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NFC Power Poll

The Sports Guy finishes up his look at the 2013 NFL season by ranking the teams in the National Football Conference

If you missed Grantland’s 2013 NFL preview coverage — including my three-part NFL over/under podcast from Vegas with Cousin Sal, Robert Mays’s All-22 team, Bill Barnwell’s 227-part preview, and Chris Brown breaking down the read-option offense in a way that actually makes sense — click here.

If you missed my AFC Power Poll heading into the 2013 season, which went up Thursday afternoon on Grantland, click here. That column included my Baltimore-Denver pick — after I ranked the Ravens ahead of the Broncos and grabbed the +7.5 points, they lost in Denver by 25. So we’re off to an awesome start. Today, we’re cranking out an NFC Power Poll. For no extra charge, I included yesterday’s AFC rankings within today’s column so you could see every team on one list. My treat. Seriously, put your wallet away. Without further ado …

THE ROD MARINELLI DIVISION

32. Oakland Raiders
31. New York Jets

THE ROMEO CRENNEL DIVISION

30. Buffalo Bills
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
28. San Diego Chargers
27. Tennessee Titans
26. Miami Dolphins

THE OVERSIZE RUNT

25. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I juggled six possibilities for “NFC’s worst team,” which is a fancy way of saying, “they’re better than anyone in the AFC’s bottom seven, only they have the misfortune of playing in a stacked conference.” So why the Bucs? Because Josh Freeman finished last season so dreadfully, you would have thought he’d landed in a love triangle with Manti Te’o and Manti Te’o’s fake dead girlfriend. Being in a contract year is going to make this better?1 The season hasn’t even started yet and Freeman is already earning headlines like, “Josh Freeman needs to be himself.” I don’t like where this is headed.

Then you have second-year coach Greg Schiano, voted the winner of last November’s Sporting News poll for “The Coach You’d Least Want to Play For.” Hmmmmmm … an overly intense head coach teamed up with a struggling QB who’s playing for a new contract and might be poised to pull a Reverse Flacco? Yeeeeeeeesh. What’s more likely — the Bucs making the 2013 playoffs, or Schiano and Freeman being jettisoned out of Tampa five months from now, then Schiano landing a college job and eventually ending up in one of those Mike Rice–type scandals because he attacked some poor sophomore with a tackling dummy?

DEAD MEN WALKING

24. The Lions of Detroit
23. Carolina Panthers
Both teams have killer fantasy QBs (Matt Stafford and Cam Newton) and one-of-a-kind blue-chippers (Calvin Johnson and Luke Kuechly). Both teams were well-represented at your 2013 fantasy draft. Both teams spent 2012 blowing leads, having receivers get tackled at the 1-yard line and bemoaning multiple games they gave away. Both teams are trapped in divisions with two undeniably superior teams. And both teams nearly fired their coaches last winter, then reconsidered and said the words, “Screw it, let’s run it back!” Any slow start will get that “Should they fire him???” snowball rolling again.

Know this: I’ve seen everything I needed to see from the Jim Schwartz and Ron Rivera eras already. It’s a shame about the Panthers — blessed with Newton and one of the best defensive front sevens in football — who somehow have gone 2-12 in games decided by seven points or fewer since Newton and Rivera teamed up. Football Outsiders’ excellent DVOA season prediction model likes the 2013 Panthers for that very reason: Bad luck tends to even out over time. As much as I appreciate advanced metrics, I’m deferring to the eye test here: When a sloppy team keeps blowing leads, taking dumb penalties and finding increasingly inventive ways to screw up potential victories, that’s more than just bad luck … and when that same team brings the immortal Mike Shula aboard to “fix” its offense, that’s even worse. Sorry, Steve Smith. Please don’t come after me.

THE SHORT STRAWS

22. St. Louis Rams
21. Arizona Cardinals
We think Jeff Fisher is a good coach even though he has coached 16 full seasons and finished above .500 in only six of them. He hasn’t won a playoff game since 2003. He’s an average coach. Not great, not bad. He’s somewhere in the middle.

We think Sam Bradford is a franchise QB because the Rams drafted him first overall in 2010, even though that wasn’t a consensus no. 1 pick by any means, and even though that draft ended up being a quarterbacalypse (premiering Wednesday night on Syfy!): The other QBs drafted that year were Tim Tebow, Jimmy Clausen (compared with Bradford for that entire March and April), Colt McCoy, Mike Kafka, John Skelton, Jonathan Crompton, Rusty Smith, Dan LeFevour, Tony Pike, Levi Brown, Sean Canfield, Zac Robinson and John Koktostin. For all we know, Bradford may have seemed especially enticing that spring for the same reason that any remotely attractive female at the National Sports Collectors Convention suddenly seems like a supermodel. He’s an average starting QB. Not great, not bad. He’s somewhere in the middle.

You can’t be average at the coach/QB spots — especially in the NFC this year. If it’s OK with you, I’m crossing off the Rams. As for the Cardinals, they were looking sleeperish until they lost no. 7 overall pick Jonathan Cooper with a broken leg. (So much for improving their offensive line.) And look, I get it — going from the Skelton/Lindley/Kolb/Hoyer QBtastrophe (premiering in October on Syfy!) to someone who threw for 4,000 yards last season would make anyone a little more optimistic. But Carson Palmer is 12-30 in his last 42 starts. Twelve and thirty!

The good news: Even if Palmer isn’t Kurt Warner 2.0, I see the Cards finishing 6-10 or 7-9 while somehow covering 12 of those games. That Palmer-Fitzgerald garbage-time connection will be one for the ages — it was enough to drive Fitz’s price to $33 in my fantasy auction this week. That reminds me, I went against someone who started Peyton Manning, Wes Welker and Demaryius Thomas in Week 1. It’s Friday and I’m down 97.9 points already. Why is fantasy football fun again?

A (VERY) FAINT WHIFF OF FRISKINESS

20. Philadelphia Eagles
Ottawa reader Neil Varan wonders, “Who’s the leading candidate for your 2013 Man-Crush?” The answer: Eagles coach Chip Kelly. I love his brain, love his system, love the rapid-fire play thing … I mean, I would have picked the Eagles as my 2013 sleeper if Michael Vick weren’t so prominently involved. Last year, we decided that (a) his decision-making just wasn’t good enough, (b) it was too hard for him to stay healthy, and (c) if he were an NBA star, he’d be nearing the “I’m gonna play in China” stage of his career. Now he’s going to spearhead an offense that runs 85 plays a game and relies on him to make MORE decisions? If Kelly makes this one work in Year 1, he’s even better than I thought. And I think he’s gonna be great. Eventually. Either way, the 2013 Eagles will be a pain in the ass to play, even if they end up going only 6-10 or 7-9.

RUNNING ON FUMES

19. Pittsburgh Steelers

THE REGRESSERS

18. Minnesota Vikings
Look, we couldn’t figure out how the 2012 Vikings made the playoffs even as it was happening. But what are the odds that Peterson does THAT again? He cranked out seven 150-yard games last season — only 1980 Earl Campbell ever did that, and 1980 Earl Campbell was a Greek god. For the Vikings to reach 10 wins again, Peterson needs another career year — at the very least, something like 1,800 yards and 12 touchdowns. How realistic is that? Of the top-16 rushing seasons ever, only Barry Sanders (no. 4 and no. 9) appears on that list twice. Throw in their regression potential (thanks to a much tougher schedule), Percy Harvin’s departure and Christian Ponder’s frightening outdoors numbers and everything about them screams middle-of-the-packish. That’s why their Vegas over/under was seven wins.

Then again, Indiana reader Rick Vaughn throws something he calls “The Barnwell Theory” at us, explaining, “When Bill Barnwell and the Advanced Stat Troubadours (trademark pending) win the public over and blatantly influence a line, the team in question is guaranteed to prove them wrong. This year’s example: Barnwell’s regression-laden fingerprints are all over the Colts over/under for season wins (8.5). Quick reminder: they play half their games against the California penal league: Jags twice, Titans twice, Oakland (home), Dolphins (home), San Diego (away), and Cardinals (away). They’re 5-3 over that stretch if Gary Hogeboom is under center. I’m guessing 6-2. Yes, they play the NFC West, but let’s also consider the 2nd year leap for franchise QBs like Montana, Marino, Elway, and Manning. Three years ago this over/under is 9.5. Not today, Barnwell Theory. Take the over. I’m a Redskins fan, and I’m putting dreadlocks on layaway for all of Southern Indiana. Money in the bank.”

I like it … advanced metrics unduly swinging the lines! Along with Indy at 8.5 wins, I’d say Atlanta (9.5 wins), Minnesota (7 wins) and Carolina (7.5 wins — too high in that case) would be your Barnwell Theory value candidates. The bigger question: Should we name THIS theory after Barnwell when he’s much more obsessed with disproving the concept of momentum in sports? Can someone’s name be attached to two different theories? Either way, Barnwell has a ton of momentum right now.

17. The Washington D.C.’s
Just a gut feeling: You had the controversy over Robert Griffin’s knee injury in January, then the controversy over their name (and that’s just going to get worse, especially when Dan Snyder says something dumb publicly — and you know he will), then the whole “every time Griffin scrambles, D.C. fans will be holding their breath” thing … just feels like one of those seasons when they keep landing in PTI‘s A-block for all the wrong reasons. By the way, gamblers had no idea what to make of the NFC East this season — none of the four teams had an over/under higher than 8.5 wins.

16. Indianapolis Colts

THE UNDERTOW

15. Cleveland Browns

THE KARDASHIANS

14. Dallas Cowboys
Who’s the best “Overrated, Underrated or Properly Rated?” argument in the entire league? Antonio Ramiro Romo, that’s who. You can argue both sides until you’re blue in the face. If we judged QBs like we’re starting to judge baseball pitchers — in other words, follow sabermetric bully Brian Kenny’s lead, ignore win-loss records entirely, and focus only on things that pitchers can control, like baserunners allowed, innings pitched, strikeout/walk ratio and everything else — then Romo would come off REALLY well. Football Outsiders (with its DYAR stat) ranked him as 2012′s sixth-best QB and 2011′s fourth-best QB. His two-year numbers are impressive: 9,087 yards, 59 TDs, 29 INTs, 8 lost fumbles (I thought it would be more), 65.9% completion, 95.8 rating, 67 QBR. Statistically, he’s a notch below the Rodgers/Brady/Manning/Brees group, but he’s better than (or even with) basically anyone else.

Then you think about Romo’s record those last two years (16-16), his playoff record (1-3), the unfortunate luck that continually undermines him (like Dez Bryant’s fingernail landing out of bounds on a game-winning score against the Giants last year), or even that you could say the words “pulling a Romo” and people would know what that means. He’s 33 years old. When is this getting better? My buddy Hirschy (big Giants fan) loves playing Romo, explaining, “I know he puts up big stats, but he’s SO careless with the football. I love playing that guy, I always feel like he’s gonna give us the football when we need it.” Fair or unfair, it seems like a lot of fans feel that way.

Anyway, I think we’re headed for a “You know what? Tony Romo is underrated!” season: more than 5,000 yards, more than 35 TDs, fewer than 15 turnovers … and yet, the Cowboys will finish 9-7 and miss the playoffs, and everyone will blame Tony Romo again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

THE NOT-REALLY-A-SLEEPER

13. Kansas City Chiefs

THE HOVERERS

12. New York Giants
I’m just betting on the pedigree here — in 2012, they finished 9-7 because of injuries and a legitimately brutal schedule. Feels like a 10-6 bounce-back year for the NFC East title, right? I’m sure they’ll throw in a couple of horrendous losses along the way to throw us off their scent — they always do — but everything points to a career year for Eli Manning. Three quality receivers and a shifty running back (David Wilson) who can catch balls?2 But as far as the Super Bowl goes, I thought these two lists were interesting …

Over-60 coaches who won the Super Bowl: Tom Coughlin (65), ’11 Giants; Dick Vermeil (63), ’99 Rams; Weeb Ewbank (61), ’69 Jets.3

35-and-over QBs who won the Super Bowl: John Elway (37, 38), ’97 and ’98 Broncos; Jim Plunkett (36), ’83 Raiders; Roger Staubach (35), ’77 Cowboys.

A couple of points: First, the 2013 Patriots have a 61-year-old coach AND a 36-year-old QB. They’d be making history twice by winning the Super Bowl — it’s one of many reasons why I’m picking against them winning a fourth Super Bowl. Second, only two QB-coach combos have ever had their combined ages exceed 90 and still win a Super Bowl: Coughlin and Eli Manning in 2011 (95), and Vermeil and Kurt Warner in 1999 (91). This year, Coughlin and Eli add up to 99. Third, Coughlin is two years older than my dad (who spent three hours sitting in the sun for a Saturday Red Sox–Dodgers game last month and was basically delirious for the next 36 hours), 24 years older than me (and I just spent Thursday’s “Guess the Lines” podcast with Cousin Sal repeatedly bragging about how I spent 29 bucks on Green Bay receiver “Reggie Cobb”), and somewhere between five and 25 years older than basically every other head coach.

I’m not saying he can’t win the Super Bowl — shit, Tom Coughlin might be superhuman for all we know. In cold weather, his face turns shades of maroon that nobody’s ever seen. Maybe he’s loaded with enough HGH to kill a horse, or maybe he’ll eventually become one of those freaky ageless people who still play golf every day when they’re 98. (Important note: I am desperately hoping to become one of those people.) I’m just pointing out that we have nearly 50 years of Super Bowl data at our disposal right now — only the 1993 Bills made the Super Bowl with a coach in his late 60s (Levy, age 68) and an over-30 QB (Jim Kelly, age 33). So if the 2013 Giants win the Super Bowl, they really will be making history. If it’s all right, I’m picking against it.

11. Chicago Bears
It’s time for my annual “I know I discounted you in my over/under podcast with Cousin Sal, but I thought about it some more and now I think you’re gonna be good” flip-flop pick! They went 10-6 last season with a battered offensive line and no offensive identity whatsoever beyond, “Hey, Jay, throw it to Brandon.” Now it looks like the Bears fixed their blocking issues, and I love everything I’m reading about Marc Trestman — if he gets Jay Cutler and Matt Forte going, and Cutler can shed his QBPTSD issues after three years of pummelings (this photo spread is incredible), you’d have to throw Chicago into that six-team circle of “Teams That Can Win The Super Bowl.”

Quick note on that circle: Thanks to the salary cap, the scheduling, unpredictable injuries and the NFL’s love for parity, it’s become harder and harder for one team to just dominate for five straight months and win the Super Bowl. You just want to be one of the five or six teams with a legitimate chance in January — you want to get to the point where a couple of Jacoby Jones–Rahim Moore plays swing your way and suddenly you’re holding the trophy. Denver, San Francisco, Atlanta, Seattle and (maybe) New England all walked away from last season thinking they could have won the Super Bowl with a few breaks. The year before, Baltimore, New England, San Francisco, Houston and even New Orleans felt like “It could have been us.”

Anyway, we’ve reached the point of the Power Poll in which any of these 12 teams have a chance to make that circle. (Yeah, even you, Baltimore — I’m not giving up on you yet. Even after that big poop you made on my TV last night. Am I wrong to think they could have won that game if Dallas Clark held on to that wide-open TD and Harbaugh challenged the Welker catch at the beginning of the third quarter? Wait, don’t answer that.) I don’t trust Cutler’s track record enough to stick Chicago in that circle yet, but I see them sniffing around it in January.

THE FANTASY GODS

10. Green Bay Packers
9. New Orleans Saints
Two fantasy juggernauts with all-timer QBs who are desperately hoping to shed the all-offense/no-defense stigma. And they both have humiliating numbers hanging over their heads like a noose: 579 and 7,042.

So why do I like the 2013 Saints 0.2789 percent more than the Packers? First, the Packers have an unforgivingly brutal schedule that includes EIGHT hard road games — San Francisco, Cincy, Baltimore, Minnesota, the Giants, Detroit (on Thanksgiving), Dallas and Chicago (Week 17). That’s a disaster. (If I offered every Packers fan 10 and 6 and the no. 5 seed right now, would they take it? I bet they would.) Second, the Saints went 7-9 last year … and the coaching upgrade from the Superdome janitor to Sean Payton has to be worth at least a plus-4 WARM. And third, after what Roger Goodell did to their 2012 season, you know the Saints will be playing with a 50-pound chip on their shoulder. Could we see Brees and Payton in Eff You Mode on the level of the post-Spygate Pats? It’s possible.

(There’s a fourth reason that I hesitate to mention: Somehow I ended up with Aaron Rodgers as my starting QB in both fantasy leagues. I’ve had terrible fantasy football mojo ever since the glorious 2007 season, when I rode LaDainian Tomlinson, rookie Adrian Peterson and Wes Welker to my West Coast title, nearly went undefeated — jinxing that quest by stupidly writing about it — and spent way too much time crowing about it afterward. The following year, I built my season around Tom Brady and it was gone in eight minutes. I’ve never been the same — it’s the fantasy equivalent of the Pirates losing Bonds and going into a two-decade tailspin. I haven’t come close to winning a title since. Now I have all my eggs in the Aaron Rodgers basket. If I’m a fantasy mush, this can’t be good for the Packers. If you don’t believe me — again, it’s Friday and I’m down by 97.9 points in one of my leagues right now. Sorry, Packers fans. I’m apologizing in advance.)

8. Denver Broncos
Note to every Denver fan sending me “YOU SCREWED UP!!!!” e-mails — it’s Week 1. You’re supposed to win when you’re favored by more than a touchdown at home. Settle down.

THE TEAM THAT NOBODY BELIEVED

7. Baltimore Ravens
See above.

LURKING, BUT WITH A CATCH

6. San Francisco 49ers
We mentioned Denver’s Season From Hell potential in yesterday’s AFC Power Poll. The Niners are the other A-list Season From Hell candidate. They had an absolutely agonizing loss in the Super Bowl. They have another hard schedule — including six “playoff”-type games against Seattle (twice), Green Bay, Houston, New Orleans and Atlanta — and they’re due for a bad-luck injury season (they already lost Michael Crabtree with a torn Achilles). They have Frank Gore clearly heading into the “Get Ready, He Could Lose It Any Day Now” phase of his career. Also, everyone spent the offseason (a) figuring out how to stop the read-option (which caught everyone by surprise last year), and (b) blowing smoke up Colin Kaepernick’s butt and treating him like a superstar even though he’s started only 10 games. I kept waiting for everything to go to his head in the form of a “My Name Is Colin” music video …

… and maybe there’s still time. Think about how much Baltimore struggled last night with subpar receivers once they fell behind, think about San Francisco falling behind by 17 or more in their last two playoff games, then think about having money on San Francisco anytime they’re down 10 this season. It’s a little nerve-racking. Seriously, what if the league figures out that read-option?

So yeah, I thought about getting crazy and picking the Niners to miss the playoffs with a Season From Hell. Then I looked at those first two Harbaugh years (24-7-1, three playoff wins, two playoff losses by a total of six points) and thought better of it. Loaded team, great coach … you can’t bet against that. But Seattle seems like a safer pick to me. By the way, I’m in the “HIT THE HELL OUT OF THE QB EVERY TIME” camp for stopping the read-option. It’s a great gimmick as long as opposing defenses don’t say, “We don’t care how many yards you get, knock yourself out … just know that we are CRUSHING your QB every time.” This season, I think they start saying that.

5. Cincinnati Bengals
4. Houston Texans

THE CONTENDERS

3. Atlanta Falcons
Barnwell made an impressive regression case for them on Grantland, which corresponded nicely with Vegas’s surprisingly low over/under of 9½ for them. (RICK VAUGHN ALERT!) I’m going the other way: I loved the way the Falcons played in the playoffs. I liked their draft. I think Steven Jackson has 2004 Corey Dillon potential. I still like them in the Georgia Dome against anybody. Even if they go 7-1 at home and win three of five in Buffalo/Miami/Arizona/Tampa/Carolina, that’s 10 wins right there. I have them down for 11.

More importantly: We just watched the future of pro football in last night’s Broncos-Ravens game. In the third quarter, the combination of Denver’s pace with the altitude and Baltimore’s offense falling into a three-and-out rut was absolutely deadly. You could see Baltimore’s defense fading as that quarter dragged on. They couldn’t handle it. If you have a franchise QB and a couple big playmakers, and you can rip off plays at a breakneck pace, that’s the single biggest advantage of the “Nobody’s Allowed To Crush Receivers Over The Middle Anymore” era. But you need the right QB, you need the home-field advantage, you need the big-play guys, and you need to be REALLY good at the no-huddle thing. Atlanta checks all four of those boxes. Time will tell if I should have ranked Denver higher — there’s a good chance I overrated Elvis Dumervil’s departure and Von Miller’s suspension — but I feel good about where the Falcons are ranked. So stick that in your regression pipe and smoke it, Barnwell.

2. New England Patriots

1. Seattle Seahawks
Look, I fully admit — I played it safe this year. Safe sleeper (Kansas City), safe top-10 (Baltimore over Denver was my only wonky pick), safe picks for the 12 playoff teams (Chicago stealing Green Bay’s spot = my biggest risk), and even the safest of Super Bowl picks (Seattle over New England, a.k.a., the Pete Carroll Bowl). But you know what? Sometimes you have your crazy NFL seasons, and sometimes you have your NFL seasons that veer more toward going chalk. This feels like a chalk season to me.

Anyway, remember when we used to make snarky jokes about the NFC West? Suddenly Niners-Seahawks is the NFL’s single-best rivalry — if I could watch only one home-and-home this season, I’d pick the Seattle-S.F. games without blinking. (Runner-up choices: New Orleans–Atlanta, Green Bay–Chicago, Ravens-Bengals and Giants-Cowboys. Finishing last: Oakland–San Diego.) And it’s not going to be a fleeting thing. Thanks to the head coaches (who genuinely dislike each other), the QBs (sharing that same Playmaking Young QB corner), the stadiums/crowds/atmospheres (both enjoyable, especially Seattle) and the blue-chippers on both sides (extensive), Seahawks-Niners has a chance to be a hybrid of everything we enjoyed during the peaks of Patriots-Colts (the star power) and Ravens-Steelers (the bad blood/division rivals thing).

Year after year after year, I can see the Niners and Seahawks measuring themselves against one another, lobbing potshots at each other, making sketchy roster moves clearly intended to piss off the other team (Chris Harper, everybody!), and maybe even getting into one of those postgame pseudo-brawls with 120 players milling around two assistant coaches who are screaming at each other. If it gets REALLY good, once or twice, we’ll see a free agent switch from one side to the other for more money, and we’ll all consider him a massive traitor — like how Red Sox fans felt about Johnny Damon in 2006. I think it’s going to be a blood feud. I think it’s going to be what Rex Ryan always wanted the Jets-Patriots rivalry to be … you know, before the Jets died.

It’s going to be fantastic. I can’t wait. But for 2013? I think it’s Seattle’s year. In Russell Wilson we trust.

Filed Under: Bill Simmons, People, Simmons, Sports, Teams

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Bill Simmons is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland.

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