Welcome to Quarters Coverage, a monthly NFL abstract of power rankings, awards and essential information. It’s like your elementary school report card, except there are no boxes for “speaks in a pleasing and appropriate tone” or “plays well with others,” which is a good thing, because I don’t and won’t.
The following power rankings are based upon hours of tape study and statistical analysis, strength of schedule, Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings (which are based on every single play of the season, not just the overtime field goals) and the opinions of both national experts and the voices in my head. I welcome all emails to the effect of, “The Rams beat the Seahawks and, therefore, should be ranked higher than the Seahawks so you are either a Seahawks fan or some fat idiot who knows nothing about football.” I will write back assuring you that I am not a Seahawks fan.
1. 49ers (6-2): By now, you have heard Sweet Jimmy Harbaugh’s White Meat Rant about the “jive turkey gobblers” who questioned Alex Smith’s confidence. ESPN dutifully counted down the 10 best NFL coaching rants in history, but it is easy to scream about crowns or playoffs after a loss. It takes a true visionary to reference both Shaft and Adam Sandler’s “Thanksgiving Song” after a lopsided victory. All gobbling aside, the Niners’ defense is exceptional, the Smith-led offense is dynamic, and David Akers’ kicking reliability is just gravy. Or, as forever-deactivated running back Brandon Jacobs might say, “did I hear coach say something about turkey?”
2. Giants (6-2): Last-minute victories over the Redskins and Cowboys give the Giants a tiebreaker boost and fans something to cheer about. A blown 23-point lead against the Cowboys and a sloppy overall performance against the Redskins give Tom Coughlin something to growl about. Everybody wins.
3. Broncos (4-3): The Texans are the only team to gross more than 220 passing yards against the Broncos this season, which is remarkable for a team that has faced Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers. Well, maybe not so remarkable when facing Philip Rivers these days.
4. Falcons (7-0): The team that is so overrated that they are underrated that they are overrated will start looking like conference champion contenders as soon as they dry out from Sunday’s deluge in South Philly.
5. Packers (5-3): The Packers try to generate big plays from a) Aaron Rodgers’ passing, b) Clay Matthews’ pass rushing, and c) Tim Masthay’s electrifying fake field-goal capabilities. They should replace item c) as soon as possible.
6. Bears (6-1): On pace to join the elusive 50-50 club: 50 sacks generated on defense, 50 sacks allowed on offense. One of these accomplishments is a reason to be proud.
7. Patriots (5-3): The team got stranded in London because of Hurricane Sandy after its 45-7 drubbing of the Rams. The Rob Gronkowski-Prince Harry hot tub runneth over.
8. Texans (6-1): Were halfway through their bye week before they realized the Ravens game was over. J.J. Watt apologized to Haunted Hayride organizers for mistaking a scarecrow for Joe Flacco.
9. Ravens (5-2): John Harbaugh will bring cassette tapes of “Sounds of Baltimore” on road trips to convince the team that they are still sleeping at home. Tapes include crabs getting shucked, snippets of dialogue from “The Wire”, Preakness spectators vomiting and music by Baltimore’s seminal recording artist um … er … Frank Zappa lived there as a kid, right?
10. Seahawks (4-4): The NFL’s answer to a Sweet 16 basketball team: You can tune in with two minutes left in the game and miss nothing, and the game isn’t over until the three-pointer at the buzzer.
11. Dolphins (4-3): The Seahawks of South Beach: solid defense, a running back who has achieved redemption, a dynamic-but-inconsistent rookie quarterback, an in-division powerhouse they are unlikely to catch. All they need now is some funky reflective trim on their uniforms.
12. Steelers (4-3): Horizontal stripes make them look wider, which really helps in pass protection.
13. Vikings (5-3): The skill position talent is like a vintage “Saturday Night Live” cast. There are three memorable performers (Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, Kyle Rudolph) and some one-gag guys whose routines have already gotten stale (Jerome “Flippy Guy” Simpson, Michael “I’m a blocker, yeah, that’s the ticket” Jenkins).
14. Lions (3-4): Matthew Stafford has three rushing touchdowns. Calvin Johnson has one receiving touchdown. The Madden Curse moves in mysterious ways: We are now cursed to watch Matthew Stafford run.
15. Redskins (3-5): Team is becoming a Disney Channel pre-teen comedy: two smart, capable kids surrounded by bumbling, clueless adults. Instead of Griffin and Morris, their backfield’s jerseys should read Phineas and Ferb.
16. Buccaneers (3-4): Josh Freeman has thrown 14 touchdowns and just five interceptions. A few more good games, and we may have to include him in the national quarterback discussion. Poor guy.
17. Jets (3-5): Attempt to manufacture a rivalry with the Dolphins looked pathetic, then backfired. But that won’t stop them. Coming soon: “The Disrespecting of Antonio Cromartie by that Cowardly Seahawk, Richard Sherman” … right after “Bye Week, what the hell you lookin’ at?”
18. Cowboys (3-4): Stadium clock operator tried to help the Cowboys beat the Giants by “sticking” the game clock at one second to give the home team an extra play. He should have stuck it at 1992.
19. Saints (2-5): Defense makes Josh Freeman look like Peyton Manning and Peyton Manning look like the 2004 Peyton Manning. When Drew Brees faces these guys in practice, he must glow.
20. Raiders (3-4): Winning back-to-back Jaguars and Chiefs games is like attending one of those “Achieve Your Full Potential” seminars at the airport Radisson. You come out brimming with optimism and confidence, then realize all you did was blow a lot of money on instructional cassettes and are still stuck with an offense built around rollout passes to Brandon Myers and 50-yard field goals.
21. Cardinals (4-4): If you missed the Cardinals’ Monday night performance against the 49ers because of a massive power outage, then you have something in common with the Cardinals’ offense.
22. Eagles (3-4): There is something discomforting about seeing a coach with 14 years of experience flailing about in desperation. It’s a little like discovering that your father’s “important job at the bank” involves dressing as a giant turkey and holding a sign that says “3.25% Home Equity Loans Now Thru Thanksgiving.”
23. Panthers (1-6): Steve Smith Slipped is a great name for an indie band, a magazine essay about the rise and sudden rise and decline of Cam Newton, or a populist response to “Atlas Shrugged.”
24. Chargers (3-4): The San Diego Union-Tribune reported on Monday that Dean Spanos is frustrated and considering a coaching change. (This power-ranking blurb has been cut and pasted for so long that it was first typed in WordStar.)
25. Rams (3-5): The exchange rate right now is 1 U.S. Touchdown = 0.77 Euro Touchdowns. So really, the Rams lost to the Patriots 58-9.
26. Bengals (3-4): Early in the season, the Bengals were a great first-half team that got flat and sloppy in the third quarter. The quest for consistency can take a team in two very different directions.
27. Colts (4-3): The Colts are minus-10 in takeaways, have been outscored 136-171, and yet are somehow over .500, despite a loss to the Jaguars. Figuring out why will require careful study of the Colts-Titans game tape, so … whoops! Did the power go out? (flickering light switch) I think the power just went out (taking a hatchet chair to the fuse box). Oh well, some things are meant to remain a mystery.
28. Titans (3-5): Team insists that Jake Locker will be the quarterback of the future. Future demands a say in the matter.
29. Browns (2-6): After Sunday’s 7-6 win over the Chargers, Brandon Weeden said, “I haven’t had a game like that since ’06 when I was with the Royals.” We have been over this before, Brandon: Stop going Old Hoss Radbourn on us and bringing up your pitching career from six years ago. And your need to survive on 7-6 wins in both sports, for that matter.
30. Bills (3-4): Defense spent the bye week trying to figure out how it can play the Cardinals again.
31. Jaguars (1-6): Going exactly as far as an offense based on the receiving talents of Cecil Shorts and Guy Whimper can take them.
32. Chiefs (1-6): Team’s computers crash as Scott Pioli, Romeo Crennel and Matt Cassel try to open LinkedIn accounts simultaneously.
These awards are based on performance in the last three or four games, not the whole season.
Offensive Player: Aaron Rodgers, Packers. Rodgers has 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions in his last three games, including his six-touchdown effort to hand the Texans their first loss of the year. With the Packers’ running game deteriorating again into a “take handoff and fall forward” affair (Alex Green is averaging 2.1 yards per carry, with far too many carries, in his last two games), Rodgers needs to recreate his 2011 heroics just to keep pace with the Bears.
Defensive Player: Jason Pierre-Paul, Giants. JPP had two sacks and a defensed pass against the 49ers, a sack and a forced fumble against the Redskins, and a sack and a pick-6 against the Cowboys. Some of his most exciting plays are the ones he doesn’t make, like when he stops one step short of sacking Tony Romo, then turns and chases down a running back who had a 10-yard head start.
Rookie of the Quarter (non Robert Griffin edition): Alfred Morris, Redskins. Griffin has been kicked off the rookie team for not being rookie-y enough. His teammate can pick up the slack, though: Morris rushed for 115 yards against the Falcons and 120 yards against the Giants, adding a solid 59-yard effort against the Steelers. As mentioned above, Redskins games can look like Griffin and Morris against the world when the receivers drop passes and defensive backs blow coverage. When Redskins veterans start talking in the clubhouse, the rookies should reach for the headphones.
Comeback Player of the Quarter: Chris Johnson, Titans. Johnson takes a lot of kidding around here, but he has rushed 58 times for 385 yards and two touchdowns in the last three games. He will always be a boom-or-bust runner, but in September it seemed that we would never hear another boom.
Surprise: The Dolphins. Close wins against the Bengals and Rams are one thing. A 30-9 victory behind a backup quarterback over a team that wants to make Sloppy Joes out of your running back is another. The Dolphins defend the run well, generate sacks and turnovers on defense, play great special teams, and do little things well. Reggie Bush and Danny Thomas give them a solid running game, and Ryan Tannehill makes just enough big plays to offset his inexperience. Forget the South Beach Seahawks: The Dolphins are what the Jets thought they were. No wonder there is such hostility.
Disappointment: The Bengals. Losses to the Dolphins and Browns proved that the Bengals don’t belong in the AFC wild card tier. The loss to the Steelers just proved that they are still the Bengals. Come to think of it, there isn’t really an AFC wild card tier right now, is there? Let’s explore that in the next segment.
Five Bold Predictions for the Third Quarter of the Season
1. The AFC quagmire will get even murkier. Right now, the Patriots, Texans and Broncos appear poised to walk away with their divisions, and the Steelers and Ravens will again split the AFC North title and the top wild card seed. So who claims the second wild card slot? Right now, the candidates are unimpressive. The Dolphins have their moments but have a lot of tough games coming (Patriots twice, Seahawks, 49ers). The Colts are maxed out as a .500 overachievers. The Bengals cannot get traction, the Jets’ implosion was delayed but not canceled, and teams like the Raiders, Bills and Chargers need to do more than occasionally beat each other. When we meet again in four weeks, we may be looking at some weak AFC teams that are 6-5, some stronger ones that are 5-6, and a sad race to see who gets to go to Denver or Pittsburgh in January and get clobbered.
2. Thursday Night Will be Renamed “Exposure Night.” Four weeks ago, the Rams brought an end to the Cardinals’ tightrope-without-a- quarterback-net routine. Two weeks ago, Russellmania took a breather in Seattle as the 49ers showed the Seahawks the difference between a great defense and a 20-foot high concrete wall. Last week, the Buccaneers showed the Vikings that peskiness only goes so far. Thursday Night Football games don’t look great on the schedule, but they have had tremendous come-uppance value. They are also easier to watch since NFL Network did the world a favor and got rid of the creepy bearded guy in the blue suit. Coming soon: The Jaguars sweep the Cinderella rug from the Colts, and the Bills take the Dolphins down to the bottom of Lake Erie with them.
3. Nick Foles, Eagles starting quarterback. Scent of Desperation, air freshener in Eagles headquarters.
4. Titles Will Be Transferred. New Browns owner Jimmy Haslam will ask reporters to stop referring to him as a “truck stop magnate,” fearing that the title conjures an unflattering image of getting rich off overpriced gasoline and stale cinnamon buns. Next month, he will ask reporters to stop referring to him as “Browns owner” for similar reasons.
5. Respect Will Be Deferred. The Bears will win a game in which they allow nine sacks, the Packers will win a game in which they rush for eight yards, the Patriots will win a game in which they allow 450 passing yards, the Giants will win a game after blowing a 27-point lead, and the 49ers will win a game 24-20 on the strength of eight 22-yard David Akers field goals, all in the same week. The lead story for the week: “Why the Falcons are overrated.”
Five Stories to Bury in the Second-Quarter Time Capsule
1. “Hot Sauce” is a Hate Word. Folks, it’s a slippery slope from a safety saying he wants Reggie Bush to “feel” the impact of a tackle and a defensive coordinator offering free soft serve to the defender who puts the opposing quarterback in the Mutter Museum of Medical Oddities. It’s also a slippery slope between making alarmist slippery slope arguments on the Internet and being one of those unhinged people who hands out conspiracy leaflets 200 feet from the courthouse steps. Everything is a slippery slope, which is why it is best to keep both feet firmly planted on the ground.
2. Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley are the Original Odd Couple. I have hammered away on this story as badly as anyone, because the image of Haley ranting like a character in “Seven Psychopaths” while Big Ben slips an old Bruce Arians game plan into Antonio Brown’s locker is hysterical. But we have now entered the “closed ranks” period, in which everyone claims the rift between quarterback and coordinator is overblown, and Big Ben claims he loves throwing 14 screen passes per game. Veteran Haley watchers will tell you that this is just the calm before the storm, but the East Coast learned this weekend that the calm before the storm is a great time to get other things done. So let’s give these guys a few weeks off. In the meantime, we return to our regular sloppy Steelers autumn wins, already in progress.
3. Chargers Chill Pills. Side effects may include headaches, nausea, public relations tone-deafness, fatalism.
4. Recuse Yourself. There is something hypnotic and fascinating about the bounty saga as it descends into increasingly microscopic fractal dimensions of legal minutiae, with the league appealing the players’ motion to recuse Paul Tagliabue from hearing the appeals of suspensions that were revised after the previous appeals. Soon, we will be appealing the right to postpone the hearing to appeal the recusal of the arbiter of the appeal of the selection of the previous arbiter. Wait, we may technically already be there.
5. Political Advertising. We interrupt this exciting football game -- which is a rare chance for families, friends and neighbors with wildly different world views to share each other’s company -- to viciously attack some politician for subscribing to an ideology (one probably shared by just about half the viewership) that is dangerous and anti-American because it is slightly different from our own. This advertisement will not persuade any undecided voters, but will create a toxic, divisive environment in sports bars and family rooms across the nation, destroying the celebratory mood hard-working citizens need so badly to create and cherish during their dwindling hours of leisure time. This message was paid for by the American Public and idealism itself.