Welcome to Quarters Coverage, a monthly NFL abstract of power rankings, awards and essential information. It’s like cleaning out the refrigerator after the holidays and wondering just why you thought you needed seven boxes of chocolate-covered pretzels, three jars of cranberry mustard and six gallons of sour mix.
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 that interception return in overtime) and the opinions of both national experts and the voices in my head. Each ranking comes with a “defining moment of 2012,” a good-or-bad event that epitomizes the team’s whole season and, almost as important, can be punched into the article on Dec. 21 so I can take a day off.
1. Broncos (12-3): Peyton Manning to Knowshon Moreno for one yard vs. Buccaneers, Week 13. That one yard, of course, netted a first down. More important, Moreno was sitting on the ground when he caught the ball, having been knocked over by Buccaneers defenders before Manning threw to him. Manning’s game has always been about short passing and improvisation; it took a while for Broncos receivers to realize that they had to be ready for a pass at absolutely any time, but by Week 13 they had it figured out. This play also introduced us to an unexpected character who has made an impact for the Broncos: Knowshon Moreno, heads-up player.
2. Patriots (11-4): Tom Brady to Wes Welker for a two-yard touchdown vs. Jaguars, Week 16. Despite all the blowouts and annual assaults on the offensive record book, the Patriots’ offense comes down to Brady making a pre-snap read and delivering an accurate short pass. When struggling against the Jaguars, Brady called an audible at the goal line, changed the Patriots’ formation around, and delivered a tiny pass that was like another raindrop in the monsoon of his Hall of Fame career.
3. Seahawks (10-5): Russell Wilson to Golden Tate for a 14-yard touchdown, fourth quarter vs. Bears, Week 13. Before they were the team that engineered 50-point blowouts, the Seahawks were the team that won on the NFL equivalent of buzzer-beaters. Before he became a read-option quarterback, Wilson executed an anything-can-happen version of a conventional offense. The fourth quarter of the Bears game was a transitional moment, when Wilson unveiled the read-option and used it to set up hold-your-breath passes like this one. The Seahawks then used an overtime win to slip into a higher gear.
4. 49ers (10-4-1): Colin Kaepernick, 50-yard touchdown run vs. Dolphins, Week 14. The 49ers made Kaepernick the defining character of their 2012 season, for better or worse. This run exemplifies the Kaepernick trade-off: It was a display of tremendous athleticism, but it capped an otherwise fitful offensive game for a quarterback who relies too much on spontaneity.
5. Falcons (13-2): Matt Ryan to Tony Gonzalez for a 12-yard touchdown in the first quarter vs. Giants, Week 15. The Falcons don’t impress you, they don’t make headlines, they don’t win on a last-second comeback every week so we can talk about how they have the “it” factor. They just march 80 yards down the field to take a 14-point first-quarter lead against the defending champions by tossing a routine pass to the Hall of Famer who is the third option in their passing attack. That’s all.
6. Packers (11-4): Aaron Rodgers rushes 27 yards for a touchdown vs. Lions, Week 14. The team with no running backs got its second-longest rushing play of the year on a Randall Cunningham-worthy pocket escape by Rodgers. This run came just a few plays after another signature moment in Packers-Lions history: a dropped Randall Cobb pass, negated by a Ndamukong Suh roughing penalty.
7. Texans (12-3): J.J. Watt deflects Mark Sanchez’s pass into Brice McCain’s hands for an 86-yard interception return vs. Jets, Week 5. Welcome to the national spotlight, J.J. Watt: We came to see the Jets circus, but you turned out to be the main attraction. A few weeks later, opposing defenders were using tennis rackets to simulate Watt’s pass-swatting ability during practices. The Jets should have tried that: Bart Scott can probably do a funny Angry John McEnroe impersonation without trying.
8. Ravens (10-5): Ray Rice’s 4th-and-29 conversion vs. Chargers, Week 12. The Ravens offense in a nutshell, whether Cam Cameron, Jim Caldwell or a bored/enraged Ray Lewis is calling the plays: Get the ball into Little Ray’s hands by any means necessary, and hope he does something superhuman.
9. Redskins (9-6): Robert Griffin to Santana Moss for 14 yards late in the fourth quarter vs. Ravens, Week 14. One play before this, Griffin got cork-screwed into the ground by Haloti Ngata. Two plays later, he crumbled to the ground in pain. In between, he kept running the Redskins offense. This is the shape of things to come for the Redskins: Griffin is about so much more than athleticism, and the courage and commitment he showed against the Ravens is what transforms a rookie sensation into a perennial All-Pro.
10. Bengals (9-6): A.J. Green drops potential touchdown pass, third quarter vs. Cowboys, Week 14. Green is wide open, but will he catch the ball or drop it? Or will he catch it and fumble, as he did against the Steelers in Week 16? Will he redeem himself, like he did against the Steelers, or drop more passes, as he did against the Cowboys? Green is one of the most talented players in the NFL, but he is still finding himself. The same can be said of his team.
11. Colts (10-5): Reggie Wayne’s four-yard game-winning touchdown vs. Packers, Week 5. Wayne caught 13 passes for 212 yards while wearing orange gloves as a tribute to Chuck Pagano. His touchdown capped a comeback in the “ChuckStrong” game and proved that nothing would keep the Colts from going all-out all season long.
12. Giants (8-7): Andre Brown rushes for 16 yards in fourth quarter vs. Packers, Week 12. It is the circle of Giants life: The team turns to an unknown, injury-prone bench player, that player makes a huge contribution, but then he gets injured just when things finally seem to be going right. Brown, the star-crossed vagabond, rushed 13 times for 64 yards and a touchdown in a convincing Sunday night win that appeared to stamp the Giants’ playoff passport. But Brown broke his leg on a routine late-game run, and the Giants’ season again began to be defined by the reserves and rookies who would be pressed into big roles. Sometimes, the result is a Super Bowl. Other times, the task is too great.
13. Vikings (9-6): Adrian Peterson’s 82-yard touchdown run against the Rams, Week 16. Or, Peterson’s 82-yard touchdown against the Packers. Or his 74-yard run against the Seahawks. Or just blur all of Peterson’s runs into one amazing mile of unprecedented excellence from a player who should still be jogging in a pool. Peterson’s (and the Vikings’) season in summary: “Boy, that 82-yard run was amazing.” “Could you be more specific?”
14. Bears (9-6): Harrison Smith’s 54-yard interception return of a Jay Cutler pass to Brandon Marshall vs. Vikings, Week 14. You can only go to the well so many times, and by the time Cutler overthrew Marshall on this play, there were four Vikings zone defenders collapsing on the only guy likely to be targeted on third-and-long. Over-reliance on three skill players (Cutler, Marshall, Matt Forte) may have ruined a Bears season that started out very promising.
15. Cowboys (8-7): Dez Bryant's 58-yard touchdown, first quarter vs. Saints, Week 16. Sometimes, Bryant looks like a giant on a Pop Warner field, and the Cowboys look like they can score an 80-yard touchdown during the coin toss. There just never seems to be enough cake to go with the icing. If the Cowboys somehow win the NFC East, it will be because three or four big plays by players like Bryant, surrounded by whole quarters of lassitude, will have proven to be enough.
16. Steelers (7-8): Byron Leftwich stumbles for 31-yard touchdown vs. Ravens, Week 13. Determined-but-rickety athlete in goofy uniform hobbles desperately across the finish line to the shock of everyone watching. Ultimately, the Steelers just did not have enough hobble in them.
17. Rams (7-7-1): Greg Zuerlein’s 54-yard overtime field goal vs. 49ers, Week 13. Legatron and his 50+ yard field goal attempts got a little loopy at times, but he helped make the Rams a scrappy team that would exploit every mistake or weakness. Give Jeff Fisher’s team an inch, and Zuerlein would take 1,944 of them.
18. Saints (7-8): Malcolm Jenkins tackles Vincent Jackson after 95-yard reception, Saints defense executes goal-line stand vs. the Buccaneers, Week 7. The Saints weren’t very good this season, and the odds were stacked against them on the field and off. But they never quit, and they were capable of some unlikely last-second reversals of fortune, on the field and off.
19. Panthers (6-9): Cam Newton rushes for two-yard touchdown in fourth quarter vs. Eagles, Week 12. Newton had already helped the Panthers take the lead with a short drive to set up a field goal. But the Panthers season only started to feel like it was turning around when Newton did something more emphatic than take a one-point lead against a scuffling opponent. A long pass to Steve Smith started a late drive that ended with a Newton touchdown, and the Panthers put their opponent away, something they could never do in the first half of the season.
20. Dolphins (7-8): Sprinklers go off in third quarter of Seahawks game, Week 12. Do you remember that the Dolphins beat the Seahawks just before the Seahawks shouted Shazam and acquired godly powers? Even though that was a month ago, it feels like 1985, because the Dolphins promptly lost to the 49ers and Patriots, then beat the Jaguars and Bills, to establish their absolute .500-ness. But you remember the sprinklers, and despite some encouraging performances by Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins remain a team that is too easily upstaged by organizational bumbling, or lawn equipment.
21. Lions (4-11): Titus Young lines up on wrong side of the field, vs. Packers, Week 11. The NFL has seen some crazy malcontent receivers over the last few decades. But while Randy Moss may have walked some routes and insulted some caterers, and Terrell Owens could turn a routine press conference into a clubhouse civil war, nobody before Young had the brilliant idea of just lining up on the wrong side of the field and daring coaches to bench him. That’s because even the biggest malcontents maintained an iota of professional pride and common sense. Then, along came Titus Young.
22. Buccaneers (6-9): Doug Martin’s 67-yard touchdown vs. Raiders, Week 9. Martin showed just how far the Buccaneers have come since 2011 with his dominating performance against the Raiders. Recent games have shown just how much further the Buccaneers have to go.
23. Bills (5-10): Brad Smith's two-yard pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick, fourth quarter, Week 16. We could have chosen any one of dozens of terrible defensive plays by the Bills. But what screams “Bills football” more than a meaningless fourth-quarter touchdown in a lopsided loss?
24. Chargers (6-9): Philip Rivers’ bounced screen pass; various games. When a quarterback bounces a screen pass, it usually means three or four things went wrong offensively. The play call was probably ill-timed, the blockers did not sell the screen well enough to confuse defenders, the receiver may have set up in the wrong spot, and the quarterback himself may have given up on the play too soon, or lacked confidence in it in the first place. “Three or Four Things Went Wrong Offensively” could be the title of the Chargers' 2012 Highlight Reel.
25. Jets (6-9): Mark Sanchez’ fumble after colliding with Brandon Moore vs. Patriots, Week 12. What else could we possibly pick? Thanks to Adam Sandler, the butt-fumble made it into the Hurricane Sandy Relief 12-12-12 concert. That means, 50 years from now, people watching rebroadcasts or listening to recordings of the concert will wonder just what it meant for a quarterback to fumble into another man’s butt. At no point in Live Aid did Bill Cosby take the stage and make fun of Ron Jaworski for getting sacked. George Carlin did not take the stage at Woodstock and say, “How about that groovy Joe Namath, man?” Sanchez transcended football and entered popular culture with that play. If only Andy Warhol were alive to see it: it would make a heck of a silk screen.
26. Browns (5-10): Reggie Hodges punts on fourth-and-one from the Colts 41-yard line trailing by four in the fourth quarter, Week 7. Jimmy Haslam had just assumed ownership of the Browns, and there is nothing a new boss likes to see more than his subordinate making tentative decisions that betray a lack of faith in both his workforce and himself. By the end of the season, rookies Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson were openly criticizing Pat Shurmer’s play-calling. You cannot blame them for trying to “get in good” with the bigger boss.
27. Eagles (4-11): James Sanders’ 93-yard return of a Michael Vick interception for the Cardinals, Week 3. Late Andy Reid-era Eagles football in microcosm: big-name players making dumb mistakes, an exciting two-minute drill ending in disaster, the best laid plans of talented people falling apart because the league had caught up and surpassed them.
28. Cardinals (5-10): John Skelton incomplete pass to Larry Fitzgerald versus Seahawks, various, Week 14. Fitzgerald caught just one of 11 passes thrown to him in Week 14, for two yards. One week before that, he was 1 for 7 against the Jets, a team the Cardinals could have beaten. Their inability to get the ball into the hands of their best player, even with their alleged starting quarterback under center, serves as an indictment of whatever Ken Whisenhunt thought he was trying to do with the Cardinals offense.
29. Titans (5-10): Chris Johnson’s 94-yard run vs. the Jets, Week 15. Johnson had a signature performance last Monday night: 94 yards on one carry, 28 yards on the other 20 carries. The Titans surrounded brief flashes of inspired brilliance and a handful of surprising upsets with long stretches of monotonous mediocrity. Just like their star running back.
30. Raiders (4-11): Tommy Kelly kicked by Cam Newton, Week 16. This is what the Raiders have come to: Their defensive stars are getting bullied by the quarterback who drapes a towel over his head and sulks.
31. Jaguars (2-13): Cecil Shorts’ 59-yard touchdown reception against the Titans, Week 12. Jaguars football in a nutshell: Someone with a funny name doing something great that impacts your fantasy league but nothing else. Now with stylish black uniforms.
32. Chiefs (2-13): Moment of Silence in Memory of all Domestic Violence Victims, Week 14. The Chiefs and Panthers should not have played at all just hours after Jevon Belcher killed the mother of his child, then drove to Chiefs headquarters and killed himself. But they did play, and their decision to commemorate all domestic violence victims -- Kasandra Perkins and countless others whose tragic stories will never be told -- with a moment of silence set the best possible tone, putting the spotlight on the big problem instead of the tiny, insignificant game.
Offensive Players: The Vikings’ Offensive Line. Adrian Peterson shared Player of the Quarter honors with Ray Rice last quarter. In the name of avoiding redundancy and practicing what we preach, we give some credit to the Big Guys. Rookie Matt Kalil will block for Peterson in the Pro Bowl (actually, it is the Pro Bowl, so he will spend the afternoon waltzing with Cameron Wake or someone), but the other Vikings linemen deserve shout-outs: center John Sullivan, guards Charlie Johnson and Brandon Fusco, and yes, mistake-prone right tackle Phil Loadholt. Vikings starting linemen have committed just six holds and seven false starts all year, all the while laying track for the Peterson Express, and helping to spur a surprisingly balanced attack against the Texans in Week 16. These guys need a nickname, like the Hogs or the Electric Company. Is “Purple Apostles” taken?
Defensive Player: London Fletcher, Redskins. Fletcher has intercepted four passes in the last five games, mixing in a 12-tackle performance in a win against against the Giants. Without Fletcher’s big plays against the Cowboys and Ravens, the Redskins would not be anywhere near the playoff chase, and another interception kept the Eagles from trying anything funny this week. Fletcher entered Week 16 10th in the NFL in tackles, at an age (37) when getting out of the car starts to feel like an accomplishment.
This is a good time to point out that J.J. Watt and Aldon Smith already won Defensive Player of the Quarter honors earlier in the year, and that the Texans and 49ers have been enjoying various states of clinchy-ness while Smith and Watt pursued the sack records over the last few weeks. Fletcher has made more playoff-important plays in the last four weeks.
Rookie: Russell Wilson, Seahawks. The best part is that we did not need to include a “not including RG3” caveat. Wilson wins this quarter outright.
Comeback Player: Cam Newton, Panthers. I watched "Happiness is a Warm Blanket: Charlie Brown" the other day, an updated Peanuts classic which finds Linus once again going through the addiction-recovery cycle with his blue blanket. This one ends with an appeal for tolerance by Linus, who tells the other Peanuts characters that they all have their security blankets: Schroeder’s Beethoven, Snoopy’s eating, Sally’s mewling crushes, Peppermint Patty and Marcie’s dream to open a bookstore in Portland. (I may have imagined that last one).
Cam Newton loves his sideline towel the way Linus loves that blanket, and Newton could deliver the same message to the other quarterbacks. Jay Cutler has the eye roll. Peyton Manning has Manning face. Tom Brady has his team of stylists. Cam went five games without an interception and appears to have rebounded from a “league figured me out” slump that started late last season. Accept him and his towel for who they are.
The Peanuts special ended when Linus confronted his blanket-intolerant grandmother and pleaded for her to keep an open mind. You can hear Jerry Richardson now, can’t you? “Wha-whaaa, wha-wha-wah-whaa wha-whaaaaa.”
Surprise of the Quarter: We knew the Seahawks had a lot of 20-17 wins in them. We had no idea they had a few 51-0 wins and a rainy-night pounding of the 49ers up their sleeves as well.
Disappointment of the Quarter: The Ravens. It's not just the slump, but the way they are slumping. The Cam Cameron firing hinted at desperation, something the Ravens never stooped to in franchise history, even when their offense consisted entirely of punt returns. Their unwillingness to make proper use of Ray Rice was in danger of achieving Marcus Allen proportions. The defense wasn’t helping much, which was the most alarming trend of all: The Ravens are used to scoring about 16 points per game in December, but they are used to winning 19-16. The Giants blowout staunched the wound, but the Ravens gave up a chance to have several home playoff games, and no team needs home playoff games more than the Ravens.
Five Stories to Bury in the Fourth-Quarter Time Capsule
1. Expanded Schedule Musings. It’s as if NFL executives were sitting around watching the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and shrieked: “This is what the NFL playoffs should be! An empty spectacle!”
As fans, it is your job to make as loud a fuss as possible whenever the expanded playoffs come up. Fans did more to kill the 18-game schedule than the NFLPA did: If fan reaction were more positive, the league would have pushed it as a wedge issue. Send the league polite-yet-firm letters, emails and tweets telling them you would prefer that 4-9 teams were “eliminated” in early December, not “still alive for the seventh wild card.”
2. The Humiliation of Mark Sanchez. First of all, there is the matter of Twitter death threats. Friends don’t let friends tweet stupid, so if you know someone idiotic enough to tweet a threat, take his phone and flush it down the toilet, or reformat his hard drive. Soon after dealing with the threat and losing his starting job to a third-stringer, Sanchez got to hear that Kris Jenkins, a former 400-pound blocking sled who ate and loafed his way out of the NFL, questioned his work efforts and manhood on “Inside the NFL.”
Playing quarterback in New York is rapidly surpassing being president of the United States as the worst job in the nation. Sanchez has been, admittedly, pretty bad at it, and we have had some fun at his expense. If you are not clear where the line between good-natured ribbing and character assassination is drawn, maybe you should just keep quiet.
3. Superficial quarterback judgments. If you have nothing intelligent to say about a quarterback, try doing some reporting or research.
4. Jagged Little Pills: Adderall. It’s advertised at the front desk of your local pediatrician’s office. It is prescribed for everything from childhood fidgeting to adult ring-around-the-collar. It is on the NFL’s performance-enhancing substance list, and players are either using it as a pick-me-up, a “beard” to cover steroid use or some combination of both. Adderall is an addictive substance when abused, so it should not be trivialized, either by writing off potential abuse as a dodge or by excusing it as no big deal.
The Adderall story was front-and-center for a few days, then disappeared, not because we got answers, but because more devastating events swamped it in the news cycle. That’s not a good thing. Maybe this story shouldn’t be buried in a time capsule.
5. Tragedy. In the football world and everywhere. We can never really bury it completely, but it never hurts to dig.
Five Things to Cherish from the 2012 Season
1. Quick Turnarounds: Drafting a rookie quarterback no longer sentences fans to two years of 5-11 records, third-and-10 draw plays, and clinging to every 10-yard boot pass to the tight end like a life raft of hope. Not only did Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, Russell Wilson and a solid second-tier of rookies raise the bar for future novice quarterbacks (and the coaches who develop them), but they gave us the nucleus of the next generation of franchise quarterbacks.
2. Strategic Diversity: Some teams make the playoffs by going no-huddle and scattering receivers all over the field. Others do it by lining up in the Pistol with three backs. Some use the zone-read option. Others use the zone-stretch handoff. The Patriots use tight ends as wide receivers, the Packers use a wide receiver at running back, and the 49ers will use anyone, anywhere. There has been an explosion of strategic ideas in the last few years, and because teams are making the playoffs by using those ideas, it means there is more experimentation -- and of course some copycatting -- to come.
3. Due Process: The Saints' bounty scandal loomed over the whole season, and there are still hurt feelings, possible lawsuits, and an uneasy sense that the core questions were never answered and that the overreach of power has not been totally checked. But the suspensions of Johnathan Vilma and others were vacated, which means that the appeal process, while unwieldy, can work. A bad procedure with a modest hope of achieving justice is infinitely better than no procedure with no hope of achieving justice.
4. Game Rewind: For about the price of a video game, you can now have access to high-definition video replays, condensed replays and the same film coaches use, on your PC, laptop, tablet, or (if you have the eyesight of a jeweler) your cell phone. You can sit in a coffee shop and watch every play of the Steelers-Ravens game the next morning in about 45 minutes. You can watch the All-22 film of a single play in the Packers game over and over again until you figure out where the Saints safeties were. If Perry Fewell is named your team’s head coach in late January, you can conduct a mini film festival of the Giants defense and figure out what to expect. The NFL’s shopping website has hundreds of gifts in this price range for super fans. There is only need for one.
5. Players who Care: They visit schools. They pitch in after hurricanes. They send messages to grieving families, sometimes publicly, often privately. For a huge percentage of NFL players, charity and public service are ways of life, not photo opportunities, and acts of violence and carelessness remain horrible exceptions to the rule. As “year in review” news features focus on terrible events, close your eyes and picture Rashean Jones hugging a 100-year old Dolphins fan, or cheerleaders shaving their heads for Chuck Pagano. It will help you remember what makes football matter.