NFC West: Cincinnati Bengals

Wrap-up: Bengals 23, Cardinals 16

December, 24, 2011
12/24/11
4:08
PM ET

Thoughts on the Arizona Cardinals' 23-16 road defeat against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 16:

What it means: The Cardinals were eliminated from playoff contention while losing for only the second time since opening the season with a 1-6 record. They now need a Week 17 victory over Seattle to avoid a second consecutive losing season. Quarterback John Skelton, starting in place of the injured Kevin Kolb, mounted another stirring fourth-quarter comeback, but could not quite pull it off. Finishing the season with a home defeat to the Seahawks would undermine the good feeling surrounding the team before Saturday.

What I liked: The Cardinals rallied for another improbable fourth-quarter comeback, this time after falling behind 23-0. Larry Fitzgerald's 30-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter got Arizona on the scoreboard while continuing a run of big plays for him this season. Fitzgerald has improved his yards-per-catch average by more than five from last season. Running back Beanie Wells topped 1,000 yards for the season, a career first and a Cardinals first since Edgerrin James did it during the 2007 season. The offense gained traction in the fourth quarter, continuing a season-long trend. Skelton found Jeff King for a touchdown that pulled the Cardinals within 23-13 midway through the fourth quarter. Calais Campbell, who entered the game with seven sacks, collected another one. He forced and recovered a fumble to get the ball back for Arizona with the team trailing by only seven points and with more than three minutes remaining. The Cardinals drew up the perfect fourth-and-5 play with a chance to tie the game, getting receiver Early Doucet wide open in the end zone for what should have been an easy touchdown.

What I didn't like: Doucet stumbled and could not make the tying touchdown reception after the Cardinals had clawed back into contention late. Was the pass behind him, or did he simply fall down on his own while crossing the goal line without a defender near him? Either way, the results were painful for the Cardinals and fatal to their playoff hopes. It had to be troubling for Arizona to see Skelton toss three interceptions as the Cardinals fell behind 23-0 with the team's playoff viability on the line. Skelton repeatedly missed receivers high, a problem for him throughout the season. The Bengals had been struggling and were not at all impressive during their victory over St. Louis last week. For the Cardinals to fall behind so quickly and by such a large amount was unexpected. A penalty against Cardinals strong safety Adrian Wilson for a hit on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton nullified an interception by cornerback Patrick Peterson. The hit did not appear particularly flagrant. It was a tough break against the Cardinals at a point in the game when they needed all the help they could get. Peterson later left the game with an apparent injured Achilles' tendon. The Cardinals put the ball on the ground twice in critical situations, once on a two-point conversion try, and again in the red zone -- both in the fourth quarter.

What's next: The Cardinals are home against the Seahawks in Week 17.

Long, long odds against Cards comeback

December, 24, 2011
12/24/11
2:34
PM ET
The Arizona Cardinals have shown a flair for fourth-quarter comebacks this season.

That does not make them likely to overcome the 20-0 halftime deficit they face in their Week 16 game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Since 1940, the organization has never been shut out so badly in a first half and come back to win, according to Pro Football Reference. The 1963 St. Louis Cardinals posted a 24-23 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers after trailing 20-3 at halftime.

It's looking like the Cardinals will fall to 7-8 and out of the NFC playoff race after recovering from a 1-6 start to the season.

Fans clinging to hope should know this, courtesy of Elias Sports Bureau: "Five teams won after trailing by at least 12 points (in Week 14), the first day with five 12-point comebacks in NFL history. Six teams came back from at least 10 points down, making Week 14 the first day since Oct. 3, 1999 there were six double-digit comebacks on the same day. Three of those comebacks were from at least a 13-point deficit, bringing the total to 18 instances this season of a team coming back to win when trailing by at least 13 points at any point in the game."

Again, those numbers were heading into Week 15.

NFL Power Rankings: How they voted

December, 20, 2011
12/20/11
12:30
PM ET

When the NFC West looks down, it sees not only the AFC South, but also the once-mighty NFC East. The view is more pleasing than at any point since divisional realignment in 2002.

Consider it a historic shift, a watershed moment, the week when light finally shined upon the no-longer-worst division in football -- except, of course, when power outages at Candlestick Park temporarily left San Francisco and Pittsburgh in the dark.

The 49ers' 20-3 victory over the Steelers on "Monday Night Football" capped a 3-1 week for the NFC West, one that moved up three teams from the division in ESPN's NFL Power Rankings heading into Week 16.

The 49ers moved up two spots to No. 3, passing Baltimore and New England. The Seahawks improved a league-high five spots to No. 15 after blowing out the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. The Cardinals climbed two spots to No. 17 after beating Cleveland.

The St. Louis Rams remained 31st and ahead of Indianapolis even though I moved them down to No. 32 on my ballot. The other voters are forgiven. They likely had better things to do than watch every snap of St. Louis' 20-6 home defeat to an utterly unimpressive Cincinnati Bengals team.

Despite the Rams' low standing, NFC West teams ranked 16.8 on average, better than teams from the NFC East (17.5) and AFC South (21.6). NFC West teams ranked just below teams from the AFC East (16.5) and AFC West (16.4).

And now, a closer look at the rankings heading into Week 16:

Falling (11): Tennessee Titans (-7), Buffalo Bills (-4), Chicago Bears (-4), New York Giants (-4), Baltimore Ravens (-3), Oakland Raiders (-3), Denver Broncos (-2), New York Jets (-2), Pittsburgh Steelers (-2), Jacksonville Jaguars (-2), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-1).

Rising (12): Seattle Seahawks (+5), Dallas Cowboys (+4), San Diego Chargers (+4), Kansas City Chiefs (+3), San Francisco 49ers (+3), Arizona Cardinals (+2), Cincinnati Bengals (+2), Detroit Lions (+2), Washington Redskins (+2), Cleveland Browns (+1), New England Patriots (+1), New Orleans Saints (+1).

Unchanged (8): Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams.

Deadlocked: We broke one tie this week. The Seahawks prevailed over the New York Giants at No. 15 based on the first tiebreaker, head-to-head results.

Like minds: All five voters ranked the Packers first, the Saints second and the Vikings 30th.

Agree to disagree: Walker continues to see the Eagles and Chargers as strong teams finally living up to their potential. Others continue to mark them down for overall struggles this season. That helps explain why Philly, more than any other team, invited polarizing views.

"I gave a lot of credence to how both teams are playing down the stretch in these important games," Walker said. "The Eagles and Chargers are two very dangerous teams right now. If either gets into the playoffs, look out."

Walker also kept New England ahead of the 49ers.

"The Patriots have won six straight games," he said. "The 49ers are 2-2 in their last four. San Francisco also lost the head-to-head with Baltimore. So I kept the Ravens ahead of the 49ers, too, despite an impressive win."

A look at the Eagles and the six other teams generating high-low disparities of at least six spots in the rankings:
  • Eagles (8): Walker ranked them 13th, higher than any other voter ranked them. Sando, Clayton and Fox ranked them 21st, lower than any other voters ranked them.
  • Cardinals (7): Sando 13th, Kuharsky 20th.
  • Raiders (7): Clayton 15th, Kuharsky 22nd.
  • Titans (7): Kuharsky 16th, Walker 23rd.
  • Bengals (6): Fox 10th, Sando 16th.
  • Chiefs (6): Sando 18th, Kuharsky 24th.
  • Seahawks (6): Sando 12th, Walker 18th.
Power rankings histories: These colorful layered graphs show where each NFL team has ranked every week since the 2002 season.

Ranking the divisions: Teams from the AFC North (13.0 average) maintained the highest ranking on average, well ahead of teams from the NFC North (15.1). The AFC South was the lowest-rated division.

A voter-by-voter look at changes of at least five spots since last week:
  • Sando: Titans (-9), Giants (-6), Cardinals (+5), Seahawks (+5), Chargers (+6), Chiefs (+9).
  • Clayton: Bills (-5), Raiders (-5).
  • Kuharsky: Seahawks (+5).
  • Walker: Titans (-9), Chiefs (+6), Eagles (+6).
  • Fox: Giants (-5).
For download: An Excel file -- available here -- showing how each voter voted this week and in past weeks.

The file includes a "powerflaws" sheet pointing out potential flaws in voters' thinking by showing how many higher-ranked opponents each team defeated this season.

A quick primer on the "powerflaws" sheet:
  • Column Y features team rankings.
  • Column Z shows how many times a team has defeated higher-ranked teams.
  • Change the rankings in Column Y as you see fit.
  • Re-sort Column Y in ascending order (1 to 32) using the standard Excel pull-down menu atop the column.
  • The information in Column Z, which reflects potential ranking errors, will change (with the adjusted total highlighted in yellow atop the column).
  • The lower the figure in that yellow box, the fewer conflicts.

Video: Week 4 Sunday Breakdown

October, 4, 2010
10/04/10
12:16
AM ET

Jim Basquil and Eric Allen recap the biggest stories from Sunday.

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