Here are this week’s Not So Scientific Rankings. Following the rankings, you will have my insight on who I see as the best candidate at this point for the year-end awards. Regarding those awards, I see one in which a candidate is starting to pull away, and one in which it’s really a two-person race, but the others have quite a few worthy candidates, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see disagreement.
I group the teams within categories, noting which teams are bordering on moving up into a higher category or falling into a lower one. But it’s becoming clear who are the playoff favorites and who has the best chance of reaching the Super Bowl.
As always, the rankings are a composite of these five:
The great teams
1. New England 1 1 1 1 1 – 1
2. Cincinnati 3 2 3 3 2 – 2.8
3. Carolina 2 6 4 4 3 – 3.8
4. Arizona 5 3 7 2 4 -4.2
5. Denver 4 4 2 8 5 – 4.6
Denver is bordering on “good team”
These teams are your leading Super Bowl favorites.
The good teams
6. Green Bay 8 8 6 6 6 – 6.8
7. Pittsburgh 11 5 8 7 13 – 8.8
8. Seattle 16 10 5 9 8 – 9.6
9. New York Jets 12 7 18 5 7 – 9.8
10. Philadelphia 10 9 9 10 12 – 10
11. Kansas City 14 12 11 11 14 – 12.4
12. Atlanta 6 15 15 17 10 – 12.6
Green Bay is bordering on “great team”
Atlanta is bordering on “average team”
Green Bay is arguably in the mix as a Super Bowl favorite. The rest could still make the playoffs and, if they do, some might play a spoiler role.
The average teams
13. Buffalo 13 11 14 13 17 – 13.6
14. St. Louis 17 13 17 14 9 – 14
15. Minnesota 7 18 10 26 11 – 14.4
16. Oakland 9 14 22 12 16 – 14.6
17. New York Giants 20 16 12 15 15 – 15.6
18. Baltimore 18 17 16 16 18 – 17
19. Indianapolis 19 19 13 18 21 – 18
Buffalo is bordering on “good team”
Indianapolis is bordering on “below average team”
Indy, of course, is leading the AFC South and remains the favorite to win it. There are other teams in this category who could reach the playoffs, although they might not have enough to make a deep run.
The below average teams
20. New Orleans 15 22 20 22 23 – 20.4
21. Dallas 22 21 19 23 19 – 20.8
22. Miami 24 23 21 21 24 – 22.6
23. Houston 21 26 23 30 25 – 25
24. Washington 28 20 28 19 30 – 25
25. Tennessee 25 28 31 24 20 – 25.6
New Orleans is bordering on “average team”
Tennessee is bordering on “bad team”
Most of these teams are still in playoff hunts, but they need a lot of things to fall into place.
The bad teams
26. Chicago 23 27 27 29 27 – 26.6
27. San Diego 32 24 25 27 28 – 27.2
28. Cleveland 26 25 29 28 29 – 27.4
29. Tampa Bay 29 31 30 25 22 – 27.4
30. Jacksonville 27 29 32 20 31 – 27.8
31. San Francisco 30 30 24 32 26 – 28.4
32. Detroit 31 32 26 31 32 – 30.4
Chicago is bordering on “below average team”
These teams aren’t going to the playoffs, but Chicago is improving while the others are struggling or declining, although each team has different factor affecting it.
Now getting to my midseason picks for the various awards given at year’s end.
Coach of the Year: Ron Rivera, Carolina
There will be a lot of folks who will be ready to hand the award to Bill Belichick and he has certainly continued to do a great job as head coach. A few may point to Marvin Lewis, whose Bengals remain undefeated despite their defense not ranking among the best and a quarterback who still has question marks. And then there’s Bruce Arians, who has gotten the most out of a Cardinals squad that arguably does not have the talent level that the Patriots and Bengals have.
But I give this one to Rivera because he has done a terrific job of elevating the Panthers to one of the best teams in the NFL. Cam Newton is playing very well, the offensive line was a question mark entering the season but has become a very good unit, the running backs are averaging 4.2 yards per game and the defense continue to play at a high level despite Charles Johnson being sidelined with injuries. To think there was a time when some wondered if Rivera would keep his job, but that’s certainly not an issue now, and if the Panthers keep playing at a high level, he’s going to have a very good case for the award.
Comeback Player of the Year: Eric Berry, Kansas City
Carson Palmer has been tremendous, on the way to his best statistical season ever despite being in his mid 30s. Chris Johnson was thought to be done, but has shown he can still make an impact on a team’s running game. Michael Crabtree suffered an Achilles injury last season and has played great for the Oakland Raiders. And there will be those who want to toss out Adrian Peterson’s name, with his legal issues keeping him off the field in 2014.
But it’s hard to overlook Berry, who some may have wondered if he would ever get back on the field after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma last year. Not only did he come back to play again, he’s put himself among the best safeties in the NFL. While I’d be fine with Palmer or Crabtree getting the award, Berry’s story is a great one and I lean toward his case.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Ronald Darby, Buffalo
Colts defensive end Henry Anderson was having a very good season, but unfortunately, it got cut short because of a torn ACL. Jets defensive end Leonard Williams had a strong streak in the first few weeks of the season but has slowed a bit since. Damarious Randall has been a good find by the Green Bay Packers, providing a boost to a secondary that’s had injury issues. Marcus Peters has three interceptions but has a few games in which he hasn’t played as well.
But with Anderson out for the season, the Bills’ second-round draft choice now leads the pack. He’s been effective, having broken up 15 passes in eight games — better than any defensive player in the NFL — and intercepted two. He also has 40 tackles. Pro Football Focus has rated him at 90.6 this season, the highest of any rookie. If he can keep up his strong play in the second half of the season, he deserves a long look.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Todd Gurley, St. Louis
Marcus Mariota has done good things in his rookie season and his performance this past week against New Orleans will turn some heads. Raiders WR Amari Cooper has dropped a few passes, but his talent is evident and he’s on his way to becoming an impact player. WR Stefon Diggs has been a pleasant surprise in Minnesota, having emerged into their top playmaker in the receiving corps. In Jacksonville, RB T.J. Yeldon is quietly putting together a quality season, averaging 4.1 yards per carry.
But if you want to find a rookie who really transformed an offense, you look to the Rams. Would they be a playoff contender without Todd Gurley? It’s hard to argue they would be. After a decent start to the season, Nick Foles has struggled, but thanks to Gurley, the Rams have become a better offensive team. Despite missing three starts and two games entirely, he’s rushed for 664 yards and four touchdowns and was easily the difference in the Rams’ Week 4 win over Arizona. He’s looking the part of an elite running back, as he’s averaging 5.6 yards per carry. While not quite a hands-down choice, he’s pulling away from the pack.
Defensive Player of the Year: J.J. Watt, Houston
There are plenty of candidates you could consider. If you look to interceptions, it’s hard to look past Charles Woodson or Mike Adams, who are tied for the league lead with five. (Woodson may get more attention because of his reputation, though). If you are looking at pass breakups, Ronald Darby leads with 15 and Josh Norman is second with 13, plus he’s got four picks, two returned for touchdowns. If you want the league leader in sacks, that’s Chandler Jones with 9.5 and Carlos Dunlap isn’t far behind with 8.5. Want the league leader in tackles, that’s Navarro Bowman with 65. And if you go with a top player from the best defense in the NFL (the Broncos), you’re likely going to bat for DeMarcus Ware and his 6.5 sacks or Aqib Talib has two interceptions returned for touchdowns.
But it comes back to the same guy who led the pack last year, J.J. Watt. He’s tied for second in sacks with 8.5, he has more tackles than either Jones or Dunlap (Watt has 30, Jones has 20, Dunlap has 19) and he’s broken up five passes. He doesn’t have a slam dunk case like he did last year, but he’s probably the best all-around candidate.
Offensive Player of the Year: Tom Brady, New England
Let’s look at leading receivers: Julio Jones has 80 receptions and 1,029 yards with six touchdowns while Antonio Brown had 69 receptions with 1,002 yards and three touchdowns, and the likes of Larry Fitzgerald, Julian Edelman and Odell Beckham Jr. have seven touchdowns. Jones, honestly, is the best of the bunch in the overall picture. But wait… there are two running backs who have cases: Adrian Peterson with his 758 yards rushing and Devonta Freeman with his 11 total touchdowns. And if you want to talk quarterbacks, Phillip Rivers has already thrown for 3,000 yards in nine games with 19 touchdown passes.
But, yes, it goes back to Brady, who is having one of his best statistical seasons of his career. He’s not likely to surpass the 50 touchdowns he threw in 2007. But his current pace puts him at 44, which would be just the second time he has thrown at least 40 touchdowns in a single season. (His highest total other than 2007 was 39 TDs in 2011.) It’s hard to ignore how well he’s playing, despite having an offensive line that is banged up and struggling.
Most Valuable Player: Cam Newton, Carolina
Brady backers will be out in force and for good reason, particularly as Aaron Rodgers has slipped in recent weeks, Watt isn’t quite at the level he was last season and nobody is seriously going to push for Freeman as a candidate. But ask yourself this: Does the Patriots level really drop off dramatically if they had to put Jimmy Garoppolo under center? Well, maybe, when you consider what the offensive line is like. Then again, the Pats have the best tight end in the NFL (Rob Gronkowski) and their receiving corps has been very good (Edelman has already been discussed and Danny Amendola is having his best season with the Pats yet).
That brings us back to Carolina, where Newton is arguably doing a lot with far less talent. Greg Olsen is a quality tight end, but nobody is putting him ahead of Gronkowski. No receiver the Panthers currently have comes close to Edelman’s talent level. Maybe Devin Funchess will be as good as Amendola someday, but he’s not at Amendola’s level now. Even Brandon LaFell, who missed time with injuries and is off to a slow start, is better than the best receiver Carolina has to offer this season.
Carolina’s offensive line is definitely playing better than New England’s, but that alone wouldn’t help Derek Anderson win games for the Panthers if he had to step under center. And when you consider Newton’s presence in the running game and how that helps the offense, along with his improved work as a pocket passer, it’s harder to ignore how important he is to the team. At his current pace, Newton will finish with 666 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns, to go with 3,713 passing yards and 28 passing touchdowns. Having 38 total touchdowns is pretty darn good, I would say.
Brady does have a strong MVP case, but a closer look shows that Newton demands consideration, because while there’s a good chance the Pats would win their division with Garoppolo in place of Brady, it’s harder to argue the Panthers could win their division — or even be 4-4 — if they had to rely on Anderson in place of Newton.
Always remember: MVP isn’t about statistics but how important you are to your team. Brady is certainly key to the Patriots’ success, but given the lack of playmakers in the Panthers’ offense, I would say Newton has just a little more value to his team than Brady does to his.