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After some uproar from the commenters last week, the this week's rankings experienced some small shifts towards the public consensus.  Teams like Washington and the Bengals are beginning their descent down the rankings, while others like the Eagles and Cardinals continue to inch their way up.

Of course, there are still plenty of questionable placements, and the contrast can be especially striking when there is a wide chasm between two teams with seemingly similar makeups.  For instance, there are two teams this week with similarly shiny point differentials and win-loss records, as both look like legitimate Super Bowl contenders in their respective conferences.  And yet, one sits in the top three, whereas the other continues to flounder in the middle of the rankings.

Our look at the Week 10 version of the rankings will start with this pairing that many view as a potential Super Bowl XLIX matchup, examining whether either or both should be considered favorites in their conference.


The Super Bowl XXXI Club

Two model franchises look like they're peaking, but why is only one ranked highly?


- During a season in which most top NFC contenders have taken a step back, the Green Bay Packers have established themselves as potential favorites.  The third-ranked Packers are the top-ranked NFC team this week, though amazingly, Green Bay would actually be at home if the postseason started today due to tiebreakers.

That quirk should be temporary, however, as the Packers have won five of six since Aaron Rodgers' famous R-E-L-A-X radio comments.  It's not really necessary to wax poetic about Rodgers, who leads the league in Expected Points Added (EPA) per play and adjusted yards per attempt.  Green Bay's passing game is a known commodity that represents one of the league's best units on either side of the ball.

Where things have really changed for Green Bay this season is on defense.  While the Packers are not exactly a lockdown unit, they rank 12th overall this week, led by the seventh-ranked pass defense in terms of EPA/P.  Even with a defense that is only slightly above-average, that would be a significant upgrade from the slipshod units the Packers have rolled out in recent seasons, as Green Bay has saddled Rodgers with a clearly below-average defense each of the past four seasons:



Part of the Packers' success defending the pass stems from a 3.8 percent interception rate, third-highest in the league.  But the personnel also received a decided upgrade this season.  After playing just three games last season, Casey Hayward has returned to resume his maturation into one of the league's elite slot corners.  First-round rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has provided sorely needed deep-half range at safety, while Tramon Williams and Morgan Burnett have elevated their games after shaky 2013 campaigns.  Indeed, apart from a poor showing in the Superdome, the pass defense has largely been excellent since opening day:



Looking solely at the passing-related units, the Packers No. 3 ranking makes total sense.  However, Green Bay also appears hellbent on testing the limits of the theoretical irrelevance of the running game.  The Packers rank 31st in defensive run success rate and 20th in offensive rushing EPA/P.  The offense's success rate is a respectable ninth due to red-zone success—Green Bay ranks second in yards per attempt and ninth in touchdowns in that area, which is prone to big EPA spikes—but that's hardly something to hang one's hat on.

Eddie Lacy's counting stats are also down, but in reality, the burly back is a mostly inefficient runner who relies on volume.  Lacy's EPA/P and success rate are virtually identical to last season's totals; Football Outsiders has also given the ex-Alabama bruiser lukewarm DVOA ratings his first two seasons in the league. 

In more traditional stat terms, the Packers average 4.0 yards per carry while conceding 4.6 yards per attempt to their opponents.  That's typically been a deathly combination, as just 14 teams since the 1970 merger have made the postseason with those numbers.  However, the combination becomes much more palatable once we see the skewed timeframe of that stat:



Nine of those 14 teams have come since 2006, and at least one team has made the playoffs with that combination every year since 2006.  Moreover, even if the Packers remain a poor rush-based team, there's reason to believe that personnel adjustments at linebacker could improve some of their defensive woes.  Green Bay's middle linebacker albatross of A.J. Hawk, Jamari Lattimore, Brad Jones and Sam Barrington has been awful in run support.  This is especially problematic for a traditional 3-4 scheme like the Packers, where defensive linemen two-gap to occupy linemen and allow the linebackers to fill in the gaps behind them and make tackles.  Green Bay has been deficient in that area all season, and change probably isn't going to make things any worse.

It's probably impossible for a team to have a quarterback play as well as Rodgers has and miss the playoffs (so long as the QB stays healthy), a hypothesis the Packers have been testing for years now.  But Green Bay has flamed out in the playoffs the last two seasons against power-running 49er teams, so while the Packers should continue racking up wins, it's worth keeping an eye on their persistent ground game flaws.


- Like Green Bay, the New England Patriots have overcome a rough start to emerge as top Super Bowl favorites from their conference.  Football Outsiders only projects a 1.8 percent possibility of a Patriots-Packers matchup in Glendale this February, but current Vegas odds project them as two of the top three favorites to reach the Super Bowl, with only Denver receiving lower odds.

Nevertheless, the Pats currently sit 16th in this week's rankings, with a 0.51 Gross Winning Percentage (GWP) that suggests an almost exactly .500 team.  It's tempting to explain away that modest ranking by pointing to New England's inconsistent opening month.  However, the Pats have only had one big jump, from 27th to 19th after their Week 5 win over the Bengals, and have remained 15th or 16th every week since Week 7.

There are a few reasons for this, and none of them have to do with Tom Brady.  Brady is already up to sixth in both EPA/P and success rate despite his an opening month that had some clamoring for rookie Jimmy Garoppolo.  Brady will cool off a bit.  His current run, during which his adjusted yards per attempt since Week 5 is 9.73, is reminiscent of a similar stretch he had from Weeks 8-11 of the 2012 season, in which he posed an almost identical AY/A of 9.74.  The rest of that regular season, Brady's AY/A fell back to 7.73, exactly in line with his 7.7 career average.

Still, even a slight dip will have Brady performing at the level of a top-five quarterback.  New England's running game possesses a league-average 41 percent success rate, which is probably what one would expect from a Shane Vereen-Jonas Gray platoon.  So long as Rob Gronkowski—the league's most frequently targeted tight end at 22.1 percent—remains healthy, the Pats offense should remain among the league's five or 10 best moving forward.  The Week 5 turning point against Cincy was the first time Gronk played over 62 percent of the snaps, and it's not hard to see the massive effect he has had at full speed:



Thus, you can probably see where I'm leading this discussion, as the defense has more questions than many perceive.  Though the defense ranks a respectable 15th overall in efficiency, the unit ranks just 27th in success rate on an opponent-adjusted basis, based on AFA's metrics.  FO sees similar benefits, rating New England's schedule as the fifth-easiest so far based on opposing offensive DVOAs. 

It's hard to measure exactly why this Pats defense is not more consistent.  We think of Bill Belichick's squads as highly professional and consistent performers, but the defense has yet to put together an above-average run and pass performance against meaningful competition.  Except for games against the Vikings and rapidly imploding Bears, the Pats defense has not had a negative pass and run EPA in the same game this year (note that negative EPA is good for defenses, since they want to limit the opposition's expected point production):



If you want to search for good news, that upward trend in run success rate is encouraging for a defense missing front seven stalwarts Jerod Mayo and Chandler Jones.  The Pats' 50.6 defensive run success rate is still fifth-lowest in the league, but some schematic adjustments and improving health have aided that improvement.  New England will get back starting nose tackle Sealver Siliga from short-term injured reserve, an underrated return that should relieve some stress from indefatigable veteran Vince Wilfork.

One final reason for New England's low ranking is a pair of quirks that have made the Patriots a statistical outlier.  Since 2001, the Patriots hold a .677 winning percentage in one-possession games, an absurd mark that ranks behind only the Colts in that time span.  Additionally, the Pats' plus-154 turnover margin since 2001 is more than double the second-best in the league, as New England is unfathomably consistent in that traditionally fluky stat.

Sure enough, the 2014 Pats are 2-0 in one-possession games and lead the league with a plus-12 turnover margin.  The model does not realize that this is somehow uniquely sustainable in Foxboro, and therefore does not place much weight in those advantages.  Even with a wildly fluctuating defense and likely regression in the passing game, the Pats remain the most bankable team in the league due to their remarkable execution and consistency in critical game situations.

Biggest Movers

Two AFC North teams are headed in different directions.


- A few weeks ago, I noted that the Cleveland Browns hot start was partially the result of some fortunate variables.  Over the season's first quarter, the Browns were mostly fueled by Brian Hoyer's miniscule turnover rate and a strong running game.  However, statistical regression seemed likely on both fronts—Hoyer's sub-one percent interception rate was bound to rise, while the season-ending injury to indispensable center Alex Mack seemed likely to hurt the running game.  That in turn would leave a subpar defense exposed, ushering in Cleveland's return to custom mediocrity.

Instead, the Browns have surged up to seventh in these rankings, a nine-spot rise that would seemingly affirm their first-place standing in the AFC North.  What's more astounding is that Cleveland has continued winning despite the expected regression occurring.  Hoyer has not been bad, but his 7.25 AY/A and 2.4 percent interception rates over the past month have been much closer to average.  In addition, the loss of Mack and the return of the inefficient Ben Tate has submarined the running game:



So what's changed that has kept Cleveland afloat?  Quite simply, the defense has picked up its slack, rising all the way up to sixth overall this week after ranking 27th when I first examined them.  Some of that is schedule-based—the best offense Cleveland has faced over the past month is the 18th-ranked Bengals, who played more like the league's worst offense due to Andy Dalton's historically awful night (more on that later).  Indeed, on an opponent-adjusted rate, the Browns rank just 19th overall.

Still, there have been some individual improvements that may portend some sustainability on the defense, even as the schedule toughens.  Joe Haden is the poster boy here.  Haden is one of the few true shadow corners remaining (i.e., cornerbacks who travel around the field to shadow the opponent's top receiver).  Early in the season, that responsibility got him toasted by the likes of Antonio Brown and Jimmy Graham.  However, Haden has essentially flipped the switch over the last month, which included a pair of exemplary performances against Vincent Jackson and A.J. Green, via Pro Football Focus:



Cleveland has also created plenty of turnovers through the air with a 3.8 percent interception rate that ranks fourth in the league.  Third-year safety Tashaun Gipson flew under the radar as a quietly budding star last season, but with a league-leading six picks in 2014, Gipson has really blossomed as an excellent roaming centerfielder.  The mark of a good free safety is one who can prevent big pass plays in single-high coverages, and since their Week 4 bye, the Browns have given up an average of 5.14 yards per pass attempt, second-best in the league over that span.

Those improvements against the pass have offset some ugly numbers against the run, but that facet should improve with the return of nose tackle Phil Taylor, the team's only true 0- and 1-technique on the roster.  Losing run-stuffing defensive end John Hughes until Week 17 will hurt, but the Browns are no longer desperately short-handed along the line.

There is still plenty of skepticism surrounding the Browns; ESPN's Mike Sando noted that team executives have secretly wondered how Cleveland continues to win games.  The offense is well below-average at this point, but no one knows how the returns of Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron will impact that standing.  Moreover, it remains unclear how much the defensive improvements will translate against better competition.  In truth, it's still extremely difficult to tell if the Browns are standing on solid ground, as flaws throughout the rest of the division may play as large a role in Cleveland's postseason fate as their own performance.


- One of those flawed competitors is the Cincinnati Bengals, who have flummoxed all season with their wild week-to-week swings.  This is particularly true for the offense, which FO ranks as the third-most variable (i.e., inconsistent) in the entire league.  Overall, the previously top-ranked Bengals have plummeted down to 19th, a 13-spot drop that ranks as the largest this season.

Andy Dalton may always be the recipient of widespread skepticism, which hardly seems unreasonable given that he has regressed in his fourth season.  Last week's well-documented implosion against Cleveland was really the worst-case scenario of what happens when the Bengals need Dalton to extend himself.  Despite Cincy's attempts to provide a more run-oriented offense that should open up play-action opportunities for Dalton's downfield weapons, he continues to rely on heavy doses of screens while rarely progressing from his first read.  Consequently, there are always going to be periodic stinkers, as he has reinforced over the last two seasons:



Still, at 5-3-1, the Bengals are in second in the division.  Dalton's poor performances do also come with regular sprinklings of excellent starts, as no team in this era is going to make the postseason three years in a row with a total sinkhole at quarterback.  In weeks when their quarterback does not singlehandedly submarine the team, is Cincinnati good enough to take this division?

Typically, the answer has been yes because of the Bengals' consistency on defense.  However, that has totally dissipated in 2014 amid injuries and a lack of development from recent draft picks.  The real issue is against the run, where Cincy's 47.4 percent run success rate ranks dead last.  The Bengals have never been a totally stifling run defense, but it's clear that injuries to Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga have left a huge void in run support. 

The most puzzling factor in Cincinnati's season has been their proclivity for second-half collapses.  The Bengals' plus-17 first-half point differential this season ranks 12th in the league, whereas their minus-21 second-half margin ranks 25th.  Despite their poor crunch-time reputation, the Bengals have not really been second-half "chokers" in the Dalton era, as they posted a plus-76 second-half point differential from 2011-13.

The culprit has been Cincy's defense, particularly against the pass.  Though it would make sense that the Bengals would face a higher volume of passes, since their positive first-half point differential means that they are typically leading, it does not follow that the defense should suddenly collapse.  In fact, defenses typically thrive from turning an offense one-dimensional—this year, offenses have averaged 5.7 adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) when trailing, compared to a 7.1 ANY/A when leading or tied.  The Bengals' second-half defense has defied logic:



That second-half bottom line still looks fine, but it's skewed by a pair of lockdown performances early this year against Tennessee and Atlanta.  The Bengals have been a below-average second-half pass defense in five of their other six games, as measured by yards per attempt (league-average is 7.1 Y/A after halftime).

Unfortunately, there's no real reasonable explanation for this.  In reality, there's probably just some small sample size variance going on here.  Still, for a team that has struggled to string together wins the past six weeks, it only seems fitting that they have been unable to put forth a full 60-minute effort since their hot 3-0 start.

Pooch Punts

A quick look at a trio of NFC teams.


- Despite sitting at 8-1 and finally moving into the top 20, the Arizona Cardinals are facing legitimate questions after the season-ending injury to Carson Palmer.  Backup Drew Stanton played reasonably well in three starts earlier this season, as he currently ranks 11th in EPA/P and 12th in success rate.

However, given the level Palmer was playing at, the drop-off may be steeper than one would expect, even if Stanton sustains his level of play.  This difference is not necessarily in the overall cumulative numbers—Palmer was only slightly ahead of Stanton in EPA/P and success rate—but rather in the former's consistency.  It hardly seems surprising that Arizona's pass EPA has been steady with Palmer and variable with Stanton:



In fairness, Logan Thomas played the majority of the second half against Denver.  But Stanton posted a minus-2.4 EPA before departing, which was actually lower than the minus-1.6 mark the Cards ended up with.  Despite his history with Bruce Arians in Indianapolis, Stanton is essentially a rookie in terms of experience, with just four career starts and none since 2010 before this season.

With eight wins banked, the Cardinals appear highly unlikely to miss the postseason.  However, Arizona's hopes at a No. 1 seed don't look particularly promising, especially if Stanton is unable to deliver against a tough Lions defense this week.


- Everyone seems to question why Washington remains in the top 10 of these rankings every week, and rightfully so.  I touched on some of the reasons in deeper detail after Week 4, but it's probably worth updating why a 3-6 team has actually risen in the rankings during the intervening six-week stretch.

There's really only one reason, and that's Washington's hugely underrated success through the air.  The passing efficiency rankings in the tables below reflect net yards per attempt.  Moreover, passing offense is given more weight than any other variables, while turnovers are given the least weight, since these two have shown the least and most historic variation. 

All that has created the perfect storm to give Washington a ranking well out of whack with their likely talent level.  D.C. ranks second in the league with 7.56 net yards per attempt, in large part because they have hit 27 pass plays of 20 or more yards, fifth-most in the league.  However, the trio of Robert Griffin III, Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy have also combined for 16 turnovers, fourth-most in the league.

Because of that, Washington ranks 15th in pass EPA/P and 14th in passing success rate, marks which seem more commensurate with their talent level.  Net yards is far from an unreasonable stat to base passing efficiency off of—after all, each play's raw yardage is typically the determinant of change in EPA—but the marginalization of turnovers, which would be captured by something like ANY/A, has helped boost Washington's standing.


- The New York Giants have led the league in defensive run success rate the majority of the season, and topped the rankings as recently as last week.  But after allowing 350 rushing yards on a barely possible 7.8 yards per carry, the Giants fell all the way to 15th, as their success rate plummeted by about nine percentage points.

Strangely, such an atrocious performance by an exemplary run defense is not unprecedented. Since the merger, there have been five instances in which a team has conceded as many yards while hemorrhaging as many yards per attempt as the Giants did on Sunday:



The 2007 Vikings and 2006 Jags gave up 3.1 and 3.5 yards per attempt, respectively, while the 1979 Steelers won the Super Bowl in conceding just 3.4 yards per carry the whole season.  The 2012 Chiefs, which went 2-14 and somehow became the only team on this list to lose its game, were the only defense to allow more than 4.0 yards per carry for the season.

This isn't going to comfort Giants fans much, as the defensive line looked like the one remaining reliable unit after injuries wrecked the back seven and offensive skill positions.  Still, history might serve as a lesson not to overreact and condemn the best unit on an otherwise downtrodden squad.


Here are the updated team efficiency rankings after 10 weeks.  As always, observations, questions and snide remarks are welcome in the comments section.



RANK TEAM LAST WK GWP Opp GWP O RANK D RANK
1 DEN 1 0.69 0.49 1 1
2 MIA 2 0.64 0.49 12 2
3 GB 4 0.62 0.50 4 13
4 SEA 7 0.60 0.50 7 10
5 IND 3 0.59 0.51 2 19
6 DET 10 0.58 0.49 17 4
7 CLE 16 0.58 0.46 8 6
8 WAS 5 0.58 0.49 5 11
9 NO 9 0.56 0.49 3 26
10 DAL 11 0.56 0.49 6 20
11 SF 12 0.54 0.51 20 5
12 PHI 18 0.54 0.48 13 9
13 KC 8 0.54 0.51 22 7
14 BUF 17 0.52 0.50 26 3
15 BAL 15 0.52 0.48 14 12
16 PIT 13 0.52 0.48 9 21
17 NE 14 0.51 0.50 10 15
18 CIN 6 0.49 0.49 18 17
19 ARI 22 0.48 0.50 23 14
20 HOU 23 0.47 0.50 15 27
21 TEN 21 0.45 0.53 25 16
22 SD 25 0.45 0.51 19 25
23 CAR 19 0.45 0.52 24 23
24 NYG 24 0.45 0.53 21 28
25 CHI 20 0.44 0.52 11 31
26 MIN 27 0.42 0.49 30 8
27 JAC 26 0.41 0.54 31 22
28 NYJ 28 0.41 0.52 29 18
29 STL 29 0.38 0.50 27 24
30 ATL 30 0.36 0.46 16 32
31 OAK 32 0.32 0.54 32 30
32 TB 31 0.32 0.46 28 29

TEAM OPASS ORUNSR% OINT% OFUM% DPASS DRUNSR% DINT% PENRATE
ATL 6.8 38 2.6 1.6 7.7 57 2.2 0.45
ARI 6.5 33 0.9 1.5 6.8 64 4.0 0.42
BAL 6.6 41 2.3 1.3 6.4 66 1.7 0.40
BUF 6.0 37 1.9 2.3 5.6 65 3.7 0.52
CHI 6.2 48 2.9 2.3 7.5 56 2.7 0.52
CAR 5.9 41 2.3 2.3 6.8 60 2.6 0.42
CIN 6.5 40 3.0 1.3 6.1 49 2.8 0.38
CLE 7.3 39 1.4 1.4 5.8 54 3.8 0.41
DAL 7.1 44 2.6 2.5 6.9 62 3.0 0.36
DEN 7.8 40 1.9 1.4 5.3 68 2.5 0.54
DET 6.4 41 2.3 1.4 5.5 63 3.2 0.48
GB 7.4 42 1.4 1.5 6.1 50 3.8 0.38
HOU 6.8 39 3.1 2.3 6.8 50 2.9 0.40
IND 7.4 45 2.3 1.6 6.7 60 1.8 0.42
JAC 5.5 36 4.2 1.5 6.8 63 1.4 0.25
KC 5.9 41 1.5 1.9 5.7 55 1.3 0.30
MIA 5.8 51 2.2 2.1 5.3 64 3.0 0.32
MIN 5.1 41 3.5 0.6 6.0 59 2.8 0.46
NE 6.6 41 0.9 1.3 6.2 52 3.1 0.58
NO 7.0 48 2.7 1.6 6.9 59 1.9 0.34
NYG 6.2 39 1.8 2.2 7.6 60 4.4 0.33
NYJ 4.8 48 3.2 2.5 6.6 64 0.9 0.53
OAK 5.4 32 3.4 1.9 7.2 57 1.7 0.43
PHI 6.8 41 3.2 1.7 6.1 61 2.1 0.43
PIT 7.2 40 1.3 1.8 6.7 60 2.1 0.52
SD 7.2 30 2.7 1.3 6.4 50 1.3 0.47
SF 6.1 41 1.7 1.3 5.9 61 3.4 0.48
SEA 6.3 52 1.9 2.4 6.2 64 1.9 0.49
STL 5.8 40 3.3 2.1 7.1 64 1.4 0.61
TB 5.9 37 3.8 2.1 7.4 61 1.8 0.46
TEN 6.2 38 3.2 1.9 6.4 56 2.6 0.58
WAS 7.6 42 3.5 1.5 6.2 62 1.0 0.56
Avg 6.4 41 2.5 1.8 6.4 59 2.5 0.44