Eight years ago today many American’s lives changed forever; there were questions about what matters to us now and debates about what should. Sports was a hot button issue for many folks as the nation stood wondering how this could have happened and what we could do to try and move forward. The NFL and the MLB all took a week off to help the nation gather itself and try to cope. The Yankees then took the city of New York on its back all the way to the World Series, coming up just short of a fifth crown in six years. If you have Netflix or anything like that and are interested in the storyline of how sports fit in with the American culture right after the 9/11 attacks, add “Nine Innings From Ground Zero” in your queue–it helps paint a picture of how athletes and teams helped some New Yorkers that were dealing with the loss of a family member or in some cases, multiple family members. I just want to link to two clips for you this morning as we remember those lost eight years ago today.
The first is broadcast legend Jack Buck’s poem in St. Louis when the Cardinals resumed their 2001 season.
The second is David Letterman’s speech on his first show back on 9/17/2001 and his reaction to the attacks. Letterman does a great job capturing the feel of the average Joe and tackles to tough questions of should he be doing this show or not.
Now pardon me as I try to navigate this tough transition back into the 2009 NFL Power Rankings. I appreciate you reading, and for part 1 (Teams 32-16) click here.
15. Seahawks: Seattle was ravaged by injuries last season, including losing starting quarterback Matt Hasselback for 9 games in the 2008 campaign. Hasselback looks healthy and the Seahawks have a strong group of targets for him. Seattle added TJ Houshmandzadeh who still caught 92 passes for 904 yards on a putrid Bengals team last year that featured Ryan Fitzpatrick under center for 13 games in 2008. Now he gets Hasselback throwing him the ball and Nate Burleson and Deion Branch taking defenders away from him. In the previous two seasons when Houshmandzadeh had Carson Palmer under center and Chad Ochocinco as a fellow wideout, Housh went for 2,224 yards and 21 touchdowns. I like a big year from Housh and Seattle could challenge for the division crown.
14. Falcons: A lot of times in the summer months there is always a movie that creates a tremendous amount of buzz. All of your friends and family members are saying things like “Oh man, you have to see this movie, its so good!” You eventually cave and go see it and with few exceptions your review is never as good mainly because it didn’t live up to the incessant hyperbole your friends cast upon it. You may have liked the movie but you certainly wouldn’t call it a must-see. That’s how these Falcons are for me. I like Matt Ryan a lot but I am a big believer in the curse of 370 and Michael Turner ran the ball 376 times last season. I also hate holdouts who end up getting paid like Roddie White…will he be as motivated to be great? Trading for Tony Gonzalez was a great move but the Falcons are still woeful on defense and much like the Dolphins will not be sneaking up on anyone this year. Did I like the movie? Sure. Was it as good as everyone said it was? No. That’s the 2009 Falcons for me–the movie with too much buzz.
13. Cardinals: Last year’s NFC Champions kept fighting off doubters during their run to the Superbowl. After a 9-7 finish everyone was expecting an early exit from Arizona, but they just kept winning–first against the upstart Falcons, then a pasting of the Panthers thanks to a Jake Delhomme abomination, followed by a tight one over the Eagles. Now that’s its 2009 the doubters are back. Burning questions about Kurt Warner’s age, Todd Haley’s departure, and who their running backs are are all leading to the swelling of the 49ers and Seahawks bandwagon. Plus the Cardinals will be carrying with them a Superbowl loser hangover. When I look at the NFC West I see the best receivers and quarterback in that division in Arizona and in a mediocre division that should to be enough to get them back into the playoffs.
12. Saints: Always an enticing pick by NFL experts around the league, but until their defense proves itself as being able to stop anyone it’s hard to take them seriously as contenders. The Saints have winnable games to start September against the Bills, Eagles and Jets but after a week five bye the schedule toughens up with October games vs. the Giants and Falcons. I think the Saints are good enough to win this division and sneak out a playoff spot but mainly because I don’t have a lot of faith in Carolina or Atlanta to rise to the top.
11. Bears: There is no arguing that Jay Cutler is an enormous upgrade over Kyle Orton as quarterback and it appears that Matt Forte is on his way to super-stardom in this league but other than that are there any sure things on the Bears? Their defense is aging and they are carrying 11 defensive backs into opening weekend against the Packers. Outside of Lance Briggs and Alex Brown everyone else on the defense is a question mark. How much does Urlacher have left? Can Tommie Harris stay healthy? Is Peanut Tillman going to be able to play? Can anyone step up in the secondary? Then you have and aging offensive line featuring some new faces and Chicago is still lacking any viable targets at wide receiver. Devin Hester is the greatest kick returner of all time but the Bears are steadfast on making him a #1 receiver and Earl Bennett hasn’t caught a pass in the NFL. Greg Olsen will be Cutler’s #1 target and Forte is going to carry the load offensively for Chicago. The acquisition of Cutler was a giant step in the right direction but it is going to take some time and a few more players before the Bears are Superbowl contenders.
10. Eagles: This isn’t the kind of place you would come to read about the afterlife, UFOs or anything that involves the supernatural, but I will tell you that I am a big believer in karma. I believe that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to people who need to do a little work on themselves. Michael Vick is a scumbag and he electrocuted, hung and drowned innocent dogs as recently as three years ago. Then when pressed about the issue on 60 Minutes he told James Brown that he felt disgusted about what he had done once the door closed and he was behind bars. Not while he was doing these things to animals that were completely helpless. There is a lot of preseason hype in Philly but remember they were 5-5-1 last season before they got hot and made it all the way to the NFC championship game, and now they’ve some got serious bad karma sporting #7 on their sidelines. The defense sadly lost its coordinator Jim Johnson to cancer and also lost another emotional leader in Brain Dawkins when he left for the Broncos. It’s hard to bet against a team that has made it to the NFC Championship 5 out of the last 8 seasons but something seems amiss to me in Philly.
9. Colts: Tony Dungy is gone. Marvin Harrison is gone. Bob Sanders may be out for a long while. The one constant for Indianapolis is reigning NFL MVP Peyton Manning who led the Colts to a 12-4 record after missing the entire preseason and starting 2008 under .500 at 3-4 through the first 7 games. New head coach Jim Caldwell takes over a team that has looked bad in its last two playoff losses and is battling against Father Time as the window begins to close. As long as they have Manning the Colts should be alright but much like the Superbowl XLI counterparts the Colts are starting to have more questions than answers on their depth chart.
8. Ravens: A vicious defense led by Ed Reed and Ray Lewis returns for another season of hard hitting and second year quarterback Joe Flacco appears to be the best quarterback the Ravens have had since moving to Baltimore. The loss of defensive coordinator Rex Ryan to the Jets could have an effect on this year’s team but not enough to keep them out of a playoff spot. We should have a pretty good idea about how good the Ravens are going to be by the time they head into their week 7 bye. Three of their first six games are at San Diego, New England, and Minnesota.
7. Packers: My oh my has the Green Bay bandwagon swelled after a mighty preseason by the first team on offense. The Packers were mauled by the injury bug last season and never really got Ryan Grant going after a long holdout. This year the Packers make a switch the base 3-4 defense and it appears that they are going to have the personnel to pull it off. They drafted a big fat and quick nose tackle in BJ Raji (but it looks like he won’t be starting quite yet), boast a linebacker core that includes Aaron Kampman (converted DE), AJ Hawk and Nick Barnett, and still have one of the better secondaries in the league with Charles Woodson and Al Harris at corner. If this defense can successfully execute Dom Capers’ 3-4 and the offense continues to look as sharp as they did in the preseason, the Packers could have enough to win the tough North division and earn a first round bye.
6. Titans: Here’s a good recipe for success in the NFL. Great head coach, solid defense, and an offense that can control the clock and grind out victories. The Titans have all three of these and they were on display last night as they almost went into Pittsburgh and sprung an upset against the defending champs. Tennessee isn’t going to be a team who blows many people out but they are going to be able to win most of the close games they are in which should be good enough to win the AFC South once again this season.
5. Vikings: Last season the Vikings had a defense that ranked in the top half of the league and the most explosive player on the NFL on offense. However they had horrendous quarterback play with the duo of Tavaris Jackson and Gus Ferotte. I hated the entire Favre drama as much as you did and think he has emerged as one of the most selfish superstar athletes of the decade over these last 2 seasons after he drowned reporters in tears in his retirement press conference but he is a much better quarterback than those two. The Jets were 8-3 last year until the wheels came off and apparently he was hurting. The Vikings took their biggest weakness from a playoff team last year and turned it into a strength. If they had acquired Kerry Collins or Chad Pennington instead of Favre I’d be saying the same thing. The majority of the offense falls on the shoulders of Adrian Peterson, and since he is a threat to run for 200 yards every Sunday opposing defenses have to respect that. Throw in a veteran signal caller with a halfway decent receiving core and the Vikings are going to be tough to beat.
4. Chargers: Everything is in place for the Chargers to roll through the season and get a first round bye. They get to pound weak division opponents six times this season and have games against the Dolphins, Browns and Bengals–that’s nine wins already. The Chargers are good enough to win up to 13 games this regular season but it will only be a matter of time before Norv Turner messes this up. Did you know his lifetime winning percentage as a head coach is .448 (77-95)? Do you remember how this team was dealing with in fighting and would have missed the playoffs if not for a massive Broncos gag job down the stretch last season? The Chargers were 4-6 last season after 10 weeks and now I am supposed to believe they are good enough to make it to the Superbowl? I’m not buying it but I am fully prepared for them to look great and have the “Look out for the Chargers!” start up around Thanksgiving which will give way to another playoff collapse courtesy of Norv. Plus it’s never a good thing when one of your best players is accused of beating a reality television star named Tila Tequila…just saying.
3. Giants: If you look back through this decade we’ve seen a trend of teams that have great defenses and mediocre offenses being good enough to make to the Superbowl. As mentioned above with the Titans, great coaching, solid defense and adequate offense is going to win you a lot of games in the NFL and the Giants have all three. Much like so many people forget how bad the Chargers were through 10 weeks last season, it also seems to escape people that these Giants were 11-1 through 12 weeks last season. They ran into a hot Eagles team in the playoffs and their defense did this all without Osi Umenyiora. Losing Plaxico was part of their drop off last season but now the Giants are adjusted and can rely heavily on Brandon Jacobs and their defense to grind out wins in the smash mouth NFC East (I think I just shattered my record for most football cliches in a sentence–Chris Berman would be proud).
2. Steelers: The defending champs had a typical Steelers win last night: keep it close, keep it close, keep it close then have Big Ben make the plays needed down the stretch for the win. If Polamalu’s knee injury is serious the Steelers could be vulnerable on defense in that secondary. Here’s what I know about the Steelers: In Big Ben’s tenure with them they have beaten New England once when Tom Brady was healthy early in Roethlisberger’s career to end the Patriots 21 game win streak. The other times the Patriots have typically beaten the Steelers soundly. In the 2004 AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh (41-27), then the following season in New England (23-20), then again two years later in New England (34-13). That brings Big Ben’s record against Belichick and Brady to 1-3. So before we can have a team of the decade debate I need to see Pittsburgh beat the Pats when it matters, a task they haven’t yet accomplished. If you really wanted to go out on a limb you could say the Steelers’ two rings this decade came in the years of two season-changing knee injuries to superstar quarterbacks. One of their own (Kimo von Oelhoffen) took out Carson Palmer and the upstart Bengals in the playoffs and Brady went down on the 16th play from scrimmage last year.
1. Patriots: Before Tom Brady went down in the 1st quarter last season the Patriots had won 32 of their previous 36 games, including a Superbowl and AFC Championship loss. The New England offense shattered the record books with Brady on the field in 2007, setting the single season scoring record, single season passing touchdown record, and the single season receiving touchdown record. The biggest knock on their defense was that they had to get younger, and now their four oldest players are now gone: Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison retired and Richard Seymour and Mike Vrabel were traded. The defense now comes with a different set of question marks, mainly who are these guys? My guess is we’re going to learn a lot of their names by the end of the season. The Pats are going to look for leadership from nose tackle Vincent Wilfork and 2008 defensive rookie of the year Jerad Mayo. But with Tom Brady, Randy Moss, Wes Welker and the acquisitions of Fred Taylor and Joey Galloway (the classic Patriot kind of pick ups) the offense should be powerful enough to let the defense round into shape during the season and make another run at the Superbowl to close out the decade.
AFC Wildcard Round
Ravens over Colts
Steelers over Titans
NFC Wildcard Round
Saints over Bears
Packers over Cardinals
AFC Divisional Round
Pats over Ravens
Steelers over Chargers
NFC Divisional Round
Vikings over Saints
Giants over Packers
America over Brett Favre may play the Packers in the NFC Championship game hype
Pats over Steelers
Giants over Vikings
Patriots over Giants