Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Locks, Stocks, & Barrels: The NFL At The Half.

Eight weeks in the books, and the NFL is swingin' like Satchmo and swaggerin' like Jagger. We've had our eyebrows raised by the sublime and the absurd, the hilarious and the tragic. We have a definitive grasp on most of the league by now, but their are still some teams providing utter confusion from week to week. (I'm looking at you, Baltimore and Philly.) In an effort to ignore the fact that the NBA should be starting tonight but isn't, here's an NFL post to keep me from crying like a small child. Unbelievably, this is the first time I've done a straight-up "power rankings" column, but there you go. Since everybody in the world churns these out on a regular basis, I thought I'd break the rankings up into groupings to give it a little zest. I present the inaugural Arena Apothecary "Locks, Stocks, & Barrels" column: NFL Edition.

Barrels. (Because you put barrels in the cellar.)

32. The Indianapolis Colts (0-8). Sheesh, you lose one guy and it's the NFL equivalent of "The Wasteland." The Manning-less wonders have been more frustrating than sad to watch this season. Except for drubbings at the hands of the Texans and Titans, and that grizzly episode of "Homicide: Life on Bourbon Street" they filmed two weeks ago, they've been stubbornly clawing away at opponents. They gave a decent Bucs squad more than it wanted, and just about pulled off the upset of the season against the Steelers. I would say they have at least a few winnable games on the schedule what with two tilts against Jacksonville and playing Carolina at home ... but rookies Blaine Gabbert and (obviously) Cam Newton are just better than Curtis Painter. Much, much, better. It's going to be particularly bitter for Indy fans when the Super Bowl rolls into town and they have to endure a week of parties, shindigs, and hoopla knowing they never even had a ghost of a chance. Oh well, there's Andrew Luck to look forward to, I suppose.

Unless these guys wind up with the #1 pick:

31. The Miami Dolphins (0-7). Just an ugly, ugly mess down in Florida. Like Indy, it's been maddening watching them play quasi-competent football, and then invent ways to lose seemingly out of thin air. They owned Denver two weeks ago, but somehow the Magical Healing Powers of Tim Tebow (by which I mean good 4th Quarter defense special teams play) burned them in OT. Then on Sunday, they had the Giants' number until it mattered. Then the only thing they had was failure. If I'm Tony Sparano, I make a play to keep my job by walking into the office tomorrow and saying something like this: "I know this isn't going well, guys, but the hot seat, really? Come on!!! My best offensive weapons are Reggie Bush and Brandon Marshall! I've got the 'choice' of Matt Moore, J.P. Losman, or Chad Freaking Henne under center, and you're thinking about giving me the axe because I can't win? Get me a damn QB. A real one. Either give David Garrard a call or let me run the table in the loss column for Luck, but don't act like this mess is all my fault." Sparano wouldn't be all that far wrong, either.

30A. The Denver Broncos (2-5). The problem is not Tim Tebow. The problem is that the alternatives to Tim Tebow are Kyle Orton and Brady Quinn.

30B. The Arizona Cardinals (1-6). The Cardinals put all their eggs in Kevin Kolb's basket, then he under-threw it and the eggs broke harmlessly on the turf, 15 yards behind Larry Fitzgerald.

29. The LSU Tigers and/or The University of Alabama Crimson Tide. Just kidding. Sort of. Have you seen those defenses? Have you watched Trent Richardson run? On a neutral field, I give them at least even odds against any team on this list so far.

28. The Saint Louis Rams (1-6). I can't get a bead on this team. I believe in Sam Bradford, although he's giving us cause to wonder if he's not "Stafford 2.0" in terms of staying fully healthy on a weekly basis. Steven Jackson is obviously a great running back. On Sunday their defense absolutely punished the Saints, holding them to 56 total rushing yards and forcing Drew Brees into two picks. And yet in the four previous games they scored a total of 27 points and gave up 112. (Of course, two of those were against the Ravens and Packers, so we can cut them a little slack.) The win over New Orleans showed that they're probably better than their record, but I can't put them any higher.

27. The Seattle Seahawks (2-5). Their only victories thusfar: against the pathetic Cardinals, and over the Giants in one of the two or three games per year when Eli Manning is simultaneously awesome (24/39, 420 yds, 3 TDs) and horrible (3 INTs). Both in that game and against the Falcons the week before, Seattle's passing game remarkably showed signs of life, but they put up a combined 15 points in the ensuing two games against the Browns and Bengals. Vaunted home-field advantage aside, this team doesn't have much of anything going for it.

Stocks. (Buy Low.)

26. The Jacksonville Jaguars (2-6). The Jags have played to the upper limits of their ability, and while that hasn't been good for many wins, they're showing flashes of potential every Sunday. MJD is still a challenge for defenders to bring down, and Blaine Gabbert could well shape up into a decent QB by season's end. If they can build intelligently around this foundation, and improve a sometimes-porous/sometimes-good defense, I can see them looking like a playoff team in a season or two. Right now, however, there are too many pieces missing.

25. The Carolina Panthers (2-6). I could watch Cam Newton play ball all day, every day. It's safe to say that A. nobody saw this kid coming and B. we're all really glad he did. Every snap has the potential for some manner of jaw-dropping wizardry. He's started a whopping 8 games and his highlight reel already looks better than some QB's entire careers. Yet his organization is holding him back; he doesn't have enough talent around him to engineer many wins, no matter what sort of crazy plays he's capable of. In short, he's the Blake Griffin of the NFL. That's not to say Carolina is devoid of other bright spots. I could watch Steve Smith and Greg Olson catch Newton's passes all day, too. They're in the process of developing that ESP thing, and it looks better every week. Trouble is, I can't stand watching Carolina's (non-Cam) running game or their terrible defense for five minutes.

24. The Cleveland Browns (3-4). Two of their three wins are against the win-less Dolphins and Colts, and the third is against Seattle. That barely qualifies as an NFL schedule.

23. The Minnesota Vikings (2-6). You really can't ever rank a team with All Day lugging the rock too far down the list, and Christian Ponder is looking like he might be a pretty good QB with more seasoning. The Vikes have two major problems: their division went and sneakily became the toughest in the league, and they'd be better off with a defense that wasn't giving up 25 points per game.

22. The Washington Redskins (3-4). I've been waiting for this team to realize that part of Dan Snyder's deal with Satan is that they aren't allowed to do anything substantial while he pockets his money. Their current three-game skid is a sign they've figured it out.

21. The Tennessee Titans (4-3). Other than Week 2 over Baltimore, they don't have a legitimate victory. (Colts, Browns, Broncos.) Matt Hasselback has been solid-to-very-good, but with Chris Johnson badly dogging it and Kenny Britt out for the year, they don't have the firepower to compete.

20. The Dallas Cowboys (3-4). If Rob Ryan can keep his yap shut and they can pull it together, the Cowboys' have a fairly soft schedule for the rest of the season.

19. The Kansas City Chiefs (4-3). Even accounting for that zany win over the Chargers last night, and the blowout of Oakland last week, I haven't seen a single thing all season to make me think KC is anything beyond a very slight road bump for all but the lowliest of opponents. I know, I know. They've won four straight and they ought to be commended for overcoming an 0-3 start to grab a share of the AFC West lead. Thing is: they've got the Pats, Steelers, Bears, Jets, and Packers all coming up. Barring a miracle, they're likely not finishing the year above .500.

Stocks. (Sell High.)

18. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-3). Hanging out in the NFC South means Tampa Bay most likely does not have a playoff shot this year, but they're continuing to evolve under the leadership of Raheem Morris, who has his team dialed in. There might not be a better, more cohesive locker room in the league. Also, Josh Freeman has completed 61% of his passes, and is maturing further as a general on the field.

17. The Philadelphia Eagles (3-4). The "Dream Team" may be dead as a moniker, but with the sheer volume of talent Philly puts on the turf every week, I have to think they're going to put it together and make a late-season run. That being said, they've proven this current iteration is not ready, at the instant I type, to sit at the grown-up table.

16. The Oakland Raiders (4-3). This is a provisional ranking. If Carson Palmer comes out of the bye week ready to play, then Oakland has enough assets in place to make the playoffs out of a lackluster AFC West. If, on the other hand, Palmer still looks like he did against the Chiefs, the Raiders are done.

15. The Houston Texans (5-3). I find it hard to take a team who starts Matt Schaub at QB seriously, regardless of their record or his stats. But somehow the Texans are atop an eminently winnable AFC South, and nothing suggests that anyone else in the division is prepared to take that away from them.

14. The Cincinnati Bengals (5-2). Maybe Andy "The Red Rifle" Dalton (best NFL nickname in years, people. Years, I say!), Cedric Benson, A.J. Green, and a Top-5 defense (3rd in PPG, 4th in yards) is good enough. After the Carson Palmer drama and parting ways with longtime star receiver Chad Ochocinco, this team looked far too fractured and discombobulated to salvage even a dignified season. Somehow, they're playing cohesive football. The only two L's on their record are comprised of one fluky-close affair with Denver and one low-scoring mess of a game with the suddenly relevant 'Niners. Then again, their schedule was front-loaded with an awful lot of tasty, tasty cupcakes. We'll revisit Cincy after they get through two games each with the Steelers and Ravens, but they look an awful lot like a legitimate contender right now.

13. The San Diego Chargers (4-3). Despite that horribly fouled-up gak job last night, it's still a team with Phillip Rivers under center. Norv Turner's San Diego m.o. has been slow starts and brilliant finishes. Given that the Bolts are out of the chute looking respectable, they'll be a force to be reckoned with if they play like they usually do down the stretch.

12. The Chicago Bears (4-3). They look good. They always look good this time of year. Matt Forte is a hurricane, and Jay Cutler is (mostly) playing well. The problem is a defense whose PPG-Allowed ranking is the same as I have them here. That and some very questionable offensive play calling keep them from a higher slot.

11. The Atlanta Falcons (4-3). After an shaky start, the Dirty Birds are playing the kind of football they ought to have been playing from jump. Gound-and-pound to set up Matt Ryan's passing to his considerable array of weapons. The Falcons are not the juggernaut many predicted them to be this year, but they're finding their feet. (Though Ovie Mughelli's season-ending injury will hurt.) Take a look at their second-half schedule: @Indy, Saints (who won't have had their bye week yet and are going to be tired), Titans, Vikes, @Houston, @Carolina, Jags, @Saints, Bucs. Realistically, they can/should win 6 or 7 of those games. 10-6 probably isn't going to win the NFC South, but it could be enough for a wild card.

10. The New York Jets (4-3). Good/Bad, Hot/Cold, meh. They are who they are. They're going to make some noise on the field. And via Rex Ryan's mouth. His swagger and bravado and such is ... well, it's entertaining as hell, but at some point you have to ask: you gonna back that up, big guy? Anyway, noise will be made. But not enough. It's probable they make the playoffs, but not much beyond that.

9. The New York Giants (5-2). I'm not at all convinced that these guys are built for the long haul, and they face an arduous stretch of games in the second half. (Pats, Niners, Philly, Saints, Packers, Dallas, Redskins, Jets, Dallas again.) However, it's pretty tough to ignore a team two games up in their division. They've been erratic at times, but the offense is putting up a very respectable 25 points a game, and the pass rush, per Giants' protocol, looks quasi-to-very dominant.

Locks. (For The Playoffs.)

8. The Buffalo Bills (5-2). This whole thing smacks of a very nice, inspiring story with an unpleasant ending. I think Ryan Fitzpatrick is a good guy to have slinging the ball around, and so far this team isn't flinching away from anything. But. They don't have the ammunition to keep this up. At least, I don't think they do. The record argues otherwise, and at some point you just have to wonder if a team has some good mojo in their corner. Buffalo might.

7. The Detroit Lions (6-2). I believe in this team. Matt Stafford, Calvin Johnson, the most fearsome defensive front in the league. They're not winning the NFC North, obviously, but they're potent enough to rattle plenty of windows in other teams' stadiums.

6. The Baltimore Ravens (5-2). The record is nice. The victories are commendable. But they seem to oscillate between good/great and mediocre. It may take the remainder of the season to figure out which it is.

5. The New Orleans Saints (5-3). Sure, they haven't looked great recently. It's a fair argument that Sean Payton's injury has affected this team as much as any injury has affected any team besides Peyton Manning's neck. Nonetheless, they still own the NFC South and they still have a huge chunk of talent. Never bet against Drew Brees.

4. The New England Patriots (5-2). Tom Brady is the best (active) QB in football. Unfortunately, the Pats lack anything resembling a competent defense, and currently rank 17th in points allowed. It's possible that Hoodie has lost a grip on his A-Game. Not likely, but possible.

3. The San Francisco 49ers (6-1). In a year where the passing game permeates and dominates everything, 'Frisco is tending to business on the ground, on both sides of the ball. Frank Gore has 675 yards and 5 TDs in 2011, and the 'Niners' D is allowing just 73 rushing yards per game. Jim Harbaugh has apparently gone nuclear with the whole "transforming the culture" routine. No one believed a team with Alex Smith under center could possibly be relevant, much less dominant, but here we are. Until events on the field prove otherwise, we have to respect the 'Niners.

2. The Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2). Honkie Kobe's squad is proving dominant this year. Sure, their defense is a little long in the tooth overall, but they still have more than enough savvy to make up for any degeneration in skills/athleticism. Every aspect of their game is solid-to-fantastic right now.

1. The Green Bay Packers (7-0). Like you were expecting anyone else in this slot. At this rate, Aaron Rodgers might want to change his touchdown ritual from "pantomime putting on the championship belt" to "pantomime hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. Again." I know that gesture might be hard to distinguish from simply thrusting one's hands in the air, but he should hire a choreographer to make it work. Jeeze these guys are good. Yes, the D "needs" to step up. Yes, the running game is averaging just under 100 YPG, when over would make them seem better. I don't care. Watching this team is like watching a wrecking ball plowing through pudding most of the time. No team has come within a field goal of beating them all year, and they show no signs of slowing down. 'Nuff said.

Here's to the second half of the season, y'all. Yee Haw!!!!!

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