Almost every season, about this time of year, an NFL team surprises us and makes a strong push.
Since we’ve seen it happen so often, we try to look for signs and predict which team it will be this season. And it might be reasonable to wonder if the New York Giants are this season’s late bloomer. They’ve won five in a row. Their 7-3 record looks good.
But there are plenty of reasons to look elsewhere for your late-season surprise team.
The Giants are hard to trust. Give them credit for handling teams they should beat during this winning streak. Winning five in a row in the NFL is never easy. But the Giants didn’t beat one team in that stretch that is over .500 now. In a weird scheduling quirk, the Giants haven’t played a true road contest in five straight games. They’ve had four home games and a “road” game in London against the Los Angeles Rams.
And even with those edges, the five wins have been by a combined 23 points. The Giants struggled for a long time Sunday against a Bears team that is among the NFL’s worst. Chicago held a 16-6 lead in the first half. The Giants rallied, but it wasn’t a great performance. It was a reminder that the Giants have a mediocre point differential of plus-4 after 10 games. The last time the Giants played true road games they were blown out by the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers, who both went in a tailspin shortly after beating the Giants.
The Giants don’t run the ball well, although Rashad Jennings has shown signs of life in the past two weeks. They don’t have many playmakers aside from Odell Beckham, though plenty of teams would trade whatever they have at receiver for just Beckham. The defense is improved, and it’s good, but not great. It’s not good enough to carry New York to another surprise Super Bowl.
The schedule won’t do them any favors either. They’ll win at Cleveland on Sunday, but then finish the season with games at Pittsburgh, vs. Dallas, vs. Detroit, at Philadelphia and at Washington. There’s not a gimme in that group.
The NFL doesn’t have many great teams this season. Perhaps the Giants can become a contender because nobody else seems too interested in joining the Seahawks, Patriots and Cowboys. But if the hype machine starts on the Giants this week, or next week after they inevitably beat the Browns for their sixth straight win, take a closer look. This isn’t a team that looks like it’s primed to go on a big run.
Here are the power rankings after Week 11 of the NFL season:
32. Cleveland Browns (0-11, Last week: 31)
Earlier this season they were at least keeping games somewhat competitive. That’s not happening lately. Not a good sign for a team that still needs one win to avoid the wrong kind of NFL history. They had to reclaim the No. 32 spot.
31. San Francisco 49ers (1-9, LW: 32)
For a while Sunday, they were actually giving the Patriots a scare. They faded late, but the last two weeks they have looked a lot better. That’s a positive step for a one-win team late in a season.
30. Chicago Bears (2-8, LW: 30)
It’s not a good sign for the Giants that the Bears put an upset scare into them because the Bears are a mess. Now linebacker Jerrell Freeman is suspended four games for PEDs, like Alshon Jeffery was last week. Oof.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-8, LW: 29)
The last three games, Allen Hurns has produced a total of three catches for 22 yards. I’m fine blaming Blake Bortles because he has taken a bigger step back this season than any other young quarterback I can recall, but that $10 million a year deal for Hurns isn’t looking great either.
28. New York Jets (3-7, LW: 28)
The Jets are turning back to Ryan Fitzpatrick? Why? This seems to be an admission that they wasted draft picks on Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg. Or, the powers that be are doing whatever they can to ensure they have jobs in 2017. Otherwise it makes no sense.
27. Los Angeles Rams (4-6, LW: 27)
A rainy day might have changed the Rams’ game plan, and kept Jared Goff throwing short. But the game plan might have been just as conservative if it were 72 degrees without a cloud in the sky. This is the Rams we’re talking about. There were some positive reviews of Goff’s debut, which was quite a reach. How can his performance be considered promising if he almost never threw more than 10 yards downfield?
26. Cincinnati Bengals (3-6-1, LW: 25)
This could get ugly. The defense isn’t as good as it has been, and now the offense will be without A.J. Green for at least a while and Gio Bernard the rest of the season. The Marvin Lewis question will be interesting. Sure, he has had his playoff failures. But before the Bengals fire him they need to ask a simple and important question: “Can we do any better?”
25. Carolina Panthers (4-6, LW: 24)
Luke Kuechly’s concussion is scary, and not just due to his emotional reaction. He missed three games with his last concussion, and there’s no timetable for a return yet from this one. Hopefully that’s just the Panthers being publicly cautious. Kuechly is just 25, one of the most talented linebackers the NFL has seen in many years, and it would be devastating if concussions affect what should be a Hall of Fame career.
24. Tennessee Titans (5-6, LW: 18)
They’re probably done this year, but get ready for the Titans to be the team everyone falls in love with next offseason. Reserve your seats on the bandwagon now because a ton of people will pick them for a breakout.
23. Indianapolis Colts (5-5, LW: 23)
Andrew Luck’s concussion is obviously concerning on a short week. Packers receiver Davante Adams went through the protocol and played in a Thursday game, and played well. So it’s possible Luck returns and plays well on Thursday against the Steelers. But if he’s out or plays and is not sharp, the rest of the Colts probably aren’t good enough to overcome it.
22. San Diego Chargers (4-6, LW: 22)
I just can’t imagine the Chargers will be happy as the Rams’ tenant in Inglewood. Not sure it’s great for the NFL, either. But there might not be another viable solution.
21. New Orleans Saints (4-6, LW: 21)
The remaining home games (Los Angeles, Detroit, Tampa Bay) all seem winnable. Road games against the Bucs and Cardinals won’t be impossible. Then maybe the Saints go into Week 17 at Atlanta with some hope? Yeah, probably not.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-5, LW: 26)
I’m not saying Doug Martin is playing that well after injury, but he seems to make a difference. Tampa Bay is 3-0 in games that Martin started and finished this year, including road wins at Atlanta and Kansas City.
19. Green Bay Packers (4-6, LW: 15)
Aaron Rodgers can’t play much better than he did at Washington. He threw for 351 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. And the Packers still lost by 18. Injuries have ruined the defense and the running game. Green Bay hasn’t missed the playoffs since 2008, Rodgers’ first year as a starter, but that seems to be the path they’re on.
18. Arizona Cardinals (4-5-1, LW: 17)
It’s good to hear that Bruce Arians was released from the hospital on Monday evening and returned home. The lifestyle of an NFL coach isn’t usually healthy, and it’s scary to hear when there’s a medical issue for one of them.
17. Houston Texans (6-4, LW: 16)
It’s amazing that officials seemed to get two spots wrong in the fourth quarter of Monday night’s game. To get one wrong is tough, but two straight? The fourth-down run was not even that close. It will always be crazy that officials basically guess on spots and then measure the first down to the fraction of an inch.
16. Baltimore Ravens (5-5, LW: 20)
I probably had the Ravens underrated last week. They played pretty well in a loss against Dallas. The defense is solid. But there’s still nothing about this team that stands out. Let’s be honest, if we want the best possible playoff games, we’re rooting for the Steelers to win the AFC North.
15. Philadelphia Eagles (5-5, LW: 10)
Darren Sproles has a fractured rib. Ryan Mathews has a right knee injury. Just as the Eagles started to figure out that they needed to take some responsibility off Carson Wentz’s plate by leaning on the running game, the offense might go all back on the rookie quarterback’s shoulders.
14. Miami Dolphins (6-4, LW: 19)
You had to love Jarvis Landry’s touchdown that got the Dolphins back in Sunday’s game. That play epitomizes how the Dolphins have fought back to playoff contention after looking like one of the NFL’s worst teams through five weeks.
13. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5, LW: 14)
The Steelers had a boring game plan on Sunday. They had just one completion gain more than 20 yards. They were content to let Le’Veon Bell grind it out on the ground. It seemed like the kind of game you play when you’re confident you can beat the opponent (Cleveland) and know you have another game to play on Thursday.
12. Buffalo Bills (5-5, LW: 13)
LeSean McCoy’s thumb injury isn’t good news, but Mike Gillislee has played well when called upon. Sunday he had 72 yards on 14 carries. He is averaging 5.8 yards per carry this season. The Bills don’t want to play without McCoy, but it’s not a crushing blow if he has to miss more time.
11. Minnesota Vikings (6-4, LW: 12)
Thursday’s game at Detroit is enormous for the Vikings because they’ve already lost to the Lions. If the Vikings lose on Thanksgiving, the Lions will lead by a game in the division and own the tiebreaker over Minnesota. It’s hard to see the Vikings being two games better than the Lions over the last five games of the season.
10. New York Giants (7-3, LW: 11)
Another note on the Giants: This isn’t Eli Manning’s best work. His touchdown rate, yards per attempt and passer rating are significantly down from the last two seasons, and his interception rate is up. You can’t even justify hyping the Giants by assuming Manning will carry them. He’s been OK, but not great. Kind of like the Giants as a whole.
9. Detroit Lions (6-4, LW: 9)
Sunday’s game was way too close against a bad Jaguars team. Had they not gotten the obligatory pick-six off Blake Bortles, the Jaguars might have pulled off the upset. Let’s chalk this up to the Lions looking ahead to the Vikings game and not think too much about an actual NFL playoff hopeful barely beating the Jaguars at home.
8. Atlanta Falcons (6-4, LW: 7)
It’s crazy to think that, after the Falcons’ good start and the Buccaneers’ struggles, the Falcons are up just one game on the Bucs in the NFC South. And the tiebreaker situation is pretty even.
7. Washington Redskins (6-3-1, LW: 8)
The Rob Kelley story is cool. The undrafted rookie has given a huge boost to Washington’s offense and had a huge game on Sunday night against the Packers. A prediction though: It won’t be long before you’re sick of announcers mentioning constantly that his nickname is “Fat Rob.” It will be this season’s “Honey Badger.”
6. Kansas City Chiefs (7-3, LW: 4)
Losing at home in a close game after a 7-2 start is not a crime, but it’s not like there’s much margin for error in the AFC West. Especially with a game at Denver coming up on Sunday night.
5. Denver Broncos (7-3, LW: 6)
Aqib Talib’s absence probably hasn’t gotten enough attention. Talib has made the Pro Bowl each of the last three seasons, and a major reason the Broncos are so good on defense is that they have three top-flight cornerbacks. Tailb is practicing again, after missing three games with a back injury. That’s big for the Broncos.
4. Oakland Raiders (8-2, LW: 5)
At this point they’re clearly the fourth team but there’s a wide gap between the top three and everyone else.
3. Seattle Seahawks (7-2-1, LW: 3)
The Seahawks are starting to roll and have been surging without Michael Bennett, one of the best defensive linemen in football. Bennett should be returning soon, which makes Seattle even scarier (though the running back situation is concerning, considering now it’s all pinned on Thomas Rawls staying healthy).
2. New England Patriots (8-2, LW: 2)
Jamie Collins was shipped out in a trade. Jabaal Sheard was benched. If a player isn’t playing well enough, Bill Belichick will look for something else. That’s prudent. But do the Patriots have enough blue-chip performers on defense anymore?
1. Dallas Cowboys (9-1, LW: 1)
Robert Griffin III holds the rookie record for passer rating, with a 102.4 in 2011. Dak Prescott’s rating is 108.6. If that stands it would be the 23rd best mark in NFL history, and obviously the best for a rookie.
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