NFL Week 7: The Confidence Poll
After seven weeks the playoff picture still remains murky. As excellent as Houston looked against a depleted Baltimore memories still remain of the Texans being obliterated by the Packers on Sunday Night Football.
Despite being unbeaten Atlanta still struggled to beat the very poor Raiders and Panthers.
These are just two examples of teams at the top of the league that delivered performances to temper their prospects at making deep playoff runs.
Green Bay, Chicago, The New York Giants, New England, San Francisco, Baltimore, Minnesota, Seattle and Denver are all in playoff position but still have significant question marks. If the past two seasons have taught anything it’s that the key to success in January is dependent upon a hot quarterback and an opportunistic defence.
Rather than doing a traditional power rankings to assess the hot teams of the moment I present a confidence poll, an understanding of the teams best poised for success in January based upon the strength of their quarterback, defence and coach. Each team is assessed points based upon their position in each facet of the poll with the winner having the lowest score.
1) Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay Packers): After initial struggles where Rodgers seemed to lack the spark of his 2011 season he is now in the midst of a very impressive streak including delivering the best quarterback performance of the year against Houston and a devastatingly efficient game against a strong Rams defence.
Rodgers has nine touchdowns in his last two games and with him seeming to be back to his best form the rest of the league will be very scared. Expect him to lead the Packers on a long winning streak and Green Bay to assert itself as a serious Super Bowl contender.
2) Eli Manning (New York Giants): Aaron Rodgers might be the best quarterback in the league but Manning is by far the best in the fourth quarter. Although Manning has produced some poor performances early in games particularly against Washington and Tampa Bay he has returned with devastating force to beat these teams.
No lead is safe against Manning and he is able to shrug off poor performances and deliver late game heroics like no other quarterback.
3) Tom Brady (New England Patriots): Tom Brady remains in the top three purely based upon reputation. This year something is off, he doesn’t quite have the intangibles that saw him win two MVPs and three Super Bowls. In games against the Jets, the Seahawks and the Ravens defences have had answers for him. He has earned the right to have the benefit of the doubt but it’s clear that something is lacking this year.
Perhaps it is his advancing age or his offensive line or injuries to key players but Brady doesn’t seem to be the quarterback he was. Following the loss to the Seahawks with Richard Sherman calling out the Golden Boy the old Brady would have eviscerated his divisional rival but ultimately struggled and was outplayed by the mediocre Mark Sanchez apart from two late drives to kick field goals in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Brady has an opportunity to atone for his struggles and make these performances appear to be a blip on the radar later in the season against elite teams in Houston and San Francisco.
4) Jay Cutler (Chicago Bears): Due to the risks he takes Jay Cutler possesses as high a ceiling as any quarterback in the NFL while also remaining prone to hand games to his opponent in delivering multiple interception games. This is the reality of Jay Cutler and is a reality that the Bears will happily take.
Cutler rivals all quarterbacks in the fear he will strike opposing defensive coordinators and his pairing with Brandon Marshall is as dangerous as any quarterback receiver tandem in the NFL. Cutler is ranked behind Brady purely on his inconsistency and Brady’s reputation.
5) Peyton Manning (Denver Broncos): In his return from multiple neck surgeries, Manning has shown that no lead is safe from the Broncos quarterback he has led stirring comebacks to win against the Chargers and to narrowly lose to the Falcons and Houston. The need for these comebacks though is often due to Manning’s own struggles and rust.
Although he never had a cannon arm, Manning does not possess the arm strength he once had and his success is reliant upon pinpoint accuracy and his remarkable line of scrimmage diagnosis of defences. Eli has surpassed Peyton as the superior quarterback but despite the rust, Peyton is still a fantastic quarterback.
6) Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons): Ryan has had a very good year to date. He has outstanding weapons at hand but there is little to nothing he can do to change minds about his talent as a quarterback. Ryan has done nearly everything in the regular season but failed dismally in the postseason.
If Ryan flames out early again he will find himself in exactly the position he is now, treated as a good quarterback who cannot win when it counts. Ryan will carry this mark the way that Peyton Manning did until he does damage in the playoffs. He can do it, he should do it and this year is his best opportunity to break through in the postseason.
7) Matt Schaub (Houston Texans): Schaub is a quality starting quarterback whose success is dependent upon those around him. With a strong running game and Andre Johnson at full health he can be a devastatingly effective passer. With Johnson injured and the running game struggling or discarded with the Texans chasing a lead, he often struggles.
The Texans’ embarrassing performance against the Packers is testament to Schaub’s reliance upon those around him. Schaub is the closest thing in the NFL to a system quarterback and depending upon those around him this could lead to success or failure in the postseason.
8) Joe Flacco (Baltimore Ravens): Aside from quarterbacks of the New York Jets, Flacco is the most controversial quarterback in the NFL in regards to talent. Flacco has shown brilliance at times and is a fantastic big game player, but he also struggles against weak opponents. When the Ravens no huddle offence is struggling to move the football and Ray Rice isn’t provided with the opportunity to refocus defences Flacco is prone to turnovers and more than subpar play.
9) Christian Ponder (Minnesota Vikings): At the start of this season Ponder along with Blaine Gabbert were looked at as the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Just like the Vikings, Ponder has been a revelation. Although he has shown some struggles, he has at times flashed brilliance.
Ponder is an effective and accurate quarterback with a high completion percentage and with considerable mobility. He has given the Vikings considerable reason to view their future positively.
10) Alex Smith (San Francisco 49ers): After a 2011 season that resurrected him from the scrap heap and shedding the tag of bust, Alex Smith has regressed from last year’s exhibition of efficiency. Smith is turning the ball over more with already the same amount of interceptions as the entire of last season. In losses to the Giants and in the victory over the Seahawks, Smith has costly made mistakes and placed the 49ers in a bind.
11) Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks): Wilson has been very inconsistent so far this season. He was brilliant against the Patriots, showing poise late and an incredibly strong arm. Wilson has also often shown that the speed of the professional game is slightly beyond him. He is a work in progress and rookie quarterbacks rarely look like Robert Griffin III. The positive for the Seahawks is that with a young and dangerous defence, Seattle have the time to allow him to grow into the quality quarterback he can be.
1) Chicago Bears: Aside from their blip against the Packers, the Bears defence is the most dangerous unit in the league. Statistically they are the best: They have the number one rushing defence, point defence the third best passing defence. Furthermore they have been a phenomenally opportunistic defence that has feasted upon mistakes with the second most turnovers forced at 17 and with five of these returned for touchdowns.
Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman are amongst early favourites for Defensive Player of the Year. The Bears excel in all aspects of defence and will intimidate everyone they play.
2) Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks are a remarkably well built defence. Their secondary is young and physical and their cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are among the tallest cornerbacks in the league standing at 6’3 and 6’4 respectively, allowing them to punish and play physical with even the biggest receivers.
They have a strong front seven that always controls the line of scrimmage by both rushing the passer and stopping the run. If this unit can remain intact, Seattle will not only be a great defence for this year but a great for years to come. Seattle always was a nasty place to play but with the Seahawks defence as good as it is Century Link Field is positively a fortress.
3) Houston Texans: On defence the Texans do everything right. They control the line of scrimmage, defend the run well, rush the passer and defend the pass.
J.J. Watt appears poised to be historically great and although they have suffered some key losses, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has instilled a strong next-man-up attitude that trumps the loss of individuals. Their embarrassment at the hands of the Packers is a concern but the Bears had equally a poor showing against the reigning MVP and they look to be the league standard.
4) San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers don’t look nearly as formidable as in 2011. Their rushing and passing defence has been shown up by a number of teams. Although they were destroyed by the Giants they still rank high statistically and have one of the best defensive players in the league with Middle Linebacker Patrick Willis.
The 49ers will continue to excel throughout the season and should control every game they play for the rest of the year.
5) New York Giants: The root of confidence in the Giants is not predicated upon statistics but on health. Aside from the Steelers, the Giants are one of the only teams whose week to week performances will not change perceptions in the way the teams above might. With a large number of defensive players holding multiple Super Bowl rings the Giants scare offenses based upon resume. With players like Jason Pierre-Paul and Michael Boley the Giants won’t be losing the reputation any time soon.
6) Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons are another good defensive unit that is around the middle of the pack. With Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson, the Falcons are yet another team with a strong physical secondary. The Falcons are a serviceable defensive unit and they will provide the Falcons with the support for Matt Ryan to win the game. As an unbeaten, the Falcons defence has done exactly what is necessary.
7) Minnesota Vikings: After a period in which he was among the highest profile defenders in the league Jared Allen has quietly produced two of the best seasons of any defensive players. In 2011 Allen nearly broke Michael Strahan’s single season sack record and he is currently tied for 8th in sacks. Rookie safety Harrison Smith has excelled and is making a serious case for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The Vikings have a strong defensive front and defend well against the run and pass. Although they aren’t the level of the above teams, they are a challenge to all offensive units.
8) Denver Broncos: The 49ers are the last of the truly elite defences in the NFL defined by aiming to win the game through defence. The Broncos along with the Falcons and occupy a position in which they don’t aim to win by defence but operate to limit their opponent’s output in order for their offence to find the easiest path to win. defences such as the Broncos aim to concede around 20 with the assumption that Peyton Manning will deliver.
Despite the brilliance of Von Miller, the Broncos have often struggle to meet what is required of them and allowed opponents to put them into holes early for Manning to rescue them.
9) Baltimore Ravens: Early in the season the Ravens where making a serious case as one of the best defensive units in the league. Despite reigning Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs being injured the Ravens were dominating, most notably in their performance against the Patriots in Week 3. However the last three weeks has seen the Ravens defence completely derail with the Ravens conceding unheard of rushing performances.
In addition to this they have suffered some serious injuries including fantastic cornerback Lardarius Webb out for the season, Ray Lewis out for most of the season and Haloti Ngata clearly limited. The Ravens are really struggling at the moment and desperately need to right themselves. Luckily for them, the AFC is shockingly bad and they most likely only need another four wins to make the playoffs.
10) Green Bay Packers: The Packers are a feast or famine defence. They are a team that is just as likely to surrender 400 yards as they are to sack the opposing quarterback 5 teams and intercept three times. The Packers are a lingering question mark and with Charles Woodson out for at least a month with a broken collar bone these questions will only intensify. Fortunately for the Packers Aaron Rodgers has returned to form to cover up the mistakes the Packers defence is liable to make.
11) New England Patriots: The Patriots are suffering from a lack of talent on the defensive side of the ball. After years of stockpiling mid round draft picks the Patriots have missed on nearly all of their defensive prospects. For a team that won multiple Super Bowls with cornerbacks like Ty Law and Asante Samuel the Patriots have missed significantly when drafting defensive backs and then done next to nothing to fix their porous secondary in season. When Mark Sanchez can throw for over 300 yards and with a high completion percentage, the Patriots are clearly in trouble.
The recent drafting of Chandler Jones and don’t'a Hightower are moves in the right direction but the Patriots have a long way to go.
1) Tom Coughlin (New York Giants): All of a sudden, Coughlin has become the most respected coach in the league. He is unflappable, doesn’t make costly errors with time management and puts his team in the position to win every single game. He gets the edge over Belichick based upon the continued excellence of his defence and their victories over the Patriots in two Super Bowls.
2) Bill Belichick (New England Patriots): For years Belichick has been viewed as the best coach in the NFL. With a string of poor drafts and defence that has been bad for a number of seasons Belichick’s halo is starting to lose its shine.
3) John Harbaugh (Baltimore Ravens): The Baltimore Harbaugh is battle hardened and a proven quality coach. He gets the edge over his brother based upon experience. He is currently facing the toughest challenge of his coaching career with the Ravens defensive struggles. Harbaugh is the best coach in the league not to have won a Super Bowl and the Ravens as an organization inspire confidence.
4) Jim Harbaugh (San Francisco 49ers): After Jimmy Johnson, Jim Harbaugh has to have had the most successful transitions from the college game into the pros. Harbaugh’s intensity often times seems to border on mania, but results speak for themselves. Harbaugh has converted a group of underachievers into a collective unit that is pushed to the extent of their potential.
5) Mike McCarthy (Green Bay Packers): After initial struggles in which McCarthy’s offensive system appeared to be solved, Aaron Rodgers has completely delivered against quality opposition to vindicate the Packers’ talent. McCarthy has the Packers primed to roll off a long winning streak.
6) Lovie Smith (Chicago Bears): In terms of head coaches that are actually performing well there is no coach that has a greater fingerprint on defence as Smith. With the defence rolling at the top of the league, Smith has the Bears in the best position for them to succeed as any time during his tenure. At this current moment, he is the frontrunner for Coach of the Year
7) Mike Smith (Atlanta Falcons): As with his quarterback, Smith can do absolutely nothing this season to improve his reputation as a coach. He is a fantastic coach but will need to deliver in the playoffs to move up the boards. This season the Falcons have as good an opportunity as any to succeed in the postseason.
8) John Fox (Denver Broncos): Thankfully for Fox the Broncos have exchanged the circus that was Tim Tebow with the reassurance of Peyton Manning’s brilliance. Smartly, Fox has done absolutely everything to put Manning in the position to succeed allowing him complete freedom at the line of scrimmage and it is paying off.
9) Gary Kubiak (Houston Texans): Arguably the difference between the Texans in 2009-10 and 20011-12 is Wade Phillips’ unbelievable job as defensive coordinator. It is Phillips who has earned the confidence not Kubiak.
10) Pete Carroll (Seattle Seahawks): Carroll’s work with the Seahawks defence is outstanding. Carroll has shown that he is one of the best out of game coaches in building this Seahawks team but he hasn’t yet proved that he the in game coach of some of the others on this list.
11) Leslie Frazier (Minnesota Vikings): As good as the Vikings have been this year, memories still remain of their 3-13 season last year.
1) New York Giants 8
2) Chicago Bears 11
3) Green Bay Packers 16
3) New England Patriots 16
5) San Francisco 49ers 18
6) Houston Texans 19
6) Atlanta Falcons 19
8) Baltimore Ravens 20
9) Denver Broncos 21
10) Seattle Seahawks 23
11) Minnesota Vikings 27
With the parametres of quarterback, defence and coach the result of the Giants followed by the Bears seems a fair result. These two teams enter any game they play as dangerous teams to face. The one problem that I will concede is that this process neglects inclusion of the running game and special teams and the 49ers, Ravens, Vikings and Texans suffer for it.
This factor would see each of these teams rise but in the end if anything, the Bears have as good a running game and as distinguished a running back as any other team and most likely would find themselves at the top of the poll.
In addition the high position of the Patriots does not reflect the negative direction they seem to be heading in.
This is not a perfect list but reflects how confident an observer should feel entering a single game. Aaron Rodgers would scare any fan not of the Packers and the Bears defence should intimidate everyone.