It's hump week in pro football.
Midseason report cards are in. It's the deep breath before the plunge.
With that in mind, here are some Cliffs Notes on what's relevant when stacking up the teams before the all-important stretch run:
» Teams waiting on the most talent to return tend to be ranked higher (think: Chiefs).
» Head-to-head wins matter less (save for tiebreakers between equal-ilk teams).
» Those squads that've repeatedly excelled at this time of the year in seasons past -- and routinely hit the postseason -- are given more leeway than upstart doormats (hey, Dolphins!).
» Nothing makes sense anymore.
» The top 12 teams don't necessarily represent the playoff field every week. We all know the third-best team in the AFC West could squash Houston. (Because it already happened.)
Now, on to your thoughts ...
Now, that's some solid psycho-strategy, compliment-before-you-suggest-your-desire-is-consistent-with-my-behavior, NLP, Twitter non-trolling guidance if I've ever heard it. These aren't the droids you're looking for ...
You told me you used to play for them. 500 times. #muchlove
Yep, Raider talk consumed 90 percent of my Twitter timeline. And I have to say, the NFL really is better when the Raiders are relevant. How relevant?? See how things shake out below. Your thoughts are always welcome: @HarrisonNFL is the place.
Let the dissension commence!
NOTE: The lineup below reflects changes from our Nov. 1 Power Rankings.
The top team in football didn't move after its bye week, although the 7-1 Patriots didn't stay out of the news last week, either. We'll see how defensive coordinator Matt Patricia schemes up the defense sans Jamie Collins. Remember when Chandler Jones got dealt, and he called Bill Belichick to thank him for not trading him to "a crappy team"? Crappy team, meaning, THE BROWNS. Yep, pretty sure Collins didn't make that same phone call.
The engine keeps on humming nice and smooth. The Cowboys entered Week 9 as the only team in the NFL that had run more than passed, almost unheard of in today's pro football. And you know what? The mixture didn't change in Cleveland. Dallas ran the football 42 times versus 28 throws, a recipe I'm sure Jason Garrett would like to keep up in Pittsburgh on Sunday. That said, Ezekiel Elliott "only" rushed for 92 yards. He also averaged 5.1 yards per carry. Oh, and scored two touchdowns.
Great googly moogly, the AFC West is strong, but who are the Chefs? The only team that has a perfect record (2-0) within the division, that's who. K.C. already has taken down both the Chargers and Raiders this season. While the five-point win over the Jaguars didn't impress everybody, it sure as heck should have. Kansas City won without Alex Smith (out for the entire game), Jamaal Charles (out for the entire game), Spencer Ware (out for the entire game), Jeremy Maclin (injured in the first half) and Travis Kelce (ejected early in the fourth quarter). Here's hoping Kelce saves the whining over calls for his dating show going forward.
Statement win for a Falcons team that inexplicably has struggled against the Buccaneers in the last couple of years. In fact, Atlanta's worst performance this season, hands down, came against Tampa Bay back in Week 1. Dan Quinn's group kicked off Week 9 last Thursday with a blowout win where the unusual suspects chipped in: Tight ends Levine Toilolo and Austin Hooper, fullback Patrick DiMarco and wideout Taylor Gabriel combined to rack up 10 catches for 131 yards and -- most importantly -- three touchdowns. I don't think Toilolo's own family started him in fantasy last week.
After much haranguing on Twitter, I have indeed placed the Raiders in my top five. Actually, I was ready to put them there with a win over the Broncos -- the only question was whether they'd jump the Falcons or not. The Raiders own the better record, but they were beaten by Atlanta -- in Oakland. Both offenses are outstanding, with each quarterback being an MVP candidate. Neither team's defense has played viably enough to hoist the Lombardi, at least to this point. On that note, how does this club compare with the 1983 L.A. Raiders -- the last team in franchise history to win it all? We'll save that for next week's Power Rankings, because Derek and the boys are off this coming weekend.
Tremendous battle in the Pacific Northwest on Monday night, as the Seahawks outlasted the Bills in a game that featured a first half full of dynamic plays and a second-half war of attrition. Both ballclubs were dealing with health issues (translation: depth issues) aplenty. Russell Wilson still didn't look right to me physically, particularly on his touchdown scamper. What Richard Sherman pulled on that field-goal attempt didn't sit right -- with the Bills, and a bunch of folks watching the game. Is it "all's well that ends well" for Seahawks fans (i.e., a Seattle win)? Or did any 12s think it was a cheap shot? Seeking the unbiased response here: @HarrisonNFL.
No Aqib Talib, no Broncos defense. At least not as we know it. The whole secondary plays differently with Talib in the mix -- especially if Kayvon Webster is available, allowing Denver to play man if need be and use extra personnel against the run. Meanwhile, Bradley Roby has been stellar, but at this stage of his young career, he's no Talib. Not sure why Roby, down 10 points and with a blitz on (meaning Derek Carr had to get rid of the ball quickly) gave Amari Cooper a free first down via a 10-yard cushion. The Raiders likely would have prevailed anyway, but that was the game!
Wow. Just wow. No way you thought Matt Stafford could navigate the Lions into field-goal territory with 23 seconds remaining and no timeouts, right? Granted, it was looooooong-range territory, but hey -- the franchise QB did it. Give Matt Prater a ton of props, too, as his 58-yard field goal looked like it would have been good from 68. Maybe these aren't the "same old Lions." Well, actually, they did look pretty Lionsy when four guys -- yes, four -- went to cover Matt Asiata out of the backfield on third-and-goal, leaving Kyle Rudolph all alone in the end zone. ("Lionsy" was my editor's suggestion. I think I like it. Scott Mitchell = Lionsy.)
That's why teams elect to pay big money to make over one side of the ball in free agency. Or, at least, that's why the Giants spent mucho dinero on the unit that doesn't salsa dance after scores. Steve Spagnuolo's defense wasn't perfect Sunday, but the clutch end-game save -- along with a pair of fourth-down stops in the first half -- won the contest for Big Blue. On another note, nice to see Sterling Shepard get involved in the offense again, especially on the easy pitch-and-catch that gave the Giants a two-score lead in the third quarter.
Well, Doug Pederson must've heard the complaints about him being a Conservative Connie (in a football sense, not politically). A week after taking heavy criticism for not stepping on the gas pedal in Dallas, Pederson played to the masses and went for it on two key fourth downs in the first half ... and got stuffed on both. At least his special teams unit made up for it by allowing a blocked field goal on another first-half possession. Those empty trips to the Giants' side of the field cost the Eagles the game. Is it just me, or do Carson Wentz and Jordan Matthews often seem to not be on the same page?
This one stings. The Pat Shurmur offense barely murmured in the first half. The special teams botched an extra point and had a field goal blocked. And yet, the Vikings fought back, #skol-ing their way to a lead, with a great chance to win in the fourth quarter. All they had to do was stop Matt Stafford from moving the ball 35 yards in less than 23 seconds, with the top scoring defense in the league, the home crowd screaming its lungs out and the Lions having no timeouts. This loss could be one that keeps Mike Zimmer's suddenly reeling squad home in January.
In case you didn't know, the Packers are tied with the Pats for the longest active postseason streak -- both teams have made the playoffs in seven straight seasons. At this point, though, that streak is in jeopardy for the Pack. Green Bay's next three games are all on the road -- and while none of the three are against world-beaters ( Titans, Redskins, Eagles), can you say Mike McCarthy's group is a heavy favorite over anyone right now? Granted, three of the Packers' four losses were to the Vikings, Cowboys and Falcons. But Sunday, they fell to a sub-.500 Colts team at Lambeau. Can the squirrel play tailback?
Before their Week 9 bye, the
Cardinals got an opportunity in Carolina
to see why they stink. Something they've
been able to do twice in a calendar year! #samesies
Arizona does not enjoy a cupcake schedule going forward. Sure, the Cards get the 49ers at home this week, but then it's on the road to Minnesota and Atlanta. Also, Bruce Arians' Kangol will find itself in Seattle and Los Angeles ( a team Arizona already lost to) to close out the season. At the very least, the Cardinals need to beat San Francisco and split against the Vikings and Falcons to stay in both the division and wild-card races.
The Brock bashing has abated a bit. Amazing what winning will do, eh? The 5-3 Texans are coming off their bye carrying a lead in their division and plenty of question marks. Of course, those Qs start at QB. Despite logging the recent victory over the Lions, Osweiler has been far from brilliant (see: 186 yards passing on 29 attempts -- ugh). Then there is the disappearance of Will Fuller, who began the season with consecutive 100-yard receiving performances ... but has posted a grand total of 161 yards since. Or, put another way, he's no longer in the running for OROY. Spoiler alert.
Another of the bye teams from Week 9. I don't know what Josh Norman did on his off week (besides work his second gig, the Fox NFL Sunday pregame show). Fishing, partying, maybe an evening at Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament? (Would he have sat in the red-and-yellow knight's section? Never mind.) No matter what the Redskins' best corner did, here's hoping he was able to get his mind off London. Not the city, but some of the penalty calls. The Redskins need him playing at his highest level. He's got Diggs, Jordy and Dez coming up back-to-back-to-back.
Philip Rivers is the franchise. Joey Bosa? Defensive Rookie of the Year. Antonio Gates is probably headed to the Hall of Fame someday. And Casey Hayward continues to come up with picks for John Pagano's defense. All that said, the bad@$# on the field Sunday was Melvin Gordon. The dude runs his tail off and doesn't look anything like the "tentative Wisconsin running back" narrative we heard all last season. Two-hundred sixty-one yards from scrimmage and a touchdown.
Jay Ajayi didn't put the team on his back this week. The Dolphins' defense and special teams took care of that for him. So many important plays to circle in Miami's division win over the Jets, with none bigger than Kenyan Drake's 96-yard return TD to immediately answer New York's go-ahead score late in the fourth quarter. After stumbling around the 25, the rookie out of Alabama exploded around the 35-yard line to take it to the house. Or maybe it was the 40 ... or 45. I've watched it three times. The dude is running so fast, for the life of me, I can't tell where he turned it on. Oh, Ajayi rushed for a "quiet" 111 yards. Not bad.
"You're too good a player to act like an ass." That's what Rex Ryan recalled saying to Richard Sherman after the cornerback gave the coach a staredown following a third-quarter pick. I imagine there was a handful of "colorful" words Ryan left out that would require a few symbols from me. Here's the bottom line from Buffalo's loss (and the explanation for the plummet down these rankings): This ballclub needs a bye week like no other team in football. Fortunately, the Bills are getting one right now! Losing Eric Wood is huge. And imagine what Tyrod Taylor could do with a healthy Sammy Watkins running around out there. Back to Sherman: Interesting that he mean-mugged Ryan after an admittedly clutch pick. Maybe Sherman was metaphorically saying, "You see, Rex, I can get a pick off of your quarterback, just like I can pick off your kicker."
"It's always good to beat your division rivals, but what does it mean if we drop it Thursday? It means s---."
-- Terrell Suggs, on the win over the Steelers and the forthcoming game vs. the Browns, to the assembled media in Sunday's postgame presser.
T-Sizzle was more focused than elated in the postgame, clearly not taking the bait on overplaying the Ravens' big division win. Suggs and everyone else saw this team start 3-0, only to drop four in a row. Back to Sunday's win: Watching Joe Flacco hop around with that knee brace dangling must've made every fan in Baltimore take a very large gulp. I mean, his knee briefly appeared to resemble Igor's inconsistent hump in "Young Frankenstein." If that reference is too dated for you, think about the head orc's face in "Return of the King." Flacco is fine.
All the talk about the heroic return of Ben Roethlisberger resulted in two first downs through the first three quarters and change versus the Ravens. Pittsburgh's offense looked awful. The special teams might have been worse, with a blocked punt and a ... and a ... a ... what do you call that thing Chris Boswell attempted? The behind-the-foot, no-look onside kick resulted in the football laying on the Baltimore turf like a dog turd. A turd with a yellow flag nearby. Next up: Dallas. That ought to be interesting. Try another one of those kicks. Maybe Boswell can teach Dan Bailey how to do it.
Bengals moved down, even on a bye, due to a formidable defensive showing by the Ravens and the Dolphins' third straight win. While Cincy bested the latter earlier in the season, Marvin Lewis' group is 1-2-1 over its last four games. Cincinnati appears to be heading straight to the proverbial 8-8 finish -- although with the tie, that won't be possible. (How about 7-7-2?) If last year's division champs are to repeat, then the Steelers losing was a good start. Like Cincy's chances of catching Baltimore better than catching Pittsburgh, especially considering the Bengals already lost at Heinz. I've heard many people point to Hue Jackson's departure from the offensive coordinator role being a reason for the lackluster campaign. That thought is not without merit; last year, the Bengals scored the seventh-most points in the league. This year? 21st, just like their ranking.
Tell you what: That Michael Thomas can play. The third-most-famous rookie out of Ohio State this year is making his mark, particularly in the red zone. Thomas is on pace for 1,146 yards and 10 touchdowns. Ezekiel Elliott is Emmitt Smith-ing the NFL and Joey Bosa looks like J.J. Watt's mini-me, while Thomas flies under the radar. Kind of like this Saints team, which, at 4-4, is just a half-game out of the wild card.
Pro football games are won on third down -- an axiom all too evident in Indy's win at Lambeau. In a contest no one expected the Colts to take (including your hack writer), they played fantastic defense and special teams -- mixed with some big-time second-half plays from quarterback Andrew Luck -- to beat the favored Packers. Of note are the two third-down conversions on the drive to kill the clock. On third-and-10, Luck avoided a sure sack from Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to hit undercover agent Jack Doyle for a first down. Then, on third-and-2, Luck lofted a ball right into T.Y. Hilton's tummy 27 yards downfield. Ballgame.
What a weird deal in San Diego on Sunday. Derrick Henry hurt himself in pregame warmups, so Tennessee couldn't get the "exotic smashmouth" going early. Marcus Mariota stunk. ... Then the offense picked up the pace, pulling off a quick-strike score at the end of the first half. On the opening drive of the second half, Tennessee went fast-paced again, throwing it all over the joint. Right when you thought the Titans were on their way, former No. 2 overall pick Marcus Mariota started playing like former No. 2 overall pick Ryan Leaf. Ahh, cookies. Next up: Packers, at home.
Cam Newton spoke with the commissioner and, almost on cue, got rocked again by Mark Barron. For his part, Newton does trust his size and strength enough to allow him to hold the ball to the last second. But against that Rams front, yeesh -- not the best idea. (Although, it was a safety-turned-linebacker who delivered the biggest blow.) The important thing coming out of Los Angeles was the improved play of the secondary. At 3-5, Carolina needs the Falcons to lose in Philly on Sunday. And lose a few more after that.
Another loss for the Rams, and another week of punchless offense. Los Angeles gained 339 yards against the Panthers, but a chunk of that came on a last-gasp drive while down 10 points. When it mattered, Jeff Fisher's group could not convert a third down, which means we will all hear 25 hours of Jared Goff talk -- precisely 24:55 more than we want to hear. If the Rams aren't going to play the rookie or Sean Mannion, maybe they should play left-handed Case Keenum. That guy went 1 for 1 on Sunday.
Nice of the Bucs to save their fans the stress and heartache of another overtime game. Getting blown out certainly did more for the well-being of some of those fans in Central Florida. One week after letting Derek Carr throw for 513 yards and four touchdowns, these Bucs battened down the hatches at the bog pirate ship Thursday night, limiting Matt Ryan to just 344 yards ... and four more touchdowns. At least they were giving up scores to All-Pros ... like Levine Toilolo, Austin Hooper and Patrick DiMarco. #householdnames
It was a bye week in Chicago, which was pure genius from the schedule-makers. Why ruin the city's week-long party celebrating the Cubs' World Series win with the inevitable Bears letdown? You don't want some poor dude throwing up an Italian beef sandwich on his Jerome Walton Rookie of the Year T-shirt when Cutler pulls a Cutler. Hey, Jay looked damn skippy in Week 8, though. It doesn't take Leon Durham's glasses to see that this Chicago team is better than it was one month ago. Next up: at Tampa Bay. That's a win. Da Bears.
Third-and-2 ... Dolphins' ball just inside of the Jets' 7-yard line ... Miami leading 17-13. Ryan Tannehill drops back and immediately pivots right, looking to dump the ball off to running back Jay Ajayi. Rookie linebacker Jordan Jenkins reads it perfectly, peeling off the right tackle's block, stepping right in front of Tannehill's telegraphed lob. Nothing but 85 yards and a Gang Green lead in front of him. Kerplunk. Then, trailing 20-16, the Jets have the ball on third-and-8 and inside the red zone. Ryan Fitzpatrick lofts a 50-50 ball where two guys are waiting. The only issue: Neither was a Jet. One missed turnover, one costly turnover. Annnnnd the Jets are 3-6.
There is something inherently wrong when a football team can't beat an opponent that's missing its QB1, RB1, RB2, WR1 and TE1. Seriously? Sure, the Jaguars kept it close, but the offense bumbled and stumbled its way through most of the day. Blake Bortles tossed one pick and could've had more. Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon both fumbled the ball away. So even though Jacksonville put up 449 yards, the Jaguars found creative ways to negate most of it. Jags fans must have thrown their Tony Brackens bobblehead through at least two LCDs and a Plasma by now.
The 49ers finally saw what they were hoping for from Colin Kaepernick on Sunday, as the oft-discussed, oft-criticized quarterback threw for 398 yards and two touchdowns against New Orleans. Granted, he was playing the Saints. But as a team, San Francisco racked up more than 486 yards on offense and still lost by three scores. Hey, give them credit -- that's hard to do. It's going to be a dawgfight with the Browns for the No. 1 overall pick.
While we're on the subject, the most fight the Browns employed on Sunday was from Cameron Erving, who went all Adonis Creed on Cowboys defensive lineman David Irving. In a related vein, the last time Cleveland toppled Dallas was in Irving, Texas, back in 1994. The late, great Eric Turner stopped Jay Novacek just short of the goal line in a game that ultimately sent the Browns to the playoffs. Anyone remember that? (@HarrisonNFL) Red-zone defense was a problem Sunday, as Dallas went 3 for 3 in the RZ. Make that 4 for 4. Wait, make that 4 for 5. Yeah, I was typing this blurb while watching the second half. Cleveland did finally stop the Cowboys inside the 20 ... when Mark Sanchez knelt down in victory formation. # Browns.
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.