All right, Happy December Everyone! All 32 NFL Teams have exactly 4 remaining games in the 2012 season. My NFL December Report will once again Rank every team and assign each team a Grade for it’s performance three-quarters through the schedule. You will continue to see my Original Record predicted for each club back in September and also each team’s Rank/Grade fluctuation since my Stretch Run Report 3 weeks ago. A lot has changed in just 3 weeks’ time!
I have also added a new wrinkle to this December Report – My Top 12 Ranked Teams will be the 12 Teams that ErnBlog now projects will qualify for the Playoffs that begin on January 5, 2013.
Without further suspense, here is the up-to-date, hot-off-the-press, ErnBlog NFL December Report:
Colts rookie QB Andrew Luck. Source: pigskinbuzz.com
1. Houston Texans (11-1) (A) (Same Ranking, 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 survived their first Big Test of 2012 – defeating the Bears at Soldier Field in November. Now, the Matchup of the Season will unfold in Foxboro this coming Monday Night when the Texans challenge defending AFC Champion New England. Houston also still must TWICE contend with the 8-4 playoff-bound Colts, led by rookie sensation Andrew Luck. ErnBlog thinks that Houston will drop one game to Indianapolis and also fall to the Patriots in a tough atmosphere on Monday Night. That would result in a 13-3 finish for Houston. Good enough for Homefield Advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs? Potentially not if the Patriots run the table.
2. Atlanta Falcons (11-1) (A) (Same Ranking, Same Grade)
The Falcons have avenged their only loss of 2012 with a thrashing of New Orleans lastt Thursday night. The final score did not do justice to the manner in which Atlanta dominated their NFC South foes. “Matty Ice”, Coach Mike Smith, star wideout Roddy White, and the rest of the Falcons still boast an A Grade from ErnBlog. Altlanta’s final remaining test of this season is 12/16 when the World Champion Giants visit the GeorgiaDome.
3. New England Patriots (9-3) (B +) (Up 5 Rankings, Up 2 Grades)
Ern: 13-3 (AFC East Champs)
The Patriots secondary is no longer “horrible”, as ErnBlog stated 3 weeks ago. New England cornerback Devin McCourty has received helping hands from Ryan Arrington (who has come out of nowhere to play well) and Aqib Talib (a free agent acquisition from Tampa Bay). What do you know? The Pats have been blitzing their linebackers and attacking opposing quarterbacks (maybe not 70% of the time), but at an optimal rate as they have over the past few weeks successfully concealed their defense’s primary weakness – the secondary.
The New England offense is currently featuring a well-balanced attack of Tom Brady short to medium-range passing and a consistent running game powered by Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. Although wide receiver and special teams standout Julian Edelman was injured on Sunday against Miami and will miss the rest of the year, the Patriots do expect star tight-end Rob Gronkowski back for the Playoffs.
4. Denver Broncos (9-3) (B +) (Up 5 Rankings, Up 1 Grade)
Ern: 10-6 (AFC West Champs)
Winners of 7 straight games, Peyton Manning and the Broncos have secured the AFC West. The only teams that Denver has lost to in 2012 are ErnBlog’s Top 3 Teams! And the Broncos are better than they were 2 months ago when they played the Patriots. If I’m an opposing defense, I don’t want to be looking across the line of scrimmage at Peyton Manning in the Playoffs. However, the major reason for Denver’s emergence in October/November is the defense led by Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. A key test for the Broncos will come in 2 weeks at Baltimore.
5. San Francisco 49ers (8-3-1) (B +) (Up 1 Ranking, Same Grade)
Ern: 12-4 (NFC West Champs)
The 49ers should be 10-2 right now, on course to obtain Homefield Advantage in the NFC Playoffs. Instead, San Francisco has struggled in the division against the Rams, losing at St. Louis this past Sunday in OT and tying the Rams at Candlestick last month.
Although the 49ers have achieved 2 of the most impressive victories in 2012 (at Green Bay in Week 1 and at New Orleans a few weeks ago), Jim Harbaugh’s crew (now led by dynamic second-year QB Colin Kaepernick) currently find themselves fighting for the NFC West with 7-5 Seattle. If San Francisco is going to claim Homefield Advantage this year, they are most likely going to have to win at New England (12-16) and in Seattle (12-23) – both very difficult places to play. They may need the Seahawks game just to secure the Division.
6. Baltimore Ravens (9-3) (B +) (Up 1 Ranking, Same Grade)
Ern: 10-6 (AFC Wild Card)
Under-rated QB Joe Flacco is having another strong year for Baltimore as tailback Ray Rice is reducing pressure on the signal caller with consistent rushing production. However, 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. Pro Bowl corner Ed Reed is stepping up in Lewis’ void, but ErnBlog doesn’t know if this defensive unit can survive the potential offensive fireworks of the AFC Playoffs. Homefield Advantage expects to factor heavily in Baltimore’s postseason prognosis. Although the Ravens possess the tiebreaker over the Patriots (by virtue of a 31-30 victory over New England on 9/23), Baltimore would lose in a 3-way tie with the Patriots and Broncos (which is the current situation). Either the Ravens or Broncos will move ahead when the two teams collide in 2 weeks in Baltimore.
7. New York Giants (7-5) (B) (Down 3 Rankings, Same Grade)
Ern: 12-4 (NFC East Champs)
The Giants have moved down from Number 1 in ErnBlog’s Mid-Season Report. At the beginning of the season, Ern was told that a 12-4 projection for New York was ambitious considering the Champs’ brutal schedule. At 7-5, the Giants will not hit the mark. New York now faces serious Divisional challenges from Washington (who beat them on Monday night) and Dallas, both at 6-6. The Giants are done with both the Redskins and Cowboys in 2012, having split those games right down the middle with both teams at 2-2. But now, New York needs to avoid finishing tied with either Washington or Dallas who both hold better Division Records. The Giants are 2-3 in the NFC East. And their final 4 games are no picnic:
Can the Giants win 3 more games to get to 10-6? I don’t know, but one thing I do know is never to count out the Champs!
8. Green Bay Packers (8-4) (B) (Down 3 Rankings, Same Grade)
Ern: 12-4 (NFC North Champs)
Key patterns in the NFC are clearly developing over the past two seasons. The Packers can beat anyone except for the Giants. The 49ers can beat anyone except for the Giants and Rams:) The game that has now been circled by ErnBlog for a couple of months looms larger and larger each week: December 16 – Green Bay at Chicago. With both teams at 8-4, the outcome of that game will likely determine the NFC North Title.
The major concern for the Packers right now is their offensive line’s inability to protect Pro Bowl QB Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers cannot pass accurately from the turf. And the defensive pressure and blitzing is just going to intensify in the Postseason. The Green Bay offensive line and coaching staff has got to come up with some solutions as the Packers only will go as far as Rodgers will take them.
9. Chicago Bears (8-4) (B) (Down 6 Rankings, Down 3 Grades)
Ern: 12-4 (NFC Wild Card)
The Crowd is dense at the top of the NFL and stock in the Chicago Bears is falling. 3 weeks ago, Da Bears were 7-2 and cruising toward an NFC North Title. Since then, they have dropped 2 of their last 3 games against the 49ers and Seahawks, both of which could prove costly in the realm of Playoff Seedings. 3 of Chicago’s final 4 games are in the Division – at Minnesota on Sunday, vs. Green Bay (12/16), and at Detroit (12/30). The Bears need 2 out of those 3 games. ErnBlog thinks they can get them. And the reason, believe it or not, is Jay Cutler, who has played “solid” and inspiring football in 2012. Can middle linebacker and defensive leader Brian Urlacher return for the Playoffs? ErnBlog doesn’t know.
10. Seattle Seahawks (7-5) (B +) (Up 1 Ranking, Same Grade)
The Seahawks are on the periphery of the postseason. Improving each week, the Seahawks possess a swarming defense and still have a home game against first place San Francisco.
11. Indianapolis Colts (8-4) (A -) (Up 3 Rankings, Same Grade)
What can Big Ern say? Andrew Luck is for real. This past Sunday’s comeback in Detroit may be chronicled for some time. Wouldn’t it be a treat if Luck and the Colts faced off against Peyton Manning and the Broncos in the AFC Playoffs?
12. Cincinnati Bengals (7-5) (B) (Up 7 Rankings, Same Grade)
Surprise, surprise. Look who has quietly emerged within the ErnBlog Rankings into the final playoff spot in the AFC. Marvin Lewis’s Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals were in the postseason last year when they faced the Texans in the First Round down at Reliant Stadium. QB Andy Dalton and the Bengals visit Pittsburgh on 12/23 and host Baltimore on 12/30. If Cincinnati wins one of those games, ErnBlog sees the Bengals playing on Wild Card Weekend.
Redskins rookie QB Robert Griffin III. Source: guysnation.com
13. Washington Redskins (6-6) (B) (Up 8 Rankings, Same Grade)
The Redskins could win 9 games this year, but ErnBlog currently doesn’t project RG3 and Company making the trip to the Postseason. Washington’s best shot at the Playoffs is for the Giants to finish at 9-7 alongside them, in which the Redskins would win the division. Regardless of postseason qualification, the Redskins (behind the juggernaut that is rookie passing and running phenom Robert Griffin III) have infused gridiron energy back into the Nation’s Capital in 2012.
14. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) (B -) (Down 4 Rankings, Down 1 Grade)
Ern: 11-5 (AFC North Champs)
You have to admire the resiliency of the Steelers, charging toward the finish line without Big Ben. But ErnBlog fears that Pittsburgh is approaching its limit. The Steelers need to win 3 of its last 4 and there’s no telling when Roethlisberger will return. Ern doesn’t think Pittsburgh will have enough gas in the tank to win either at Dallas or at home against the Bengals.
15. Minnesota Vikings (6-6) (B) (Down 3 Rankings, Down 2 Grades)
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. But, Minnesota has already exceeded the ErnBlog projected Win Total for 2012 and has clearly crossed the gap toward the future.
16. Dallas Cowboys (6-6) (B -) (Same Ranking, Same Grade)
Jason Garrett’s offense has been totally disorganized in 2012. ErnBlog projects that Jerry Jones will make a coaching change in the offseason.
17. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-6) (B +) (Down 2 Rankings, Same Grade)
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 over the next few seasons.
18. New Orleans Saints (5-7) (C +) (Down 5 Rankings, Down 1 Grade)
Ern: 12-4 (NFC South Champs)
The Saints lost season, which ErnBlog once projected to be so promising, is nearing its dismal conclusion. Now New Orleans has to resign its free agent coach Sean Payton. Like Dallas, the most disappointing aspect of the 2012 New Orleans Saints was complete disorganization on offense. At times, it appeared that Drew Brees was planning to throw the ball on every down, and typically just launch it as far as he could down the field. That’s not NFL offense; that’s flag football.
19. Miami Dolphins (5-7) (B) (Down 1 Ranking, Same Grade)
Big Ern’s impressed with the Dolphins performance in 2012. He’s impressed with Coach Joe Philbin, Cameron Wake, and rookie QB Ryan Tannehill. So, perhaps ErnBlog over-exaggerated the team’s short-term prognosis 3 weeks ago. But Joe Philbin appears to have a long-term strategy to make the Dolphins competitive in the AFC East.
20. Detroit Lions (4-8) (C +) (Up 2 Rankings, Same Grade)
Ern: 10-6 (NFC Wild Card)
Ern’s pretty disappointed with the Lions this year, originally projected to earn a Wild Card Spot. The biggest problem with Detroit in 2012 was its inability to hold on to victories. There were 3 games this years (an OT loss to Tennessee, an OT loss to Houston, and this past Sunday’s collapse against Indy) that could have made all the difference for Detroit. But as Bill Parcells says, “You are what you are.” And the Lions are 4-8.
21. Tennessee Titans (4-8) (B -) (Down 4 Rankings, Same Grade)
22. San Diego Chargers (4-8) (C) (Up 1 Ranking, Same Grade)
Norv Turner is So Done there.
23. St. Louis Rams (5-6-1) (B) (Up 3 Rankings, Up 2 Grades)
Big Ern loves Coach Jeff Fisher. He’s the Man.
24. New York Jets (5-7) (D) (Same Ranking, Up 1 Grade)
Ern: 11-5 (AFC Wild Card)
Ern bolstered the Jets Grade this Report Card up from an F to a D; a reward for giving QB Greg McElroy a shot against Arizona this past Sunday. And what do you know, Rex Ryan, the result was a WIN!
25. Cleveland Browns (4-8) (C +) (Up 5 Rankings, Up 2 Grades)
Hey, the Browns aren’t bad. Trent Richardson can run the football. Can Cleveland make a dent in 2013?
26. Buffalo Bills (5-7) (C) (Down 1 Ranking, Same Grade)
Not much to say about Buffalo. Their defense sucks.
27. Carolina Panthers (3-9) (C -) (Up 2 Rankings, Same Grade)
Ern’s really surprised to see QB Cam Newton and Coach Ron Rivera struggling so much in their Sophomore Seasons.
28. Arizona Cardinals (4-8) (C -) (Down 8 Rankings, Down 4 Grades)
What happens when an NFL team wins its first 4 games and then loses its next 8 games? That team drops 16 spots in the ErnBlog Rankings between the Mid-Season Report and the December Report. But the good news, Arizona? You’re still better than Philadelphia!
29. Philadelphia Eagles (3-9) (F) (Down 2 Rankings, Down 1 Grade)
I just knew this team was gonna suck. They if fact, are horrible. When you watch them play, it’s hard to imagine that they have won 3 games this years. Where is the next stop for Coach Andy Reid after a mostly successful 12-year tenure in Philly? Maybe a year off.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-10) (C) (Up 2 Rankings, Same Grade)
31. Oakland Raiders (3-9) (C -) (Down 2 Rankings, Down 2 Grades)
Guess the Raiders won’t be going 9-7. Oops, ErnBlog!
32. Kansas City Chiefs (2-10) (D) (Down 1 Ranking, Same Grade)
Come on, Romeo Crennel ! What’s going on in KC?