Thursday, October 1, 2009

Tripodi's Top Teams Take Two

(Last week's ranking in parentheses)

1(2). Baltimore Ravens (3-0): With the Falcons losing, the Ravens take over the top spot after any easy victory over the Browns. Their defense held the hapless Cleveland offense under 200 total yards and forced four turnovers, while Joe Flacco continued his rapid improvement from last season. With Ray Rice and Willis McGahee running effectively as well, the Ravens are the class of the AFC (and the NFL) through three weeks.

2(3). New York Giants (3-0): Like the Ravens, the Giants beat up on a conference cellar dwellar, rushing for over 200 yards and holding the Bucs under 100 yards of total offense in a 24-0 win. Everyone knew New York's running game would get going eventually, and the Bucs were the perfect remedy for what ailed the Giants' rushing attack. Eli Manning has taken care of the ball and made plenty of plays, while this defense is still one to be feared.

3(4). Minnesota Vikings (3-0): The Vikings are lucky to stay in the top five, as lucky as they were to pull off a last-second victory against the 49ers. But San Francisco is a good football team this year, so give Minnesota credit for coming through when they had to. Brett Favre is off to another hot start (don't forget his 12 touchdown passes through four games last season), but he is far from out of the woods yet. I really wonder when his injury issues are going to catch up to him.

4(5). New York Jets (3-0): The Titans are nothing special so far this season, but they are much better than their 0-3 record shows. The Jets offense struggled somewhat after the first quarter, but their defense was strong enough to hold Tennessee in check and give their offense short-field opportunities off of turnovers. That will be this team's calling card this season, and this week's matchup will the offensive-minded Saints will be one to watch.

5(6). Indianapolis Colts (3-0): The Colts blueprint for success: Jump out to a big lead early so the other team is forced to abandon the run. With 21 second-quarter points and an 18-point lead at the half, the Colts forced Kurt Warner to throw 52 times against one of the league's most vaunted pass rushes. They sacked Warner four times and forced two interceptions while covering up their weaknesses in the front seven. They even ran the ball effectively this week, making it even more impossible to stop Peyton Manning, who could be on his way to a fourth MVP award if Drew Brees slows down his ridiculous touchdown pace.

6(8). New Orleans Saints (3-0): Speaking of Drew Brees, his Saints come in sixth this week, a two-spot jump from last week. They struggled for three quarters in Buffalo and led just 10-7 heading into the fourth, but two late Pierre Thomas touchdowns helped seal the deal. They ran for over 200 yards to complement Drew Brees' zero-touchdown day, but the defense was able to keep Buffalo out of the endzone outside of a fake punt. This week's game against the Jets will show whether to believe in Brees and the Saints or not.

7(10). New England Patriots (2-1): After beating the top team in my rankings from last week, the Pats leapfrog the Falcons into seventh this week. New England was finally able to run the football to take the pressure off Tom Brady, and their 168 yards on the ground helped them to a huge advantage in time of possession (39:49 to 20:11). Sometimes the best defense is a good offense, and Matt Ryan and Michael Turner couldn't get on track in their limited opportunities. New England didn't just beat Atlanta, they dominated them.

8(1). Atlanta Falcons (2-1): After a bad loss to New England, I just couldn't keep the Falcons above the Patriots. Their defense has more holes than I accounted for in making them my top team and those holes were exposed, since they were on the field for almost 40 minutes. The Falcons should be able to win games with a similar blueprint to what beat them this week: a ball-control offense that can move the ball consistently, make big plays and keep their defense fresh on the sideline. That didn't happen in New England.

9(7). San Francisco 49ers (2-1): I hate that results dictate these rankings, as the 49ers deserved to beat the Vikings, which would have vaulted them into the top five for sure. But as it is they lost, and they also lost Frank Gore for at least two games to an injury. Glen Coffee dazzled in the preseason, but ran for just 54 yards on 25 carries against a stout Minnesota defense. Expect a better performance from the rookie against the Rams, but Week 5's showdown with the Falcons could be a challenge for the Gore-less 49ers before their bye week.

10(9). Dallas Cowboys (2-1): After going off for 212 rushing yards against the Panthers, the Cowboys lead the league in rushing with 581 yards and a 6.8 yards-per-carry clip. Tony Romo played keep away from Carolina, refusing to make stupid decisions. And their defense recorded their first three sacks and turnovers of the season against the woeful Panther offense. If this conservative Romo becomes a trend without losing his big-play potential, the Cowboys could eventually reach the top five of this list.

11(13). San Diego Chargers (2-1): For those who didn't know after last season, this is Philip Rivers' team now. And they will go as far as he can take them. Their defense is decent, and if LaDainian Tomlinson can stay healthy their running game will be too. Even after a 34:11 TD:INT ratio last season, this will be the year Rivers blossoms into a true leader. The only question is whether his supporting cast can do enough to get this team to the playoffs.

12(14). Philadelphia Eagles (2-1): Kevin Kolb and LeSean McCoy did well replacing Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook, who should return after the Eagles bye in Week 4. Michael Vick didn't do much at all and likely won't be much of a factor until the second half of the season, if at all. Their defense still worries me, but DeSean Jackson is the ultimate weapon and once McNabb and Westbrook return, this offense will continue to roll.

13(21). Cincinnati Bengals (2-1): The largest jump of the week goes to the Cincinnati Bengals, and not because of who they beat. I was already low on the Steelers after Week 2 unlike some Power Rankings I know of, which had the defending champs sixth (seriously ESPN?!? Do you watch football?). Frankly, they were too low last week and now is the time to atone for disrespecting them. They would be 3-0 right now if it weren't for a fluky loss to the Broncos, which is why I jumped them over Denver. Cedric Benson has finally produced like the top-five pick he was in 2005, and the statuesque Carson Palmer has more options in the passing game with the emergence of second-year receiver Andre Caldwell. The Bengals could make the playoffs this season...

14(15). Denver Broncos (3-0): The Broncos beat up on another patsy this weekend with a 23-3 win over the Raiders. Now they get a real challenge, however, with games against Dallas, New England and San Diego coming up before their bye in Week 7. They run the ball extremely well and I've always liked Kyle Orton as a quarterback, but is it time to start believing in their defense? I'll judge after the next three games, when Denver could be sitting at 3-3 or 4-2 going into their bye. If they can win two of those games against good teams, I may have no choice but to put them in the top ten. But for now, 14 seems just about right.

15(11). Arizona Cardinals (1-2): The Colts jumped out early on the Cardinals, which usually isn't an issue considering Arizona's propensity for throwing the football. But Kurt Warner has been extremely inconsistent so far, and the team is hoping the bye week will get him back on track. If Warner isn't playing like a top-five quarterback, this is not a playoff team. They still struggle to run and their defense is built to play with a lead and force turnovers. They just haven't had too many leads yet this season.

16(12). Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2): Willie Parker may have saved his job with a 93-yard performance on Sunday, but it still took him 25 carries to get there. Ben Roethlisberger isn't capable of carrying an offense on his shoulders, no matter how good Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward are. There is talk of a return for Troy Polamalu this week, which would significantly upgrade a struggling defensive unit. The Steelers aren't as bad as they've been so far, but they also aren't as good as they were last season.

17(19). Green Bay Packers (2-1): The Packers took care of business in Week 3, beating the Rams by 15. Aaron Rodgers has made big plays in the passing game and has yet to throw a pick. Next week against Minnesota, he will have to play like an MVP candidate for Green Bay to have a shot, as the Vikings defense should be able to contain Ryan Grant and the Packers running game. I think Brett Favre gets the best of his former backup this week, but it should be an interesting game nonetheless.

18(20). Chicago Bears (2-1): After a Week 1 loss where Jay Cutler scared fans with four interceptions, he has thrown just one compared to five touchdowns over the past two weeks. The Bears need Matt Forte to run better, and this week's matchup with Detroit should help Forte get back on track and lead Chicago to a win. If not it's definitely time to worry, as Cutler will make his share of mistakes if he has to carry this offense, which lacks a dependable receiving option.

19(16). Tennessee Titans (0-3): The Titans have lost their three games by a total of just 13 points, and last week's effort against the Jets showed why this team deserves to remain in the top 20. A few special teams mistakes cost them what could've been their first win of the season, and a season-saver at that. The last team to start 0-3 and make the playoffs was the 1998 Bills, so the Titans will have an uphill climb. I just don't see them being any better than 8-8 at this point.

20(17). Buffalo Bills (1-2): Speaking of the Bills...Terrell Owens lashed out at the media (not his teammates) for trying to bait him into saying something controversial after he didn't catch a pass for the first time since 1996. Trent Edwards is struggling to get the ball downfield to Owens and Lee Evans right now, but the return of Marshawn Lynch should give the Bills a nice 1-2 punch in the backfield to help take pressure off of Edwards. Their defense held down the Saints for three quarters and this team has some potential if they can put it all together. The question is whether or not they do that before the inevitable Owens quarterback-killing explosion.

21(23). Jacksonville Jaguars (1-2): Maurice Jones-Drew ran all over the Texans like everybody else will this season. Drew's performance overshadowed the fact that the Jaguars are awful on defense and can't produce big plays in the passing game. Mike Sims-Walker had another solid game and seems to be overtaking Torry Holt as David Garrard's number-one option. But Jacksonville will struggle to beat teams who can stop the run.

22(18). Houston Texans (1-2): This just in: Houston cannot stop the run. Normally I wouldn't pick the Raiders to beat anybody, but Darren McFadden and Michael Bush will have a field day against the Texans, the only team to allow an average of over 200 rushing yards per game this season. Matt Schaub has posted back-to-back great games, but Nnamdi Asomugha will do what Darrell Revis did to Andre Johnson in Week 1. The Texans may still win, but this game will be closer than many expect.

23(25). Seattle Seahawks (1-2): After losing a close one to Chicago, Seattle will once again be without Matt Hasselbeck as they travel to Indianapolis to play the Colts. Their lone win this year came at the expense of the Rams and they won't pick up their second this week. Seneca Wallace does nothing special and while the Colts are vulnerable against the run, Julius Jones isn't one to set the world ablaze. A result similar to last week's Colts-Cardinals matchup sounds about right.

24(24). Carolina Panthers (0-3): The Panthers were actually in the game until Steve Smith broke off a slant route that turned into a touchdown for Dallas. Carolina needs to run the football more often to succeed, but their game situations have forced Jake Delhomme to air it out. Like the Titans, this team isn't quite as bad as their record would indicate and they come out of their bye with games against Washington and Tampa Bay. They should be 2-3 after Week 6, but Delhomme's inconsistency will prevent them from doing much better than .500 after last year's 12-4 campaign.

25(30). Detroit Lions (1-2): The Lions won a game! I forgot to call it last week, but I really did believe the Lions would outlast the Redskins. Detroit was able to control the clock as Kevin Smith ran for 100 yards and they kept Washington behind all game, forcing Jason Campbell to win the game with his arm, which everybody knows he can't do. This team still has holes, as Campbell racked up 340 yards and two touchdowns through the air, but they are better than last year. That still isn't saying much.

26(26). Oakland Raiders (1-2): JaMarcus Russell finally completed 50 percent of his passes. Too bad his 12 completions went for just 61 yards and he threw two interceptions. The Raiders have a chance against Houston this week if they keep the ball on the ground, but they face the Giants, Eagles, Jets and Chargers in the four games after that. That sounds like a recipe for a 2-6 record at best.

27(27). Washington Redskins (1-2): The Redskins managed just 23 points against the Rams and Lions, two of the worst defenses in the league. That says everything you need to know about this team, who may not win a game in their own division this year. This team has reached a new low after losing to Detroit and only matchups with Tampa Bay, Carolina and Kansas City the next three weeks give Washington any hope at all.

28(22). Miami Dolphins (0-3): Poor Chad Pennington. I really do feel bad for Pennington, who I will always be a fan of thanks to his days as his Jet. But after another season-ending shoulder injury, his career could very well be over. He may latch on as a backup somewhere next season due to an injury, but for now the Dolphins will turn to Chad Henne as their quarterback. If Pennington couldn't win with this team, Henne won't be any better, at least until he adjusts to the starting role.

29(30). Kansas City Chiefs (0-3): Matt Cassel's two touchdowns were the lone bright spot in the Philadelphia game, as the Chiefs couldn't run the ball or play defense. That will be the blueprint for the Chiefs all season, as they will only go as far as Matt Cassel takes them. I don't think that's a good thing.

30(29). Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-3): Byron Leftwich out, Josh Johnson in, Josh Freeman still on the bench? This team is a disaster and it isn't all Leftwich's fault. But an immobile and inaccurate pocket passer like Leftwich wasn't a good fit for Tampa and the fleet-footed Johnson should provide a nice change of pace for the Bucs. Too bad he won't provide many wins before the rookie Freeman takes over.

31(30). Cleveland Browns (0-3): Another team switching quarterback after just three weeks of the season. Eric Mangini kept his Week 1 starter a secret as long as possible, and maybe he just didn't want people to know how bad his decision was going to turn out. I'm not convinced Anderson can help this rag-tag bunch either, but at least now they might be able to throw the ball downfield and provide fans with some excitement on a team otherwise devoid of it.

32(32). St. Louis (0-3): As if things couldn't get worse for the Rams, they lost their most productive receiver, Laurent Robinson, for the season in the loss to Green Bay. The offense was already struggling, their defense is still terrible and now Kyle Boller will be running the offense until Marc Bulger's bruised shoulder heals. I don't think it really matters who their quarterback is, because they're not beating San Francisco or Minnesota in the next two weeks.

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