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The final countdown

Posted: Tuesday January 08, 2002 6:12 PM

What kind of a year has it been? Strange. Five teams finished with records of 12-4 or better, a mark that has been tied a few times in the past but never bettered. There were 11 with double-figure wins, one short of the all-time high number for a season. And yet I kept hearing that parity or something had dulled the quality of play in the NFL, and that once you got by the Rams, there really weren't that many outstanding teams.

I think you could say that there were teams with good records , but they were all kind of flawed in some way. In other words, they weren't solid in every area, thanks to the ravages of free agency.

I'm not sure I agree with that perception, which I've heard all year from people who take more than a surface interest in the game. I'd have to think it through. Maybe I'll try to get into it in my team-by-team capsules, as I get into the ... into the ... well, I'll give you a hint. Into something that's the final something of the year. No room for adjusting hereafter. No more copouts. You're right. It's the Final Power Rankings.

Dr. Z's Power Rankings
Rank LW      Team
1 1
St. Louis Rams (14-2)
In 1999 the first edition of the Greatest Show on Turf swept its way through the Super Bowl. Last year's season began as an assault on the record books, a 6-0 mark with an average of 509 yards per game. Greatest offense in history, people were saying. Project those numbers through a whole season and you've got, omigod, more than 8,000 yards! Then, uh, things happened. This year it's yes, but. Yes, they're great but let's see what happens in the postseason. That's perfectly fine with me. But what I see in front of me now is a team that, amazingly, has managed to keep its entire offense together for three years. There have been a few injuries, but no one's on IR. Yes, this is the class of the league, and now they're ready to go to the next level.
2 2
Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3)
Jerome Bettis has been out for five weeks now. Kordell is throwing picks again, granted, in fairly meaningless games, but still ... A good case could be made for lifting the Bears into this spot, but I just feel that the Steelers are a better team, and when the playoffs start, they'll move smartly through the field until we have the Super Bowl everyone wants to see.
3 3
Chicago Bears (13-3)
What kind of a price could you have gotten preseason if you'd have bet that the Bears would finish with this record? Enough, I'll venture, to enable you to buy a swell condo on Lake Michigan. The Bears have put together a nice closing run of four straight and they'll be well rested for the Divisional Playoffs. And if things go according to plan, the NFC title game will match them against the Rams, another contest that gets you excited. I can see the pregame angle on that one already -- Brian Urlacher against the mighty offense of St. Louis, sort of a modern-day Samson getting ready to destroy the Philistine temple, single-handed. Who says that 2001 hasn't produced its share of interesting teams?
4 4
Green Bay Packers (12-4)
Well, they went to Giants Stadium, supposedly a tough place to throw the ball in January and found a pigeon in Dave Thomas and Brett Favre bombed the poor guy unmercifully. It seems to be their modus operandi now -- put it up deep just to let you know they're not kidding, then come back with Ahman Green. Or it least it was against the Giants. Well, I can't see them having anywhere near that kind of success against the Niners' Ahmed Plummer this weekend, although they might give Jason Webster a nibble on the other side, just to see how he likes the Lambeau grass. But that approach might set up an early pick or two. I get the feeling that they'll settle Favre down with some short stuff, screens and the like, at the beginning, and run the ball a lot, and then let him take a shot or two. Defensively, if the Niners really and truly commit themselves to some serious running, the Pack might have some problems. I guess you want to know my take on the gimme sack Favre awarded Michael Strahan. Suggestions of it appalled me at first, then when it happened, and I saw all that joy, well, I was ready to melt. I mean look at all the double-teamers and wide-assed monsters who ganged up on the guy all year. Now? Not sure. It's like a low-level toothache. It bothers you, but not enough to make you holler.
5 5
San Francisco 49ers (12-4)
You'll notice that the top of the rankings hasn't changed since last week. What's there to change? Everybody won the games they had to.
6 6
New England Patriots (11-5)
OK, it was Carolina, but the Patriots reached a new level for them. They blew out a weaker team in a game that had a certain nervousness factor. Want to project them through the playoffs? Sure, why not? In two weeks they'll be in Foxboro for the Divisional Playoffs. I'll give them that one. Then I figure them to be in Pittsburgh. A rough go. One of the big games in their history. Wonder what kind of a defense Bill Belichick will set up.
7 8
Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)
They're coming off a loss, a squeaky win and an exhibition contest. Last year they faced the Bucs in the wild-card game, just like now. They won, but the game left them kind of drained, and the Giants beat them handily the next week. This year the Bears and their tough defense will be waiting, if Philly gets by the Bucs.
8 10
Miami Dolphins (11-5)
I know Dolphins fans would prefer a higher ranking. Sorry, but all the teams ahead of them won, except Oakland and Tampa Bay, and I moved Miami ahead of the Raiders on merit and the Bucs on general feel. And I know there are Jets fans who'll be saying, "Hey, wait a minute, we beat the Dolphins twice." That's right, they have a hammer on them, but they haven't exactly been scintillating ever since.
9 9
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)
There has been a murmur for a while now. Come out pounding. Run the ball and run it some more. It hasn't been their style, but I have to agree that it gives them the best chance to win against an Eagles team that's banged up along the D-line.
10 11
Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
Sorry, but I don't like what I see here. I mean, the Vikings and Spergon Wynn made a game of it into the fourth quarter. Sure, they ran the ball but Elvis Grbac put up anemic numbers against the NFL's 20th-ranked pass defense. Can they force enough turnovers against the Dolphins to overcome the turnovers they'll commit themselves? I don't think so.
11 14
New York Jets (10-6)
Vince Testaverde threw a couple of really bad picks against the Raiders. The Jets won it because their kicker was a lot better than what Oakland offered and because their defense rose up and held the Raiders to two field goals in the second half. I think they now feel that they have Rich Gannon's number. Maybe they're right. But I'm sure Oakland feels the same way about Vinny.
12 7
Oakland Raiders (10-6)
The season's getting older and so is the oldest team in football. January can be a cruel month. They've lost their last three. Jon Gruden appeared to be in shock after last Sunday's game. Wonder how tough the practices will be this week.
13 13
Washington Redskins (8-8)
Steve Spurrier's name casts a long shadow over this franchise. Do you think Marty Schottenheimer would go into mourning if Danny Boy says, "Here's 10 million bucks, Marty, go take a hike." That's the book value of his buyout price. Don't I hate it when economics intrude on our little world, but in this case, you simply can't get away from them.
14 15
Seattle Seahawks (9-7)
Poor Hawks. Won the game they had to, then had to sit around rooting for a hopeless team like the Vikings. Now we're set up for a dandy quarterback controversy in training camp unless -- and can I be cynical enough to suggest this? -- Mike Holmgren decides to relieve the pressure on his protégé, Matt Hasselbeck, by removing the competition. I can see it now. September, 2002, hot off the presses, The Trifecta, or How I Was Screwed by Three NFL Franchises, by Trent Dilfer, Quarterback, Washington Redskins.
15 12
Denver Broncos (8-8)
Warning -- the next seven spots belong to teams that were all defeated last week. Call it the Losers Bracket. None of them had anything to play for, unless you consider the familiar pride or their job status for the coming season. Some played hard, some just wanted to get through the season. Denver? Well, Brian Griese threw four picks, but since the Broncos are the only team among this bunch that didn't end up with a losing record, they get my top spot in this bracket.
16 16
Tennessee Titans (7-9)
OK, I'll bring it up before the e-mailers have a go at me. This was my preseason Super Bowl pick. Seems like that was about three years ago.
17 17
Cleveland Browns (7-9)
They surprised everyone. They got a lot of bad ink because their guys kept appearing on police blotters and because their top management took such a weird position on that riot they had. They're young, they're on the rise, Butch Davis is a hero. I still want to know why he picked up Chris Akins, that wacko special teamer the Packers cut. Yeah, yeah, praise all around, but more and more this is taking on the aspect of an outlaw franchise.
18 18
Atlanta Falcons (7-9)
This could be the fabled story of the offseason: Chris Chandler taking Michael Vick under his wing and teaching him all the subtleties of playing quarterback in the NFL. I'm writing this because the Redhead just said, "For God's sake, write something nice."
19 19
New York Giants (7-9)
I will not take this offense seriously as long as they have Kerry Collins rolling out. Well, maybe he looks mobile compared to the other QB in town, Vinny Testaverde, but that's as far as it goes. When Favre rolls out, it's hold your breath time because something big could happen downfield. When Collins tries it, you can hear the groans throughout Giants Stadium. The offense is aging. The defense didn't stop people down the stretch. The test will be how they address all this in the offseason.
20 20
Kansas City Chiefs (6-10)
They showed just enough life in the late going to fool the fans into believing they're on the way back.
21 21
Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10)
Here's where we start. Their 63 sacks were a team record. Their quarterback's practically a cripple. Someone ought to send them the hot line number for the Humane Society.
22 25
Indianapolis Colts (6-10)
Get ready for the sound of it. The New Triplets. Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Dominic Rhodes. Unless, of course, they can convince Edgerrin James that Indiana is just as nice a place as Florida.
23 27
Cincinnati Bengals (6-10)
Maybe I should have raised them higher. I mean, poor devils, they gave it their all, right up to the final whistle. Next year I will.
24 22
Arizona Cardinals (7-9)
Here's another team that got everyone excited with some nifty wins and then broke the hearts of their fans with a clunker or two. At least they seem to like their coach. Don't laugh -- that means something nowadays.
25 24
New Orleans Saints (7-9)
If I were the owner, I'd take about half a dozen players, plus the coaching staff, put 'em in the NYPD Blue interrogation room and let Andy Sipowicz have a go at them. He'd get to the bottom of this.
26 23
Minnesota Vikings (5-11)
I've been accused of being anti-Viking, and maybe through the years there's some truth in that, but I'll tell you honestly that Monday night I was rooting for them. Kind of heroic, the battle they put up against the Ravens. During that Red McCombs halftime interview, though, I nearly switched sides.
27 26
Dallas Cowboys (5-11)
Emmitt Smith shoots for Walter Payton's record next year as Troy Hambrick rides the pine. The heart says yes, the head says no. A ticklish situation.
28 28
San Diego Chargers (5-11)
Troy Aikman says he'll return to the arena if he can have Norv Turner run the offense. Turner is the only assistant retained by management. An Aikman-Turner package deal for the Chargers? Somehow I think that Troy has other things in mind.
29 29
Buffalo Bills (3-13)
Can you see them forking over $12 million to bring Rob Johnson back? Me, neither. Alex Van Pelt had some good moments. Is he the future? That's why they have an offseason, to answer questions like that.
30 30
Detroit Lions (2-14)
OK, maybe I should have lifted them into someone's spot because they beat the Cowboys. But I'm tired of bestowing kindness upon people who don't appreciate it.
31 31
Carolina Panthers (1-15)
They beat the Vikings in the opener. I said to my wife, "Looks like I had 'em wrong." I did. I picked them to go 3-13.

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