There’s one thing that has become very clear to me as the NFL season enters the December stretch run following another week of wild finishes and head scratching upsets. The 2015 season is an ode to mediocrity. You’re not going to find many (any?) truly elite teams.
With the Patriots ongoing injury woes, when it comes to the elites at this stage of the campaign, there are only three teams I’d even consider: the Panthers, Cardinals and Bengals. And all three of those teams have enough question marks to put them a good notch or two below where my top power rated teams were last year or the year before at this stage of the campaign.
It’s a similar story at the bottom of the league. I’ve got eight teams grouped at the bottom of my power ratings: the 49ers, Chargers, Ravens, Titans, Browns, Saints, Jaguars and Rams. All eight of those teams, while unquestionably weak, are capable of pulling upsets over playoff contenders, because they’ve all done it at least once this year.
San Fran has wins over the Vikings and Falcons (still a playoff team if the season ended today). San Diego has Philip Rivers, New Orleans has Drew Brees. Baltimore’s issues are largely injury related. Jacksonville is very much in playoff contention and St. Louis is still live for a spot if they come on strong down the stretch. The Titans and Browns are legit bottom feeders, but even those two win squads have played stretches of highly competitive football this season.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us in a place where at least 20 of the 32 NFL teams must be ranked somewhere between ‘good but not great’ and ‘bad but not awful’. Yes, there is a power rating differential between the ‘good but not great’ Broncos, Seahawks and Packers compared to the ’bad but not awful’ Cowboys, Eagles and Dolphins. But there’s not a TD worth of difference in my power ratings between the two groupings, meaning that on a neutral field, we’re talking about 20 squads that wouldn’t be favored by a TD against anyone but the bottom quartile of the league.
In this week’s Wiseguy Report, I’ll focus on four of those teams grouped in the middle of the pack, dissecting the pertinent notes and quotes following the games this past weekend.
The Green Bay Packers have fallen from 6-0 to 7-4 since their bye week, although their only win during this span was a huge one, knocking off Minnesota to earn the tiebreaker edge against the Vikings. They’ve lost back-to-back home games against the sub .500 Lions and Bears. Aaron Rodgers was not amused by the latest loss, and his quotes tell us that this may not be the most cohesive locker room these days.
Rodgers: “It goes back to what you're doing in your spare time and what you're doing with your time in the facility. Being a pro is all about making sure you're as ready as possible by the time the game hits. I think that's the important thing for guys to remember here, especially young guys. We're 15 games into the season, counting preseason. That's a long grind for those guys, especially the rookies. This is the time where they really got to get through that wall, and the vets -- the vets have had some [missed assignments] as well.”
Rodgers continued: "You know, you've got to be able to look in the mirror and feel good about the preparation every single day. You need to think about if you accomplished everything you want to accomplish. If you didn't, you take your stuff home, and you look at it. You probably should take your stuff home and look at it anyway. This time of year, I always feel, helps with the preparation because it's so cold outside. There's not much going on, so you've got no excuses not to get in the iPad, get in your book and get ready to play."
The Packers passing game has slipped to #23 in the league, and they lost at home on Thanksgiving despite a strong game from Eddie Lacy on the ground and a defensive effort that held Chicago to 17 points. But this team is still being priced like an elite contender, favored in all four of their recent losses.
The Oakland Raiders stayed alive in the AFC playoff picture with an intense, come-from-behind-in-the-fourth-quarter road win at Tennessee on Sunday, sneaking past the Titans with a three point win (and cover). That being said, while Oakland ‘found a way to win’ the reality is that they found a way to lose and were bailed out by the refs following a phantom penalty on the far side of the field on a fourth down incompletion. Titans head coach Mike Mularkey: “The one call is the call, it changes the game, changes the outcome of the game. It's frustrating, very frustrating.”
That said, notching this road win was clearly a positive for the Raiders. Head coach Jack Del Rio had a very different take on Oakland’s game winning drive: “I'm really proud of the way they guys stayed in it. It was tough. There was a reason to be discouraged. You're in control of the game, you fumble it and all of a sudden they go down and get a score. And it's `Oh my gosh, what are we going to do?' Well, we're going to go down there and find a way to get it in there and get a score."
The win was the third SU road win for Oakland this year. Over the previous three seasons, the Raiders were 2-22 SU in their 24 games away from home…
The Buffalo Bills made a myriad of mistakes on Sunday after jumping out to a double digit first half lead against the Chiefs. Rex Ryan screwed up his challenges – more than once – in a fairly embarrassing display of inept game management. The defense – Ryan’s trademark – collapsed down the stretch. And the offense managed only one scoring drive after halftime.
Bills WR Sammy Watkins had a huge first half, but was completely shut down in the second half. “We didn't get the job done. We've got to put the nail in the coffin when we play great teams like this. You give them a chance and let them live, they start making plays -- their defense starts making plays. We've got to put them away."
Bills QB Tyrod Taylor hasn’t thrown a single interception in his last five starts, and he was an effective passer and an effective runner out of the pocket in the loss to KC. “We made it tough on ourselves, but we've just got to take it week by week, day by day. Maintain a hungry attitude." A cluster injury problem on the defensive line (Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Alex Carrington are all hurt) is likely to ratchet up the pressure on the offense for the December stretch run.
The Washington Redskins have the sharpest home/road dichotomy in the NFL this season, improving to 5-1 at home following Sunday’s win against the Giants, but still winless on the highway this season. Washington has struggled to run the football. They’ve struggled to stop the run. They’ve got cluster injuries in their secondary on defense. And yet we’re seeing quotes like this one from defensive end Jason Hatcher: “We're in the driver's seat right now. We've just got to continue winning games and driving the car -- right into the playoffs."
The mainstream takeaway from this game was ‘Redskins good’. These two quotes from the Giants might indicate otherwise. Tom Coughlin “We `sleptwalked' -- whatever the word is.” Odell Beckham Jr, talking about the Giants first ten possessions – seven punts and three turnovers: “We came out flat. Too many mistakes.”
Washington safety Dashon Goldson, talking about the effects of a players only meeting for the Skins the day before the game: “It was much needed. We’ve got the talent here, it was a mindset for us to click today and we all played together. We played as a team. My message was to come together and play good in all phases and put aside any personal things you’ve got. As long as we’re on the field together we have to hit that switch, and we did that.”
WR Pierre Garcon, summed up the meeting this way: “Stop losing. Bring energy. Bring effort. Everyone has to bring their effort. We saw it today and it worked out well for us.
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