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Apologies for missing week 1 on the blog. I know it’s not a good look for an up-and-coming NFL blog to not have anything after the first week of the NFL season, but our EIC had a family emergency and couldn’t be around to summarize. We’ll try to keep some regular features going during the season, and hopefully have some in-depth analyses of games we were able to watch closely. For now, please enjoy my rankings, and check back later for more detailed analysis of Week 2 as well as, if time permits, a group project from Zone Reads (either a group power rankings or our first podcast!)
YOUR TOP TIER
1. Seattle (2-0). They look like the most complete team in the league right now, although their passing offense isn’t nearly as explosive as you’d like to see from a championship contender. The defense is incredible, though. I wonder where this team’s ceiling will be with Percy Harvin.
2. Denver (2-0). Looked great two weeks in a row even without Von Miller, but Ryan Clady’s injury means they’ll probably be without two key players for the next 4 weeks. Hard to consider them at #1 until they’re healthy.
3. San Francisco (1-1). Still a great team, but Seattle’s defense matches up perfectly with their offense, and Seattle’s stadium is a notoriously tough place for road teams to play. I’m not writing them off after this game.
4. Green Bay (1-1). Another well-rounded team with a frequently unstoppable passing offense. Losing to San Francisco on the road shouldn’t be considered a blight against them.
YOUR POTENTIAL CONTENDERS
5. New Orleans (2-0). Some struggles in week 2 against Tampa Bay, but the team always has some offensive difficulties on the road on grass, and the defense looks much-improved from last season, even with all the injuries. Sean Payton has to get over the Mark Ingram thing, though.
6. Atlanta (1-1). They’re pretty much the same team as always, but they have some offensive line issues and their depth is not good. Still talented enough to beat anyone, but problems could be forthcoming.
7. Chicago (2-0). Pulled out two close wins by the skin of their teeth, but I’ve been a believer in this team since the Trestman hire, and the offense looks good enough to be justifying that faith so far.
8. New England (2-0). Geez, this team’s failure to develop in-house receiving talent (and letting their most dependable guy walk in favor of a guy who’s constantly injured) is really catching up to them.
9. Houston (2-0). I just can’t ever rank Houston above New England until I see that Gary Kubiak isn’t playing checkers to Bill Belichick’s chess. The Texans had no business nearly losing two games to inferior teams.
10. Cincinnati (1-1). They really showed us something on Monday Night Football: Namely, that this team would be a Super Bowl contender with a better quarterback.
SCRAPPY PLAYOFF CONTENDERS
11. Miami (2-0). You can say “Cleveland” or “Indianapolis” if you want, but road wins aren’t easy to come by in the NFL. They’ve got a rougher stretch of matchups coming up, but they’ll be back at home for some of them. If they’re a viable playoff candidate, we’ll find out soon.
12. Baltimore (1-1). I’m still unsure where to rank this team, but there are so many flawed teams beyond this point that I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for now.
13. Philadelphia (1-1). I’m not sure why Chip Kelly decided to take his foot off the gas this week when it came to doing Chip Kelly things. I think his coaching can give this team an advantage over the teams ranked below Philadelphia, but with that weak defense, he has to do those things, or you get results like losing a 1 PM game at home to San Diego.
14. Dallas (1-1). I still don’t think much of them, but so far the defense has looked better than I expected, and the passing game keeps them in contention in any matchup. I might have to revise my preseason prediction slightly upward.
15. Kansas City (2-0). They have a good shot at the playoffs with their schedule, but this is who they are– a middle-of-the-pack team with some really good players and a coach and quarterback that won’t actively sink their chances of winning.
16. Detroit (1-1). Still as talented as ever. Still losing games they shouldn’t due to mental mistakes. We’ll give them a break since this one was on the road, but they need to show they can live up to their level of talent.
17. Carolina (0-2). Speaking of “Talented and losing games they shouldn’t”: This team could be a top-10 team if the coaching staff were replaced. OC Mike Shula doesn’t seem to have any idea how to use Cam Newton. HC Ron Rivera doesn’t seem to have any idea of what his team’s strengths are or which tactics to take to close out close games.
18. NY Giants (0-2). I really don’t think there’s much of a gap between the top 3 NFC East teams, but if Eli Manning is going to keep throwing interceptions and David Wilson is going to keep fumbling, they’re going to have a hard time winning anything.
19. Indianapolis (1-1). I haven’t gotten to watch much of them yet this season, but their free-agent spending spree hasn’t seemed to produce much in the way of results so far. Any team with Andrew Luck always has a chance, though.
MAYBE NEXT YEAR
20. San Diego (1-1). I have to admit, they look significantly better this year than I expected them to. I thought A.J. Smith’s reign as GM ruined the talent base of the team, and that Norv Turner had more to do with Philip Rivers’ success than the other way around, but so far, Mike McCoy has had them competitive in both games (although it’s somewhat inexplicable how they blew a 28-7 lead at home to Houston).
21. St. Louis (1-1). I probably should rank them higher, but I think their offensive ceiling is ultimately limited. It’s a case like Carolina’s, where having a lot of talent that can compete with anybody most of the time is somewhat offset by limitations at key positions. I don’t know if Sam Bradford is the problem or the offensive scheme is the problem, but I do know the Rams need to address the problem. (If they’re lucky, they’ll have a high pick, or even two, with which to do so next year.) I don’t feel bad rating them here when I picked them to finish 6-10 and some advanced metrics had them even worse than that.
22. Minnesota (0-2). Boy, talk about “limited offensive ceiling”. If rumblings are starting after two weeks that your QB will be benched for Matt Cassel, you’re in trouble.
23. Tennessee (1-1). Speaking of quarterback problems: I’ve never been a Jake Locker fan. He wasn’t accurate in college, he didn’t improve in college, and now that inaccuracy is showing. He went 8th overall, though, because he looks pretty throwing a football and he’s got those Aryan good looks that make him “the kind of quarterback you want your daughter to marry” (note: actual quote from an NFL Draft analyst). Locker putting a three-yard slant pass two feet above Kendall Wright’s head on 3rd-and-1 says it all.
By the way, Locker staying for his senior year was one of the biggest financial mistakes a player has ever made. Instead of being a potential #1 overall pick and one of the last big-bonus-baby QBs, a la Sam Bradford, he’s now locked into a rookie deal as per the new CBA, and he certainly didn’t do anything to improve his draft status. He probably cost himself $30 million or more with that decision. It should have been an indicator that he doesn’t have the decision-making capacity a quarterback needs in the NFL.
24. Buffalo (1-1). I’m still skeptical of this team’s overall talent level, but they’ve played hard and were in both games until the very end. I think Doug Marrone and E.J. Manuel might be on to something.
25. Pittsburgh (0-2). Yikes. The defense looks ordinary for long stretches. The offense can’t move the ball– there were rumblings about OC Todd Haley’s ineffective offensive scheme, which was ill-suited to this team in the first place, and then Maurkice Pouncey was lost for the year. I don’t think there’s any way Haley is on staff in 2014. It also doesn’t help when you let your #1 receiver walk and don’t adequately replace him. Oh, they can’t run the ball, either.
26. Washington (0-2). The talk about fans wanting RG3 benched for Kirk Cousins is absurd. What is he supposed to do when offenses score on Washington at will? That said, I haven’t gotten to see much of RG3 this year and I really hope Mike Shanahan’s gross mismanagement of his health hasn’t ruined him.
27. Cleveland (0-2). It feels weird to rank them this low when I talked them up before the season and they’ve actually played decently. I like their defense a lot. Brandon Weeden is still a huge liability, though. Like I’ve said, it almost doesn’t matter how good the other 52 guys on roster are if the head coach and/or QB aren’t up to snuff.
The good news is that the front office acquired a bunch of picks in next year’s draft, so they stand a solid chance of acquiring their QB of the future, as well as some other important parts, in 2014.
28. Tampa Bay (0-2). Oh boy. This is the ultimate example of a team who can’t win because of their QB and head coach. Josh Freeman probably doesn’t have it as a QB, and Mike Glennon will probably get his chance at some point this season. But more detrimental to this team’s success is the coaching of Greg Schiano. Beyond the rumblings we hear from the locker room that Schiano and Freeman are feuding, and that veteran players like Darrelle Revis don’t care for Schiano’s control-freak approach (a problem that has been echoed in the past by other teams who were coached by someone, often from the college ranks, who didn’t realize they were coaching a group of professional, self-motivated grown men, and not a group of 18-to-21-year-old kids), there’s the product on the field. The Buccaneers have 23 penalties through two games, many of them stupid, unnecessary personal-foul and unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties. They lost week 1 because of a personal foul penalty on a late hit, and they had three personal foul penalties in the second quarter, including a Dashon Goldson hit on Darren Sproles that got him suspended for next week’s game. Schiano also had to burn his first two second-half timeouts because he couldn’t get the right personnel for his formations in time.
If Schiano can’t get his players to respect him, and he’s so disorganized that he can’t get the right personnel on the field regularly, and he blames everyone else for the team’s problems at press conferences… well, what exactly does he do right? Job interviews, I guess.
This team has enough talent to be a playoff competitor everywhere but the two most important positions. Those positions are enough to sink them here.
29. Arizona (1-1). They look OK, but I feel like OK is their ceiling. I think the defense will improve as the young players grow (and after Daryl Washington returns), but losing Ray Horton was significant, and the offense looks ordinary– not as inept as it did last year, but not like it has any sort of high ceiling, either.
30. New York Jets (1-1). Another strange team to rank. 30 seems low, but this whole tier is a mess. Rex Ryan has once again brought a defense ready to play. Geno Smith offers some hope for the future, but he still has a long way to go– he’s often late on his throws, and all three of his interceptions against New England were baffling decisions. On top of that, the rest of the offensive skill talent is abysmal. I’m just not sure what’s going on with this team or what their long-term plan is.
ABANDON ALL HOPE
31. Oakland (1-1). They did beat Jacksonville convincingly last week. Terrelle Pryor may in fact turn out to develop into a long-term solution at quarterback: it’s astonishing that, according to him, no one had taught him how to throw a football before last season. I guess Jim Tressel was too busy being sanctimonious about his program while covering up infractions to do any coaching. Anyway, as this team is still in the midst of a long-term rebuilding project, the talent is not there
32. Jacksonville (0-2). While Oakland was very publicly gutting their talent base and drafts in the last years of the Al Davis era (and then very publicly gutting their roster and repairing their salary cap after he died), another franchise sank into the no-talent abyss, and nobody noticed. (Not even me, who thought the coaching changes would help pull the team above expectations, even if only slightly.) Gene Smith’s four-year run as Jaguars GM might go down as one of the worst stretches of roster management in league history. His most notable characteristics were his ability to reach for players in the draft, his talent for overpaying players based on one year of high-touchdown performance, and his fetish for small-school draft prospects. He’s the guy who took a late-first DT prospect #10 overall when a bunch of potential Pro Bowl pass rushing talent was on the board. He’s the guy who took a punter in the third round. He’s the guy who inked Laurent Robinson to a huge deal.
He’s the guy who traded up for a QB prospect with no experience who wasn’t even very good in college. Blaine Gabbert, much like Jake Locker, is what you get when you draft a guy because of his “tools” and ignore things like ability to read defenses, ability to throw accurately, ability to go through progressions, and ability to make decisions under pressure. Locker, Ponder, Gabbert, and Dalton are all in their third year now and are all proving they don’t have what it takes. The lesson from the 2011 draft is, as always: Don’t draft a white quarterback.
A new owner has given the team a chance to clean out Smith’s mistakes and build the roster the right way, but it will still take time. On the bright side, the Jaguars are easily the early leaders in the race for the #1 overall pick in 2014. On the downside, Smith’s entire significant contribution to the roster in four years is Eugene Monroe and Cecil Shorts, and the team will probably let Monroe walk after this season.
The offense will be improved when Justin Blackmon returns from suspension. I can’t imagine it will be enough to lift them out of the 32 spot.