Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tripodi's Top Teams (Part 1 of 2)

I'm sure ESPN has some sort of copyright on the term "Power Rankings," so this title will have to do.

It would have been tough after Week 1, but after two weeks of the NFL season, I have seen enough from most teams so far to at least have a slight clue what to expect. So here goes.

1. Atlanta Falcons (2-0): The addition of Tony Gonzalez and the continued development of Matt Ryan are the two major reasons the Falcons top the list this week. Ryan has five touchdown passes through two games and Gonzalez leads the team with 12 catches and two touchdowns. Once Michael Turner gets on track (just 3.4 yards-per-carry), this will be the most balanced offensive team in the league. Add a solid defense and this team will improve on last year's 11-5 finish by a game or two.

2. Baltimore Ravens (2-0): Two teams drafted rookie quarterbacks in the first round last year and they are my top two after two weeks. Like Ryan, Joe Flacco has five touchdown passes already and has taken a massive step forward from last season. The Ravens still have their three-man stable of running backs and Flacco has spread the ball around well, as seven receivers have between five and seven receptions. The defensive struggles are slightly worrisome, but if this offense continues to roll it won't matter.

3. New York Giants (2-0): Their running game has struggled so far, but going into Dallas and ruining the opening of Jerry Jones' new stadium has to count for something. They've beaten two divisional rivals and Eli Manning all of a sudden has two legitimate receivers in Steve Smith and Mario Manningham, who both had ten catches and a touchdown against the Cowboys. The defense is still very good and once the running game gets going, watch out!

4. Minnesota Vikings (2-0): If the Vikings were going to be good this season, they were going to start 2-0 against Cleveland and Detroit. Adrian Peterson is the league's best back and Brett Favre has been surprisingly efficient, averaging just 7.2 yards per completion and throwing no interceptions. Percy Harvin is looking like a strong bet for Rookie of the Year and is a perfect fit for this offense, and the defense will continue to stuff the run and pressure the quarterback. Those Super Bowl aspirations look to be realistic, as long as Favre doesn't revert back to the quarterback we all remember from last season.

5. New York Jets (2-0): The new-look Jets defense hasn't allowed an offensive touchdown through two games and they've run the ball down their opponents' throats, averaging over 150 yards per game on the ground. Mark Sanchez has limited mistakes and made his share of big plays through the air in his first two career games. Once Calvin Pace returns in Week 5, this defense will only get better. That's a scary thought.

6. Indianapolis Colts (2-0): It hasn't been pretty, but the Colts are 2-0. I still think they will need an MVP season from Peyton Manning to make the playoffs, but we all know Manning is very capable of that. The Colts will struggle to run as long as Joseph Addai starts over Donald Brown, and their awful run defense was exposed by the Dolphins. However, there may be no team better equipped to protect a lead with less than five minutes to play thanks to a pass rush led by star defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. And Manning will give them that lead more often than not.

7. San Francisco 49ers (2-0): The 49ers held two of the better passing teams in the league in check and beat the two teams expected to compete with them in the NFC West. They play the run well too and Frank Gore has been great (and healthy) so far. Shaun Hill is a poor man's Chad Pennington with how he manages games and is now 10-3 as a starting quarterback. I think San Fran wins 10 games this season and the division.

8. New Orleans Saints (2-0): Drew Brees is amazing (nine touchdowns!?!). And he has six solid options to throw the ball to. Mike Bell has been a revelation, and the running game will only improve with the return of Pierre Thomas (notice I didn't mention Reggie Bush...oops, just did). But New Orleans has allowed 49 points to the Lions and Kevin Kolb-led Eagles. Outscoring teams may get the Saints to the playoffs, but it's going to be an early exit if they can't stop anyone defensively.

9. Dallas Cowboys (1-1): It's been a while since we've seen San Francisco higher than Dallas. But Tony Romo scares me. In a poll done by ESPN's SportsNation, even the state of Texas didn't believe Dallas could win a Super Bowl with Romo at quarterback. He just makes too many mistakes, which was about the only thing that stopped a Dallas drive against the Giants. Romo makes some big plays with his arm and his legs, but unless he cuts the mistakes the Cowboys will forever be a one-and-done playoff team with him at the helm. Teams will throw on the Cowboys too, as they've allowed nearly 600 yards through the air in two games without an interception.

10. New England Patriots (1-1): If it weren't for the Bills' Leodis McKelvin, the Patriots could be 0-2 in their own division to start the season. The Jets didn't let them off the hook like the Bills did, as Tom Brady showed lots of rust after missing all of last season and facing relentless pressure from the aggressive New York defense. New England struggles to run the ball, so they will struggle to score consistently until Brady gets comfortable. And after all the off-season defections from the defense and the loss of Jerod Mayo, New England isn't going to win any games with their defense. A healthy Wes Welker in Week 3 should help Brady get back on track, which he will need to do if New England is going to beat a more-talented Atlanta team.

11. Arizona Cardinals (1-1): After struggling against San Francisco, Kurt Warner bounced back with a near-perfect game against Jacksonville, setting a record for completion percentage in a game (24-for-26). The running game was much more effective than in Week 1 and if Beanie Wells stays healthy and continues to run like he has, he might get sixty percent of the carries by midseason. This offense will be very good once again and their defense will be good enough to win games. Just don't expect another Super Bowl appearance.

12. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1): The defending Super Bowl champion outside the top 10? And behind the team they beat in that game? That's what happens when you lose to the Bears. Their defense is great and Ben Roethlisberger-to-Santonio Holmes is becoming something special, but there is way too much pressure on Roethlisberger offensively with Pittsburgh's non-existent running game. Willie Parker has been declining since 2006, I haven't seen much from Rashard Mendenhall to prove he can be trusted and their offensive line doesn't make holes big enough to make these guys effective. Roethlisberger will continue to make mistakes if he throws 40 times a game, as he's always been a much better quarterback when he throws the ball around 25 times a game.

13. San Diego Chargers (1-1): After struggling in a road win against Oakland, the Chargers lost a tight one when they hosted Baltimore. Philip Rivers threw for 436 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions as the running game was useless without LaDainian Tomlinson, who sat with an ankle injury that could keep him out for Week 3 as well. If Tomlinson stays healthy, the Chargers are good enough on both sides of the ball to make the playoffs. I just don't see the Super Bowl hype right now. I also don't see Tomlinson staying upright all season.

14. Philadelphia Eagles (1-1): Even with a healthy Donovan McNabb, the Saints still would've lit up the scoreboard for 40-plus points. The only difference is that the Eagles might have been able to match it. Kevin Kolb threw for 391 yards and two touchdown, but was intercepted three times. Brees can make any defense look bad, but the Eagles' secondary was supposed to be the strength of their defense this season. It's a good thing they have so many weapons on offense, because they will need them all to make it to the playoffs again.

15. Denver Broncos (2-0): Denver is the only undefeated team so far that I think will struggle to finish over .500. Forgive me if I don't respect their fluky win against Cincinnati or their blowout of the pathetic Browns. Kyle Orton is a decent game manager and they will always be able to run the ball, but Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal have struggled and the Broncos will struggle to make big plays. I don't buy the defensive resurgence so far either, as there's a reason they wanted to ship Marshall out of the town for David Harris.

16. Tennessee Titans (0-2): The first winless team to appear on my rankings, Tennessee is not as bad as the record implies after losing two three-point games to the Steelers and Texans. Chris Johnson dazzled with 284 total yards and three touchdowns against Houston, but the Titans couldn't slow down Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and company through the air. They have shut down the run in both games but have been exposed through the air, which is surprising considering the playmakers they have in the secondary (Cortland Finnegan, Michael Griffin, Chris Hope). The Titans may be able to turn it around and push for the playoffs, but they need a win this week against the Jets to keep them afloat for the time being. With the confidence the Jets are building early in the season, that may be a tough task.

Teams 17-32 coming soon...

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