The Ladder: Week 2

We’re only two weeks into The Ladder and already we have two teams (Browns, Patriots) starting a third-string quarterback in their respective Week 3 match-ups. To anyone paying attention, it seemed like the focal point of this weekend’s slew of games was the abundance of injuries — including some to a few of the league’s biggest stars. Teams unprepared to weather the storm when their stars go down are usually sitting at the bottom of the standings when the season ends. Teams are proving year after year the importance of depth, with a few prime examples in recent weeks being the Vikings and Patriots. Each team is missing playmakers on both sides of the ball — not to mention the four quarterbacks that have taken snaps between them in just the infancy stages of this season. Depressing as it may be, more injuries are going to occur as the season progress — so let’s take a look at this week’s Ladder and see who’s most prepared to handle them.

Please note that the rankings in The Ladder aren’t just based off of the result of the previous week, rather each team’s performance in the season to-date, as well as forecasting the prospect of team success in future weeks.

32. Cleveland Browns

After scoring 20 points in the first quarter against the Ravens and nearly spoiling everyone in America’s eliminator pool, the Browns reclaimed their identity and allowed the Ravens 23 points from the 2nd quarter on and lost the game 25–20. Though they held Baltimore’s questionable rushing attack to just 80-yards, they couldn’t stop the opposing team’s passing attack — with Dennis Pitta netting 102-yards on twelve targets and Mike Wallace connecting on two rather short passes for six. To make matters worse for the Dawg Pound, Josh McCown, already the team’s backup QB, was injured this week, meaning Cody Kessler will be starting next week on the road against the Dolphins in his first glimpse of NFL action. On the other side of the ball they also lost Week 1 standout Carl Nassib, who appears as if he will be out indefinitely with a broken hand. Perhaps if there’s any positive takeaways for this team, one is that the combo of Corey Coleman and Josh Gordon could be a dangerous one starting in Week 5.

31. Buffalo Bills

Following a disappointing loss to the Jets last Thursday, in which Rex Ryan’s defense allowed Ryan Fitzpatrick & co. to anticipate nearly every aspect of their defensive scheme, the Bills directed their bevy of blame to offensive coordinator Greg Roman and fired him following the game. They’ll need to make a number of corrections heading into next week — namely figuring out a way to generate some kind of pass rush, an aspect of the defense which was missing in action last week and recorded 0 sacks. With no pressure on the quarterback, the Jets repeatedly attacked corner Ronald Darby and exposed him — look for teams to continue to throw his way if the defense can’t figure out a way to put together some kind of pass rush. On the offensive side, it’s imperative they get more production from top dollar additions Charles Clay and LeSean McCoy — if not, it could be a long season in Buffalo.

30. Chicago Bears

Adam Gase has left the building and taken the offense with him. It certainly has to sting Chicago fans and John Fox and his staff, watching Matt Forte score three touchdowns on Thursday night as part of a potent Jets offense. They’ve missed Forte dearly these last two games — Jeremy Langford is averaging 3.03 yards per carry in his two starts which hasn’t been enough. The offensive woes might continue, as matters were only made worse when Cutler exited the game against the Eagles with an apparent thumb injury. The offense — short of a pass interference call which placed the ball on the 1-yard line — was devoid of any semblance of a spark versus a skilled Eagles front. Kicker Connor Barth joined in on the dismay, missing a 31-yard field goal with two minutes to go in the 1st quarter. Cleaning up the mistakes will be tough for a veteran coach like Fox with a team clearly in need of talent. Positive takeaways include Jerrell Freeman’s run defense and Willie Young’s consistency to make tackles for loss.

29. Washington Redskins

Where do we begin with Washington? It’s possible that no team has regressed more from last season so far this year than the Skins. After getting lit up in Week 1 by Pittsburgh, they came through with another poor performance at home against Dallas. With a non-existent rushing attack, Kirk Cousins has been much less effective in an expanded role with over 40 passing attempts in both games thus far. Cousins only threw 40 or more attempts six times last season — the Redskins were 3–3 in those games. Though the focus will obviously be on Cousins, he could use some help from his receiving corps as well. Jordan Reed, a main target from a season ago has been underwhelming to this point and rookie Josh Doctson has just two catches. Jay Gruden faces a long road to the top of the NFC East where he once stood last season, as his team faces a division rival, the 2–0 Giants this Sunday on the road.

28. Miami Dolphins

It doesn’t appear as if any team around the NFL has any sympathy for the Dolphins having to play the Seahawks and Patriots in the first two games of the year — and neither should we. Surely the reasons seem obvious, as Seattle is playing behind a patchwork offensive line with a running game so far from where it once was, while New England was torching the ‘Fins with a backup QB and no Gronkowski. Quite concerning, though they should be able to right the ship as their next game is against rookie QB Cody Kessler and the Browns at home. Tannehill hasn’t been able to capitalize off of the Adam Gase offense (to this point) the way so many others have — aside from some garbage time stat padding in the second half last week. Might that be encouraging for Dolphins fans? Possibly. But they have problems on both sides of the ball and the team has made it perfectly clear through their offseason additions and decision making that they expect to be in the playoffs this season — a tall task for a first year coach and his staff.

27. San Francisco 49ers

After an inspiring win against a Rams team that wasn’t ready to play in Week 1, the 49ers we’re surprisingly competent against the juggernaut Panthers. Overall, the Panthers talent was just too overwhelming for the Niners to handle and a great game from Cam Newton sealed their fate. No success running the football usually spells a loss for Chip Kelly and that was exactly the formula in this matchup, as Carolina seemed hardly worried about the possibility of Blaine Gabbert beating them.

26. Indianapolis Colts

Is it time for the Colts to clean house yet? Probably not this soon. The truth is that a series of bad drafts are biting the Colts in ways they’re used to being bitten. They’ve got a defense which is put together with duct tape, bandaids, and chewed gum. Vontae Davis, their one shining star has been sidelined and Trent Cole and Patrick Robinson missed last week’s game as well. Ryan Grigson’s hand has been forced (to his fault) and he’s had to sign players like Antonio Cromartie, of the same ilk as LaRon Landry, to be factors of this defense which hasn’t played well.

25. Jacksonville Jaguars

A big fall from grace for the Jags this week — suffering a blowout loss to the San Diego Chargers. In a game where the entire defense played poorly, the red check marks go next to Jonathan Cyprien and the rest of the secondary for allowing Rivers to light them up for four passing TDs, to go along with Melvin Gordon’s one. This is a defense with potential and their offense is begging for it to be realized — particularly on the road where Bortles and the like often struggle. In the Blake Bortles era, the Jacksonville bunch are 1–14 in road games and in 8 of those games the defense has given up 30 points or more.

24. New Orleans Saints

Speaking of bad road teams and poor defenses… The New Orleans Saints! A matchup figured to be a shootout against the Giants turned out to be a low-scoring game in which the Saints lost on a game winning field goal. Things don’t get any easier for Sean Payton as their next five include the Falcons (home), Chargers (road — Brees returns!), bye week, Carolina (home), Kansas City (road) and Seattle (home). The bayou boys will be lucky if they win two of those contests and could be sitting at 2–5 (or worse) relatively soon.

23. Los Angeles Rams

A big win against Seattle quelled the usual questions surrounding the new L.A. franchise — for now. Their offense still looks broken, so the pressure is on the defense to keep them in games. Just 9 points scored in two games is what some people would call “7–9 bullshit.” With Jared Goff on the bench, a Jeff Fisher extension, compounded with a Tavon Austin extension (despite never having at least a 500 yard season as a receiver), it’s difficult to even try to predict where the Rams go next. With two road games ahead versus the Bucs and Cardinals, I would expect Jared Goff to be starting by Week 5 against the Bills at home.

22. Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys have now played two games without Tony Romo and are 1–1. Dak Prescott has yet to throw a touchdown pass, yet some are clamoring for him to replace Tony Romo full time, even once Romo is healed. Undoubtedly brash, that’s the way the Cowboys operate. A nice game from Ezekiel Elliott has calmed down the concerns from Week 1, as Elliott appeared much more patient as a runner in Week 2. They’ll have the luxury of a creampuff schedule the next two weeks against a Chicago team that’s 0–2, with injury concerns at quarterback, and the Niners, who aren’t very good. In weeks 5, 6, and 7 — that’s when we’ll really see what this team is made of. Games against the Bengals, Packers and Eagles will each test this makeshift defense and see what it’s made of. Byron Jones’ versatility makes him a standout, yet the rest of the secondary has been shaky — especially against slot receivers in their nickel package.

21. Tennessee Titans

The Titans stole a win from the Lions — who’d just beaten their divisional foes a week before — on the road in Detroit. Marcus Mariota has played really well in his first two games against teams with pedigree. Additionally, DeMarco Murray has been revitalized in his role and has ran the ball effectively — including a 67-yard run against the Lions last week. The offensive line — which is young and talented — allowed Mariota to be sacked three times last week, though they’ve been much more effective run blocking. The Titans might not be ready to take the leap just yet, but their defense is keeping the scores low — now the offense just needs to maximize on its potential.

20. Oakland Raiders

In a week where both of their tackles were banged up, the riskiest team from Week 1 didn’t have enough against the Falcons, but were still able to put up 28 points. Their defense will need to be better disciplined in order to win the type of game in which they played last week. With their next two games on the road — they’ll need Sean Smith and the rest of the secondary to cover better — hopefully with the help of a defensive line that manufacture a pass rush in their 3–4 scheme.

19. Detroit Lions

The Lions were riding high after their upset of the Colts and nearly swung a victory against the Titans. A touchdown to Andre Johnson sealed the win in the final minute of the game and prevented the Lions from starting the season 2–0 for the first time since 2011. They’re missing two defensive cornerstones in Ziggy Ansah and DeAndre Levy and could be without Kyle Van Noy against the Packers — players difficult to replace. They’ve benefitted from a more accurate Matthew Stafford, as well as from talented rookie left tackle Taylor Decker.

18. New York Giants

The $85 million dollars of free agency money has paid off, eh? The Giants are 2–0 and have played well enough on both sides to win each game. Though they aren’t considered powerhouses of the NFC, they’ve fashioned themselves as a scrappy team that can overcome adversity. Their defense — namely Jason Pierre-Paul, Snacks Harrison, and Janoris Jenkins have played well thus far. Ben McAdoo has to be pleased with his team’s performance and it’s likely that the Giants are the favorites to win the NFC East. That journey continues next week against a flailing Redskins team — look for NYG to try to get OBJ to do to Breshaud Breeland what Antonio Brown did.

17. Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons bounced back from a loss against the Bucs with a solid road win against the Raiders. The biggest issue for them this season will be their incredibly shaky defense. It’s so difficult for them to stop teams from driving down the field on them at will. Their offense is going to have to score at least three touchdowns a game to keep them in games and will often be playing from behind. The young talent which makes up this unit is still in the development stages and extremely prone to making mistakes. Players like Ra’Shede Hageman, Grady Jarrett, and Vic Beasley played less than 50% of the defensive snaps in their game versus the Raiders.

16. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

There’s nothing positive to say about the beating the Buccaneers took last week against the Cardinals. Brent Grimes and Alterraun Verner couldn’t cover and the immortal Chris Conte was routinely out of position. The Bucs need to forget this game ever happened — unfortunately, the rest of us won’t and this game proved quite clearly that Tampa isn’t prepared to step up and succeed against the top of the league, no matter how high everyone was (including myself) on them after Week 1’s win.

15. Seattle Seahawks

Sunday’s loss to the Rams made it abundantly obvious that the Seahawks have a few major issues. 1. Their offensive line is bad. 2. Marshawn Lynch isn’t on the team. 3. Russell Wilson is playing hurt and isn’t nearly as effective. In past seasons, those things have been integral to their success and while the defense is still playing well (granted against subpar offensive units), the offense hasn’t been capable of complementing them. These issues, compounded mixed with Arizona’s success, should elicit urgency on the behalf of the teal and green. This team can’t afford to lose games to a Rams team who’s much less talented, and still stave off the Cardinals for the division title.

14. Baltimore Ravens

Though they were fortunate to play the Browns and Bills in the first two weeks of the regular season, the Ravens showed resiliency in their Week 2 match-up. Down 20-points to the Browns, they brought on a comeback and did so with production from bargain-bin players like Mike Wallace and high-dollar free agent Eric Weddle. After a season riddled with injuries last season, this team is bound to surprise many. With solid offensive line play through the first two weeks, and the return of Elvis Dumervil and Jerraud Powers imminent, don’t be surprised by the Ravens forthcoming success.

13. San Diego Chargers

It’s always a portion of good news and bad news with the Chargers. The good news is: They beat the hell out of the Jaguars. The bad news: They’ve already lost Keenan Allen and Danny Woodhead for the season. Fortunately, speedster Travis Benjamin came through on Sunday with a 6–115–2 stat line, which was just what they needed from the first year Charger. In regards to Woodhead’s injury, all signs continue to point up for Melvin Gordon after another solid game for him in which he rushed for 102-yards and scored a touchdown. Orlando Franklin is a key cog of that offensive line and he exited last week’s game with an injury which could effect the cohesion of their unit if rookie Max Tuerk is forced to play next week versus the Colts.

12. New York Jets

The Jets punished the Bills on Thursday Night Football. Quincy Enunwa and Brandon Marshall were too big and strong for the Bills secondary to handle and Matt Forte’s three touchdowns — the longest from 12-yards out — was key for the Jets to find their rhythm. A few drawbacks were evident in this game, however. Left tackle Ryan Clady didn’t have a great game and allowed a strip-sack fumble on Fitzpatrick which was fortunately recovered by the Jets. Revis also was beat by Marques Goodwin for an 84-yard TD and much was made of his poor play to start the season. Though it is possible Revis’ play has started to decline and that his ability to cover man-to-man on an “island” so to speak, should be less frequent — however, the situation the Jets have found themselves in with Revis is much better than the situation a number of teams are currently experiencing at corner (i.e. the Saints and Colts). Right now if Revis is their biggest concern, the Jets ought to be pretty pleased with the rest of their football team.

11. Philadelphia Eagles

The last 30 days for the Philadelphia Eagles have been unimaginable. Beginning with the play of rookie QB Carson Wentz — who’s looked like a four-year veteran through the first two weeks — the jump from the FCS to the NFL hasn’t fazed him. He’s yet to turn the ball over as an Eagle and has shown in both games that he’s capable of making some incredible throws which are a necessity in the NFL. To boot, the Birds have seen their reinvented defense under Jim Schwartz flourish — forcing three turnovers against the Bears on Monday Night. The transition to a 4–3 defense has catered to their players’ skills seamlessly and concerns about starting rookie cornerback Jalen Mills due to Leodis McKelvin’s injury were soon quelled thanks to the rookie’s solid play.

10. Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs lost a tough game against a familiar foe. It was a hard-fought, defensive football game — they just couldn’t move the ball offensively. Alex Smith threw for just 186-yards and Spencer Ware was transported to Mars and was nowhere to be found for most of the game. They didn’t score a single touchdown and lost by 7 points. Their comeback in Week 1 against the Chargers is still encouraging and it was just as invigorating to see them keep it close against a strong Texans squad. It’s imperative that they find a way to generate a pass rush in Justin Houston’s absence, as Dontari Poe is only human (second thought, or is he?). Jamaal Charles will return this week which should help supply the offense with some much needed juice.

9. Houston Texans

The Texans are right there with the scrappy Chiefs and are also finding ways to win though they’re banged up. No Duane Brown has given their O-Line a new look, yet Osweiler has been effective and DeAndre Hopkins is still a superhuman with dreadlocks. Rookie Will Fuller has strung together a nice couple of games minus a few drops, though they were to be expected. Jadeveon Clowney is making plays like he should and J.J. Watt is recovering on the fly. If the Texans don’t win their division — or worst case scenario, miss the playoffs, it would have to be the cause of some kind of catastrophe.

8. Green Bay Packers

Fresh off a win in Jacksonville, the Packers squared off against the Vikings in the opening of U.S. Bank Stadium. In their second drive of the game, they lucked out with a defensive holding call on Terrence Newman, which spotted the ball at the four-yard line. Rodgers was then able to throw a 1-yard pass to Jordy Nelson, with the only other score coming on a play where Rodgers took in it himself from the 1-yard line. For the Packers to only score 14 points, even against a rugged Minnesota defense, with Aaron Rodgers as quarterback is a travesty. The turnovers late cost them the ability to tie the game and the offense looks out of sync. The absence of Josh Sitton was evident in this game and it’ll be interesting to see if Green Bay starts getting just a tidbit nervous about David Bakhtiari’s extension if either he — or the line start to struggle.

7. Cincinnati Bengals

Even with a loss on the road to the division rival Steelers, the Bengals are starting this season off on the right foot. They’ve been solid on defense in both games with Vontaze Burfict out and he’ll return in Week 4. On the offensive side, Andy Dalton has looked good, as the offense has predicated mostly on him and the passing game. Dalton has already thrown 84 passes in the first two weeks and is now dealing with an ankle injury that could keep him out against the Broncos — but likely won’t. He’ll need two healthy ankles to handle Von Miller and that Denver pass rush.

6. Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals exceeded in all three phases against the Bucs and came back from the upset against the Patriots with a “Don’t worry guys, we’re totally still a contender” game on Sunday. The Bucs had no answer for Larry Fitzgerald, David Johnson, or Jaron Brown. Their next three games are against the Bills (road), Rams (home), and 49ers (road). If the Cardinals aren’t 4–1 by the completion of that stretch than Jeff Fisher really does deserve an extension. All concerns about Brandon Williams seemed to disappear due to the fact that Arizona went with Marcus Cooper for most of this game. D.J. Humphries and the rest of the offensive line looked much more comfortable in this game than they did against New England.

5. Carolina Panthers

Carolina couldn’t afford to take the Niners lightly after their loss on opening night — and they sure didn’t. With 5 minutes left in the third quarter, the Panthers put the game away and went up 31–1o, although, it was probably over when they went up one score given the Niners offense and the strength and ability of the Cats defense. Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin presented San Fran with just too much size and their defense had no answer. Kuechly’s bunch played well and the garbage time TDs made the score appear much closer than it was in reality. No doubt, this team should waltz their way to a Division title and possibly a first round bye. Though Ron Rivera’s crew has looked shaky at moments so far in the short season, there’s reason to believe that the talent on the roster will overcome those mistakes.

4. Denver Broncos

How is it possible that the team which one the Super Bowl last season is the most surprising on the list? Are the days of elite quarterback play as a recipe for success over? The Broncos are trying to rewrite the script. Their movie involves destroying dudes on the gridiron and their defense has now anointed them a 2–0 record. Aqib Talib’s interception for a touchdown in the early stages of the 4th quarter was what changed the circumstances of the game. Another fumble recovery by Shane Ray, late in the game padded Denver’s lead by another 7 and people started speculating whether the best offense really is a good defense.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers have a way of finding top-tier talent skill players and they also have a way of rejuvenating the career of once forgotten running back D’Angelo Williams. A sound game on both sides of the line of scrimmage kept Big Ben clean (but still soaked), and put pressure on Andy Dalton to make rushed, inaccurate throws. The Steelers defense took Cincy’s run-game and hid it in a drawer somewhere never to be found again. Not only that, Ryan Shazier has looked great so far this season and seems to have left his injury issues behind him, as he played every snap in Week 2. With Le’veon Bell scheduled to return in Week 4, we could see the Steel City atop The Ladder very soon.

2. Minnesota Vikings

Sam. Freaking. Bradford. In his first start since joining the Vikes, just two weeks after being acquired — Bradford played the game of his life against a much improved Packer defense. Stefon Diggs looks to be a budding star and even looks as if he has a little Antonio Brown in him — with crisp route-running and everlasting speed two crucial dynamics of his game. Zimmer’s defense was ready to play once again and thus, Rodgers was largely ineffective. Positive signs were all over, as 1st rounder Trae Waynes was making plays, as were Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter along the defensive line. What’s next for Adrian Peterson will be interesting to monitor. Though he hasn’t been his usual otherworldly self, he’s still Adrian Peterson and he demands respect nearly every down from opposing defenses. His absence of any kind could muddy things up a bit for Bradford — a problem he’s used to having in both St. Louis and Philadelphia. This week’s game against Carolina could be a preview of this year’s NFC Championship game.

1. New England Patriots

They did it again. Back to back weeks at #1 on The Ladder, the Patriots won another game without Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. Here they are now, 2–0 and looking at the possibility of starting a rookie third string quarterback on a short week against what’s likely a playoff team in the Texans. If Garropollo is indeed out with an injured shoulder, look for the Pats to attack the Texans the way they went at the Colts in the 2014 AFC Championship — LeGarrette Blount. Though Houston’s played the run tough so far, the Pats will likely try to keep the ball away from Houston’s offense and make it a low scoring contest. If they’ve done anything this season, they’ve proven that injuries (and suspensions) are something you deal with — but what makes them so utterly astonishing is that they deal with such issues head and shoulders above the rest of the NFL.

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