All right, 2 weeks ago, ErnBlog published its inaugural “NFL Midseason Report”. Today comes my first “NFL Stretch Run Report” – outlining the Rankings, Grades, and applicable Prognoses for the 32 NFL Teams as the Playoffs approach (with only 7 remaining weeks). Some teams have played 10 games, most have played 9. At this moment, 4 of the 32 teams have injured starting QBs (Pittsburgh, Chicago, San Francisco, and Philadelphia) – that’s 12.5 Percent of the NFL’s starting signal callers! If the Season concluded today, 3 of those 4 teams would be involved in the Postseason (Sorry Philadelphia!). So this QB Injury Situation will need to be closely monitored as the Regular Season winds toward Thanksgiving. Will playoff opportunities arise for other “surprise” teams as these injuries mount? Remember that Ern’s Original 2012 Regular Season and Playoff Predictions are in Italics. You can also see how each team’s Performance has fluctuated since the Midseason Report.
Propelled by the incredible talent of Running Back – Adrian Peterson, the Vikings have surprised the NFL with a 6-4 record and a push toward an NFC Wild Card Spot. (Source: newsday.com)
1. Houston Texans (8-1) (A) (Up 3 Rankings, Same Grade)
Ern: 10-6 (AFC South Champs)
The Houston Texans still have the inside track in the AFC Homefield Advantage Race, effectively 2 games ahead of 7-2 Baltimore by virtue of their Reliant Stadium slam dunk thrashing of the Ravens back in October. The Texans appear to have a cakewalk the rest of the way with their toughest remaining games at Chicago (11-11) and at New England (12-10). Even if they lose both of those games and win the rest, Houston would still finish 13-3. However, the strangest part of the Texans schedule is the last 3 games, 2 of which are both against the Colts, who are all of a sudden 6-3 and poised to compete with anyone, led by rookie sensation Andrew Luck. The Texans had best keep their eyes on Indianapolis!
2. Atlanta Falcons (8-1) (A) (Up 1 Ranking, Down 1 Grade)
Well, Boston College’s own Matt Ryan has already led the Falcons to the 8-Win Total projected by ErnBlog at the beginning of the season. See, sometimes even the Experts can mess up this stuff! Although not perfect anymore (having lost a thriller to the Saints on Sunday); “Matty Ice”, Coach Mike Smith, star wideout Roddy White, and the rest of the Falcons still boast an A Grade from ErnBlog. Even with the Buccaneers and Saints improving, Atlanta still appears to have a clear path to the NFC South Title.
3. Chicago Bears (7-2) (A) (Up 2 Ranks, Same Grade)
Ern: 12-4 (NFC Wild Card)
The Word that Big Ern is still using to describe the Chicago Bears is “Solid”. The Word “Solid” describes the 2012 performances of Coach Lovie Smith, QB Jay Cutler, Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, and wide receiver/kick returner Devin Hester. The Bears have only lost 2 games in 2012 – at Green Bay in Week 2 and at home against ErnBlog TopDog – Houston on Sunday night.
The biggest challenge facing Da Bears the rest of the way is not the concussion to Cutler, suffered in the Sunday Night slugfest with the Texans. However, when Chicago visits San Francisco this coming Monday night, the 49ers will also be without their starting QB Alex Smith, who also suffered a concussion on Sunday in the Niners Tie with the Rams.
The biggest game left for Chicago – a rematch with the Packers on December 16 – a chance to win the NFC North.
4. New York Giants (6-4) (B) (Down 3 Rankings, Down 2 Grades)
Ern: 12-4 (NFC East Champs)
How could a 6-4 team be Ranked Fourth in the NFL? Well, the Giants are the defending World Champs, having won 2 of the last 5 Super Bowls after finishing regular seasons with records of 10-6 and 9-7. Sometimes, the Division you play in holds the most weight. Big Blue has already split the season series with Dallas and has overcome its first challenge from rookie phenom RG3 and the Redskins. In the NFC, The Giants also hold a commanding victory over the 49ers in their NFC Title Rematch from October.
The Giants have NEVER won a game in Cincinnati and that trend held true again this past Sunday. New York also struggled on offense 2 weeks ago at home, losing to the Steelers in a game muddled with uncharacteristic errors from Eli Manning. But, the Giants are not going to Cincinnati in the Playoffs and the Steelers don’t have the mileage left to make the Super Bowl trip to New Orleans. ErnBlog projects that after a few more weeks (and a much needed rest this coming week), the Giants will be poised to make another deep postseason run.
5. Green Bay Packers (6-3) (B) (Up 1 Ranking, Same Grade)
Ern: 12-4 (NFC North Champs)
The Pack has turned things around over the past couple of weeks. They destroyed the Texans on the road on Sunday Night Football and then easily took care of Arizona. Aaron Rodgers appears to have the Green Bay offense back on track. Once again, ErnBlog projects that the December 16 Green Bay at Chicago matchup will have major playoff implications.
6. San Francisco 49ers (6-2-1) (B +) (Down 4 Rankings, Same Grade)
Ern: 12-4 (NFC West Champs)
The 49ers should be 8-1 right now, on course to obtain Homefield Advantage in the NFC Playoffs. Instead, San Francisco first suffered a hickup at Minnesota (bringing Coach Harbaugh down to a B+) and then a no-show this past Sunday against the lowly Rams (fortunate to secure a 24-24 Tie). Now the 49ers (with QB Alex Smith injured with a concussion) currently find themselves behind Atlanta and Chicago in the NFC. If San Francisco is going to claim Homefield Advantage this year, they are most likely going to have to win Either at New Orleans (11-25) or at New England (12-16) – both very difficult places to play.
7. Baltimore Ravens (7-2) (B +) (Same Ranking, Same Grade)
Ern: 10-6 (AFC Wild Card)
The Ravens literally have the #7 Spot by One Point over the Patriots, whom they defeated 31-30 on September 23. At this point, the Houston Texans really are the only AFC team deserving of going to a Super Bowl. Although QB Joe Flacco (very under-rated) is having another strong year for Baltimore, the Ravens defense is aging. Future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis is out for the season. If that isn’t a devastating injury, I don’t know what is. Looking at Baltimore’s remaining 7 games of the season (2 of the next 3 against Pittsburgh), the Ravens appear to have the upper hand, especially with Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger sidelined for this Sunday night’s game between these AFC North powers with a concussion.
8. New England Patriots (6-3) (B -) (Same Rank, Same Grade)
Ern: 13-3 (AFC East Champs)
The Patriots secondary is horrible. The best player in the New England secondary is Devin McCourty – a third-year corner from Rutgers who is a better kick returner than a defensive player! Although, Pats fans are happy that McCourty finally caught one this past Sunday against Buffalo when Ryan Fitzpatrick put the ball right in his hands in the end zone for that game’s conclusion. The Pats need to blitz their linebackers and attack quarterbacks at least 70% of the time in order to attempt to conceal their primary weakness in the defensive backfield.
While the Patriots offense often appears unstoppable, it frequently breaks down in the red zone, resulting in field goal attempts by historically reliable Stephen Gostkowski. Well, this year, Gostkowski’s missed a few, including a potential game winner against Arizona. Big Ern is not going to criticize the field goal kicker. He’s going to criticize New England’s offensive coordinator – Josh McDaniels, who on multiple occasions this season has chosen to completely abandon the running game. In the Patriots’ two best games of the year thus far (at Buffalo and this past Sunday against the Rams), the New England offense featured a well-balanced attack of Tom Brady short to medium-range passing and the Stevan Ridley/Danny Woodhead/Brandon Boldin/Shane Vereen running game.
If the Patriots refuse to run the football in the key games (note the Seattle game in particular) and do not blitz more often and effectively, Big Ern does not see them making the trip to New Orleans in February for the Really Big Game.
9. Denver Broncos (6-3) (B) (Up 2 Rankings, Same Grade)
Ern: 10-6 (AFC West Champs)
The Broncos shouldn’t have a problem winning the West. Peyton Manning’s early season Rocky Mountain jitters seem to have evaporated. I wouldn’t want to be playing these guys in the Playoffs.
10. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3) (B) (Same Ranking, Same Grade)
Ern: 11-5 (AFC North Champs)
I honestly think that the Steelers are going to end up with the last AFC Playoff spot. And I honestly don’t see this team doing any damage in January. But you know what? Pittsburgh (especially with Roethlisberger) always seems to surprise the critics. The Big Question now is the durability of Big Ben, who sufferred a concussion Monday night against the Chiefs. Roethisberger (who will miss Sunday night’s first battle with Baltimore) always has a tendency to bounce back. The Steelers must depend on his resurgency if they hope to contend for the AFC North.
11. Seattle Seahawks (6-4) (B +) (Up 2 Rankings, Same Grade)
The Seahawks are on the periphery of the postseason. They have the same number of wins as first place San Francisco and own a defense that is swarming and overpowering competition. It seems as though Seattle improves each week.
12. Minnesota Vikings (6-4) (A -) (Up 2 Rankings, Same Grade)
ErnBlog’s biggest surprise of the regular season thus far. Coach Leslie Frazier has guided Minnesota back to respectability in the NFC North. The Vikings are beating more talented teams than themselves. And when QB Christian Ponder struggles, star running back Adrian Peterson carries the Minnesota offense on his back. Can the Vikings win a Wild Card? I don’t know. But, Minnesota has already exceeded the ErnBlog projected Win Total for 2012 and has clearly crossed the gap toward the future.
13. New Orleans Saints (4-5) (B -) (Up 2 Rankings, Up 2 Grades)
Ern: 12-4 (NFC South Champs)
The Saints have made a push, winning 4 of their last 5 games. They will have another shot at the Falcons on Thursday night, November 29. Make no mistake about it, the Saints remaining schedule is not easy. They face both the Giants and Cowboys on the road and San Francisco at home. New Orleans also still has one more game against suddenly fiesty Tampa Bay.
14. Indianapolis Colts (6-3) (A -) (Up 6 Rankings, Same Grade)
What can Big Ern say? Andrew Luck is for real. This Sunday’s matchup with the Patriots should be pure entertainment.
15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-4) (B +) (Up 14 Rankings, Up 2 Grades)
Yeah, ErnBlog can’t seem to figure out the Bucs. Greg Schiano is defying the curse of the “Successful College Coach Hitting the NFL Gridiron”. With QB Josh Freeman, running back Doug Martin, and receiver Michael Williams; the skies the limit for Tampa Bay.
16. Dallas Cowboys (4-5) (B -) (Up 3 Rankings, Up 1 Grade)
17. Tennessee Titans (4-6) (B -) (Up 7 Rankings, Up 2 Grades)
18. Miami Dolphins (4-5) (B) (Down 9 Rankings, Down 2 Grades)
Big Ern’s impressed with the Dolphins. He’s impressed with Coach Joe Philbin, Cameron Wake, Reggie Bush, and rookie QB Ryan Tannehill. The rest of the way, Big Ern sees the Dolphins beating Buffalo twice and New England once. But when it comes to the Postseason Possibilities, that loss to Tennessee this past Sunday is gonna HURT!
19. Cincinnati Bengals (4-5) (B) (Down 1 Ranking, Same Grade)
20. Arizona Cardinals (4-5) (B) (Down 8 Rankings, Same Grade)
21. Washington Redskins (3-6) (B) (Down 5 Rankings, Down 1 Grade)
22. Detroit Lions (4-5) (C +) (Down 1 Ranking, Same Grade)
Ern: 10-6 (NFC Wild Card)
23. San Diego Chargers (4-5) (C) (Down 1 Ranking, Same Grade)
Norv Turner is So Done there.
24. New York Jets (3-6) (F) (Up 3 Rankings, Same Grade)
Ern: 11-5 (AFC Wild Card)
Big Ern still can’t understand why Tim Tebow is not the Starting QB for the New York Jets.
More interestingly, you may wonder how it is possible that the Jets could have IMPROVED by 3 SPOTS in the Rankings over the past 2 weeks? They haven’t even won any GAMES! Basically, 3 of the 8 teams currently ranked below the Jets have proven to Big Ern to be so PATHETICALLY POOR, that they have fallen below New York.
25. Buffalo Bills (3-6) (C) (Down 2 Rankings, Down 1 Grade)
Two weeks ago, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick was looking pretty good. Not anymore.
26. St. Louis Rams (3-5-1) (C +) (Down 1 Ranking, Same Grade)
Big Ern loves Coach Jeff Fisher. He’s the Man.
27. Philadelphia Eagles (3-6) (D) (Down 1 Ranking, Same Grade)
I just knew this team was gonna suck.
28. Oakland Raiders (3-6) (C +) (Down 11 Rankings, Down 2 Grades)
29. Carolina Panthers (2-7) (C -) (Down 1 Ranking, Down 1 Grade)
Cam Newton’s really struggling in his Sophomore Season.
30. Cleveland Browns (2-7) (C -) (Up 1 Ranking, Down 1 Grade)
31. Kansas City Chiefs (1-8) (D) (Down 1 Ranking, Down 1 Grade)
Come on, Romeo Crennel ! What’s going on in KC?
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-8) (C) (Same Rank, Same Grade)
Jags on track for Ern-projected 1-15.