Published: 22 October 2014
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When writing about these rankings, I usually like to see where things differ from the mainstream public perception. The mob mentality, made ever more powerful by social media and other forms of digital connectivity, lends itself to extreme (and often false) opinions.
Nonetheless, this predictive model is not necessarily perfect, so there are times when we need to step back and examine particularly puzzling rankings. That's the case with the top two teams in the rankings this week: One is almost universally considered the best team in its conference, whereas most see the other as a likely 7-9 or 8-8 retread. Let's take a deeper dive into these two teams, which should highlight a meaningful truth about this year's hierarchy. The Top Dogs
One of these seems to make more sense than the other.
- It's been a while since the NFL has seen a truly legendary team exhibit all-around dominance. It's a little too early to declare any team as likely to fulfill that distinction, but apart from a three-quarter blip at CenturyLink Field, the Denver Broncos
might be one of the best teams in recent NFL history.
That's a vague phrase that needs more clarification, but the first-half evidence points in that direction. After their 42-17 dismantling of San Francisco, the Broncos are now the top-ranked offense and defense in these efficiency rankings. Their 0.68 Gross Winning Percentage, a measure of their true long-term winning percentage, is absurd. The next highest mark is 0.61—for reference, the second-place team is as close to the 12th-place team as it is to the Broncos.
The Cowboys may be a half-game ahead in the standings, but that's merely due to bye week semantics. Most advanced measures of team performance are publishing at around the same time as this, but pick your favorite measure of team efficiency—the Broncos seem likely to top just about everything, whether it be DVOA, Elo, Pythagorean win total, etc.
Peyton Manning may be the engine that drives the Orange Crush train, but even with a league-average quarterback, it would not be difficult to imagine Denver as a top-10 outfit. After a rough start, the running game has shimmied up to near the league-average mark, with Montee Ball still to return in a few weeks. The offensive skill position corps also holds a legitimate claim as the best in the league; in fact, the Broncos' offensive design typically asks Manning to simply get his receivers and tight ends the ball in space or in one-on-ones and allow their freakish athletic gifts to take over.
However, it's the defense that has made the Broncos a potentially historic squad, something other analysts
have taken note of. Denver ranks second in pass defense efficiency and ninth in run defense success rate, the only team that can lay claim to a top-10 ranking in both categories. Veteran free-agent signings are often a recipe for disaster, but the trio of DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward has made as positive an impact as one could hope. Injuries created plenty of defensive issues for the Broncos by the end of the 2013 campaign—lack of pass-rushing depth, coverage safety/linebacker, etc.—but those signings have essentially eradicated those worries.
If Denver can keep this pace up, they might begin to resemble a team many consider the most dominant in recent history, the 2007 Patriots. Those Pats were undefeated at this time, of course, and they dazzled with a relentless and furious attack that made them a literally off-the-charts squad. As you might expect, this year's Broncos don't really stack up yet (note that the Patriots graph is only for the first seven weeks of the 2007 season):
But those Patriots peaked in Week 10 with a ruthless 56-10 victory
over the Buffalo Bills. The Patriots still led the league from Week 11 on with a plus-107 point differential
, but they regressed to a team that was only about 1.75 standard deviations above the mean in that category, rather than the otherworldly three standard deviations they were from Weeks 1-10. That squad finished with a Pythagorean win expectancy of "only" 13.8
, suggesting that they were rather fortunate to finish 16-0.
Denver is not anywhere near that territory at the moment; in fact, the Broncos' plus-11.3 point differential per game margin is less than that of either Indianapolis or Baltimore. One could question the level of competition as well—whereas the 07 Pats blew out a future 13-win team
and the team they would later face
in the AFC Championship Game, Denver's best win is over the banged-up Niners, who may or may not even reach the postseason, given their schedule and the strength of the NFC.
Comparing these Broncos to that historic Pats squad is probably presumptuous at this point, at least based on the numbers. But the eerily similar roster construction creates parallels that are hard to ignore—a prolific passing game led by one of the all-time great quarterbacks, an aging but well-rounded defense and an average running game. In truth, the main difference probably stems from the fact that the Pats would have continued scoring against the helpless Niners defense, rather than sending in the Brock Osweiler brigade.
Unlike those Patriots, though, these Broncos are gaining steam, with a plus-60 point differential over their last three weeks. Part of that stems from injury luck, as Denver's most damaging long-term injury has probably been to linebacker Danny Trevathan, who has been ably replaced by (the other) Brandon Marshall. Unlike the other AFC contenders, the Broncos have yet to lose their Robert Mathis, Jerod Mayo or Nick Hardwick type of cog to a season-ending catastrophe.
Still, if injury luck is the best evidence to arguing for a Denver regression, then that essentially equates to throwing up one's hands and admitting that there is nothing really wrong at all. The Broncos offense could always afford to drop off significantly from its 2013 heights and still remain the best unit in the league. Now that the defense has become a similarly well-rounded unit, the Broncos look likely to further separate themselves from the pack over the next two months.
- The 3-3 Miami Dolphins
may be third in their own division, but they sit in second place through seven weeks in these rankings. This is obviously a curious placement, so let's dig deeper to see why AFA sees Miami as an NFL penthouse-caliber of a team, and whether or not we should expect their future performance to more closely reflect this ranking.
If the Broncos represent the clear-cut dominant team, then the Dolphins illustrate how the next tier of teams are fairly closely clustered together. The Fins are not propped up by an artificially opponent-strength adjustment, as their 0.49 opponent GWP suggests that they have made hay against a below-average schedule. Nor have the Dolphins goosed their own GWP with a bunch of junk-time scores. Miami has run 47 offensive plays
with a two-possession fourth-quarter lead this year, fourth-most in the league, but they have somehow not scored a single point in those situations. That would suggest some legitimacy in their wins, as they are staking out to leads and playing their best while the game is still in doubt.
When I wrote about the Dolphins in the Week 4 version
of this column, I noted how an elite defense was propping up their ranking. That remains true, as Miami possesses the second-ranked defense in terms of efficiency, led by the best pass defense in the league. However, while All-Pro level talents like Cameron Wake and Brent Grimes are safe propositions to bank on, I also argued that Miami's offensive inconsistencies made for an unsustainable long-term formula. Adequate quarterback play is arguably the only indispensable ingredient in a winning team, and Ryan Tannehill needed to move the Dolphins out of the extreme "Good Defense/Bad Offense" EPA quadrant to take Miami seriously.
For the season, Tannehill still ranks just 26th in EPA per play and 31st in adjusted yards per attempt. However, those low rankings stem mostly from a poor start, as it is clear that he has shown significant improvement in the three games since I last talked about the Dolphins:
This is essentially night and day. Among players with at least 90 passing attempts over their past three games, Tannehill's 8.34 adjusted yards per attempt ranks seventh
. Conversely, over the first three weeks, Tannehill ranked 20th out of 21
qualifiers in that stat under the same minimum pass-attempt criteria. It's been a timely turnaround for a quarterback whose job security was precarious just a month ago
All together, that has left Tannehill with a seasonal mark of 6.4 AY/A, almost exactly in line with his career averages. These types of brief streaks aren't exactly new for Tannehill—he has had five previous three-game streaks of an AY/A of at least 6.26, which is the run he is currently on. That includes four last year alone, one of which culminated in arguably Tannehill's best career performance in a Week 15 win
over the Patriots.
Of course, the Dolphins would lay eggs in their final two contests, and Tannehill's ghastly 2.55 AY/A mark over that fortnight was the worst in the league
. Tannehill has tantalized with his talent repeatedly, to the point that pro-Tannehill evidence looks like noise amid widely varying signals.
Here's where it's also worth noting that Miami has given up just five sacks over the past three games (12th-best in the league), as opposed to the nine they gave up over the first three games (third-worst). Every quarterback is better with more time, but it has been magnified with Tannehill. As a predominantly one-read quarterback, Tannehill has yet to demonstrate the acumen to progress through his reads while maintaining good pocket presence, a discouraging truth given his elite athleticism. Bill Lazor's system works fine if misdirection consistently opens up that read, as Nick Folles will happily attest to, but much like Foles, Tannehill lacks the ability to stretch defenses past their first wave of coverage defense.
In facing Oakland, Green Bay and Chicago, Tannehill has feasted on a pair of bottom-10 defenses, while playing an above-average game against the sixth-ranked Packers defense. This does not really prove as much as his early-season struggles, when he faced three defenses ranked in the upper-half of the efficiency rankings. From Weeks 9-15, Miami faces seven upper-half defenses. That will tell us much more about the long-term legitimacy of both Tannehill and the Dolphins.