Welcome to Quarters Coverage, a monthly NFL abstract of power rankings, awards and essential information. It's like your monthly energy bill, except that you don't look at it and wonder who was running the air conditioner during 55-degree days in late October, or why you're being charged for those five days when the power was out.
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 81-yard touchdowns after the running back was flattened) and the opinions of both national experts and the voices in my head. I welcome all emails to the effect of, "The Giants crushed the 49ers and, therefore, should be ranked higher than the 49ers, so you are either a 49ers fan or some fat idiot who knows nothing about football." I will write back assuring you that I am not a 49ers fan.
1. 49ers (8-2-1): A comprehensive breakdown of the 49ers-Saints game tape revealed the following critical scouting information: Alex Smith frowned on the sideline six times, grimaced four times, clapped five times, smiled three times and got the faraway "this is not happening" look a league-record 24 times (shattering Drew Bledsoe's mark in 2001). Also, the 49ers play outstanding defense or something.
2. Patriots (8-3): They're not running up the score. They are making sure Daniel Fells gets plenty of reps in place of Rob Gronkowski on the extra-point team.
3. Giants (7-4): Nutritious, filling, unflavored oatmeal for the football fan's soul.
4. Broncos (8-3): We took a lot of heat here at Quarters Coverage for ranking the Broncos third a month ago. Well, take a look at them now! Doubt our laser-accurate rankings at your own peril! (Please, for the love of all that is sacred, do not go back into the archives and find the dozens and dozens of inaccurate, embarrassing and downright silly predictions that surround this somewhat accurate one. Let the author have this one, fleeting triumph. Thanks - ed.)
5. Texans (10-1): Two hours, 25 minutes, and 38 seconds of football in a five-day stretch in late November: The only people working harder than the Texans were in retail.
6. Ravens (9-2): Little Ray has been promoted to Big Ray. Bernard Pierce has been promoted to Little Ray. Washington D.C. has been renamed "greater Baltimore" to give the Ravens a four-game homestand in December. Jacoby Jones remains "Smoove J.J."
7. Falcons (10-1): The running game is still a cause for concern. Jacquizz Rodgers is taking carries away from Michael Turner, giving the Falcons a back who hits the non-hole much faster.
8. Bears (8-3): Mike Tice demoted two offensive line starters before the Vikings game, then inserted third-stringer Edwin Williams and moved Gabe Carimi to guard during the game to cover injuries. It's getting to the point where Jay Cutler can't even figure out who to shove. Tice now expects offensive linemen to learn the entire playbook instead of their individual roles, which will make assigning blame much easier down the stretch.
9. Packers (7-4): With Greg Jennings, Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and several offensive linemen hurt, the Packers have become more reliant on their running game on offense and A.J. Hawk on defense. Which is a fancy way of saying that both the NFC North and the two wild-card berths are now totally up for grabs.
10. Buccaneers (6-5): It's amazing what a team can accomplish when the players, coaches and ownership suddenly care about their performance.
11. Seahawks (6-5): Always known for their home-field advantage, the Seahawks are 5-0 at home and 1-5 on the road. A Seahawks-Ravens Super Bowl in New Orleans would end in a 0-0 tie after 16 overtimes; instead of the Lombardi trophy, each team would be allowed to select one item from SkyMall magazine.
12. Bengals (6-5): The Bengals finally have someone interesting to write about besides A.J. Green and Red Rifle: Andrew Whitworth, the offensive tackle who dared to charge headlong into the Raiders defense in protest of a too-forceful sack of Andy Dalton. Whitworth's footwork gets an A (he weaved through referees and Raiders to get to Lamarr Houston like Baryshnikov negotiating a stage full of 300-pound swans) and also deserves high marks for his pro wrasslin'-style showmanship after getting ejected. Still, fighting is wrong, especially against the Raiders (it's the one thing they're always good at), especially with a 27-10 lead. Dalton and Green followed the Whitworth ejection with a 48-yard completion, reminding everyone that the Bengals are bombers, not fighters.
13. Steelers (6-5): Did you notice that running back Baron Batch was relegated to the practice squad the moment Charlie Batch took over as the Steelers starter? The sooner the Steelers admit that Baron Batch is just Charlie Batch with a monocle, the quicker the Steelers can get on with fixing both their quarterback and running back problems.
14. Redskins (5-6): If the achievement gap between Robert Griffin III and his teammates grows any wider, they will be forced to prostrate themselves before him in the locker room.
15. Colts (7-4): Colts cheerleaders shaved their heads last week to support Chuck Pagano in his battle with leukemia. It was a touching tribute, made even more inspirational by the news that Pagano undergoes his last round of chemotherapy this week and may be available to coach in the postseason. But they really should have drawn the line at trying to pump the crowd up with "Nothing Compares 2 U."
16. Vikings (6-5): For a few weeks, the Vikings were more than just a generator for Adrian Peterson rushing yardage and Jared Allen sacks. And it felt really, really weird.
17. Dolphins (5-6): Hey, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, what kind of sprinkler do you like? The kind that goes like this: Fshhht! Fshhht! Or the one that goes like this: chut-chut-chut-chut-chut-chut-chut splssshhhhhhhh? "Why, I like the kind that goes off in the middle of the third quarter, distracts attention from my team's successful bid to halt a three-game losing streak, and generally makes my organization look bush-league at a time when I'm trying to convince both season-ticket holders and potential free agents that we've turned the corner into a new age of professionalism." The season's almost over. Try to show some dignity, boss.
18. Saints (5-6): The Bounty Scandal is heating up again! Jonathan Vilma will not be present for his own hearings, because they are scheduled for Thursday and Friday in Washington, while the Saints will be in Atlanta for a Thursday night game. Seriously. Former Saints assistant Mike Cerullo will testify on Thursday. Gregg Williams is scheduled for Friday. Arthur Dexter Bradley and Squeaky Fromme will testify when Vilma is actually on the field.
19. Cowboys (5-6): Tony Romo took this team as far as it could go. And back again. And there again, and back. And that was just on Thursday.
20. Lions (4-7): Givers of literal kicks to the crotch; receivers of metaphorical ones.
21. Rams (4-6-1): The Rams are 3-0-1 in the NFC West and 4-3-1 with a healthy Danny Amendola. Hence Jim Harbaugh's plan to kidnap Amendola and wear throwback jerseys this week. Patriots throwback jerseys.
22. Jets (4-7): And lo, the Lord did remove two ribs from the side of Tebow, and did crack them it, and returneth them unto him, that he should be spared from participating in this nonsense.
23. Chargers (4-7): Jarret Johnson said after the Chargers' overtime loss to the Ravens that the Chargers "just don't know how to win." Perhaps a shopping trip to the online bookseller can help. Let's see, there's "How to Win Friends and Influence People," by Dale Carnegie. We gave a copy of that book to A.J. Smith a couple of years ago, and he ate it. "How to Win at the Sports Business: If I Can Do It, You Can Do It," by Mark Cuban, sounds promising if you're willing to spend a few hundred pages with the Mavericks owner, but nothing is worth that. Ah, here it is: "How to Win: On the American Board of Surgery Certifying Exam." Stopping fourth-and-29 may be tricky, but it sure as heck isn't brain surgery.
24. Browns (3-8): Farewell, Mike Holmgren. It just isn't a Browns front office tenure without a power struggle, a midseason coup d'état or at least one obscenity-laden email to a fan. We'll always remember the good times. In Green Bay.
25. Bills (4-7): Steve Johnson wants Ryan Fitzpatrick to call more of his own plays. Ryan Fitzpatrick wants Steve Johnson to call fewer of his own press conferences.
26. Cardinals (4-7): The Cardinals average just 22 yards per drive and punt at the end of 53 percent of drives, both the worst figures in the league (courtesy Jim Armstrong at Football Outsiders). Rely on a great defense to do everything, and that defense is bound to crack. Remember that 4-0 start? That was in 1948.
27. Titans (4-7): Offensive coordinator Chris Palmer was fired this week for … well, you've seen the games. Angry, stomping, rampaging Bud Adams could outplay the Titans right now. And would be a heck of a lot more fun to watch.
28. Panthers (3-8): Actually, an angry, stomping, rampaging Jerry Richardson could give an angry, stomping Bud Adams a run for his money.
29. Eagles (3-8): The critically-acclaimed new film "Silver Linings Playbook" tells the story of an obsessed Eagles fan who overcomes his personal demons to find true love and happiness. It's probably too late to reshoot the ending.
30. Jaguars (2-9): Did you know that Maurice Jones-Drew, who was injured in the first quarter of a game on Oct. 21, still leads the Jaguars in rushing by more than150 yards? What's worse, Stacey Mack is second.
31. Raiders (3-8): The Raiders should blow everything up and just start over with the kicker and the punter. No, wait, that's what they do every year, which is precisely why they're in this mess! They should evaluate all of the players on the current roster who can contribute to a championship team and build around them. That leaves … the kicker and the punter.
32. Chiefs (1-10): Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno, an unreliable disappointment for most of his career, has rushed for 540 yards and 5.2 yards per carry in six career games against the Chiefs. That yardage amounts to more than a quarter of his career total, and his per-carry average dips to 3.7 against the rest of the league. The Chiefs may not be able to do anything else right, but they have brought happiness into one man's career.
These awards are based on performance in the last three or four games, not the whole season.
Offensive Players: Adrian Peterson, Vikings; Ray Rice, Ravens. Peterson has rushed for 737 yards in 100 carries in the last five games, even though defenders have no one else to worry about on the Vikings offense. Then again, that's nothing new. Rice's rushing totals for the last month don't look like much: 280 yards, two touchdowns, 3.4 yards per carry in four games. But Rice has caught 19 of the 21 passes thrown to him in the last four games, gaining 159 more yards and picking up one amazing, unlikely fourth-down conversion.
The Ravens are 4-0 in the last four games; without Rice, they would probably be 1-3. The Vikings are 1-3 with Peterson. Without him, they would be the Golden Gophers.
Defensive Player: Aldon Smith, 49ers. Smith has recorded 11 sacks in his last four games, and the bye-week "restaurant incident" rumor fizzled out and became just another weird Aldon Smith urban legend. Still, Smith's knack for making off-field headlines (or Twitter rumors) should make Jim Harbaugh nervous if the 49ers earn a first-round playoff bye. Harbaugh should hide Smith wherever he hid Brandon Jacobs for the first 11 months of the season. No one will ever find him there.
Rookie of the Quarter (non-RGIII edition): Doug Martin, Buccaneers. Martin's big games are huge, like his 251-yard effort against the Raiders. Even his small games are pretty big: combine 65 rushing yards with three receptions for 51 yards, as Martin did against the Chargers, and his "quiet" game has loud repercussions for the Buccaneers offense.
By the way, how quickly did that "Muscle Hamster" nickname get old? Have the tough little guys on the local high school team, or the neighborhood Pop Warner stars, been dubbed "Muscle Hamsters" yet? From Honey Badger to Muscle Hamster, the burn rate on animal nicknames is accelerating. Here are some new animals we should consider: Swamp Sparrow, Angry Otter, Attack Gerbil, Passenger Pigeon, and an old favorite of Lyndon B. Johnson's, Stud Duck. Philip Rivers can be the last one.
Of course, if Griffin had not been disqualified from the rookie award for non-rookieness, he would have won. Again.
Comeback Player of the Quarter: Jonathan Vilma, Saints. Vilma has 17 tackles and a sack in five starts since getting his suspension suspended. He has also stabilized the Saints defense, though there is still work to be done in that area. The Bounty Scandal is about to descend into a dirty game of every-man-for-himself accusations, because it wasn't tawdry enough already, and by the time all the fingers are done pointing we will have no idea what anyone really did or said, just a crystal-clear understanding of what Roger Goodell wants us to think. History will probably remember Vilma as the Buck Weaver of this scandal. When his suspensions are re-imposed, we should think back on these few weeks as a time of audacity, when a player dared to pull a few aces from the league's stacked deck and nearly saved his team's lost season.
Surprise: The Buccaneers. Four wins and a well-played loss to the Falcons have erased the early-season storyline of contested end-of-game kneels. Everything the Buccaneers hoped would happen has happened this year: Vincent Jackson has improved the entire passing game (Mike Williams is more dangerous as a No. 2 receiver than a No. 1; Josh Freeman has more faith in everyone, including himself), Gerald McCoy has turned the run defense from a quadruple-minus to a plus (opponents average just 3.4 yards per rush), and Martin leads a deep rookie class that gives the Buccaneers room to grow.
Disappointment: The Steelers. At the end of training camp, Pittsburgh waived backup quarterback Jerrod Johnson, a runaround guy who had some success in the preseason. Johnson went on to play for the UFL until it folded. He's available now, and the Steelers should call him. Johnson is your basic Brand X college scrambler, but he can throw 30 yards without needing a running start and can make a play with his legs without falling and hurting himself. Leftwich and Batch had pretty good careers, and they will make a fine coach and labor leader someday soon, but when it's obvious that an off-the-rack scrambler with a UFL pedigree would be a better choice than what you currently have at quarterback, it's time to question the reasoning behind the choices that were made.
Five Stories to Bury in the Third Quarter Time Capsule
1) The Poor-Sport Patriots: You made up your mind back in 2007 whether you think Bill Belichick is Sauron and would burn down a puppy hospital to score three extra fourth-quarter points against the Rams, or a wily tactician who understands that the difference between a 38-7 lead and a 45-7 lead represents an increased victory probability of 0.00065 percent that's just too important to pass up in the name of some fuddy-duddy notion of "sportsmanship." There's no middle ground, and there's no changing anyone's mind, so let the fourth-quarter touchdowns continue without comment. Especially when they occur against the Jets.
2) Challenge Flag a Go-Go: Jim Schwartz really should have known that throwing a challenge flag after a ridiculous touchdown ruling would void the replay review. Mike Smith should have known the same rule when he made the same mistake a few weeks earlier. Rich Eisen should have known, before speculating on NFL Network, that there is a clause in the clause of the replay rule that states that a team cannot benefit from the challenge flag penalty. In other words, the Texans could not have thrown their own challenge flag to purposely void the replay that would have proven that Justin Forsett spent more time lying on the ground than a Civil War reenactor at Antietam before getting up to score that controversial touchdown.
Heck, we should all spend our time studying and interpreting picayune, convoluted, counterintuitive rules that exist entirely for their own sake so that games can be decided by a series of "gotchas" instead of the merits of the teams themselves. Or perhaps, instead of blaming all of the hard-working, capable professionals for not being able to chapter-and-verse the idiosyncrasies of the rulebook, we should start blaming the idiosyncrasies of the rulebook.
3) Fake Andy Reid Rage: The new pastime in Philadelphia is to watch the Eagles lose, wait for Andy Reid to say "I have to do a better job" in the press conference, and feign fulminating outrage that the lame-duck coach is using the same default line that he has used after every loss for the last 14 years. Folks, Reid is not going to go to the podium and light himself on fire. He is not going to dance around shouting "I suck," no matter how much you may want him to. If you want him to take responsibility for the team's failure this year, well, read the statement he makes after each loss veerrrrry carefully. He is. He always has. And he will be gone in five weeks. You can last that long.
4) Hide a Concussion, Save a Starting Job, Ruin Everything Else: In the wake of Alex Smith's concussion and Colin Kaepernick's ascension, philosophers like Terry Bradshaw have been heard wondering aloud whether players will be honest with concussion symptoms if they know that their week on the bench might be extended indefinitely. As a public service to all Bradshaw and all the old-timey experts who consider "hide the headache" to be a valid talking point, let's spell out Alex Smith's post-concussion options:
Option A: Follow league protocols, get benched, spend two months collecting paycheck on sideline, move on to Arizona or New York, resume career, play another decade, spend retirement laughing it up with Michael Strahan and Howie Long.
Option B: Lie about concussion, stumble out to face Bears and Saints, suffer more hits, get benched because it was coming anyway, develop more serious symptoms, spend retirement looking for your car keys.
So, what were we saying about hiding concussion symptoms?
5) Movember Moustaches: The sidelines were starting to look like a casting call for "Deep Throat: the Musical" by the end of November. The concepts of "pornstache" and "Mike McCarthy" should not coexist in one brain. Players and coaches grew moustaches to raise awareness of men's health issues, and I promise to get my cholesterol checked four times per year if I never have to see Shahid Khan wearing two lemmings on his face again. Wait, Khan wasn't participating in Movember? He always looks like that? One more reason to never watch the Jaguars.
Holiday Season To-Do List:
1) Prewrite the Norv Turner and Andy Reid firing columns. No one should have to work on New Year's Eve if they can avoid it.
2) Invest in Fireman Ed's remaining Jets tickets on StubHub. Sell the tickets to thrill seekers who wish to experience an environment so toxic that it chases away grown men who like to wear fake fire helmets and scream like lunatics. Forget hiking near Chernobyl; wearing a Mark Sanchez jersey into MetLife Stadium is where the real morbid thrills are.
3) Purchase obsolete jerseys as gifts for barely-tolerated relatives. The discounts will soon be deep on Blaine Gabbert and Matt Cassel jerseys; Cassel jerseys now go for $30 on eBay, though you will have to pay more if you want one that wasn't game worn. Nothing says "I love you enough to rummage discount racks" like the jersey of a good-riddance quarterback. (My nephew wants a Rob Gronkowski jersey, but those are still extremely expensive. It may be cheaper to hang around nightclubs and wait for Gronk to throw his.)
4) Think of new things to say about the Ravens and Giants. The Ravens are bad on the road, great at home, run well, hit hard, and have been doing all of these things for so long that it's impossible to get any more mileage from these talking points. Same with the Giants, who are about to go 10-6 and win the division with the same players and strategies they always use to go 10-6 and win the division. Someone needs to poke Osi Umenyiora with a stick, or this is going to be a long, dry month.
5) Practice your surprised look. It will come in handy when Paul Tagliabue finds no reason to change any of the league's Bounty suspensions, when Colin Kaepernick has a three-interception game and fans start clamoring for Alex Smith, and when your aunt gives you a Matt Cassel jersey as a gift.