What better way to close the book on the 2014 season than engaging in a little February 2015 NFL Power Rankings?
With a bevy of coaching changes made, the postseason completed and the greatest individual effort in Super Bowl history freshly etched into our memories, we thought it time to produce one final accounting of all 32 teams -- with a dash of 2015 lookahead.
Before we get to that, let's circle back to Malcolm Butler's play. Considering the game situation, the opponent and the undrafted rookie's pedigree (or lack thereof), what play in Super Sunday's glorious, 49-year history can topple the one Butler made to seal the Patriots' fourth Super Bowl victory? Even some Seahawks players marveled at his diagnosis of the underneath slant route. The jump he got on the ball represented instant recognition boosted by an adrenaline burst. Most importantly, he finished the play by catching the ball. Even Admiral Hoodie would have to admit he far surpassed merely doing his job.
Another fond memory of mine from this epic title game:
@HarrisonNFL that's my son!â Angela Summers (@AngelaBarger) February 2, 2015
We all had our favorite players as kids. Mine was Drew Pearson. But I never got to see the Dallas Cowboys wideout score a pivotal touchdown in a Super Bowl while wearing his road jersey, standing on my seat, with my Dad next to me. Shoot, I'd go for merely being able to watch a football game with my father at this point. The kid was overwhelmed, to say the least. What a cool moment. Then his mom finding me on Twitter the next day? Come on. What a really cool moment.
Hope you've cooled off since Sunday night. What an emotional ride this season -- and that game -- was. From Dez's catch/non-catch to squishy footballs to a top-flight Super Bowl, it was a postseason that won't soon be forgotten. With that, see what you think about the end-of-season Power Rankings. As always, your take is welcome: @HarrisonNFL is the place.Let the dissension commence!
Congratulations to all the Patriots fans who stuck it out after the club narrowly escaped versus the Raiders and took a beating at Arrowhead. And congrats to me for not changing my preseason Super Bowl pick! Although I will admit it was hard to stick with it after seeing how dysfunctional the offense was early this season. More importantly, let's talk defense. While totally respectful of Tom Brady, I thought the Super Bowl MVP should have gone to Malcolm Butler. He made an incredible play to win the game, and this is a rare occasion in which we can say -- without exaggeration -- that one great play really did win a Super Bowl. What a phenomenal ending. At least Brady's giving the kid his Chevy spoils.
Everyone is piling on Darrell Bevell right now. I get it: The play call was, at best, a head-scratcher, and at worst, well, the worst play call in Super Bowl history. Yet, while fully cognizant that broadcasters and fans gush over Russell Wilson, he didn't have to force that ball (although I understand what he saw as he was releasing). I couldn't help but think how many times we've seen him dart outside the pocket and either run or simply chuck it out of bounds. Live to play another down. I agree with those who felt Ricardo Lockette failed to get his body in front of the defensive back in that situation -- i.e., make that ball his. That said, it was such a bang-bang play that it's difficult to put it all on him, or Wilson. And to tell the truth, I completely get Pete Carroll's explanation for the decision to throw the ball. What a mess, though. And what an otherwise fantastic season for the Seahawks.
Anyone else wonder how many Packers fans took this Super Bowl off? Can you imagine dejected Cheeseheads deciding to attend Super Bowl parties where Prada bags and Katy Perry are bigger topics of discussion than the 3-4 and goal-line play-calling? I wouldn't blame those fans who passed. Still, a 12-4 season, another division title and an NFC Championship Game appearance is a doggone good year in the NFL. Now we all wonder if Randall Cobb sticks around.
Decisions, decisions -- well, not really. If Dallas' initial offer to DeMarco Murray is indicative of anything, it surely tells us where the Joneses fall on the do-we-sign-Dez-or-do-we-sign-DeMarco deal. Speaking of deals, here's to hoping that linebacker Sean Lee doesn't have to deal with any more injuries. If the Cowboys get him back healthy, along with sneaky-good Justin Durant, the linebacker corps could be a strength for the first time since Lee and some guy named Ware were healthy.
Yep, we have the Steelers this high. When Le'Veon Bell's healthy, this team is scary. Speaking of players who make Pittsburgh scary ... I felt Antonio Brown got the shaft in the Offensive Player of the Year voting. The guy was dangerous on punt returns, logged 129 catches (the second-highest single-season total ever) and, at times, seemed downright coverage-proof.
Sure, they looked bad in the AFC Championship Game. And I get that it was disconcerting for Colts fans to see their team fare so poorly. But at the end of the day, this club had so many injuries and challenges, particularly on defense. Also, the Ahmad Bradshaw injury was underrated in terms of importance this season. Huge loss. Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson seem to have a plan in place that works, and look no further than the team above them in these Power Rankings for an idea of how important continuity is.
Thought it classy that Bruce Arians so prominently mentioned Todd Bowles in the acceptance speech for his second AP Coach of the Year award in three seasons. Arizona's high rank here is reflective of my immense respect for Captain Kangol, as well as the fact that the spring of 2015 will bring this club something vitally important that has nothing to do with the draft or free agency: HEALTH. I think all of us are a little curious how formidable the Cardinals can be in the NFC if they don't have to play with one arm tied behind their back.
You could make the case for Baltimore to be higher, no doubt, but the AFC's No. 6 seed has several question marks. First, the departure of Gary Kubiak. Joe Flacco is used to offensive coordinator musical chairs. (He's collecting them at this point.) The larger concern is Justin Forsett and the ground game. Without that component, the Ravens probably go 7-9 in 2014. And with questions at wideout ( Steve Smith Sr.) and tight end ( Dennis Pitta), the upcoming draft is pivotal as to whether this team can keep up in the AFC North.
Maybe Lions fans, who have long been disgruntled with their ranking in these parts, will feel this 9 spot fits snugly. The tricky step in moving forward will be figuring out how the front office can bring back Ndamukong Suh without mortgaging the depth and future of this roster. Especially when you consider what an albatross Matthew Stafford's contract is, given his inconsistent play. One would hate to see Suh grow up and mature in another uniform, at a time when he is young enough to dominate but old enough to avoid being a distraction.
With all the questions surrounding Peyton Manning, I can at least answer one: The quad is fine. That's what Manning told me backstage at "NFL Honors," where he was showing support for the man who drafted him, Hall of Fame electee Bill Polian, and was completely classy. It was neat to see Peyton there for his old boss. If Manning does hang 'em up, appreciating the full breadth of his brilliant career will be difficult, mainly because he started right out of the gate -- and like Dan Marino, was outstanding in just his second year in the bigs. Speaking of second-year stars, people better appreciate C.J. Anderson. There was nothing fluky -- or Tatum Bell-esque -- about his production this past year. Couple his desire with the addition of offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, and we might be looking at a 1,350-yard campaign in 2015.
Cincinnati finished with a better record than Baltimore, and even swept the Ravens during the regular season, but at some point, this club has to do something other than fall down in the postseason. While the Ravens have proven they can compete when the lights are brightest, the Bengals have lost on Wild Card Weekend in each of the past four seasons (and five of the last six). That conversation starts with Andy Dalton, sure, but it ends with Marvin Lewis, the second-longest tenured coach in the NFL. If Lewis' squad can't take the next step, one-and-done eventually must amount to just plain done. That's the natural order of all things football.
Another year of Ryan Fitzpatrick? Re-sign a surgically repaired Ryan Mallett? Yes, questions at the game's most important position remain unanswered. However, your hack writer is far more interested in what happens when the training wheels come off Jadeveon Clowney. Call it a redshirt season for the top overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft. Paired with the almost NFL MVP, Clowney could wreak havoc on offenses in 2015. Sure, he could be a bust, too. Either way, that's more intriguing than some rookie QB or Tom savaging opposing secondaries in the preseason.
Like the Chiefs, the Panthers could use help at the wide receiver spot. They also could use a full 16 games from running back Jonathan Stewart, who ran like Jerome Bettis circa 1996 over the back stretch of 2014. Carolina will only hit the skids if the defense regresses into the dysfunctional unit it was early on this past season. Ran into Ron Rivera last week, and couldn't help but ask him if he had a place to live. The man led the Panthers to a second-half resurgence and was rewarded with an NFC South crown and a fire that nearly burned down his house. For the record, Rivera kindly and concisely said that he is indeed covered on the accommodations front. Rebuilding only applies to the Rivera family home here, as this team merely needs to retool to win the South a third straight year.
Boy, this team would be pretty good if it had a wide receiver ... [ cough] or two or three [ cough]. Hopefully the draft will be kind to Alex Smith, providing him with someone who can both catch the ball and bring said ball with him into the end zone. Of course, most talk in Kansas City these days centers on whether or not the organization will pay Justin Houston. Let's face it: He's going to command a huge salary, fresh off a 22-sack season. The guess here is the Chiefs will retain him, because if that doesn't happen, no way K.C. ranks this high.
Much chatter surrounds what the Chargers' financial future looks like with Philip Rivers in it. For my money, this team must commit to him (which GM Tom Telesco says the organization is working on). No, Rivers doesn't have a ring. Yet, when you have a top-10 quarterback who sacrifices everything to win, is still playing at a high level and wants the ball in crunch time, you pay him. And it would be really neat if we could see Rivers surrounded by some semblance of a healthy squad. The Chargers went through five centers and five tailbacks last season. Who wouldn't Woodheadbutt a wall if, every couple of weeks, they were sticking their hands under a different guy's rear and then handing the ball to a guy who barely played the week before?
Forgive me if I am rooting for Mark Sanchez to succeed. It might not be with the Eagles, but I don't think the free agent-to-be is as good as gone quite yet -- if Nick Foles were to be traded, as some have rumored, Philly would need a veteran around. Despite a poor finish, Sanchez definitely showed some flashes last season. Sometimes players need six or seven years to develop. And there is no question that Sanchez has taken more of a public beating than any beating he ever took on the field. As far as Foles is concerned, the starting gig would seem to be his, in theory -- yet fans can't help but wonder if his brilliant 2013 campaign was a mirage. The lanky quarterback missed a lot of throws early in the season. Having an offensive line with all five guys healthy would be a helluva start for whoever ends up under center. Will they draft someone? Matt Barkley? (Remember him?)
Sexy Rexy time! No, Rex Grossman won't be taking snaps -- but while we're at it, who will? Doug Marrone and the front office had the opportunity to further evaluate EJ Manuel at the end of the season, but they passed. Kyle Orton retired, Marrone opted out and now the front office has to see what the team has in the former first-round pick. Will they force new head coach Rex Ryan to evaluate Manuel longer than he wishes? Will new owner Terry Pegula push the front office to take a new quarterback? Questions in Buffalo certainly exist -- as does a kick-ass defense.
Starting to like the Falcons a lot more. They got their man in Dan Quinn, who might be The Man to turn around the woeful defense. Upgrading personnel in the front seven is obviously key, but merely altering the attitude of the overall unit could make enough of a difference so that, hypothetically speaking, Atlanta doesn't get beat 34-3 at home in the season finale with the division title on the line. Hypothetically speaking.
The fans that I've spoken with and heard from via Twitter aren't exactly stoked that Joe Philbin will be back in 2015. Miami seems to be the AFC's version of the Rams -- except the Dolphins' quarterback is healthier. Both have decent young running backs, a solid pass rush and have cornered the market on mediocre results over the last few seasons.
It's difficult to put the Vikings any higher based on their 7-9 record in 2014, but you have to like the direction in which this team is heading. Obviously the Adrian Peterson question lingers. What doesn't linger, for a change, is the quarterback situation. The early returns on Teddy Bridgewater are promising -- and if the Pepsi Rookie of the Year award doesn't do it for you, perhaps the fact that he showed poise and a sense that the pro game wasn't too big for him will.
One positive development for the disappointing Saints: After the season ended, Sean Payton unequivocally stated that there will be changes. What advantage does this team have over those listed below? Well, Payton's group had an absolutely terrible season -- which, for them, is 7-9 -- but much of the core will be back, including the head coach and Drew Brees. And having prized free-agent acquisition Jairus Byrd back, and able to contribute, will be huge for a defense that struggled mightily in 2014.
You have to feel for Jim Tomsula right now. He takes over for a man who led the 49ers to three straight NFC Championship Games, and is expected by management to lead this team back over the 8-8 hump. San Francisco might be lucky to go 8-8 this year. Aging wide receivers (if Michael Crabtree is gone), possibly no Frank Gore, possibly no Vernon Davis, no Justin Smith, and the hope that NaVorro Bowman can return to 2013 form. Oh, and then there's the unreliable Aldon Smith. Step into a slim win column, Jim.
Sam Bradford surely will be a focal point of the Rams' offseason, and a huge determinant as far as what direction the team takes at quarterback. Looking back on 2014 ... and 2013 ... and 2012 ... at some point (like now), Rams fans need to hear something besides "Boy, next year, the Rams are going to be a threat!" Of course, whether or not the majority of those fans will be living in Los Angeles in the near future is another question.
Tough season for Big Blue, no doubt, but considering the upheaval that the teams below are facing, No. 24 seems about right. This might be the last stand for the triumvirate of GM Jerry Reese, head coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning. That said, getting Victor Cruz back healthy will be a huge bonus. And the team should improve in Year 2 of Ben McAdoo's offense, at least in theory.
Big fan of Chicago's staff makeover, starting with new head coach John Fox. And the huge bonus here was landing former 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who did a whale of a job in San Francisco, leading an injury-depleted unit to a No. 5 overall ranking. The Chicago D made its present felt in 2014 about as much as Lenny Kravitz made his presence felt in the Super Bowl halftime show. Yawn.
This offseason has already started off ugly. Johnny Manziel is battling personal issues, while the personnel department is surely investigating this year's draft crop of quarterbacks. And now Josh Gordon is suspended for the year. You start looking at this organization's draft misses over the last couple years, and you get depressed real quick. "Red Right 88" suddenly seems like the good ole days.
No one knows what to make of the Redskins' future, as so much of it hinges on where Robert Griffin III is at -- physically and mentally -- going into his fourth season. Throw in the fact that it doesn't appear Jay Gruden seems to have ever had complete faith in his "franchise" quarterback, and one wonders how this marriage will play out. Another marriage that could dissolve quickly is the one between the club and Brian Orakpo, whose injuries and inconsistent play could pave his way out of town. The safety position must be addressed this offseason.
Ever so slowly, Gus Bradley's building something. Got a chance to catch up with Jags play-by-play man Frank Frangie last week. He feels the team must draft a pass rusher who will command double teams (not just be viable). Seemingly everyone thinks Bradley is a good coach -- whether or not his staff can get prime development from the 2014 first-round pick is another matter. As Blake Bortles goes, so the Jaguars go.
New coach, new GM, same old (young) quarterback. This past season was not kind to the Jets organization. Put me in the camp of people who felt it difficult to blame Rex Ryan for what went wrong. How are you going to win "Hungry Hungry Hippos" if you don't have any hippos? On to the next step -- most people I've spoken with like the Todd Bowles hire, although some wonder why the club didn't go with an offensive guy to develop Geno Smith.
Of these bottom feeders, Tampa Bay might have the most overall talent. Whether you are a Lovie Smith fan or not, he is also the most proven of the remaining front men on the bottom rungs of these here rankings. I believe Josh McCown will play better this upcoming season. Problem is, it won't be starting for the Bucs. So, which QB will Tampa Bay draft, folks? ( @HarrisonNFL). By the way, the real key to a better 2015 is improving consistency on an offensive line that was sometimes mediocre, sometimes atrocious.
Giving the Titans a small leg up here on Oakland, as they have continuity at the top and the offensive line will be back healthy. Spoke with former Titan Derrick Mason at length last week; he felt that it was difficult to judge the offense when the line had as many problems as it did. And the other thing to like here is what we saw from Zach Mettenberger. While not fantastic, the rookie quarterback outperformed fellow youngsters Geno Smith and Blake Bortles in 2014 -- and, despite my editor's impassioned shouts, he was even with Derek Carr, even if he didn't play as much.
This might seem harsh, but there are many who think GM Reggie McKenzie has earned the right to do something else for a living. Whether you're on that side of the fence or not, it is hard to argue that combining him with a head coach he has never worked with -- and a roster devoid of enough young impactful talent -- doesn't look great on Feb. 4. That said, don't put it past Jack Del Rio to turn things around if he can get a few impactful young pieces in the mix -- guys that are ready now. Latavius Murray looks to be one of those guys.
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.