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Mediocrity reigns, Green Bay rises

Posted: Tuesday November 12, 2002 6:19 PM
 

The balance of power has shifted in the NFL. Not in the modern era, not in the decade, but where it counts most, in my humble Power Rankings. In September the AFC ruled. One week it occupied the top four spots. The next week, which closed out the month, it controlled five of the top six. Then the NFC made its move. While the AFC powers were either knocking themselves off or losing to the NFC (all except the Eagles, who just can't get it together for the other conference), the mantle gradually passed, and now we have NFC teams batting one-two-three in the order. The reason for this is that for the first time, I've done the rankings strictly by computer. That's a joke, by the way. Machines must never tell people how to live. Some day future generations will look back on this era and sadly shake their heads. "They sold their souls to technology." My soul, incidentally, can be bought for the right price.

Dr. Z's Power Rankings
Rank  LW    Team 
1 2 Green Bay Packers (8-1)
Before we get delirious with excitement, let me remind you of what happened last year in the Metrodome, the site of Sunday's contest. The Pack came in at 4-1, Minnesota was a stumbling 2-3. Final score, Vikings 35, Packers 13. If Green Bay is looking through this game, looking ahead to the Bucs on the road, well, then all you Packers e-mailers might be playing a different banjo next week.
2 4 San Francisco 49ers (7-2)
"You can't be negative about your top two choices," the Flaming Redhead reminds me. "Say something nice, for gosh sakes." Sure, glad to oblige. All I'm wondering is how long they think they can get away with Mike Rumph, their No. 1 draft choice and nickel back, playing single coverage on the right corner. He has been everybody's pigeon this year, and K.C.'s Eddie Kennison ate him for lunch last weekend, until the Niners decided to give Rumph help on the last four plays. It nearly cost them the game. Is that nice enough, Linda? No? How about this? They have a three-game lead on the division, and their only serious rival (maybe), St. Louis, doesn't appear on the schedule until the final Sunday, which isn't even a Sunday. It's a Monday night.
3 5 New Orleans Saints (7-2)
They're up here because of their past performance chart, and that last-minute, 95-yard drive that got them past the Panthers. The Panthers? Hey, Carolina put up more yards against them than they had in any game this season. I guess this is just Be-Negative Day, and look who's gonna show up at No. 4, a team that didn't even win Sunday, and that would be...
4 9 Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3-1)
OK, so the Falcons made a heroic late run at them and it ended in a tie. There are still many things to like here. Tommy Maddox continues to blaze away. Amos Zereoue, whose lack of stature created fear that he wouldn't be durable enough, carried the ball 37 times Sunday. Jerome Bettis never did that. And here's an offbeat stat for you: Billy Cowher was 71-1 in games in which he held a lead of more than 10 points. Now he's 71-1-1.
5 10 Atlanta Falcons (5-3-1)
I could have switched places between Atlanta and Pittsburgh, or I could have placed the Falcons in a tie for No. 4, or I could have told the guys who came around to pick up the leaves today to go right ahead and never mind the fact that most of them are still up in the trees. But I didn't, and what's worse, Sunday night, when I did my handicapping, I had New Orleans beating Atlanta, and I'd like to have that pick back. I figured the post-overtime fatigue factor would kick in, but the Raiders sure blew that theory, didn't they? It ain't easy, folks.
6 3 Philadelphia Eagles (6-3)
Well, how much do you drop them after they took the day off against still another AFC opponent? And is it fair to have the Colts, clearly the better team last weekend, 10 places in arrears? Here are the answers. Three places. No, it's not fair, but in my defense, I narrowed the gap from 19 spots to 10. You can't throw your whole board out of whack because of one afternoon. Arizona, I'm afraid, will pay the price for Philly's lapses against Indy.
7 8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-2)
Up you go, Bucs, as four teams above you took the pipe during your bye week. Maybe you can lobby for another one.
8 12 Oakland Raiders (5-4)
Well, now I'm in a pickle. A gnat-attack offense that I'd ridiculed ran the Broncos out of Mile High, but honestly, wasn't there something just a bit obscene in what we saw Monday night? It was the run 'n shoot, which I thought we'd seen the last of. For defensive advice on how to control that offense, please drop your eyes one place downward, where we will continue this clinic.
9 1 Denver Broncos (6-3)
The book on playing against the R&S, and the reason why it was mothballed, was that you made the quarterback pay dearly for all that dink stuff. It just subjected him to too much punishment. But the Raiders didn't run that attack in its purest form, which had four wideouts spread across the field, creating big gaps for the blitzers to shoot through. They had three wide receivers on the field a lot of the time, but also a tight end, sometimes even two, to help in the blocking, and the wideouts often operated out of closer alignments, and then went into their routes. But the overall principle was still short passes off a quick drop, the throws greatly outnumbering the runs. So how did Ray Rhodes choose to defend? By rushing three, sometimes even two, and trying to clamp on the receivers in close. Didn't work. The receivers were too skillful, and so was Rich Gannon. So, seeing the failure of that approach, and as the game was slipping away, there should have been an all-out attack on the QB. I mean, nothing else was working. Innovative blitz schemes from odd places, etc. And when the Broncos finally tried it, Gannon laid one up perfectly for Jerry Rice and got a 34-yard TD out of it. But this was in the fourth quarter, when the game was history. Sure, you could argue about the Rod Woodson pick, or the Shannon Sharpe catch that was ruled incomplete, but the bottom line is that the defense was woeful, and it cost the Broncos a hefty eight-place demotion on this chart. And this diatribe has been so long, that to make up for it, I'm afraid I'm gonna have to short the next 10 teams or so.
10 15 St. Louis Rams (4-5)
Beginning here, only because, naturally, I have a lot to say about this whole Bulger-Warner thing, so much that I'm saving it for Wednesday's column. I say Bulger. The whole thing just seems so obvious.
11 6 San Diego Chargers (6-3)
Right, that's the way to hand a Mike Martz offense the game -- rush three, sit in a soft zone and pray.
12 11 New England Patriots (5-4)
I just noticed that they actually dropped a spot after their stirring, come-from-behind victory over the Bears. Sorry, but where would I place them? No. 11 is a possibility, but their defeat by San Diego is still too fresh.
13 13 Buffalo Bills (5-4)
Aren't they sorry they had to sit through their bye and miss all of last weekend's furious, churning action?
14 7 Kansas City Chiefs (4-5)
Tony Gonzalez got mugged by the Niners. He has a legitimate complaint. But is he really the force that he was in 2001? He has more TDs than he did last year at this point, but 10 fewer catches and 170 fewer yards. And you lose track of him at times. Just asking.
15 14 Miami Dolphins (5-4)
They're slipping fast. Sunday night they lost a mean, nasty slugfest to the Jets, the kind of game they usually win. Right now they don't have the offensive firepower to capture a shootout. Watch 'em score 40 against the Ravens.
16 22 Indianapolis Colts (5-4)
They went three wides. The Eagles countered with their nickel. So Indy smacked 'em on the ground with a zippy little street free agent named James Mungro from the town of East Stroudsburg, Pa. (And please don't laugh at the name of this place. We spent many a happy day off in Eastburg when I was working as a busboy in the Poconos.) And then the Colts went to the air. A nice show all around. I hate to be negative about the injured Edgerrin James, who's been a great back, but see what happens when you have a guy with a live set of giddyaps?
17 27 New York Jets (4-5)
At least three New York writers flatly had said that their season was over. Now they're back in the thick of it. Sam Cowart looked like his old self against the Dolphins. John Abraham was a serious pass-rushing force once again. Laveranues Coles turned in the game's biggest play, a 42-yarder, the longest reception in the 26-game Herman Edwards-Paul Hackett era. We'll find out about the maturity factor in their game at Detroit, which looms as a classic trap.
18 18 New York Giants (5-4)
With 4:17 left in their victory over the Vikings, they were faced with a third-and-four on the Minnesota 22. Jeremy Shockey caught a five-yard pass. This was noteworthy because it ended up as the only third-down conversion by either team. OK, the Giants can beat bad clubs in games like this. They can continue to win their share against a schedule that's not too daunting. But please don't ask me to get excited.
19 19 Tennessee Titans (5-4)
Is it my imagination or are there more 5-4 teams than we've ever seen at this point? This is the seventh. Last year there were three. In 2000 there were six. This has the makings of a lengthy research project that will bore everyone silly.
20 23 Jacksonville Jaguars (4-5)
And that's where it ends. No more 5-4's. Enter the Gloom Brigade. Well, I guess the Jags don't qualify, after their workmanlike dispatch of Steve Spurrier on his personal field of dreams, but now the weather turns chilly, and the alligators become dormant, and coming up on the schedule are ... hey, Houston and Dallas. The Jags could be 6-5, facing Pittsburgh at home. They could be playoff bound in what once appeared to be a troubled season.
21 20 Baltimore Ravens (4-5)
You're not gonna believe this. The Ravens are one of eight 4-5 clubs. That makes 15 teams staking out a true middle-of-the pack position. Now I know that's some kind of record. Did you say a record for mediocrity, for grayness, for parity? Nope, just a statistical anomaly.
22 20 Cleveland Browns (4-5)
Seldom does a bye week cost a team three spots. The problem is that all three teams that vaulted over them won their games. Watch out, Bengals. You have an enraged team on your hands.
23 16 Washington Redskins (4-5)
A nice, snappy, ground-oriented opening drive gave way to a 51-16, pass-run overload. That's what happens when you give the coach a set of crayons and a coloring book on the sidelines.
24 26 Seattle Seahawks (3-6)
The Hawks, under Matt Hasselbeck, scored on all five possessions of the first half against Arizona. The contracting and expanding world of the NFL quarterback. Say, maybe we can win with him after all. All you have to do is carry the Cardinals around in a suitcase from week to week and open it up every Sunday.
25 17 Arizona Cardinals (4-5)
Jake Plummer gets booed at home. Marcel Shipp fumbles twice inside the Seahawks' 5-yard-line. Hasselbeck passes for 209 yards against them in the first half. I can think of nothing clever to say. I'll gather my charts and move on.
26 24 Carolina Panthers (3-6)
Rodney Peete returned. They put together four long scoring drives, including the 79-yarder that provided a fourth-quarter lead they couldn't hold, giving way to the Saints' 95-yard march at the end. This isn't supposed to happen. They're a defense-oriented team, remember?
27 25 Detroit Lions (3-6)
They beat the Cowboys not so long ago, so they're at 27th, not 28th. They have my permission to use the foregoing for motivational purposes.
28 28 Dallas Cowboys (3-6)
When stumped for descriptives, always turn to the schedule. Let's see ... at Indy, then Jacksonville and Washington at home. Hmmm, very interesting. Linda, what do you make of that? "You promised to take me to dinner," she says, "so hurry up and get finished." Once again, dedication loses the battle against hunger.
29 29 Chicago Bears (2-7)
They've lost seven in a row. They shouldn't have lost to the Patriots, but they blew that one because they chose to sit on a lead and run three plays into the heart of the defense and then punt into the wind, giving New England life. One little pass completion by Chicago and the game's over, no drama, no Patriots comeback. It's the kind of clunky, old-world NFL thinking that I just can't stand.
30 30 Minnesota Vikings (2-7)
Hey, there's a quarterback controversy, Daunte Culpepper vs. Todd Bouman. Maybe we can run this as a paired entry with Bulger and Warner. Throw in Miller-Chandler on the Bears and Jurgensen-Kilmer on the Redskins and we can give our e-mailers a dial-up saturnalia.
31 32 Houston Texans (2-7)
I couldn't find enough positives up on top, but I can down here. After the Dallas game, the Texans' offense, last in the league, has trailed in time of possession in every game. And yet, working under the handicap of having to be on the field longer than it would like, the defense has remained firm. Aaron Glenn is a serious All-Pro candidate at the left corner.
32 31 Cincinnati Bengals (1-8)
Let's see, Ravens ran an interception back for a TD against them, then ran a punt back all the way. That's about par. Next week it'll be a fumble return and a kickoff. The week after that, what? A safety? A rouge? A missed field goal taken back all the way? And meanwhile the hard-working taxpayers of Hamilton County have to pay an extra half percent so the Bengals can play in their nice new stadium. Should have built a casino instead.
 
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