After a one-year hiatus, parity is back in the NFL.
On several occasions last year I wrote about the fact that, for one season at least, parity was dead in the NFL. The top-tier teams were at least three or four touchdowns better than the bottom feeders and the head-to-head and peripheral numbers backed that assessment up. Teams like Detroit and St. Louis were setting records for futility (consecutive losses, point differentials, number of blowouts, etc.) while teams like New Orleans and Indianapolis stayed undefeated until they started benching their starters. It made for a truly odd season in a league where we’ve come to expect the unexpected.
But this year it appears that things have returned to normal. Last year’s losers like Kansas City and Seattle have managed to beat the team everyone picks to win the Super Bowl each preseason only to watch them fold like a beach chair (San Diego). Last week feeble Cleveland put Baltimore to the test. Even the worst team in football, Buffalo, has two of its three losses by one score or less.
In the NFC the lone undefeated team remaining is the Chicago Bears. This is the same Bears team that won its home opener in controversial fashion against a Lions team that is 2-17 in its last 19 games. In the AFC there are just two unbeaten teams, and one of them (K.C.) has won all of 10 games in the last three years.
At no time is the parity of this season more evident than each week when I sit down to do my NFL Power Rankings. Normally by this time of the season – I know it’s early, but I’m a professional – things are pretty clear to me. I know the best 10-12 teams and I know the worst 8-10 teams and only their order will shuffle the last few months. But not this year. I have Green Bay as the No. 5 team in the NFL even though I wrote a whole article this preseason about how they aren’t going to the playoffs and will be a major disappointment. San Diego was No. 4 last week and No. 12 this week (I very, very rarely have such knee-jerk reactions) and I don’t know if I still have them overrated or underrated. None of the following: Jets, Colts, Patriots, or Cowboys, have impressed me at all this season. Yet they are dominating the Top 10.
The moral of the story here is to beware of land mines and look to take the points. Especially with the heaviest underdogs. Something tells me that a dark and mysterious fall is going to give way to a wild winter this football season. And there are dozens of twists and turns left to play out in this season.
So with that in mind, here is my Week 4 NFL Power Rankings:
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0) – Prior to last week’s offensive outburst the Steelers had managed just one offensive touchdown so far this year, so their woes on O are hardly remedied. Chris Hoke left last week with a knee injury, which means that the Steelers have to pull their third-string nose tackle off the practice squad this week. The Steelers are just 3-13-1 ATS as a home favorite of less than a field goal. Pittsburgh is 4-0 ATS in the last four meetings with the Ravens, but as I look at this game I just can’t fully expect the Steelers to sweep to 4-0 without Big Ben. I think 2-2 was the goal and they surpassed that already. The home crowd will keep them up, but I just don’t see how they can score.
2. Baltimore Ravens (2-1) – Yes, it was disturbing to watch Baltimore bumble and stumble its way through its home opener against feeble Cleveland. But there is no doubt that this team was looking ahead to this week’s game. Although everyone expects low-scoring games when the Ravens and Steelers meet, the ‘over’ is actually 6-1-1 in the last eight meetings with an average of 39.1 points per game. I don’t trust John Harbaugh on the road. I simply don’t. This team is 3-7-1 ATS in its last 11 road games and last year they went just 1-4-1 ATS on the road against teams that finished .500 or better. The Ravens have won just one time in their last 10 trips to Heinz Field.
3. New Orleans Saints (2-1) – Last week we saw what separates the Saints from the rest of the league: turnovers. New Orleans is no joke. But they lost the turnover battle (-1) and they lost the game to an opponent of equal quality. I know that if their kicker had made that chippy then the Saints would be 3-0 and everyone would be singing their praises. But they haven’t covered a spread yet this year despite two home games and two games against teams that are a combined 1-5. The run defense was inconsistent last week. This team needs to avoid a letdown and be ready to bang heads with Carolina, because the Panthers may try to run the ball 50 times in this one.
4. New York Jets (2-1) – A whopping 95 percent of the early action on this week’s game has come on the side of the Jets. That’s not really a stunner considering the Bills have been catching 13 or more points the last two weeks. But you still don’t generally see that one-sided of a game in the NFL. Mark Sanchez has been sharp the last two weeks, but also had the benefit of facing two weak defenses, particularly against the pass. The road team is 5-0 ATS in this series, but the Jets are just 2-5 ATS against Buffalo. The Jets had a horrendous 23.3 yards per point in two games against the Bills last year, mainly because Sanchez couldn’t stop turning the ball over.
5. Green Bay Packers (2-1) – That’s how it starts. Green Bay let one get away on Monday Night. They will beat up on Detroit this week – a team they have dominated recently. But then the schedule really fattens up, with games against Minnesota, Washington and Dallas – three quality teams – their only games against teams that don’t presently have a winning mark. For all of the flack the offensive line has taken, Green Bay has given up just three sacks and six QB hits so far this year. The Packers are 7-1 ATS in their last eight against the Lions and the home team is 17-8-1 ATS in the last 26. Green Bay has won by an average of 20.4 points in the last five meetings.
6. Atlanta Falcons (2-1) – The Falcons are legit and have been as impressive as any team in the league through three weeks. It is very rare that such a public upset – and I know a lot of people that were predicting an Atlanta win in New Orleans – comes through. I still think that Jason Snelling should get more carries. Last year the Falcons hammered San Fran, 45-10, on the road. But you have to throw that game out when capping this year’s affair. Atlanta had two weeks to prep for that game and was playing to salvage its season after some early tough losses. Now it seems like, minus the extra prep time, San Fran is in that Desperate Boat. Atlanta also has the edge this week of an early start time for a West Coast team. Don’t underestimate how big of an advantage that has been in recent years. But after such a great win last week Atlanta has to avoid a big letdown.
7. Indianapolis Colts (2-1) – I’ve said it a million times: they don’t make mistakes and they take advantage when other teams do. Last week they gave up more than 500 yards, but were never really threatened. How? They win with great red zone defense and an offense that can’t be stopped. But the Colts still have the same problems that have plagued them for a decade, and thus have a pretty obvious ceiling; you can’t win the Super Bowl by simply relying on the incompetence of others. Their running game is a mess (No. 25 in the NFL) and they get pushed around on both lines of scrimmage. But they will manhandle the next two teams they play (Jaguars and Chiefs). Eight of 10 meetings with Jacksonville have been decided by one score or less and the average margin of victory in the last five meetings is just 3.6 points.
8. New England Patriots (2-1) – The Patriots defense has given up 82 points in three games this year, the worst total in the Belichick Era. They have demolished their totals so far this year, going 3-0 against the number and averaging 57.3 points in their games. And now that they have unveiled a vicious no-huddle offense I don’t see those numbers depreciating significantly. And unleashing Tom Brady on a secondary that just got lit by Mark Sanchez is a recipe for high scoring. However, they are just 3-7 against the total in their last 10 road games. The Pats have been great on Monday Night Football and they are 5-1 on MNF against a team off a loss as a favorite.
9. Dallas Cowboys (1-2) – I know that Roy Williams has been a scapegoat in Dallas, but I’m not surprised at all by his breakout game last week. Besides the fact that Houston’s secondary sucks, Williams has looked good throughout the first two months of the year. For some reason, Romo misses him with throws twice as much as he misses Jason Witten. The Cowboys will be without Kyle Kosier for a month, but the line had by far its best game of the season last week. Also, Tashard Choice is awful. He’s just an awful running back. I have no idea how this guy gets any touches – much less third-down touches and key carries – but nothing good ever happens when he gets the ball. Get him out of there.
10. Cincinnati Bengals (2-1) – Ugly but effective, Cincinnati is quietly angling at the top spot in the best division in football. However, I’m starting to turn a 180 against Carson Palmer. Yes, I still think that he is a victim of a terrible pass-blocking line. But he’s missing throws and making terrible decisions. He was picked twice last week and the Panthers dropped, literally, four other picks. So far this season he is just 3-for-11 on passes over 20 yards. Fortunately the defense is still nasty. Last week they held an opponent to 13 points or less for the 13th time in 26 games. Ask yourself this week: do you really trust Marvin Lewis to cover as a road favorite two weeks in a row? I sense the back door will be wide open all game.
11. Tennessee Titans (2-1) – I hope that Vince Young was taking careful notes last week about what happens when you don’t turn the ball over and your opponent does. While Young and Chris Johnson are getting all of the publicity for this team, Jeff Fisher has quietly rebuilt a defense that is now a Top 10 unit. They are getting pressure from everywhere and have been great at making plays on the ball. Unfortunately they lost up-and-coming corner Jason McCourty to a broken arm last week. The Titans are just 17-39 ATS as a favorite between 3.5 and 10.0 and they are just 1-5 ATS following a win. They have to avoid looking past Denver this week to a road game at Dallas next week.
12. Houston Texans (2-1) – The loss of starting left tackle Duane Brown is obviously a big one for Houston, as they had no chance of slowing down the Dallas pass rush last week. I continue to contend that the Texans aren’t nearly as good as people think. They have no depth. And as I rewatched the Dallas game to me it was pretty obvious: Houston wasn’t making plays because they weren’t good enough. Dallas is much more talented, but only kept Houston in it as long as they did because they are morons. One big edge Houston has this week is that their (formerly) Denver-style offense is the same one that has shredded Oakland for two decades.
13. San Diego Chargers (1-2) – OK, it’s one thing to look back and say that two “fluke” losses have kept this team down. I mean, who gives up three kick return touchdowns in three weeks? And how about the fact that in both losses San Diego had first down inside the 15-yard-line in both games on a drive to score the tying points? But then when you consider just who San Diego lost to – K.C. and Seattle – and how they lost – a delay of game penalty nullified the game-tying score last week – it all comes into perspective. This team has no heart, no hunger, and is losing talent by the day. They have outgained their opponents by 571 yards. And they have a losing record. This week’s opponent, Arizona, has been outgained by -261 yards and they have a winning record. It’s amazing. San Diego is 20-9-2 ATS after a loss.
14. Minnesota Vikings (1-2) – As if everyone wasn’t sick of Brett Favre right now, the story that makes me most vomitous is the one about how he can’t get on the same page with his receivers. THAT’S WHAT TRAINING CAMP IS FOR! Favre couldn’t care less about this team or this season. And after a few more losses, which are assuredly coming with Minnesota’s brutal schedule, there is no doubt he is going to mail it in and bail on this group. The defense will keep the Vikings in the race but they can’t win it for them.
15. New York Giants (1-2) – What a bunch of ass clowns. This is a team that has major issues all over the field and in the locker room. Defensively, they have a bunch of guys who think they are a lot better than they really are. And overall they are just undisciplined and lazy. This team killed itself with stunning turnovers inside the five-yard-line, five personal fouls, a safety as the result of a penalty, and a delay of game that occurred right before a field goal (that was missed). I don’t know if you could have a more bizarre assortment of goofy occurrences. They outgained Tennessee 202-78 in the first half and were lucky to be tied. They outgained them by nearly 200 yards on the game and lost by three touchdowns. The G-Men are 2-7 ATS as chalk and 3-9 ATS after a loss of two TDs or more.
16. Washington Redskins (1-2) – St. Louis has now won four games in the last three years. Two of them are against the Redskins. That is just pathetic. Washington is converting on a stunningly bad 18 percent of its third downs. And I have no idea why Mike Shanahan keeps abandoning the running game. The Redskins had 112 rushing yards midway through the second quarter last week and finished with just 116. It was second-and-four inside the Rams 15-yard line, Washington down four, and Shanahan is throwing the ball. Also, I will pat myself on the back for pointing out in the preseason how absurd it was for a defense that had finished in the Top 10 in yards allowed eight times in 10 years to switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 on a whim. The Redskins are now last in the league in yards allowed. Good job Shanahan. Maybe now I see why Denver did cut you loose.
17. Philadelphia Eagles (2-1) – Before we get too giddy about what Mike Vick has done let’s also put it in context by pointing out that he’s faced two of the worst defenses in the NFL (Detroit, Jaguars) in the last two weeks. He has been good, but let’s back up a bit until he does it against a decent team. So far this year the Eagles offensive line has been by far the worst in football. They are on pace to give up 75 sacks (even with the ultra-mobile Vick) and 123 QB hits. In four of the last five years the Philly-Washington series has been a sweep. The home team is just 1-5-1 ATS in the last three years.
18. Chicago Bears (3-0) – I will repeat exactly what I said last week: as a Bears fan I’m thrilled we’re 3-0. As an NFL handicapper I am not buying into this team yet. On one hand, you can’t deny wins over Dallas and Green Bay (the two preseason NFC favorites). But in reality the Bears just as easily could be 0-3 as they are 3-0. First there was the Calvin Johnson no-catch. In Dallas, more than 60 percent of their total yards came on three plays. And on Monday Jay Cutler did everything he could to blow that game, having two interceptions in the fourth quarter taken off the board for penalties and two others dropped. Nearly 70 percent of the early action is coming in on the Bears, but the line has shot up through some key number, moving from -3.0 to -4.0.
19. Miami Dolphins (2-1) – I am still thinking that this team is not nearly as good as its record or reputation has it right now. Their young secondary was torn up last week against a subpar passing game. They are 2-1 despite scoring just one more point than they’ve allowed. The Dolphins are a solid 8-2 ATS in their last 10 divisional games and they always play the Patriots tough in Florida. But Miami is still just 15-40-1 ATS at home and just 2-5 ATS as a home underdog recently. Also, the road team has covered five of six in this series. This is a young team and they will be on a roller coaster all year.
20. Kansas City Chiefs (3-0) – Kudos to the Chiefs for their 3-0 start. You can only beat who is on your schedule and K.C. has done that. That said, as you can see I’m still not completely buying in. Especially not with Matt Cassell floating balls around the way he has been. He is a mess right now. However, there are lots of factors that have played into the Chiefs turnaround. But in my mind the biggest is obvious: incredible improvement on the offensive and defensive lines. They have given up just one sack so far this year while paving the way for a running game averaging 4.6 yards per rush. The defensive line is holding up at the point – thanks especially to Sean Smith – and finally starting to get pressure – thanks to Tamba Hali.
21. Denver Broncos (1-2) – The more I see this team the more I am starting to like them. The offense hasn’t been tested by a decent defense yet but the Broncos move the ball at will. They have a talented, veteran safety and they are better this year up front on both sides of the ball. In my book they should be at least 2-1 right now. In my mind they are a team that is building up some value. That said, they are just 2-5 ATS overall, 2-6 ATS as a dog, and 3-8 ATS after a loss.
22. Oakland Raiders (1-2) – Last week was a potential season-changing loss. Had Oakland won in Arizona – a game in which they outplayed the Cardinals – they would be feeling 10 feet tall while preparing for a Houston team in a prime letdown spot. But Oakland has 33 penalties through three games and they are still doing just too many idiotic things at awful times. I mean, they gave up a touchdown on the opening kickoff, had a TD taken off the board for a penalty, AND missed three kicks. Just vintage Raiders. They are 4-16-1 ATS as a home dog of a field goal or less.
23. Arizona Cardinals (2-1) – Larry Fitzgerald has been shackled this year by a horrid quarterback situation and a lot of double coverage. But he has still shaken free for a pair of game-winning touchdowns. Things are going to get even tougher for him as Steve Breaston is sidelined with a knee injury. Derek Anderson has completed just 52 percent of his passes and that guy is really tough to watch. Arizona has played well for about 10 of 180 minutes so far this year, but they have gutted their way to 2-1. I don’t know if it will last, especially with that atrocious back seven. The Cardinals are 10-2 ATS as an underdog but are just 1-4 ATS away from home.
24. Seattle Seahawks (2-1) – I’m not at all buying Seattle. They are No. 29 in total offense and No. 28 in total defense, and their best move so far has been to stay out of the way while San Fran and San Diego both imploded. There is just no way the Seahawks should have won last week. But hey, they did, and that’s football. And right now they have the inside track to winning the NFC West (it’s early) because they have the division’s best quarterback. The talent level on this team is patchy, at best, but they have a comically easy schedule on tap. Three of Seattle’s next four games are on the road, where this team is 1-9 ATS. Seattle has covered six straight against the Rams, all as a favorite.
25. San Francisco 49ers (0-3) – Jimmy Raye is the first coordinator to get whacked this year. You can say that he was a sacrificial lamb, but the reality is that Raye has never had success at any of his previous five coaching stops. (Which begs the question of how they hired this guy in the first place.) There is no way that Anthony Davis should be starting. He is horrendous right now and is nearly single-handedly crushing this offense. He gave up two sacks, had a false start, and took a personal foul penalty last week. That is four of 12 drives that he sabotaged all by himself. Every draft analysis I read in April described him as a “project”. So why is he starting? Mike Singletary is benching Takeo Spikes and Michael Lewis for two rookies on defense. Good luck.
26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1) – Tanard Jackson’s suspension for the rest of the year is a killer for a team that was abused deep last year (and Sunday). This team is just horrendous at the back of the secondary and they are going to come back to reality in a hurry. Tampa’s two wins are against 0-3 clubs. They will be feisty all year, but this team isn’t any good.
27. St. Louis Rams (1-2) – I re-watched the Rams-Redskins game looking for hints of a garbage win for the home team (like Seattle’s win over San Diego, which was awful). But I didn’t see it. St. Louis legitimately outplayed the Redskins. This team is improving. They still have too many JV players at too many positions to be taken seriously. But they are headed in the right direction. The offensive line has been a pleasant surprise so far and has improved by leaps and bounds now that Alex Barron and Rich Incognito are gone. I think Steven Jackson will suit up this week but I don’t expect more than a couple carries out of him with a strained groin. St. Louis needs to take some shots down the field. It seems as if everything they throw is eight yards or in. Teams are going to adjust quickly. St. Louis is 10-21 ATS at home and they are 7-22 ATS against NFC West opponents.
28. Carolina Panthers (0-3) – It’s pretty simple to stop this offense: put eight in the box, double Steve Smith, and leave one deep safety. Jimmy Clausen has a strong arm and about nothing else. He’s got a long way to go before he’s viable. Carolina’s bread and butter, the running game, has been stunted by the loss of tackle Jeff Otah. (And the terrible passing game.) I simply don’t see how this team can turn anything around to even get back to respectable this year. Remember: they have the youngest roster in the NFL. Going back to the preseason they are averaging all of 9.3 points per game. That said, Carolina is 4-0 ATS in its last four against New Orleans and is 7-2 ATS in this series since 2005.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-2) – I know that David Garrard is the sacrificial lamb for this team right now, but tell me this: who are Jacksonville’s receivers? Who starts on their defensive line? In fact, name me one defensive player other than Rashean Mathis? How about a single offensive lineman? This team has the second youngest functional roster in the NFL and just still has a lot of holes. Their win over Denver was a fluke and it is going to be a long year for a team that no one cares about. The Jags traditionally play the Colts tough. Yeah, not this year. They aren’t tough enough or experienced enough to threaten Indy.
30. Detroit Lions (0-3) – After they lose this week they will be 2-18 under Jim Schwartz. This defense has been one of the worst I’ve ever seen. Truly, these guys suck. I like the guys they brought in along the defensive line. But their back seven is a debacle. They should have followed Seattle’s lead this offseason, blown up the roster, and just started grabbing guys who win head-to-head competitions for spots. The Lions are just 1-6-1 ATS in their last eight divisional games and just 2-6-2 ATS on the road.
31. Cleveland Browns (0-3) – It makes next to no sense but the Browns are actually 8-2 ATS in their last 10 games, which is one of the best marks in the league. Seneca Wallace has actually been pretty sharp so far this year and he’s not as bad as a lot of backups. It looks like Shaun Rogers will be out again this week and the Browns just lost D’Qwell Jackson for the year. Also, Josh Cribbs – the lone offensive weapon that they do have – is out for this Sunday. The Browns are 5-1 ATS in their last six divisional games and the underdog in the Browns-Bengals series is 6-0 ATS the last three years.
32. Buffalo Bills (0-3) – Good riddance to Trent Edwards. But as several people have pointed out this week, cutting Edwards again shows that there is zero plan, zero foresight, and zero vision in this organization. They just keep changing things as they go and are essentially running this team like a 13-year-old girl with ADD would. Going back to 2001, Buffalo is 12-4 ATS in the game after they face/lose to New England. The underdog in the Jets-Bills series is 20-8 ATS in the last 28 meetings. The Bills are just 3-11 ATS at home.
Robert Ferringo is a writer and a professional sports handicapper for Doc’s Sports. Last year he brought home +62.5 Units for his clients in the NFL and he is regarded as one of the top totals players in the sport. He has turned a profit in 4 of 5 football weeks and has a 6-Unit NFL Total of the Month on the board this week’s NFL picks. You can sign up for his college football and NFL picks and get more information here.