Anyone can rank all 32 teams. Only Mandatory Monday has the scientific chops to classify them animal-vegetable-mineral style.
Kings may play chess on fancy glass stools, but NFL coaches must play with the personnel available, and there are no well-balanced powerhouses this year. Even the great teams have noticeable flaws, and those flaws can be grouped, categorized, and studied to determine which teams are best suited to survive the late-season push. Week 11 provided some fresh data on how various team-types perform against one another: great offenses versus great defenses, perennial disappointments versus unpredictable newcomers, the Titans versus whatever the heck the Colts are supposed to be, and so on.
So let's get Linnaean! (Incidentally, that was Ray Lewis' original pregame rallying cry.) Here are all 32 teams, arranged into kingdoms, with their defining characteristics and Week 11 observations spelled out for ease of classification.
Type I: Offensive Teams (Explodus Maximus)
These teams are believers in the novel, heretical idea that the best way to win athletic contests is to outscore the opponent. Defensive philosophies provided for classification purposes. Football Outsiders offense and defense rankings entering Week 11 provided.
Denver Broncos (Offense: 1st. Defense: 20th.)
Defensive Philosophy: You will do something stupid while trying to catch up. You know you will. Yes, Tony, we're looking right at you.
Week 11 Update: The 27-17 Broncos win was more enlightening than surprising, on both sides of the ball. Peyton Manning did what Peyton Manning does when given an advantage to work with against any defense, even a very solid one. Slowly, methodically, he picked the Chiefs apart, exploiting weaknesses in the fourth quarter after diagnosing them in the third. Meanwhile, the Broncos defense faced an offense far weaker than the Cowboys, Colts and even Redskins offenses that caused problems earlier in the year.
Again, no surprises. But we got an important gauge of how the offense-versus-defense equilibrium functions in the AFC West. The Chiefs defense is good enough to limit and slow the Broncos, but not stop them. The Broncos defense is capable of shutting down the Chiefs offense for most of a game. The teams face off again in two weeks, and it is hard to envision the Chiefs bridging the quality gap on either side of the ball. Impressive early-season records are giving way to late-season reality: the Broncos, as we expected, are the team to beat in the AFC.
New Orleans Saints (Offense: 2nd. Defense: 12th.)
Defensive Philosophy: Play well in Rob Ryan grudge matches. Luckily, Rob Ryan holds lots of grudges.
Week 11 Update: The narrow 23-20 win over the 49ers was really a 30-14 win obscured by a dumb play on an interception return (Corey White fumbled a touchdown into a touchback), a muffed punt (Lance Moore filled in as return man for the briefly-injured Darren Sproles, with disastrous results) and a few other miscues. The Saints defense again proved capable of picking up slack for the offense, making the Saints one of the few NFL teams that can claim to be truly good on both sides of the ball.
Washington Redskins (Offense: 15th. Defense: 24th. Special Teams: 32nd.)
Defensive Philosophy: If we allow a punt return touchdown, we don't need a defensive philosophy!
Week 11 Update: The Redskins offense took the first half off against the Eagles; they average about one vacation half per game. Meanwhile, the defense played the first half as if they planned to rent themselves out as a bouncy house for children's birthday parties. Trailing 24-0 after three quarters, it was time for everyone to start playing hard again. A comeback bid fell short in a 24-16 loss, but the effort satisfied the Shanahan comeback requirements of making the stats look better and forcing Robert Griffin to take as many unnecessary hits as possible.
Bonus Special Teams Update: The Redskins activated a new punt returner named Nick Williams. He fields one punt out of every three cleanly. He fits their system!
San Diego Chargers (Offense: 3rd. Defense: 32nd.)
Defensive Philosophy: Overwhelm opponents with great personnel like Shawne Merriman, Shaun Phillips, Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer. Oh wait, that was 2009! Um … hope Corey Liuget can do something.
Week 11 Update: Nick Novak kicked 27 and 29 yard field goals in a 20-16 loss to the Dolphins, which means that the Chargers enjoyed yet another week of red zone misadventures! Sunday's highlight was an illegal pass by Philip Rivers, who was past the line of scrimmage when he tossed a short throw that Antonio Gates had to scoop off the turf. You read that right: Rivers somehow got too far downfield AND underthrew his receiver on a five-yard pass. The Chargers in the red zone, everyone!
Type II Defensive Teams (Smashus Mouthus)
The defense dominates. The offense tries not to lose the game, or at least not to not win the game, or possibly not to not un-lose. Some of these offenses are pretty good. All of them look a heck of a lot better when they know 14 points equals a win. For the following capsules, offenses are explained in any instances where the offense is explicable. Football Outsiders defense and offense ranks entering Week 11 provided.
Seattle Seahawks (Defense: 3rd. Offense: 8th.)
Offense Made Easy: Big plays usually include a Russell Wilson triple lutz. Referees should assign bonus points for artistic expression.
Week 11 Update: The Seahawks offense always looks better on paper than on the field, better on the highlight reel than in real time and better while slowly building an overwhelming second half lead than when trying to get the snowball to start rolling. Their 41-20 massacre of the Vikings started as a fairly tight 17-13 game as the Seahawks' first few drives stalled and their defense suffered a few uncharacteristic lapses. Eventually, the usual Marshawn Lynch tractor pulls and Doug Baldwin sprints down the sideline got moving.
Russell Okung is back, meaning that the Seahawks are healthy on the offensive line again. That may make them the most complete team in the NFL. It certainly makes them better than their one-dimensional divisional rivals.
Kansas City Chiefs (Defense: 7th. Offense: 18th.)
Offense Mad Easy: Classical philosophers debated for centuries whether a forward pass can be short enough to qualify as a handoff. Alex Smith has solved Zeno's Passing Paradox.
Week 11 Update: The Chiefs defense held up its end of the bargain. The score was 17-10 until late in the third quarter, and the Broncos no huddle offense just had them punting more quickly.
But something strange happened to the Chiefs offense. All season, they have been taking care of the football, running and throwing short, keeping games close and making things easier for the defense. On Sunday night, they decided to open things up and throw deep. But Alex Smith does not throw deep well, the Chiefs have no real deep threats beside Dwayne Bowe, and their pass protection is terrible when forced to extend their blocks. The Chiefs offense became a parade of sacks and incomplete bombs. The sacks cost the Chiefs field position, and the incomplete passes kept lengthening the game, giving Peyton Manning more possessions. Slowly, unsurprisingly, the field tilted away from them.
If the Chiefs set out to prove that they could throw downfield against a playoff-caliber opponent they proved the opposite. Contenders in both conferences saw a team that lacks any real vertical component to their offense. The Chiefs had a chance to prove they were the Seahawks of the AFC. It turns out that they are the 49ers, which is not a compliment at the moment.
San Francisco 49ers (Defense: 11th. Offense: 9th.)
Offense Made Easy: Second-thru-fifth wide receivers were replaced by CPR dummies on hand trucks in late September.
Week 11 Update: See here: http://miketanier.sportsonearthblog.com/colin-kaepernicks-impossible-situation/
Cleveland Browns (Defense: 22nd. Offense: 24th.)
Offense Made Easy: If Jason Campbell can deliver it, the receivers can drop it. Often, Campbell fails to deliver it.
Week 11 Update: The Bengals-Browns game may still be going on. The 40-21 score is either a final, or they are still midway through the fourth quarter as you are reading this, reviewing a play or something. The weather was clear when the game started, then the massive rain from Chicago arrived, then it hailed, then snowed, then spring arrived and the flowers bloomed, then a mudslide hit. It was like one of those Seasons of Yellowstone documentaries, only longer and duller.
The Browns defense played well early, then got buried by an avalanche of interception, fumble, and blocked punt return touchdowns by the Bengals. Jason Campbell threw 56 passes, which is a better total for a presidential administration than a game. But then, this game was longer than William Henry Harrison's administration, so it all works out.
Arizona Cardinals (Defense: 2nd. Offense: 27th.)
Offense Made Easy: The Andre Ellington/Patrick Peterson Wildcat sounds like a terrible idea. But anything that provides a break from Carson Palmer interceptions and Rashard Mendenhall two-yard plunges has its merits.
Week 11 Update: Fun fact from the Cardinals' 27-14 win over the Jaguars: the two teams combined to rush 40 times for 46 yards. Wait, what's the opposite of "fun" again?
Tennessee Titans (Defense: 17th. Offense: 20th.)
Offense Made Easy: Our faith in Chris Johnson's return will be vindicated, in this life or the next.
Week 11 Update: Johnson scored two touchdowns early against the Colts, including a sweet 30-yarder, but faith is a delicate thing. The Titans started using an empty backfield on 3rd-and-short, and the resulting punts kept the Colts in the game so they could pull one of their patented late-night comebacks. In summary, the Titans are a running team, except when they realize that won't work, like in running situations.
Type III: Fading Contenders (Yesterdus Newsicus)
Once great, suddenly not, these teams experienced a complete, easy-to-track success cycle. Like investors ignoring warning signs of a stock collapse, we speculated that the good times would roll forever. Nothing is forever. Not even Tom Coughlin.
Green Bay Packers
Everything is fine as long as Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews are healthy! Oh dear, it seems that Rodgers has a broken collarbone and Matthews has an eggplant duct taped to his hand.
Telling Sign of Collapse: Ladies and gentleman, we present Aaron Rodgers' backups: Papa and Brainy Smurf.
Week 11 Update: Scott Tolzien threw 34 passes and three interceptions in a 27-13 loss. Granted, some of those passes were garbage-time throws, but "garbage time" came pretty late in the game (it was still 20-13 early in the fourth quarter). Mike McCarthy just trusted Tolzien with the ball. Good for Tolzien's confidence, bad for the Packers, and for watchability.
Packers-Giants was the FOX game in the New York area. And the "New York area" includes Philadelphia for some depraved reason, so much of the East Coast got to suffer through this gem. Luckily, the Packers only had the ball for 24:46, and the game ended in a crisp two hours and 45 minutes, so regular fans got to see all the juicy stuff at the end of 49ers-Saints.
A major cap crunch forced the team to decide between the quarterback who led them to the Super Bowl and a battalion of veterans. Ozzie Newsome in February: "I'm thinking! I'm thinking!"
Telling Sign of Collapse: You know where we will find a great replacement for the left tackle who asked an exotic dancer to handcuff himself to a chair during the Endless Crabcake Lunch Buffet? In Jacksonville!
Week 11 Update: The Ravens took a 10-0 lead into a long weather delay. By the looks of players uniforms when they returned to action, it rained a mix of black paint, chocolate pudding, navy bean soup and the stuff you chisel off the undercarriage of your lawnmower.
You would think the Ravens were destined to win the longest, sloppiest game of the season, and they tried to win by the longest, sloppiest possible method. Their attempt to recreate last week's overtime win over the Bengals failed, however, when no one on the Bears would run eleven yards backward on fourth down. The Bears won 23-20.
Newsome was taken to the hospital after the game for precautionary reasons. Let's hope he just got a look at the team laundry bill and fainted.
You know someone really hates hospitals when he is eager to get back to coaching the 2013 Texans.
Telling Sign of Collapse: Matt Schaub started throwing Pick-6s in a videogame. And it wasn't Madden, it was Scribblenauts.
Week 11 Update: Schaub returned to action late in the game when Case Keenum was benched for … you know, no one is certain why he was benched. It was the most unnecessary, unwanted comeback since Boston's Third Stage album, and while Schaub led a few field goal drives and got the Texans within scoring distance in the final seconds of a 28-23 loss to the Raiders, the game ended in pointless drama. Schaub yelled at Andre Johnson for quitting on a fourth-and-7 pass route, and Johnson stormed off the field.
Gary Kubiak, a few weeks removed from his sideline "warning stroke," coached from the booth and made the Keenum-Schaub decision. Maybe he wanted to open up the throttle on his stress levels a bit. If so, bad idea on many levels.
The draft class of 2008 was so awesome we took half a decade off!
Telling Sign of Collapse: Levine Toilolo. Joplo Bartu. Stansly Maponga. The guy who makes up Star Wars names will have to quit his job in the Falcons scouting department; there's a new movie in 2015.
Week 11 Update: Did you know Mike Glennon and Bobby Rainey are Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith? Watch the tape of the Falcons' 41-28 loss to the Buccaneers and you'll swear it's true.
What are you talking about? The Steelers are as dangerous as ever! They have 36 sacks this year! Oops, that's their offense. They have 16 sacks this year. And since it is not late September, that's an issue.
Telling Sign of Collapse: Months of planning and practice for a zone-blocking scheme on the offensive line are utterly scrapped 30 minutes into the season when Maurkice Pouncey is injured. Plan B is to not have a Plan B.
Week 11 Update: The rain was vertical. The stripes were horizontal. The Steelers were a little of both in their 37-27 win over the Lions. Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown carried the team on their shoulders for much of the game, dragging along the usual bumbling rushing attack (1.5 yards per carry) and a defense that no longer generates any pass pressure.
The Steelers got assists from several dropped Lions interceptions, a Reggie Bush fumble, some Reggie Bush slip-and-fall cutbacks, and a new arrival on the Lions blame scene (see the Lions capsule). The Steelers have a knack for helping self-destructive teams destroy themselves; in the AFC, that's even better than being good.
New York Giants
Build a bridge. Trust the process. Stay crisp. Zzzzzz…
Telling Sign of Collapse: Major metropolitan newspapers devote manpower and resources to ascertain whether Brandon Jacobs or Peyton Hillis are healthy enough to play running back, and to determine what impact these individuals will have on the lives of everyday citizens.
Week 11 Update: There have been uglier 27-13 victories in history, but no one should have to watch them. Yes, the Giants are still in the playoff picture, and the scenarios are not even all that unrealistic.
Type IV: Doubt Generators (Romo Coasterous)
These teams have been inconsistent for so long their inconsistency has become consistent. All of them have a stable core of recognizable personalities, and all possess one or two fatal flaws that will kill them as reliably as Michael Myers slashes pretty teenagers.
Marvin Lewis has had the Bengals ping-ponging between awful and sorta-good since Touched by an Angel was on the air.
Fatal Flaw: The Ravens and Steelers are coming. Try not to make eye contact.
Week 11 Update: Andy Dalton had two early interceptions and no completions greater than 25 yards in a 41-20 win over the Browns which was spurred by defensive and special teams touchdowns. So it's hard to work up a lot of "changed their stripes" enthusiasm.
Cam Newton and Ron Rivera's bid to prove this year is really different reaches it's critical moment against the Patriots on Monday Night.
Fatal Flaw: The people out to prove this year is really different are Cam Newton and Ron Rivera.
Week 11 Update: All of the true believers are waiting for the result of Monday night's game to declare themselves to be true believers.
The coaches change, but Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte, Devin Hester, the front office, the strategies, and the issues remain the same.
Fatal Flaw: Cutler's hurt and the defense is not quite good enough to compensate for the offense? It must be November in the 2010s!
Week 11 Update: Josh McCown is at his best when things get really weird, which makes him the perfect Bears backup quarterback. McCown has now won two games in relief of Jay Cutler (playing pretty well in both games; these aren't 117-yard "find a way" performances), which is good news for a Bears team eager to break the disappointment cycle. On the other hand, the Bears cannot stop the run at all, even when monsoon conditions take away both the passing game and reliable footing.
They are actually still using the printer cartridges Bill Parcells stockpiled before he left in 2006. No one in the organization knows how to order new ones.
Fatal Flaw: Start at owner's box, work your way down.
Week 11 Update: Dez Bryant was targeted with zero passes during the team's bye. Coordinator Bill Callahan declares "mission accomplished."
Their road to the playoffs is a smooth, level bowling lane. They are in the process of accidently squirting Krazy Glue on their bowling balls.
Fatal Flaw: Occasional urges to do the things Richie Incognito only talks about.
Week 11 Update: Punter Sam Martin, with your second game-killing mistake of the season, you are now a full-fledged Detroit Lion, with all rights and responsibilities! You shanked a punt to set up a Bengals comeback last month. On Sunday, you fumbled at the end of a fake field goal that would have given the Lions a 30-23 lead. The Steelers responded with a 97-yard drive and eventually took control in a 37-27 win.
Of course, asking a rookie punter to hold onto the football while plunging into the heart of the Steelers' field-goal defense on a rainy day is crazy. So really, the Lions' coaches deserve the blame, not Martin. Come to think of it, the coaches should have toned down Ndamukong Suh's temper and corrected Matthew Stafford's delivery years ago. Can you feel a seat getting really, really warm?
Friends with the monster under their beds.
Fatal Flaw: Let's wait for Tony Dungy's Town Meeting on Workplace Harassment before we try to pinpoint it.
Week 11 Update: A 20-16 victory over the Chargers matches the Dolphins' 24-20 win over the Colts and 22-20 win over the Bengals nicely. The Dolphins are building a wild-card résumé out of narrow, forgettable wins against AFC middleweights.
Even with all of the bullies and bullied out of the picture, Dolphins wins have the same look and feel. There is almost no downfield passing, with Charles Clay's 39-yard touchdown the only real "long" completion of the day for Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill took four more sacks and seven hits. The Dolphins first touchdown drive ended with Brian Hartline fumbling near the end zone, but Tannehill enduring a roughing-the-passer play to negate the mistake and set up a Daniel Thomas touchdown. Dolphins success, in other words, is often just an artfully arranged collection of failures.
Type V: Unstable Molecules (Higgs-Boson-Irsay Sphere)
You never know what these teams are going to do next: blow out a great team, get blown out by a bad one, get shut out, score 49 points, surrender a huge first-half lead or come roaring back when the opposing coach keels over on the sideline. Most of these teams have faced recent franchise upheaval, and some are growing into other categories, whether as offensive or defensive powerhouses or disappointments who have yet to be proven perennial. In the meantime, any gambler who puts money on these teams would be better off mailing it to that Nigerian prince.
New York Jets
They've turned the corner! They're still the Jets! They've turned the corner! They're still the Jets! They've turned the corner!
Unstable Elements: General Manager John Idzik is the stable element: He threw off the equilibrium of psychoses that made the Jets uniquely awful. Geno Smith's rookie ups and downs add effervescence to the formerly fetid quarterback broth.
Week 11 Update: Rex Ryan took the team to Dave & Busters in Buffalo on Saturday night. Because things have been going well, you see, so the best possible course of action is to revert to the kind of loopy decisions that led to catastrophe in 2012. The evening of buffalo wings and shooting pool probably did not directly cause Smith to throw three interceptions. It did not lead directly to a sloppy performance by the Jets secondary. It probably did not motivate the Bills much. But it didn't make the Jets more precise and prepared, either.
Matt Simms came on in relief of Smith and threw a touchdown in the 37-14 Bills blowout. You may not want to listen to New York radio or read a message board anytime soon. Except this message board of course. Comment often and click back dozens of times to discuss!
Unstable Elements: Kelly's particle accelerator offensive experiments. One quarterback we know too well and another we cannot quite figure out. A secondary cobbled together from guys hanging around the Lowe's home improvement department.
Week 11 Update: Chip Kelly was feeling his genius oats in the first half of the 24-16 win over the Redskins. He even lined right tackle Lane Johnson up at wide receiver, just to fake a screen pass! Johnson played tight end early in his college career and has played right tackle like a tight end for much of the season.
Anyway, the Redskins started loading up to stop running plays, so Nick Foles had to run some read options. The first one caught the Redskins by surprise. Then, they took out their sun dials, timed Foles, and realized he was not a serious threat. The Eagles could not run out the clock with the defense stacked, and the Redskins nearly came back. So yes, the "need a rushing quarterback" thing really is still a thing.
Kelly's offense still moves in fits and spurts, but with so much of the NFC Eek lucky to get even a single spurt, the Eagles are in first place.
Outscored 78-37 in first quarter of games. Surrender huge leads to bad opponents nearly weekly. Beat the Broncos, Seahawks and 49ers. Drive everyone batty trying to figure you out.
Unstable Elements: Owner Wavy Gravy. Boy wonder GM Ryan Grigson, who loves pushing all the buttons on the command console to see what they do. A young roster of still-developing players. Trent "Rolling Ball of Inadequacies" Richardson, the embodiment of all the other unstable elements.
Week 11 Update: Waiting until 10:45 p.m. ET to wake up and execute comebacks is not a sustainable strategy.
St. Louis Rams
Four defensive linemen and a bunch of fast youngsters on a season-long quest for clarity.
Unstable Elements: Robert Quinn, Chris Long and the front four can take over games. Brian Schottenheimer, Kellen Clemens and the offense can surrender them right back. The Rams can crush the Colts but get crushed by the Cowboys, play the Seahawks close but lose to the Titans.
Week 11 Update: Bye week for the bye-polar.
Type VI: Bottom Feeders (Hymedesmia Paupertus)
Like simple organisms subsisting in a rapidly evaporating tidal pool, these teams filter feed for victories, prey upon one another and hope to evolve into something more sophisticated before the sand completely dries. Football Outsiders overall rank entering Week 11 provided.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Overall rank: 20th)
Ticket Outta This Dump: Fire the coach. When Lovie Smith (or some Lovie-like substance) takes over next year, he is going to enjoy a massive Andy Reid-style slingshot effect.
Week 11 Update: Bobby Rainey gained 163 yards in a 41-28 victory. Rainey picked up where Doug Martin and Mike James left off, meaning he will get 30 more carries next week, then suffer some gruesome injury. Greg Schiano wants nothing left when he leaves. He even throws salt on the flower beds outside team headquarters.
Minnesota Vikings (Overall rank: 24th)
Ticket Outta This Dump: A three-for-one quarterback swap is unlikely, but the Vikings have lots of young talent and the best running back of his generation, which counts for something.
Week 11 Update: The Seahawks game was close in the first half. Seriously! Why won't anyone believe me?
Buffalo Bills (Overall rank: 25th)
Ticket Outta This Dump: Doug Marrone and EJ Manuel always look like they know what they are doing, which is often (but not always) a sign they know what they are doing.
Week 11 Update: The Jets have good weeks and bad weeks. Manuel has great weeks, so-so weeks and injured months. Marquise Goodwin has touchdown instants.
Oakland Raiders (Overall rank: 31st)
Ticket Outta This Dump: All of the previous regime's credit cards debts will soon be paid off. Also, Terrelle Pryor.
Week 11 Update: Matt McGloin and Rashad Jennings light it up in a 28-23 win over the Texans. No team in the NFL does more with less. The Raiders don't do very much, mind you, but they do very little with even less little.
Jacksonville Jaguars (Overall rank 32nd)
Ticket Outta This Dump: A BRIDGE over troubled WATER.
Week 11 Update: The Jaguars are now a good team for 9:38 seconds per game. Progress!
Not Classified (Transcendus Catergorus)
New England Patriots
The Patriots have made use of more than a decade of successful evolution and adaptation this year. At times, they are the defensive powerhouses of 2001-04. Then, they switch over to variations on the offense-dominated teams of 2005-13. They sometimes show signs of being a powerhouse in decline, but the decline has come so slowly it is hard to tell. Similarly, periods of instability (summer) and heartbreaker tendencies (Jets game) rise and fall too quickly to classify. The Patriots are the space baby from 2001: A Space Odyssey, a unique organism with unknown powers and properties.
Week 11 Update: Cam Newton on Monday night: My God, it's full of stars. ...