The National Football League: October 7th

Power rankings are occasionally accurate, fairly natural, and often completely lacking in detail. The Browns are 20th and the Chiefs are 25th? Sweet, that tells me almost nothing. Why is one team better than the other? Why has one team failed to reach expectations? Why is a team overachieving? Power rankings generally cover none of this and instead opt to show a team’s record and a blurb about something notable about the team. Could this be less helpful to understanding a team? I get the parsimonious lure of power rankings, but here at OTC, we prefer understanding to ranking. So while in this column you will see how I rank the teams, you can be damned sure I will explain each team as best I can. I still don’t have every team figured out, but that is to be expected after four weeks of football. I’m not a fan of the numbers attached to the rankings either. Just because a team is rated 2nd doesn’t mean it wouldn’t get crushed by the 4th team. Maybe it matches up poorly or maybe there is just a player or area one team just cannot address. The lack of complexity, while easy on the eyes, is not helpful. So fasten your seatbelts, this is going to be a really long column. Oh, and because sometimes gimmicks are fun, let’s base each level of teams on the Wire, and because that would be wildly complex, let’s just do it in terms of members of the Barksdale crew (with an explanation as to make clear what I mean).

The “Dope Fiends” Group

These teams are generally just the fodder for the better teams and most closely resemble the dope fiends. They are being exploited over and over because they do not have the abilities and/or support necessary to resist. They might become an informant or cut a nice deal for themselves every once in a while, but for the most part they are there to get the short end of the stick.

The Dolphins, Rams, Vikings, Jaguars, and Chiefs are the dope fiends of the league. Matt Moore will not be any better than Chad Henne, and the Dolphins look pretty offensively challenged much of the time. That will happen when you are depending on Reggie Bush and Chad Henne to carry the load offensively. The defense just isn’t good enough to make up for those deficiencies and as a result the Fins might have a hard time winning games this year.

The Rams have looked equally hopeless, and while they are facing a difficult schedule, they seem to look bad really routinely. I admired their performance against the Redskins, who are decent, but at 0-3 at home, that is a game you probably should win if you are any good. It doesn’t get any easier either as they have to visit Green Bay after the bye. Yikes.

The Vikings are a quarterback away from being a legitimate 8-8 team. Unfortunately, Donovan McNabb’s corpse (who i believed in coming into the year) couldn’t lead the offense out of a paper bag. Hell, he is even making the immaculate Percy Harvin look mediocre. With that running game and a half-decent defense the Vikings should be winning games. They aren’t.

The Jaguars are my pick to be the team everyone realizes is terrible about two weeks too late. If Maurice Jones-Drew misses any time, are you telling me Blaine Gabbert, zero reliable receivers and an average defense is going to fare well? Hell, even with MJD< they struggle to score points. They were impressive in that week 1 manhandling of the Titans, but since then they just have not controlled the line like they did that week. Without that physical presence, they really have nothing. I would pick every team in this section to beat them.

The Chiefs were the team everyone pegged to fail hard, but few figured they would lose Eric Berry and Jamaal Charles in the first few weeks of the year. With Charles out, the offensive load falls to guys like Matt Cassel, Dexter McCluster, Thomas Jones and a handful of other guys you shouldn’t be relying on to win games. Last year, the running game turned a solid defense into a really good defense and this year that comfort is gone and the defense just doesn’t seem as good as a result. They are still somewhat dangerous at home, but the Chiefs really fell from playoffs to doldrums in style.

The Wallace & Poot Group

Why Wallace & Poot when Wallace got capped like a pawn early on? Well, because these teams don’t really suck, they just don’t really have what it takes, but do still have some redeeming qualities as a team. Are they going to make it to the top this year? Almost definitely not, but they aren’t hopeless. So what teams fit? The Colts, Broncos, Seahawks, and Panthers.

The Colts have actually impressed me this year. Yes, at 0-4 they have impressed me. The defense, which has been good since c. Week 11 2010, has looked fantastic and if it could stay healthy it would be one of the better units in the league. No, seriously. Half the points the defense gives up are the result of a turnover (usually a sack-fumble) by the offense that results in a short field. Don’t believe me? 14 of the points against the Texans were the result of that (and then it got out of hand), 6 (2 FGs) against the Browns, and in the Steelers and Bucs games, the defense got worn down from being on the field constantly. I am not saying that the Colts defense is similar to the Jets and Ravens or anything, just that they are a pretty damn good unit. The offense, on the other hand, is pretty awful and if not for the two Pierre Garcon bombs (yes, I’m aware one of them was a 5 yard pass by Painter that went for 60 or so yards), and all of TB’s penalties, that game gets out of hand quick. They aren’t good and they make that obvious, but there is a clear silver lining with this group.

I like  what the Broncos are doing. They have a very good group of WRs (Lloyd, Decker & co.), a solid offensive line, a very serviceable QB (Orton), a couple nightmares at DE (Miller & Dumervil) and a handful of other useful pieces. Injuries have played a big role this year, but if they land high in the draft (it looks like they will) and grab a couple secondary guys, maybe a stud LB and a genuine playmaker at WR to complement the solid core, this team could leapfrog the Raiders as the heirs to the Chargers throne. It will be like a mini-Lions resurgence. But for this year, we are going to just have to hypothesize about that because the Broncos are short-handed and people are going to start clamoring for Tebow any day now. The Broncos are just one of those teams you expect to play alright and lose.

As a team, the Seahawks do not have many redeeming qualities, but they have Qwest Field which means there are about 2 to 3 games they will win this year purely off home field. Ok, maybe 1 or 2 since they might finish with 5 wins total, but you get the picture. If they ever get a real QB and keep their offensive line healthy, they could be decent. Not happening this year though.

Carolina barely slips back into this group because 1) teams are going to start figuring out Cam Newton pretty soon here, and 2) a good deal of his monster production comes in garbage time while the team is already down. It isn’t like they have the lead and lose it late, they are already losing. I like Newton and barring something big, he is the OROY, but the team as a whole isn’t that good. They need maybe two more rounds of high draft picks (all of whom pan out) to really be NFC South contenders.

The Bodie Group

What makes these teams Bodie? No, they didn’t appear in a FedEx commercial. They all could be moving up in the organization if things went right, but more likely is that they will end up dead on their corner. The reason they won’t make it varies from team to team, but for now these teams are just soldiers that likely won’t make it up the ladder in the organization. The Browns, Bengals, Cowboys, Cardinals and Bears are in this group.

The Browns just aren’t quite there all-around. Their offense is alright, their defense is alright and neither unit is good enough to pick up the slack when the other unit comes up short. If they play poorly they are going to lose, and if they are going to win, it is going to be close. There is nothing wrong or abnormal with any of that, but in order to make the playoffs without any real stars, you have to be able to grind out games when you don’t have your A game. The Browns aren’t quite there yet, but I could still see them finishing with 7 or so wins though 6 is more likely. This team is moving in the right direction, they are just doing it slowly.

The Bengalsare still a mini-sleeper to finish 9-7 if the Steelers mini-demise is for real. Andy Dalton is as good as I thought he’d be (a steady rookie QB), the defense looks pretty good, and if the team could remember how to run the ball, it would go a long way towards a Cincinnati Bengals resurgence. I am not sure if I would genuinely want to watch the Bengals play on a weekly basis, but I think they can be above average with no aspirations beyond the wild card round.

Hey, let's collectively not talk about Romo's first halves, media!

The Cowboys are the team most frequently overreacted to in the media. They were sleeper Super Bowl contenders pre-season, and now they are 0-15 and just barely hanging on to hope. No, they hammered the Lions in the first half and Tony Romo was a star in the process and in the second half he had some bad turnovers. No one ever remembers the first half. Clearly, they are in this group because I doubt they will be going anywhere this year, but let’s not act like they are an unmitigated disaster. Those wins over the 49ers and Redskins look pretty good if you ask me, and close losses to the Lions and Jets are nothing to be ashamed of. This is still a 9-7 team. @NE, STL, @PHI, SEA, BUF, @WAS, MIA, @AZ, NYG, @TB, PHI, @NYG. There are 7 wins in there for a team that can stop the run and score in bunches. The team just needs a “This is my corner” moment to galvanize it a little bit. Well, without the same result as Bodie’s “This is my corner!” moment.

The Cardinals aren’t good, and neither is Kevin Kolb. That being said, they are still the 2nd best team in the NFC West and are tough to beat at home if they don’t beat themselves. This week in Minnesota should be a decent indicator of what to expect from them. Tough place to play on the road, and a very mediocre team. A decent team wins that game or makes it close and a bad team succumbs to the crowd early and never really recovers. We will get to this with the picks later.

Matt Forte is awesome and the rest of the offense is running around with no idea on how to move the ball effectively. The Bears defense and special teams are good enough to put Matt Forte, I mean the offense, in a position to win, but I can’t see a running back carrying an entire offense in this day and age. Isn’t working for Adrian Peterson in Minnesota, and while it had limited success a few years ago with Chris Johnson and is having some success with Darren McFadden right now, I can’t see a team with THAT offensive line making any real push for anything more than 8-8.

The Wee-Bey & Stinkum Group

This is admittedly my most poorly named division. I wanted good teams with flaws here, and chose a couple of muscle guys who get locked up long term who don’t even play that big a role. If not for Naymond, I probably would have forgot Wee-Bey existed. I do think the teams in this group will find themselves on lockdown late in the year. Anyway, here are the good teams with flaws.

The Falcons should be better than this. Last year’s Falcons don’t let Seattle climb back in, and last year’s Falcons didn’t give me the feeling the team’s success was hanging by a thread. They are still an excellent home team and all, but there is definitely something missing from last year. Maybe it is the struggles of the running game that is holding them back, or maybe it is the defense, but regardless I get an uneasy feeling about the Falcons. This week vs GB should be very interesting.

The Jets are suffering from a complete inability to move the ball. Mark Sanchez shoulders some blame, but so does the offensive line and a fairly tough schedule. Unfortunately for the Jets, I am not sure what else they can do. They tried going back to ground and pound but with pretty limited success. We knew they were limited on offense coming into the year, we just didn’t expect it to be this limited. Their wild card spot is very much in jeopardy.

Well the jury is still out on if the Steelers suck or not, but if Ben Roethlisberger’s foot becomes an ongoing issue, I could see them being the AFC team that just drops off the map this year. They have injury issues, suddenly have a hard time stopping the run, and only really have one legitimate receiving threat. Am I supposed to expect a team like that can win 10 or 11 games in a tough division? Are we all just giving them a break because we are so used to the Steelers being good? Injured QB + bad line that might get QB knocked out – running game = season on the brink, right?

The Eagles are almost definitely the weakest team of this group. That defense is a mess and they can’t protect the guy they just mortgaged the house for. Generally speaking, poor defense and a bad line is not a good way to win. The only guy who could pull it off was Peyton Manning and Michael Vick, while breathtaking at times, is not him. They could still figure it out and make it work, but they need to fix that defense in a hurry and find a way to keep Michael Vick off his back.

The D’Angelo Barksdale Group

D’Angelo was running a tower before he got sent down to the pit with Bodie and company. He has the slinging skills to run the big show, but here’s the question: At any point did you get the impression that D’Angelo was going to make it back up to the big leagues or with every success and good week of dealing did it become more clear he wasn’t cut out for the life and wasn’t going to ever reach the higher levels of the group? That is why these teams are here. They are pretty good, but they seem to be pretty clearly outside the title race in spite of their success.

Just not cut out for the game/contention

The Redskins have been the best team in the NFC East over the first quarter of the season, but good luck trying to sell me on the idea that Rex Grossman and a defense that is only above average will be a genuine threat beyond the wild card round. I would pick them to beat probably 65% of the league, but would be extremely hesitant to pick them against the other 35%. Their schedule looks pretty favorable so they might even sneak into the playoffs,but are nothing to really fear if you are a really solid team.

I still like the Titans to grab a wild card spot or the AFC South. Imagine what happens if Chris Johnson gets going. Missing Kenny Britt hurts, but Matt Hasselbeck has been good enough to overcome it so far and as long as that schedule stays fairly easy, the Titans could end up 10-6 or thereabouts. As long as the Soft Titans don’t make another appearance after Week 1, this is a really good team.

I am suddenly ambivalent about the Bills even though that letdown game in Cincinnati was bound to happen. The doubt has nothing to do with Ryan Fitzpatrick or Fred Jackson, but I am just not sure if the Bills have a defense worth believing in or not. Offense can get you a long way in this league, even without a defense, but in order to jump up a group and be that big threat, I need to see some defense.

So the Giants probably shouldn’t have won last week, had a sloppy win against the Rams and have a potentially brutal second half of the season. They get Seattle, Buffalo, and Miami before week 9 and then it gets ugly. I don’t know about you, but I am jumping off the Giants right after that Miami game when the Giants will likely be 5-2 and getting a lot of hype. @NE, @SF, @NO, vs GB, 2 games vs Dallas, vs PHI and vs WAS in the second half. 5-2 in weeks 1-8, 3-6 in weeks 9-17. Stay on the bandwagon for a few more weeks, but start packing your things.

The Bucs were extremely unimpressive against the Colts on Monday night, not because of the score, but because of how many penalties they committed. They took a TD off the board and racked up penalty yards and let an inferior team stick around. I like Josh Freeman, I like LeGarrette Blount, and I love that defensive line for the future, but they seem to lack a home run threat at times and they will be a 9-7 and 10-6 team with early playoff exits until they get one and fix the penalty issue. They are pretty good but there is no way you could sell me on the Bucs being NFC South champion unless there were some major injuries with the Saints. I like where the franchise is headed but for now they will have to watch the NFL’s throne.

All hail Harbaugh! The 49ers are good! While Alex Smith remains a part that needs replacing in the long run, that defense looks pretty good and coming back as a WCTECEG (West Coast Team East Coast Early Game) is commendable no matter who you are playing and they have done it twice (Eagles and Bengals). Unlike the Giants, their schedule gets a little easier as the season goes on as their NFC West games start in earnest, so this is a team that could stumble against the Bucs, Lions, and Redskins, be 4-4 going into week 10, and still finish with 10 wins. Schedule here in case you were curious. Undisputed NFC West champs right here

The Slim Charles Group

Slim wasn’t always Prop Joe’s right hand man and all-around G. Once upon a time he was just some muscle and telling Cutty that the “game’s the same, just got more fierce”. Like Slim, these teams have made a jump into potential long-term respectability and maybe even flirt with contention this year. Whether they will or not remains unclear but they are clearly very good teams that seem to be up-and-comers.

The Texans are in a tough spot without Andre Johnson, but the defense looks good, Matt Schaub looks steady, and the running game looks just as good as last year. I am not sold the Steelers win was a big deal, but if it was a loss to the Steelers, it would have been concerning, so I guess I can’t take too hard a stance on whether the Texans proved anything or not. They remain the AFC South favorites, but it just feels like we are always waiting for the other shoe to drop with the Texans. Here’s to hoping they are actually good.

Sorry, Lions fans, you aren’t getting the full out OTC seal of approval just yet. You have been fantastic so far, and your heart is admirable, but let’s not forget that you were way down against the Vikings and Cowboys before mounting your comebacks. If you were the juggernaut you seem, you wouldn’t be trailing an extremely mediocre Vikings team by 20 and you wouldn’t let teams jump on you so fast. Clearly, the Lions are really good and might even be able to withstand a Matthew Stafford injury, but if Calvin Johnson (2nd for MVP if we voted today) gets hurt the Lions are in a little trouble. I like where the defense is and I like where the passing game is, but until Jahvid Best re-appears and the Lions show they can play from ahead against a decent team, I can’t give the full approval. Really like what they have done, though, if it is any consolation.

The Raiders can run the ball really well, play a little defense and sometimes that is enough. I am still not completely sold, but if they beat the Texans this week, they have 3 winnable games and then go to San Diego in week 10 (which is followed by 3 more winnable games). The Raiders could be… 9-3 going into week 14. Wow. Here, look for yourself. You can’t see the Raiders winning 7 or 8 of their remaining games and grabbing a wild card spot? They even get the Chargers in week 17 with the division possibly on the line. I am not sure if they are quite as good as this all makes it seem, but they could get on a roll and ride it into the playoffs.

(Moments before I posted this, it was discovered that Al Davis had died. RIP to one of the great owners in early pro football even though he has become a detriment to his team over the last 10 years.)

The Stringer Bell Group

They might look like they have it figured out, and on any given Sunday they might look like the best team in football, but when push comes to shove, maybe they were never hard enough for the streets.

The Saints are probably the 2nd best team in the league, and if I had to assign only one team the label of Stringer Bell, it would be the Saints. The defense is good (though not great) and the offense is clearly one of the best in the league. Probably the 2nd most complete team in the league and they have already shown they can win in a number of ways (consider the contrast between the Texans and Bears games). Let’s not clutter this one with over-thinking, the Saints are every bit as good as you think they are.

As a Colts fan, I know to never underestimate the Patriots. I know that their defensive issues can in part be chalked up to being far ahead and letting the other team methodically move the ball. I know the Buffalo collapse wasn’t really on the defense. I know the Patriots just went on the road and dispatched the Raiders with relative ease. But maybe there is a crack in the armor? Maybe that defense really is weak and ripe for fatal flaw status. Maybe if teams shut down the outside (like the Jets will) and make them go between the tackles they will struggle. I don’t know, and they are still clearly an elite team, but I smell a crack in the armor. How do you “smell” crack in the armor? Well the Wire is based on drugs so I am sure you can find some pun in there.

The Ravens offense looked terrible against the Jets. The Ravens defense looked great, though the Jets had a substantial hand in that. I still buy the Ravens as the AFC North favorite and I still buy them as a legitimate contender, but one more Flacco game like that and I am out. If Flacco can do no better than that, this team drops down to being Slim Charles or D’Angelo.

The Chargers keep bumbling along with their early season struggles, except this time, they are winning games instead of losing them.That makes a big difference down the road when challenger A (the Raiders this year) is making it close and you could really use an extra win or two you blew earlier in the season. I still think the Chargers could run out to 12-4, 13-3 or something but it would be nice to see them play well at some point soon. If going to Denver wasn’t such a clear and obvious trap game I would be concerned but I think the Chargers will wake up for it and justify this ranking.

Avon Barksdale

The Packers are just gangstas I suppose. Even without Nick Collins and essentially without one-time-running-back Ryan Grant, no one is better than the Packers. That doesn’t mean they won’t go into Atlanta and lay an egg against a motivated team, but the Packers are clearly the best team in the NFL right now. They can’t be stopped on offense and have a really good defense, and frankly not many teams can say that honestly. The Patriots defense is pretty bad, the Ravens are somewhat limited on offense (see: Joe Flacco) and the Saints don’t have the defense the Packers have. Hell, even their special teams are good. I don’t think there is much to say about the Packers at this point except that they are the best team in the league by a comfortable margin.

Picks for the Week

Kansas City vs Indianapolis -2

The Colts defense forces a couple turnovers and hold the Chiefs to 10 points to grab their first win of the Curtis Painter era!

Crap, I can’t even fake the enthusiasm.

Arizona vs Minnesota -3

Come on Vikings, you can do it! If I keep picking you, you have to win eventually! You aren’t THAT bad, are you? Wait… you are? Um, alright I guess I will pick you anyway.

Philadelphia -3 vs Buffalo

Buffalo will be unable to exploit Philly’s deficiencies sufficiently and Andy Reid manages the clock jjust well enough to sneak by with a win.

Oakland +5.5 vs Houston

You are telling me the Raiders can’t run the ball down their throats enough to keep a team without its best overall player within 5 points? Psh.

NO -6.5 vs Carolina

Even though “Back Door Man” by the Doors is Cam Newton’s theme song, the Saints are up by 14 before Cam can comeback late.

Cincinnati +2 vs Jacksonville

All. Day. Cincinnati is alright and Jacksonville isn’t. What am I missing?

Tennessee +3 vs Pittsburgh

Give me the Titans without a second thought. Chris Johnson showed signs of life last week and the Steelers struggle with the run. If Ben get knocked out, that is only a bonus reason to make the pick.

NYG -9.5 vs Seattle

Giants roll and it gets out of hand somewhat early.

TB vs SF -3

TB comes off the Monday Night game and has to fly cross country to face a good team? 49ers, please.

NYJ +8 vs NE

So the Jets can’t shut down the outside like they did in the playoffs last year and keep this close? Sure they can.

SD -3.5 vs Denver

This one makes me nervous for the Chargers as a division rival on the road but they will take care of business.

GB vs Atlanta +6

If I didn’t have to pick this game I wouldn’t. Atlanta is really good at home and wants revenge and usually that is enough to keep it close, but I have no idea.

Chicago +5 vs Detroit

Detroit falls behind early, comes back late, wins by 3, everyone is happy.

Three team teaser? Cincy +2, Indy -2, NYG -9.5

Last Week: 11-5-0
Season: 32-28-4

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