The Arizona Cardinals Will Be the NFL's Best Team Again in 2016

After putting up the second-best analytical season since 2000, the Cardinals are poised for greatness once again.

It seems like it was just yesterday that the Seattle Seahawks became the first sub-.500 team ever to make the NFL playoffs, when a 7-9 team could win the worst division in football.

Yes, once upon a magical time -- when the Y2K bug was still lingering in the backs of our minds -- the AFC South wasn’t the laughingstock of the league. Rather, it was the NFC West. Washed-up superstars such as Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice roamed the land in this division, free of any care. This was a lawless division where four seasons in its first decade under the current alignment (since 2002) saw a division champion pick up nine wins or fewer.

That is, until the 2010’s came. Despite the inauspicious start to this decade, the five years since have seen those same Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals (even the San Francisco 49ers for a time) become powerhouses in the National Football League and -- by far -- the class of the sport. In a span of five short seasons, the NFC West has gone from lower than a snake’s belly to “ace-high.”

And in 2016, the NFC champion is going to come out of the wild West once again.

Fighting Like Kilkenny Cats

The 2015 Cardinals put up one of the best seasons in recent memory and look poised to devastate the NFL again this year. While playoff winners can be tough to predict, the kind of dominance they displayed in the regular season is what gets teams to the untamed and unpredictable landscape of the playoffs. We measure the dominance of regular season teams through a metric known as nERD.

nERD is our regular-season calculation of how good a team really is -- based on expected point differential against a league average team. For instance, if the team's nERD score is -10, they would be expected to lose by 10 points against a league-average opponent. This not only shows us a value score that combines offense and defense, but it also adjusts for the era as well, giving a more accurate representation of value across multiple years. For more info on nERD, check out our glossary.

Our projections at numberFire for the 2016 season are up and running, and they have churned out some very interesting results. Here are the top-three projected teams by nERD this year, as well as their record projections and projected Super Bowl win percentage. Notice a pattern?

Rank Team nERD Record SB %
1 Seattle Seahawks 7.97 9.8-6.2 11.20%
2 New England Patriots 7.06 9.5-6.5 8.70%
3 Arizona Cardinals 6.27 9.2-6.8 7.10%

It certainly helps their projected records that the Seahawks and Cardinals each get four games against lackluster teams in their own division, but our algorithms peg the ‘Hawks and Cards, two teams from the NFC West, as two of the top-three teams in team value this year. That’s huge.

The Cardinals seem to be the longer shot, due to their 58.20 percent chance to make the playoffs (considering that if Seattle wins the division as projected, they’ll have to earn a wild-card spot) and just 7.10 percent chance to win the Super Bowl (just fifth in the league). That’s not as heartening as the nearly one-in-nine probability that Seattle is given.

It’s worth noting, though, that the average playoff team over the last five years had a nERD score of 5.27 (compared to a -0.06 league average), and the average Super Bowl-winning unit in that time had a 6.16 nERD. Arizona ends up on the lower end of that scale but definitely ahead of the mark.

But the Cardinals could end up as the best team in the NFL again this year, and this time, it could win them a ring.

All Beer and Skittles

The 2015 Cardinals came in second on our list of the 10 best NFL teams over the past decade.

The first (obviously) was the 2007 New England Patriots, who set scores of offensive records that season. The Cardinals had an offense that wasn’t quite as potent as the New England attack that year, but had a similar Adjusted Offensive Net Expected Points (NEP) per play to the 2013 Denver Broncos -- who, of course, broke the Patriots’ single-season passing touchdown (and points scored) record.

The Cardinals were also just one of four teams with a 0.15 Adjusted Offensive NEP per play or better and an Adjusted Defensive NEP rate below 0.00. The other three: the 2007 Patriots, the 2007 Indianapolis Colts, and the 2009 New Orleans Saints, who combined to average 14 wins and featured two Super Bowl contenders.

That’s good company to be in.

But the Cardinals last year are obviously not the same as the team that will be taking the field in 2016. Why can they can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the league again?

The simple answer is that our algorithms love them. The table below shows the Cardinals’ projected ranks in Rushing, Passing, and overall for both Offensive and Defensive NEP this year.

Team O-Rush O-Pass O-Overall D-Rush D-Pass D-Overall
Arizona Cardinals 8th 1st 6th 3rd 8th 6th

Seems good, right? The best-projected passing offense certainly helps in a pass-first, ask-questions-later league like this, and a third-projected rushing defense makes it much easier for them to force ball-control opponents out of their comfort zone.

Aside from their projected rank in Adjusted Passing NEP, no one area looks dominant for the Cardinals, but the strength of this team lies in being well-rounded. The Cardinals rank in the top-10 of each component of projected Offensive and Defensive NEP for 2016, Passing NEP and Rushing NEP. Only one other team joins them in this esteem: the Seahawks.

With how incredibly they project as a whole, there’s no reason to believe the 2015 season was a fluke. The Cardinals are the real deal going into the 2016 season.

Biggest Toads in the Puddle

The Cardinals as a whole are impressive, but there are some individual stars on this team as well.

Quarterback Carson Palmer was the engine that drove this team in 2015, coming in second in Passing NEP per drop back among starting quarterbacks with a 0.33 rate. He outpaced Seahawks’ quarterback Russell Wilson in this metric as well, adding a little extra sweetness to his ranking. Our algorithms essentially project Palmer to match his 2015 output. With the returning trifecta of receivers Arizona has -- veteran Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and John Brown -- this is totally doable.

Running back David Johnson was a third-round rookie in 2015’s NFL Draft, but he comes into his sophomore season an undisputed superstar on the gridiron. Johnson had a Rushing NEP per carry rate (0.15) nearly double that of the second-place finisher -- Seattle’s Thomas Rawls -- among backs with at least 100 carries. He also dusted the opposition as a receiver, with 0.74 Reception NEP per target. Johnson has a claim to the title of best running back in the league right now.

The Cardinals also didn’t sit on their defensive laurels. They traded for edge rusher Chandler Jones (whose 20-sack upside is palpable) this offseason and drafted high-upside defensive end Robert Nkemdiche to improve their pass-rush. They also drafted cornerback Brandon Williams, signed safety Tyvon Branch, and brought back from injury the best defensive back in the league, Tyrann Mathieu. With all of the additions to their passing defense -- and more pressure on opposing quarterbacks -- leap-frogging their 2015 ranking of eighth in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play is certainly possible.

Everything is lining up for the Cardinals to put together another incredible season in 2016. There’s a chance that, at third in the league and totally dominant, our projections are underrating them.

The road to Super Bowl LI runs through the NFC West, and a bunch of desperadoes from the desert are poised to seize it.