So, just how important are star members of the secondary in the NFL? Depends on who you ask.
Pittsburgh sure doesn't seem to like being without Troy Polamalu -- it can't be a coincidence that the Steelers (all the way down to No. 14 this week) have lost four straight close games without the heart, head and shoulders of their defense.
In the three games Polamalu played start to finish, the Steelers allowed 13.7 PPG and went 3-0; in the other nine, they've allowed 21.1 and went 3-6.
The Giants have also suffered through injuries all year in the secondary, and can probably lay their No. 13 ranking and possible playoff miss on the situation.
But four of our top five teams have played most or at least part of the season without hugely important members of the back four and not only survived but thrived.
New Orleans and Indianapolis share 12-0 records and ridiculously thin secondaries. The Saints have been playing without CBs Jabari Greer, Randall Gay and Tracy Porter, while Indy has no Bob Sanders, Kelvin Hayden or Marlin Jackson. The result? The Saints are No. 2 in Defensive Passer Rating
(62.6), the Colts are No. 8
Doesn't seem possible. Meanwhile Minnesota (No. 3 in our rankings) has been playing for almost two months without the unquestioned leader of its secondary, cornerback Antoine Winfield, and No. 5 Green Bay lost linchpin CB Al Harris two weeks ago but responded with back-to-back throttling efforts that established them as one of the best defenses in the game
Defensive backs should also loom large when Defensive Player of the Year voting comes in. Darren Sharper (eight picks, three touchdowns), Charles Woodson (seven INTs) and Darrelle Revis (league high 23 pass breakups) of the Jets have probably been the most prominent defensive stars of the season, and could all finish with votes in an award traditionally dominated by Defensive Hogs, such as leading 2009 DPOY candidate Jared Allen of the Vikings.
On to the rankings!
1. NEW ORLEANS
(12-0). Last week: 33-30 win at Washington. According to AdvancedNFLStats.com
, the Saints had a 1 percent chance to win their game last week as the Redskins tried to kill the clock inside the NO five while up seven points. Starts with "d," ends with "estiny."
2. INDIANAPOLIS (12-0). Last week: 27-17 win vs. Tennessee. Chris Johnson touched the ball 33 times for the Titans in Indy last week and didn't produce anything longer than 11 yards all day. That's a hell of a tribute to Indy's concept of keeping everything in front of them on defense.
(10-2). Last week: 30-17 loss at Arizona. Brett Favre's performance on Sunday night had us dusting off some of the old CHFF "Old Yeller" classics
just in case. Like our Boy Scout troop leaders always told us, be prepared.
4. SAN DIEGO (9-3). Last week: 30-23 win at Cleveland. Is it too late to throw Philip Rivers into the MVP mix? On a team with no running game and an average defense, he's 9-3 with a passer rating of 104.9. And he has yet to have a single bad game all year long – his worst passer rating in a game was 84.5 in the opener vs. Oakland.
5. GREEN BAY (8-4). Last week: 27-14 win vs. Baltimore. On Monday night, the Packers came within a first down of allowing more yards through penalties (175) than they did on defense (185).
6. CINCINNATI (9-3). Last week: 23-13 win vs. Detroit. The last three weeks, the Bengals have played three teams with a collective record of 8-28. They went 2-1 with a collective +16 point differential. Cincy has only one win all year by more than 10 points.
7. PHILADELPHIA (8-4). Last week: 34-7 win at Atlanta. Only four coaches have ever won 100 regular season games in a decade: Tom Landry and Don Shula in the 1970s, Bill Belichick in the 2000s, and, as of Sunday, Andy Reid. Pretty good for a guy who gets treated like five-day-old lunch meat.
(8-4). Last week: 30-17 win vs. Minnesota. For the Cardinals, it's all about Bendability
(third overall). They allow a terrible 5.5 yards per play (22nd, the only good team outside the top 20 in this category), but get it together on third down (33.3 percent allowed, tied for No. 1 with Cincy).
9. DENVER (8-4). Last week: 44-13 win at Kansas City. The average score in their eight wins: Broncos 25, Bad Guys 11. The average score in their four losses: Bad Guys 29, Broncos 10. In other words, the Broncos are about as predictable as Elin Woods at Tiger's next high school reunion.
10. NEW ENGLAND (7-5). Last week: 22-21 loss at Miami. It's hard to blame the receivers for New England's problems; they lead the league with 1,825 yards after the catch, which is only 67 yards less than the Browns have as a team.
11. DALLAS (8-4). Last week: 31-24 loss at N.Y. Giants. We're not sure why any of Dallas' problems are Tony Romo's fault; over his last 10 games he's thrown 16 TDs with just four interceptions, despite throwing an average of 35.8 passes per game.
12. BALTIMORE (6-6). Last week: 27-14 loss at Green Bay. Remember back in September when Joe Flacco was the toast of the NFL? He's had sub-80 passer ratings in five of his last nine, and is 19th in rating for the year.
13. N.Y. GIANTS
(7-5). Last week: 31-24 win vs. Dallas. The sight of enormous Brandon Jacobs outrunning the Dallas defense for a 74-yard touchdown catch makes you wonder: how can this guy possibly average just 3.9 YPA over 12 games? Bonus Jacobs fact: he's never had 30 carries in a game. Double bonus fact: his left thigh is bigger than our Great Aunt Norma.
(6-6). Last week: 27-24 loss vs. Oakland. Worst month for Steel fans since the Homestead lockout of 1892
. But the Steelers can't blame Andrew Carnegie for this one.
15. N.Y. JETS (6-6). Last week: 19-13 win at Buffalo. The Jets are No. 4 in scoring defense, but are No. 1 in yards per play allowed (4.5) and defensive touchdowns allowed (16).
16. MIAMI (6-6). Last week: 22-21 win vs. New England. Miami has been outscored (296-278), outgained (5.8 yards per play to 4.8 yards per play) and out-turnovered (-2), but there they are at .500. Spunky. Head coach Tony Sparano shouldn't ever have to buy a meal in that town – imagine if he had actual talent to work with.
17. JACKSONVILLE (7-5). Last week: 23-18 win vs. Houston. How shaky are the Jags? In their four games against the weak NFC West, they went 1-3 and got outscored 112-43.
18. SAN FRANCISCO (5-7). Last week: 20-17 loss at Seattle. In San Fran's five wins, Frank Gore averaged 15.8 carries. In their seven losses, he averaged 8.3 carries. Conclusion: Frank Gore's carries have something to do with his team's success.
19. ATLANTA (6-6). Last week: 34-7 loss vs. Philadelphia. Why were Falcon fans booing the Eagles' backup QB? What did Kevin Kolb ever do to them?
20. HOUSTON (5-7). Last week: 23-18 loss at Jacksonville. There's always next year in Houston, and there is some hope there – none of the team's current starters are 30 yet.
21. TENNESSEE (5-7). Last week: 27-17 loss at Indianapolis. The Titans' close with three home games (STL, MIA, SD) and a trip to Seattle, so 9-7 is still a possibility. Unfortunately for them, they have tiebreaker losses to the Jets and Steelers, two of their most likely tie-mates. Probably should have thought of this when they started 0-6.
22. CAROLINA (5-7). Last week: 16-6 win vs. Tampa Bay. Backup QB Matt Moore was Jake Delhomme-esque against Tampa, throwing just 20 passes with a pick and no TDs in his first start of the year. This Panther team would have been much better playing in 1934.
23. CHICAGO (5-7). Last week: 17-9 win vs. St. Louis. Jay Cutler leads the league in interceptions (20) and Matt Forte is 30th among NFL starters with 3.4 YPA. Not good.
24. SEATTLE (5-7). Last week: 20-17 win vs. San Francisco. After checking the numbers several times, Cold, Hard Football Facts is reporting at this hour that, yes, the Seahawks have five wins.
25. WASHINGTON (3-9). Last week: 33-30 loss vs. New Orleans. Worst day for Washington since ... ah hell, we can't do it. Someone give Jim Zorn a hug.
26. OAKLAND (4-8). Last week: 27-24 win at Pittsburgh. Isn't Al Davis due for a Bud Adams-like middle-finger fest after one of his team's unexpected wins?
27. BUFFALO (4-8). Last week: 19-13 loss vs. New York Jets. The Bills' Defensive Hogs are a bizarre bunch. They get a lot of points for forcing negative plays – 11.49 percent of the time, the opposing QB is sacked or throws a pick, the best rate in the league. Unfortunately, they also allow 4.93 yards per rush, the worst rate in the league. So, helluva job, guys! And, what the f----!
28. KANSAS CITY (3-9). Last week: 44-13 loss vs. Denver. Chiefs QBs Matt Cassel and Brodie Croyle combined for 16-of-43 for 134 yards and two interceptions and no TDs vs. the Broncos (at home), which to our rough calculations equates to a passer rating of minus-2 billion.
29. ST. LOUIS (1-11). Last week: 17-9 loss at Chicago. Stephen Jackson is the easy "Horrible Team MVP" this year. If he breaks the 1,600 yard mark (he's on pace), he'll likely be on the worst team by someone to do it since Gerald Riggs in 1985 (1,719 yards for the 4-12 Falcons).
30. TAMPA BAY (1-11). Last week: 16-6 loss at Carolina. Remember that time they fired Jon Gruden? That was awesome.
31. DETROIT (2-10). Last week: 23-13 loss at Cincinnati. Matt Stafford throws 37.7 passes per game, the most by a rookie in NFL history. Way to break him in slowly, fellas.
32. CLEVELAND (1-11). Last week: 30-23 loss vs. San Diego. The Browns have now given up 449+ yards seven times this season. A good franchise won't do that in a decade. Can you say Ndamukong Suh? Neither can we, but the Browns should say it if they get the No. 1 pick in the draft.