At the halfway point of the season, it's time to take stock of all 32 NFL teams with some power rankings.
These rankings factor in and blend advanced statistics, head-to-head results, point differential and the good old-fashioned Eyeball Test. The result is a worst-to-first countdown of who's playing the best ball heading into Week 9.
Peyton Manning got back in the saddle despite two bum ankles for yet another ho-hum evisceration of an opposing secondary. More importantly, the Denver D looked much closer to last year's standard in Von Miller's second game back as its secondary fed off relentless pressure. Stay tuned -- the Broncos will come out of their bye week to face the Chargers and Chiefs in a battle for home field throughout the playoffs.
Seattle's currently spotty OL keeps the Seahawks out of the top spot, and it nearly got them beat in St. Louis as Robert Quinn and company tore after Russell Wilson almost unimpeded. Considering the job that Jeff Fisher has done getting the Rams up for divisional foes at home, Seattle doesn't slip just for sweating one out. Once the Seahawks' tackles return and Percy Harvin is up to speed -- and they remember that Marshawn Lynch is also kinda good -- they'll kill defenses with packaged run/pass plays. The defense? It kills just fine already.
Some thought the Colts were primed to regress after Andrew Luck's rookie run last year -- instead they've stormed out of the gate and knocked off three of the league's elite teams in their first seven games. Their No. 3 ranking here celebrates those achievements while acknowledging a couple of key questions: 1) how their offense will balance a cloud-of-dust run game with a passing attack now lacking its No. 1 target, and 2) how a defense with few above-average dudes will hold up over the long haul.
The Chiefs roll on, unbeaten and untied, but not invulnerable. Forcing zero turnovers against Case Keenum and Jason Campbell meant two dogfights against teams that have gotten smoked by other contenders. Abandoning the run makes Andy Reid warm and satisfied inside in a way that Kansas City BBQ can't hope to match, and if he pulls that act against the league's elite defenses, then Rear Admiral Checkdown will be hard-pressed to get it done.
No offense in the league can beat you more ways than the Saints. They put it on an underrated Bills defense with a combined 55 yards from Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles and Marques Colston. Of course, three turnovers courtesy of Rob Ryan's revamped D didn't hurt. The efforts of emerging stars like Junior Galette, Cameron Jordan and Kenny Vaccaro are bringing real balance to the Big Easy.
Even Wall Street is envious of San Francisco's ability to grind the lower middle class under its heel. Pure physicality was enough to dispatch the Rams, Texans, Titans and Cardinals before routing the NFL's version of a homeless guy in the Jaguars (fittingly, in a Jags "home game" that was played 4,000 miles from Jacksonville). The Niners failed their physical tests against Seattle and Indy, so their post-bye week dates with Carolina and New Orleans carry a ton of intrigue.
Thanks to a confluence of talent, schematic advances and rule changes, NFL quarterback play is at an all-time apex ... but nobody nowhere no way no how does it like Aaron Rodgers. The Pack sit at No. 7 with James Jones, Randall Cobb, Clay Matthews and Nick Perry all out with injury. Once they get back ...
After a slow start, the Cincinnati defensive front is ramping up to the kind of relentless pressure it brought to QBs' doorsteps in 2012. Andy Dalton had a slow start of his own, but he's rocketed past any historical comparison to play the best ball of his NFL career over the last three weeks. A.J. Green still has to fair-catch the occasional deep ball, but if Dalton doesn't crater, this team will threaten for a first-round bye with a sparkling 4-1 conference record.
Don't look now, but after a 1-3 start the Panthers have been playing some high-quality ball. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula is finally figuring out what to do with Cam Newton, and their defensive front is handing out weekly beatings. They're working around weak links on the OL and in the secondary, but their strengths could land them a Wild Card spot while preventing the Saints from resting on their laurels in the South.
How on Earth is this Patriots squad 6-2? Five of their victories have come by a combined 15 points, but wins are wins and their mark is a good bet to hold up in yet another failtastic edition of the AFC East. Maybe a few weeks with Amendola and Gronk will replace Old Brady with the Brady of Old, but right now the Pats' pass game is too discombobulated to hang with the big boys.
11. Detroit Lions
At this point, saying Matt Stafford is a meh QB without Calvin Johnson is like saying Great Britain would have been conquered 20 times over if it wasn't an island. The English Channel, like Megatron, simply IS, and the result is royal weddings in London and a likely playoff berth in Detroit.
Verily, the Lord said, "Go forth, and multiply." And Rivers begat, and begat, and begat. And then the Lord spake to Mike McCoy and saith, "Plague not mine good and faithful Rivers with seven-step drops and slow-developing routes, for these art the mark of the Beast." And McCoy heard the word of the Lord, and didst shorten the drops and quicken the reads. And completions didst multiply across the Land, and the Lord was well pleased.
13. Baltimore Ravens
The bye week came at a good time for Baltimore. With any luck, the Ravens have gotten Ray Rice's hip healed up while squaring away their blocking issues and getting Lardarius Webb's head right after an awful (by his standards) start to the season. Unfortunately, a week off won't fix their lack of weapons in the pass game, but if their other issues are sorted and the Suggs/Dumervil tandem keeps it up, they'll stay in the Wild Card hunt and punish Cincinnati should the Bengals fall asleep at the switch.
14. Dallas Cowboys
Halfway through the season, halfway to 8-8, halfway between great and terrible, halfway to getting blown out at home by the Panthers or Niners in the Wild Card round, halfway to bringing in Lovie Smith to fix the defense while squandering Romo's last few seasons with whatever idiotic OC Lovie will favor. Same as it ever was.
15. Miami Dolphins
Mike Wallace is already threatening to join the Alvin Harper All-Stars as one of the league's worst big-money free agent wideouts. Ryan Tannehill is threatening to join the David Carr All-Stars as a QB who could be ruined by absolutely relentless pressure. And Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is threatening GM Jeff Ireland with ... well, nothing, apparently, since Ross signed him to a surreptitious contract extension. Care for a do-over, Steve?
It will be informative to watch the Cards' coaching staff take the Todd Haley Memorial Running Back IQ test over the next few weeks, as they'll have the chance to either feature a dynamic runner in Andre Ellington or sacrifice carries on the Altar of Veteranocity to a decrepit Rashard Mendenhall. The right decision is paramount, as they'll need all the run-game help they can get to keep Carson Palmer from getting killed. On the plus side, Calais Campbell and John Abraham are supplying some heat of their own on defense while the Honey Badger takes to slot coverage like ... a badger to honey?
17. Chicago Bears
Joining the Steelers in a Wrong-Grail Kegstand was probably a bad idea for the Bears' D, as it has collapsed in sections this season. A similar collapse could be imminent on the offensive side if Josh McCown, scion of the Last Family of Football, isn't up to the challenge. The challenge has increased by the week, as the right side of the Bears' OL is allowing more pressure game by game. Forte and Marshall may be enough to batten down the hatches until Jay Cutler's return, but it's going to be a bumpy ride.
18. Oakland Raiders
Terrelle Pryor has exceeded the modest expectations set up by his dreadful showing in the preseason, and he's driving a scrappy run game despite a scrap-heap OL. One-man gang Lamarr Houston has been joined by a couple of other budget mercenaries in the proud Raider tradition, and they're bringing enough heat to keep the worst of the scorch marks off their overmatched secondary.
19. Tennessee Titans
A scattershot QB and a hideous running game are no way to go through the NFL, son. The Locker/CJ2.5YPC backfield can create random big plays, but they are much too high-beta to competently support Alterraun Verner and the rest of a surprisingly OK defense.
20. Cleveland Browns
Like a romantic comedy heroine, the Browns finally ditched those losers and realized that sweet, unassuming Jason Campbell was the QB answer all along. Just kidding, Campbell is awful, but any week he puts on a competent show is a week that tough D + OMG LOOK WHAT JOSH GORDON JUST DID can = a win.
21. Houston Texans
Having been absolutely ravaged by interceptions, the Texans will be playing much better ball if Case Keenum can repeat the kind of turnover-free day he enjoyed against the Chiefs. With Brian Cushing gone and gross things happening at the safety position, however, the Texans' D will be hard-pressed to play up to the caliber of seasons past.
Robert Griffin III has sweet feet and a live arm, but he's not polished enough in his reads and outside-the-numbers passing to constantly play from behind the way Washington's dreadful secondary forces him to do. He's also not sturdy enough to withstand the kind of savage beating the Broncos laid on him last Sunday.
23. St. Louis Rams
The Rams' passing attack was already sputtering under Sam Bradford, and for all his scrappiness the sputtering might continue with Kellen Clemens under center. The fact that the Rams called BRETT FAVRE last week to gauge his interest isn't exactly a ringing endorsement for Mr. Clemens, but despite scattershot accuracy he never backed down from the league's baddest defense. He'll also be aided by a resurgent run game as well as some bad defensive dudes in blue and gold. Robert Quinn, take a bow.
24. Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta is down to the dregs on offense, and Matt Ryan is finally cracking under the strain of facing a heavy pass rush while throwing to Harry Douglas and a triple-teamed Tony Gonzalez. Steven Jackson doing a Boris Karloff impersonation didn't help, either. While Roddy White's return will be welcome, the Falcons' 2-5 record combined with a bad secondary and pathetic pass rush make this a lost season for the Falcons.
25. Buffalo Bills
Doug Marrone's scrappy band was simply outmatched in the Superdome, but the Bills have turned in credible showings every week behind an underrated D that features plus talent at all three levels. Thad Lewis has kept the offense out of the ditch while awaiting E.J. Manuel's return, and if C.J. Spiller's balky ankle ever heals, the Bills could be one of the league's better spoilers down the stretch.
A lackluster Steelers season hit a new low with a loss to the Raiders, highlighted by two brutal Shaun Suisham shanks and yet another beating in the pocket for Big Ben. Pittsburgh can't scare anyone with a dink-and-dunk pass attack and a defense that's aging in all the wrong ways. If you picked Pittsburgh in the AFC North this year, you chose ... poorly.
27. New York Giants
A two-game win streak finally placated the New York media, who ... just kidding, they still want everyone's blood. But two games out in the hilarious NFC East isn't a death sentence, and it's worth noting that Eli is now interception-less in games where he doesn't try to play "guess which route Rueben Randle is running?" as he releases the ball. It's a well-timed bye week for the Giants to consolidate their gains, and Andre Brown's Week 10 return gives them one guy in the backfield who can break 5.0 in the 40.
28. New York Jets
While Geno Smith's Dual-Schaub performance wasn't the ugliest Jets moment in October, it wasn't far off. New York seems like it's juggling chainsaws on offense, and the results are sometimes impressive but frequently stomach-turning. Sheldon Richardson has been a revelation on the defensive front, but opposing receivers have happily traded lockdown on Revis Island for carefree frolicking in Cromartie Cove.
If you're scoring at home, that's exactly one field goal in the last EIGHT QUARTERS from Chip Kelly's boys. Actually, if you're scoring at home, you're accomplishing something that Chip Kelly can't. Both of Philly's dreadful losses have come at the Linc in front of some of the NFL's most understanding and forgiving fans. If Vick's hammy keeps him shelved for another few games, Kelly could spend 2014 playing Candy Crush and waiting for his NCAA Show Cause order to expire.
Cerberus, the three-headed hellhound of Greek myth, ensured that luckless souls would be forever trapped in Hades. Matt Ponderman, the three-headed hell-quarterback, serves the same function for luckless Minnesota fans. Since some Norse mythology is probably more appropriate here, it was prophesied that after the last battle of Ragnarok the world would burn to ashes. Apparently, Ragnarok has already taken place in the Vikings secondary.
Tampa isn't next-to-last in terms of stats, and certainly not in terms of team-wide talent. But the Kon-Tiki would have beat the three-masted HMS Bounty across the Pacific once the crew turned on Captain Bligh, and as long as the Bucs labor under their overmatched, insecure martinet of a "coach," they'll keep turning in dreadful efforts like last Thursday's hide-tanning.
OK, so rhetorical skill and detailed arguments probably aren't necessary to convince you that the Jags are the bottom of the NFL barrel. They're uniformly hideous across the board, but their turnover-prone offense and dreadful pass protection on the left side provoke particular scorn. And, of course, their flammable safety duo. And their atrocious run blocking, and ... OK, you get it. They're bad.