works well. Cleveland decided to start the wheel last week, benching Brian Hoyer in favor of Johnny Manziel. This week's starter? Hoyer, of course. After such a positive start, the Browns are in pole position to finish last in the brutal AFC North race. (Prior rank: 18)

21. New Orleans (5-7) - Well, we made it through 20 teams before reaching our first NFC South team. The Saints' defense, a unit that was supposed to be a strength, has been a disaster all year long. Fortunately for New Orleans, all four of their remaining opponents rank below them on this list. For all the talk of a sub-.500 team winning the division, the NFC South champion may end up at 8-8 ... or better. (Prior rank: 22)

22. Atlanta (5-7) - It hasn't been pretty for the Falcons all year, tallying an embarrassing 1-7 record against non-NFC South opponents. It isn't going to get better, either - the league's worst passing defense still has to play Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger. Good luck with that. (Prior rank: 21)

23. Minnesota (5-7) - For team with a rookie quarterback and an All-Pro running back absent due to a criminal scandal, the Vikings are doing just fine. A top-10 total defense and a top-15 rushing attack highlight a year of growth in the Twin Cities. There is still plenty of room for improvement, but the remainder of Minnesota's schedule presents opportunity for victory and to spoil a season or two. (Prior rank: 24)

24. Chicago (5-7) - Oh, Chicago. What a mess. Chicago's best win came almost three months ago, and the losses haven't been pretty. Since their 28-20 win over San Francisco, the Bears have lost six games, five of which came by at least 13 points. Like Atlanta, Chicago's road through December isn't pretty. Chicago's "easiest" game comes in the season finale, when the Bears travel to Minnesota to take on the league's 10th-ranked defense. (Prior rank: 23)

25. Carolina (3-8-1) - Only 13 of the league's 32 teams have a losing record, but eight of those 13 make up the biggest dumpster fire in recent memory. It all starts with the Panthers, who haven't sniffed a victory over a decent team since before Halloween. Kelvin Benjamin is in the discussion for Offensive Rookie of the Year, but the remainder of Carolina's team has been offensive to watch. (Prior rank: 26)

26. New York Giants (3-9) - Once upon a time, the Giants were 3-2 with back-to-back games with the division leaders. Since then, New York has lost seven straight, including a one-point loss to Jacksonville last Sunday in which the Giants blew a 21-point lead. Games against Tennessee and Washington should help pad the win column, but the same could have been said for last week's game. The rebuild may be on in the Big Apple. (Prior rank: 25)

27. Jacksonville (2-10) - There is no team more devoid of talent than the Jaguars. They are miles away from contending, but they've shown character and fight. Never was this on display more than Sunday, when Jacksonville came back from a 21-0 deficit to defeat the Giants 25-24. Jacksonville's front office needs to be patient, as they have a keeper in head coach Gus Bradley. (Prior rank: 31)

28. Tampa Bay (2-10) - Unlike the four teams ranked at the bottom of this list, the Buccaneers have had a couple bright spots amid a very dark season. Wide receiver Mike Evans looks like a future star, as does linebacker Lavonte David. An elite quarterback prospect may be the only thing keeping Tampa Bay from competing from the top of the league's worst division. (Prior rank: 27)

29. New York Jets (2-10) - It's bad when the best team in your city is a 3-9 squad that has lost seven straight. It might be worse when your team is in even more dire straits, and that is exactly where the Jets find themselves. Rex Ryan stubbornly stuck by Geno Smith, who never should have been anywhere near the starting lineup. At least the Jets can draft a legitimate starting quarterback this spring, as they'll be near the top of the 2015 draft order. (Prior rank: 29)

30. Washington (3-9) - It's a good thing Washington gave away four high draft picks for a quarterback they benched, and will likely part ways with this offseason. Add it to the list of follies for a franchise quickly circling the drain. (Prior rank: 30)

31. Tennessee (2-10) - The Titans spent the last six weeks getting pummeled by the Texans (twice), Eagles and Ravens, while dropping heartbreakers to Pittsburgh and Washington. Tennessee's lack of success shouldn't come as a surprise. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt is 47-61 in his career, and hasn't had a winning campaign in four seasons. (Prior rank: 28)

32. Oakland (1-11) - At least any close game from here on out will be seen as a success for the Raiders. Nobody expects Oakland to compete with the 49ers, Chiefs, Bills or Broncos. (Prior rank: 32)

Fastest risers: Green Bay (8th to 3rd), Seattle (9th to 5th), Jacksonville (31st to 27th)
Falling fast: Kansas City (4th to 11th), Pittsburgh (12th to 16th)

Sunday, November 30, 2014

NFL picks - Week 13

It's Chris Jacke week!

A couple of years ago, my buddy Dave and I were having one of our many conversations about obscure past Green Bay Packers players. After hitting a number of bullet points not suitable for print, we thought it would be fun to put former Packers kicker Chris Jacke on my upcoming weekly picks post.

It eventually evolved into what you find at the top of every weekly picks column: A picture of a (usually bad) former NFL player who wore the number of the upcoming week in the NFL. Week 13, however, will always belong to Jacke.

It may be fitting that Jacke's Packers will host the game of the week Sunday afternoon.

Let's get to the picks.

Detroit (7-4) over Chicago (5-6) 
Line: Detroit -7.5
Spread pick: Chicago

The dormant Lions offense may finally have woken up. Matthew Stafford threw for 390 yards, 146 of which went to Calvin Johnson, in Detroit's 34-17 victory. If Detroit can keep its offense going, the Lions are going to be a force in December and January.

Dallas (8-3) over Philadelphia (8-3)
Line: Dallas -2.5
Spread pick: Dallas

Dallas' offense forgot to show up on Thanksgiving. So did their defense. The Eagles racked up 464 total yards - almost 200 more than the Cowboys - in a one-sided victory in Big D. Can Mark Sanchez really lead a team to a division title?

Seattle (7-4) over San Francisco (7-4)
Line: San Francisco -0.5
Spread pick: Seattle

Notice to the NFL: The champs are back. Thursday's nightcap was a throwback game for the Seahawks, who held the 49ers to a mere 164 yards of total offense in a 19-3 drubbing. It won't be an easy road for Seattle, but it doesn't need to be. The Seahawks are back.

Buffalo (6-5) over Cleveland (7-4)
Line: Buffalo -1.5
Spread pick: Buffalo

Cleveland will be without safety Tashaun Gipson, the NFL leader in interceptions, thanks to a sprained knee. While the Bills aren't flush with dangerous receivers, rookie Sammy Watkins has been terrorizing secondaries all year. Buffalo's fourth-ranked defense will do enough to hold off the Browns and keep the Bills alive in the playoff race.

Cincinnati (7-3-1) over Tampa Bay (2-9)
Line: Cincinnati -3.5
Spread pick: Cincinnati 

The Bengals better get their shots in against the Buccaneers, because the rest of the slate isn't going to be pretty. Cincinnati could finish with eight wins, or they could finish with 11. Pittsburgh and Cleveland have been just as unpredictable as the Bengals.

Houston (5-6) over Tennessee (2-9)
Line: Houston -6.5
Spread pick: Houston

J.J. Watt may win this game by himself. Watt will have plenty of opportunities to take a selfie with Zach Mettenberger, as Watt will be spending plenty of time in Tennessee's backfield on Sunday.

Indianapolis (7-4) over Washington (3-8)
Line: Indianapolis -9.5
Spread pick: Washington

Indianapolis' defense has been exposed. The Colts have a fantastic passing game, but that isn't enough to win a championship. It will be more than enough, however, to defeat a Washington team slowly slipping further into the abyss.

St. Louis (4-7) over Oakland (1-10)
Line: St. Louis -7.5
Spread pick: St. Louis

The Rams may be the best 4-7 team in recent history. After splitting games with the Vikings (in Adrian Peterson's only game this year) and Tampa Bay, St. Louis' next nine opponents were as tough as they come, entering Week 13 with a combined record of 61-27. The Rams were within inches of beating Dallas and San Diego. Look for the Rams to cruise in a game pitting two teams that may return to Los Angeles sooner than later.

Minnesota (4-7) over Carolina (3-7-1)
Line: Minnesota -2.5
Spread pick: Minnesota

Though they're only 4-7, the Vikings haven't lost a game by more than a single score since early October. Carolina has been headed directly in the opposite direction, losers of five straight after a wild 37-37 tie in Cincinnati. It'll be closer than it should - that's been Minnesota's M.O. throughout the last six games - but Carolina's slide will continue.

Pittsburgh (7-4) over New Orleans (4-7) 
Line: Pittsburgh -3.5
Spread pick: Pittsburgh

The Steelers are one of the league's strangest teams. Pittsburgh thumped Indianapolis and Baltimore in consecutive weeks, but lost to the Buccaneers and Jets. The raw numbers like the Steelers, but Pittsburgh ranks 29th in defensive DVOA. Pittsburgh, however, has been consistently good at home, while the Saints have been consistently bad.

Jacksonville (1-10) over New York Giants (3-8)
Line: New York -2.5
Spread pick: Jacksonville

One of these two teams has allowed 30 or more points in four of its last five contests ... and it's not the Jaguars. A late field goal gives Jacksonville its second victory of the season, sending the Giants further down the proverbial well.

Baltimore (7-4) over San Diego (7-4)
Line: Baltimore -5.5
Spread pick: Baltimore

San Diego needs Philip Rivers to be healthy, and Rivers is not healthy. The Chargers haven't been impressive since early-October. An early kickoff in the very unfriendly confines of M&T Bank Stadium won't be the elixir San Diego needs to turn things around.

Arizona (9-2) over Atlanta (4-7)
Line: Arizona -2.5
Spread pick: Arizona

Atlanta is now 0-7 against teams that don't play in the NFC South. The Cardinals do not play in the NFC South. They're also really good. Make it 0-8 for the Falcons.

New England (9-2) over Green Bay (8-3)
Line: Green Bay -3.5
Spread pick: New England

Team A is 5-2 against teams over .500. Team B is 2-2 in similar games. Team A spent the last three weeks blowing out division leaders. Team B has won its two road games by a total of six points, and was thumped by a 4-7 Saints team in New Orleans. So, on a neutral field, Team B would be favored over Team A by half a point, and by three and a half at home?

The Packers rank 23rd in overall defense and 30th in rushing defense. Green Bay may be able to cover New England's group of no-name receivers, but they will have no answer for Rob Gronkowski, or the Patriots' running back du jour.

Kansas City (7-4) over Denver (8-3) 
Line: Denver -1.5
Spread pick: Kansas City

The formula to beat the Broncos is similar to the one used to beat the Patriots: Rush the passer, make the quarterback uncomfortable, and run the ball extremely well. It's why the Chiefs were able to control the Patriots back in September, and it's why they'll control the Broncos and pull even in the division Sunday night.

Miami (6-5) over New York Jets (2-9)
Line: Miami -5.5
Spread pick: Miami

Don't overthink this one. The Jets are a disaster and the Dolphins are not. Miami wins, keeping pace in the AFC playoff race.

Last week: 12-3
Last week v. spread: 7-8
Season record: 109-66-1
Season record v. spread: 85-91

Sunday, November 23, 2014

NFL picks - Week 12

Record doesn't mean everything.

Sure, it's a team's record that decides playoff spots. A record, however, is not a true reflection of a team.

For example, are the Seahawks and Browns, both 6-4 entering Week 12, equal to one another? Of course not.

The Rams may be the best 4-6 team in recent memory. Certainly an unpopular opinion around my place of residence, the value of the 7-3 Packers is inflated thanks to a soft schedule. The Cowboys are also overvalued, with only one quality victory among the seven they're collected thus far in 2014.

Going forward, wins are crucial, and losses can become back-breaking. Ask the Chiefs.

Let’s get to the picks.

Kansas City (7-3) over Oakland (0-10)
Line: Kansas City -7.5
Spread pick: Kansas City

In my power rankings post earlier this week, I said the Raiders weren't as bad as their record indicated. Thursday's 24-20 victory over the Chiefs proved as much. However, the loss was awful for Kansas City, which had just pulled even with the Broncos for the AFC West division lead. The Chiefs will now have to be virtually flawless to win the division this year.

Cleveland (6-4) over Atlanta (4-6)
Line: Atlanta -3.5
Spread pick: Cleveland

If the Falcons can't effectively work their passing game, life becomes very difficult for the team with the worst DVOA defense in the league. The Browns have been up and down all season, but their pass defense rank 11th in the league. A late field goal send Cleveland home with a crucial victory, and continues Atlanta's futility against non-NFC South teams.

Chicago (4-6) over Tampa Bay (2-8) 
Line: Chicago -5.5
Spread pick: Chicago

Tampa Bay's offense is terrible. Chicago has too many weapons on offense for the Bucs' defense to contain. This game will be played at Soldier Field. This game is Chicago's to lose, and if Marc Trestman wants to be coaching in the Windy City next season, his Bears will win.

Houston (5-5) over Cincinnati (6-3-1)
Line: Houston -1.5
Spread pick: Houston

This game is proof positive that a great rushing attack can carry a team in the NFL. It won't carry a team to a playoff victory, but it can keep them in the playoff fight. Ryan Mallett and Andy Dalton represent mediocrity in its purest form, but a home-field advantage and a more accomplished run game will give the Texans their sixth victory of the season.

New England (8-2) over Detroit (7-3)
Line: New England -6.5
Spread pick: New England

The Lions have the defense, and more specifically, the defensive line to beat New England. Even with Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate and Matthew Stafford, though, Detroit's offense has sputtered all year. It takes something more than a sputtering offense to walk into Foxborough and leave with a victory.

Green Bay (7-3) over Minnesota (4-6)
Line: Green Bay -9.5
Spread pick: Green Bay

The national media has fallen in love with the Packers, who have taken advantage of overmatched defenses in recent weeks. Green Bay, however, is only 1-3 on the road, a record that will almost certainly be improved upon in the Twin Cities this weekend. The Vikings simply don't have the offense to hang with the Packers, even if the Green and Gold have an off day on offense.

Philadelphia (7-3) over Tennessee (2-8)
Line: Philadelphia -11.5
Spread pick: Tennessee

There is no good reason a team with Mark Sanchez starting at quarterback should be favored by double digits. The Titans are a dumpster fire on both sides of the ball, but even Tennessee should be able to stay close to the Eagles. Philly has utilized myriad defensive and special teams touchdowns to run away from opponents, but those types of scores are certainly something any team cannot rely upon.

Indianapolis (6-4) over Jacksonville (1-9)
Line: Indianapolis -13.5
Spread pick: Indianapolis

Last week's loss to New England exposed the problems the Colts have on defense. The poor Jaguars, however, often cure what ails its opponents. Look for the Colts to put plenty of points on the board en route to a very important victory.

St. Louis (4-6) over San Diego (6-4)
Line: San Diego -5.5
Spread pick: St. Louis

Coming into the season, the Rams' defensive line was considered one of, if not the, best unit in the NFL. Only recently have they begun to play up to the hype. San Diego's offense has been potent, but  has run into issues as of late. The Chargers' biggest offensive problem has been the men in the trenches, an advantage St. Louis will exploit in an upset victory in southern California.

Seattle (6-4) over Arizona (9-1)
Line: Seattle -6.5
Spread pick: Arizona

Play this game in Glendale, and the Cardinals likely win. However, this game will be played in the Great Northwest, where the Seahawks roughshod on opposing defenses. Arizona's rush defense is fantastic, but their inability to control the clock through the run game will cause the Cards to drop only their second contest of the year.

Denver (7-3) over Miami (6-4)
Line: Denver -7.5
Spread pick: Denver 

Every now and again, the media questions Peyton Manning and his offense. Oftentimes, the result isn't great for the team getting ready to play Manning. The Broncos' offense was hit hard by injuries last week in St. Louis, and fell victim to a bit of criticism this past week. Peyton Manning doesn't need motivation, but he likely has all he'll need to lead Denver to victory on Sunday.

San Francisco (6-4) over Washington (3-7)
Line: San Francisco -8.5
Spread pick: San Francisco

Washington's coach is throwing his players under the bus. San Francisco's coach is supposedly distant and uninterested in his team. The difference between the players on the field presents Washington with a significant disadvantage. The 49ers are too talented to fall victim to a dysfunctional team like Washington.

Dallas (7-3) at New York Giants (3-7)
Line: Dallas -3.5
Spread pick: Dallas

If the Giants had any semblance of a rushing defense, they may have a shot at upsetting the pressure-sensitive Cowboys. However, it just isn't likely. Eli Manning is completing more passes to the opposition than he is to his teammates, and DeMarco Murray is poised to have a big day for Dallas.

Buffalo (5-5) over New York Jets (2-8)
Line: Buffalo -2.5
Spread pick: Buffalo

There are few teams in the league that find themselves at a level of disarray currently achieved by the New York Jets. An offense with Michael Vick and Chris Johnson would have been potent in 2010, but it's not 2010. Buffalo will use the ground game and a solid defense to hold off the Jets in Detroit Monday night.

Baltimore (6-4) over New Orleans (4-6)
Line: New Orleans -3.5 
Spread pick: Baltimore

Maybe this is a pride pick. Maybe, as someone who has been a Ravens fan since the beginning (the 1996 season, for those of you who are uninitiated) I'm sick of listening to the so-called experts and superfans pile on the Baltimore hate train. Maybe I'm sick of seeing a 6-4 team that could just as easily be 8-2 get picked as underdogs week after week.

The Ravens are one of five NFL teams that rank in the top 12 in both offensive and defensive DVOA, a list that does not include Arizona or New England. The Ravens have given away two games against Cincinnati, a team that just walked into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and dominated the Saints. Baltimore keeps pace with the rest of the AFC North pack with a victory Monday night.

Last week: 8-6
Last week v. spread: 6-8
Season record: 97-63-1
Season record v. spread: 78-83

Thursday, November 20, 2014

NFL power rankings - Week 11

This isn't the way the 2014 script was written.

Comparing a preseason power ranking list to one written with Thanksgiving just over a week away would cause a sort of deep, guttural reaction. The contenders separate themselves from the pack, and teams like the Cardinals, Cowboys, Chiefs and Lions weren't supposed to be in the thick of the race.

Behold, the wonder of the National Football League. Now that each team has at least 10 games in the books, we can honesty say that each team has presented its identity. Some have presented something great, some have presented a rather putrid odor.

ESPN, the great bastion of sports hype, posted a preseason power ranking shortly after the 2014 draft. Only six of the top 10 teams in ESPN's preseason ranking appear in the top 10 spots below. One of those four outliers, Cincinnati, sits outside my top 15. Another, New Orleans, sits outside my top 20.

It's a fool's errand ranking NFL teams four months before meaningful games are played. It may even be a ridiculous practice to do it after Week 11, but flying in the face of conventional wisdom hasn't stopped me before.

1. New England (8-2) - The Packers might get all the hype, but the Patriots just spent the last two weeks beating two of the AFC's best teams by a combined score of 85-41. They can run, pass, and play great defense. New England will not go quietly this season.
Litmus Test: The Pats play the NFC North elite in back-to-back weeks, starting with Detroit on Sunday.

2. Arizona (9-1) - No Carson Palmer, no problem. Arizona kept on winning despite Drew Stanton taking meaningful snaps against the league's best defense. The stats don't look kindly upon Arizona's defense, but the Cardinals are good. Really good. The road to Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale may run through ... well, Glendale.
Litmus Test: Um ... the rest of the regular season? Nobody has it harder than the Cardinals, who play Kansas City, San Francisco, St. Louis and Seattle (twice) before the season concludes.

3. Denver (7-3) - New year, same old story for Peyton Manning. Stats come natural, but wins over Bill Belichick and Tom Brady don't. The Broncos have largely dominated their opponents, though, including at 21-point win over Arizona and a 25-point victory over San Francisco.
Litmus Test: A November 30 trip to Arrowhead Stadium, with both teams likely 8-3. The winner of that game takes control of the AFC West and remains on track for a first-round playoff bye.

4. Kansas City (7-3) - Excluding an ugly Week 1 loss to Tennessee, the Chiefs' other two losses have come in San Francisco and Denver by a combined 12 points. Kansas City throttled the Patriots and Dolphins, and added a win over the defending champs last weekend. A popular pick to fall off from last year's success, the 2014 Chiefs are for real.
Litmus Test: After the aforementioned Week 13 return bout with Denver, the Chiefs travel to Arizona to take on the Cardinals. K,C. can make a huge statement by winning both.

5. Detroit (7-3) - Who knew Detroit's weak link would be its offense? Blame for a sputtering offense can be placed squarely at the feet of the injury bug, which has had extended runs with Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush this season. A healthy Lions team is a scary Lions team.
Litmus Test: Detroit's next game, as well as their last. A trip to Foxborough beckons on Sunday, while Week 17's trip to Lambeau may decide the NFC North. Detroit can lose one, but not both.

6. Dallas (7-3) - Subtract the October 27 loss to Washington, where Tony Romo was injured, and the Cowboys' resume looks impressive. Tennessee and Jacksonville are the two bad teams on Dallas' schedule to this point, and the Cowboys have easily handled both.
Litmus Test: Avoiding the annual late-season choke job. Dallas has four divisional games remaining, including two games against Philly. One of those two interdivisonal games is against Indianapolis as well. It won't be easy, but it rarely is for good teams. We will see if this Cowboys team is for real.

7. Indianapolis (6-4) - The Colts have lost four games, all to teams with seven or more victories. The only team left on Indianapolis' schedule that sports seven or more victories is Dallas, and that game isn't played until the weekend before Christmas. Indianapolis about ready to rattle off a long string of victories.
Litmus Test: The December 21 trip to Jerry World. Win that game, and the Colts could finish 12-4. Andrew Luck will have something to say about the AFC playoff race.


8. Green Bay (7-3) - The pundits are already crowing the Packers as champions, but the truth is, Green Bay's wins aren't all that impressive. Sure, beating the Eagles looks good on paper, but that was an Eagles team led by Mark Sanchez. Green Bay has played three other teams currently above .500, losing by double digits to Seattle and Detroit.
Litmus Test: The Packers still have two teams listed in the top five of these rankings left on their slate, but both the Patriots and Lions come to Lambeau. The Packers must prove they can win on the road - they're 1-3 away from home, and needed a last-second touchdown to avoid an 0-4 road mark - but may not get a chance to do so until January. Or the 2015 season.

9. Seattle (6-4) - When you win the Super Bowl, there's only one place to go: down. The Seahawks have done just that, but four losses have come against very talented teams. The loss to St. Louis doesn't look good on paper, but Seattle isn't the only heavy-hitter to fall at the hands of the Rams. It won't be easy for the champs, with two games against left San Francisco and Arizona, but Seattle can hang.
Litmus Test: Seattle plays Arizona and San Francisco in back-to-back games. Twice. Before Christmas.

10. Philadelphia (7-3) - Nick Foles isn't a franchise quarterback, but he's miles ahead of Mark Sanchez. It will be up to the former Jets scapegoat to lead Philadelphia to the playoffs this winter. Green Bay exposed Philly's awful defense, which will be exploited at least three more times before everything is said and done this season.
Litmus Test: A three-week run through some of the NFC's best starts on Thanksgiving Day when Philly travels to Dallas. The Eagles will have extra time to prepare for a visit from the defending Super Bowl champions before a second tilt with the Cowboys on December 14.

11. San Francisco (6-4) - Jim Harbaugh may be a Nick Saban-level jerk, but, like Saban, he's also a very good coach. San Francisco has had encountered more than its fair share of obstacles this season, but the Niners continue to overcome. With a good bit of help, San Francisco's Week 17 match-up with the Cardinals could determine the division winner.
Litmus Test: Two games against the hated Seahawks in the span of only 18 days will reveal the true mettle of this 49ers team.

12. Pittsburgh (7-4) - This team doesn't make any sense. Pittsburgh slapped Baltimore and Indianapolis around in consecutive weeks, but were also dominated by the same Ravens team in Week 2. The Steelers have also lost to the Jets and Buccaneers, both 2-8. With two games against Cincinnati remaining, the Steelers control their own destiny.
Litmus Test: The final two weeks of the regular season, when the Steelers face off with the Chiefs and Bengals. Expect both games to be rife with playoff implications.

13. Miami (6-4) - Like the Packers, the Dolphins don't fare well against teams above the .500 mark. Miami is 1-3 in such games, with the only victory come in the season opener. The Dolphins will have to prove they can beat quality teams to win the dogfight that is the AFC wildcard race.
Litmus Test: It won't get much bigger than Sunday's game in Denver. Well, not until December 14, when the 'Fins head north for their rematch with the Patriots.

14. Baltimore (6-4) - The Ravens haven't lost to a team with fewer than six victories. They also haven't beaten a team currently above .500 since late-September. The road to the postseason isn't terribly difficult, but three of Baltimore's six remaining games are against teams above the .500 mark. If John Harbaugh wants to bring his team back to the playoffs, the Ravens will need to start beating quality teams.
Litmus Test: Baltimore's toughest remaining game may be their trip to Miami on December 7. Games against Cleveland and San Diego will be tough, and Monday night's game at New Orleans will be tricky.

15. San Diego (6-4) - If you're looking for a candidate to fall off the proverbial cliff, you've found your team. San Diego is 1-4 against teams better than .500, and their final games a sub-.500 opponent comes this Sunday against a Rams team with victories over Seattle, Denver and San Francisco this season.
Litmus Test: Everything after Thanksgiving. If the Chargers don't beat St. Louis on Sunday, they may be lucky to finish 8-8.

16. Cincinnati (6-3-1) - How can a team be 6-3-1, lead the best division in football, and barely make the top half of these rankings? Blowout losses to New England, Indianapolis and Cleveland don't look very good. Neither does a 37-37 tie with the 3-7-1 Panthers. If not for a pair of last-minute defensive breakdowns by the Ravens' barren secondary, the Bengals would be 4-5-1.
Litmus Test: Two games against Pittsburgh will likely determine who wins the AFC North. Week 16's visit from the Broncos will determine if the Bengals have any chance of winning a playoff game this season.

17. Buffalo (5-5) - Handing the reigns to someone like Kyle Orton isn't so much a vote of confidence in Orton, but more a vote of no confidence in whomever Orton replaced. Orton's passing numbers have dipped each week, down to a paltry 193 yards in last week's loss to Miami. A reliable quarterback might put the Bills into the playoffs.
Litmus Test: Three of Buffalo's final four games come against teams currently in the playoff field. Even if the Bills can get hot, 10 wins might not guarantee a wildcard berth.

18. Cleveland (6-4) - Only in the 2014 AFC North can you fall from first to last by losing a single game. The Browns held a rare division lead heading into last weekend's game against Houston, then promptly got throttled by J.J. Watt and company. Cleveland could make some noise in the playoff race if the Brownies can figure out how to stop the run.
Litmus Test: The toughest remaining game for the Browns is a Week 14 visit from the Colts, but Cleveland's 2014 season will likely be defined by it's two divisional games that follow. The Browns welcome in-state rival Cincinnati to town in Week 15 before finishing up the season in Baltimore.

19. Houston (5-5) - The Texans may have the best player in all of football, but there isn't much to speak of outside of J.J. Watt. Arian Foster is still very good, but is also still injury-prone. Andre Johnson is on the downside of his career, and Ryan Mallett certainly isn't the answer at quarterback. Jadeveon Clowney must justify his high draft placement to not be considered a bust.
Litmus Test: If Houston wants to make a run, they'll have plenty of chances. The Texans still have two games against the Jaguars, as well as a match-up with the Titans and Colts. Only a game behind Indianapolis, Houston is anything but out of the race.

20. St. Louis (4-6) - There aren't many 4-6 teams that look like the 2014 St. Louis Rams. Saddled with one of the toughest schedules in football, St. Louis has played only two games against teams below .500. Yikes. With wins over Denver, San Francisco and Seattle, the Rams have proven they can give just about anyone a run for their money. If only they had a decent quarterback.
Litmus Test: In all reality, the Rams will have to run the table to have a fighting chance at a wildcard spot. The Rams play more sub-.500 teams in the next six weeks (three) than they have all season, and they have already beaten their Week 17 opponent (Seattle) once this season. It's not likely, but it's not impossible, either.

21. Atlanta (4-6) - If only the Falcons could play their divisional foes all year long. Atlanta is 4-0 against the NFC South, and 0-6 against the rest of the NFL. Keep that pace, and the Falcons will finish 6-10. The sad part is that may be enough to win the division.
Litmus Test: Beating literally any team outside of the division. It hasn't been easy for the Falcons all year, but it's really going to be hard down the stretch. Atlanta's next four opponents: Cleveland, Arizona, Green Bay and Pittsburgh.

22. New Orleans (4-6) - Nine points stand between the Saints and am 8-2 record. New Orleans has lost two games in overtime by a field goal, another by two points and one more by a single point. Few teams have been as unlucky as the Saints, but they're still tied for first in the sorry NFC South. The odds-on favorite to win the division, New Orleans may only need three more wins to claim the division crown.
Litmus Test: After a pair of games against the AFC North, New Orleans finishes with four very winnable games, three of which come against division foes. 8-8 almost certainly clinches the division for the Saints.

23. Chicago (4-6) - Plenty has been made of Chicago's back-to-back drubbings, but the most concerning defeat is Chicago's 31-24 loss to Carolina. The Bears secondary is atrocious, and the pass rush isn't much better. Marc Trestman may not be long for the Midway.
Litmus Test: Chicago has two realistically winnable games, and four likely losses. 6-10 almost certainly costs Trestman his job, and may cause further roster shake-ups.

24. Minnesota (4-6) - Expectations can't be very high when you lose your franchise quarterback and leave the offense in the hands of a rookie quarterback. The running game hasn't been awful - the Vikings rank 12th in the league in rushing - and Teddy Bridgewater has shown flashes of his spectacular college play.
Litmus Test: The schedule is kind after this weekend's game against the Packers, with very winnable games against the Panthers, Jets and Bears. Win those, and pull an upset over Green Bay, Detroit or Miami, and the Vikings finish at .500 with a first-year coach and quarterback.

25. New York Giants (3-7) - Super Bowl rings work wonders on ownership. 2014 has been another disappointment for the Giants, yet Tom Coughlin apparently needs only to flash his two Super Bowl rings to remind Giants brass why he deserves to stick around. Eli Manning may be cooked. The Giants can't keep a running back healthy. They can't figure out how to stop a passing attack. Other than that, there really isn't anything wrong in New York.
Litmus Test: New York is stuck in the role of spoiler for Dallas and Philadelphia. Upsetting their rivals may give Giants fans something to look fondly upon, as the season hasn't had many bright spots.

26. Carolina (3-7-1) - The Panthers are proof positive that trotting out a piecemeal squad at wideout and on the offensive line will not lead to great results. Rookie Kelvin Benjamin looks like a bona fide no. 1 receiver, but he shouldn't have to carry the load offensively during his first season. There's plenty of work to do before the Panthers contend again.
Litmus Test: Miraculously, the Panthers will enter Week 13 no worse than 1.5 games out of first place in the NFC South. Carolina's toughest remaining game is a trip to New Orleans, which is an illustration of just how close the Panthers are to a playoff berth.

27. Tampa Bay (2-8) - There is no good reason for the Buccaneers to be this awful. Tampa Bay is a talented team coached by a man who led a team to a Super Bowl and two NFC title games. Might Jameis Winston stay in-state and lead the Bucs next season?
Litmus Test: If they can play up to their talent level, they can give plenty of teams looking toward the postseason a headache.

28. Tennessee (2-8) - Erase the Week 1 victory over Kansas City and the Titans only have a two-point victory over Jacksonville to look back on. It's been ugly in Nashville this year, and it will get worse before it gets better.
Litmus Test: There's potential for some cheap victories on the horizon, as Tennessee plays the Giants, Jets and Jaguars before the season ends.

29. New York Jets (2-8) - Sometimes, you have to wonder if "disaster" is spelled J-E-T-S (Jets! Jets! Jets!). Their starting quarterback is immature and lazy, and just got benched for Michael Vick, who the Eagles didn't need because they thought Nick Foles and Matt Barkley were better. Their coach is the Flavor Flav of the NFL.
Litmus Test: Making it through the rest of the year without Geno Smith sulking on the sideline or Rex Ryan talking. About anything.

30. Washington (3-7) - Ladies and gentlemen, the Jets of the NFC! Their quarterback is overrated and throwing his teammates under the bus. Their coach is riding the coattails of a famous last name and throwing his players under the bus. Their owner is steadfast in his defense of his team's blatantly racist and offensive nickname. Yeah, things are great in Washington.
Litmus Test: Getting out of their own way.

31. Jacksonville (1-9) - Teams could take a page or two from Jacksonville's proverbial playbook. The Jaguars sure give it their all each and every week, but inexperience and a lack of overall talent is holding them back. Blake Bortles looks like a keeper, and Denard Robinson represents the first Michigan Wolverines-related football success since he left Ann Arbor a few years ago. The Jags are a few years away, but they're certainly heading in the right direction.
Litmus Test: Experience. These reps are going to matter more and more in 2015, 2016 and beyond.

32. Oakland (0-10) - The Raiders really aren't as bad as their record indicates. On four separate occasions, Oakland has lost by a touchdown or less against a 2013 playoff team, including last week against San Diego.
Litmus Test: History. Oakland's "easiest" game is a Week 16 home match-up with Buffalo. That game, or a Week 17 tilt against a Broncos team with nothing to gain, might be Oakland's best chance to avoid 0-16.