All-32: NFL Power Rankings Heading Into Week 4
Three weeks into the NFL season, and we've already seen a little bit of a shakeup in these rankings.
The Philadelphia Eagles might be the most impressive team, featuring both the biggest week-to-week jump -- 11th to 4th -- and by far the biggest jump since the start of the season from 26th. There's good reason for this.
But there are also things that look similar yet took a strange path to get there, like the Seattle Seahawks again at number one.
We're also getting to the point now when these rankings fully reflect 2016 play, and over the next few weeks, we'll really start to get a clearer picture of who these teams really are this season.
A weekly reminder, our power rankings aren’t subjective. They’re based off our nERD scores, which are put together by people much smarter than I am.
For those unfamiliar, nERD is our calculation of how good a team really is, based on expected point differential against a league average team. If the team's nERD rating is 10, they would be expected to win by 10 points against a league-average opponent. All individually noted rankings are based off our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to perform, according to historical data.
Each week, we’ll list all 32 teams from worst to best with a more detailed breakdown of four different teams. The highlighted teams will rotate each week, which will lead to each team being featured two to three times during the course of the season.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (nERD: -7.95, Record: 0-3, Last Week: 32)
31. Chicago Bears (nERD: -6.65, Record: 0-3, Last Week: 31)
30. Tennessee Titans (nERD: -4.96, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 30)
29. Los Angeles Rams (nERD: -4.22, Record: 2-1, Last Week: 28)
Guys, the Los Angeles Rams are bad. Sure they’re 2-1 and technically on top of the NFC West, but this is not a good football team. They’re our lowest ranked team with two wins and the next closest team is 21st. With little surprise, the Rams have the worst offense in the league by Adjusted NEP per play. That’s all helped (?) by a league-worst passing offense led by Case Keenum.
Keenum has done nothing this season to disprove the idea that number-one overall pick Jared Goff should be starting right now. There have been 37 quarterbacks who have dropped back at least 10 times this season. Among them, Keenum is 35th in Passing NEP per drop back. The only two quarterbacks worse than Keenum have been Robert Griffin III and Jay Cutler, who both played at least part of a game injured.
Even with the day Ryan Fitzpatrick had on Sunday, Keenum is responsible for the worst interception of the week. Kwon Alexander was three steps to the end zone before Kenum even released the ball. (Video courtesy NFL Game Pass.)
Between the lack of a passing game and a poor offensive line, Todd Gurley has nowhere to go. He’s constantly getting hit before he reaches the line of scrimmage, and when he’s not, there’s rarely a hole when he gets there. Gurley is currently 28th in Rushing NEP per attempt among the 34 running backs who have gotten at least 25 carries through the first three games. Yards per carry is not a good stat to predict future performance for a running back, but it’s telling that Gurley has only averaged 2.9 yards on his attempts this season.
There’s the defense, which is the bright spot of the team, but even that hasn’t been the dominant force it could be. The Rams rank 14th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play, and that comes down to defensive line or bust. When the defensive line is getting penetration, the rest of the Rams defense is good. Luckily, the Los Angeles defensive line is really good. They’re even doing some interesting thing to change up the looks, moving Aaron Donald to defensive end on a few plays against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
28. San Francisco 49ers (nERD: -4.18, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 24)
27. Detroit Lions (nERD: -3.42, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 22)
26. New Orleans Saints (nERD: -3.41, Record: 0-3, Last Week: 18)
25. Cleveland Browns (nERD: -3.36, Record: 0-3, Last Week: 29)
24. Miami Dolphins (nERD: -2.82, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 23)
23. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (nERD: -2.80, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 26)
22. Indianapolis Colts (nERD: -2.28, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 25)
21. New York Giants (nERD: -1.78, Record: 2-1, Last Week: 16)
20. Dallas Cowboys (nERD: -1.49, Record: 2-1, Last Week: 27)
It took three weeks, but the Sunday Night Football game against the Chicago Bears spurred the offense many imagined for the 2016 Dallas Cowboys. Mostly, it was the offensive line finally creating the holes that were expected for Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott had his first 100-yard rushing game of his career, but it took 30 carries to get there in a game that wasn’t very competitive.
Dallas has never been shy to rely on a workhorse back, but if there was a time to lighten the load for Elliott, it was probably late in the game against Chicago. Elliott now has the third-most carries in the league with 71. As is usually the case for high-volume backs, those carries haven’t been particularly efficient. Out of 34 running backs with at least 25 carries on the season, Elliott ranks 24th in Rushing NEP per attempt. On the positive side, Elliott is 10th among these backs in Success Rate -- the percentage of plays positively impacting NEP -- so his production should continue to increase as the negative plays fade away. With the Cowboys’ offensive line, that should be soon.
Elliott hasn’t even been the most impressive rookie on his team, though. That’s been quarterback Dak Prescott, who has been just as impressive as Carson Wentz in Philadelphia. Prescott currently ranks fifth in Passing NEP per drop back, just one spot below Wentz, though he’s far superior in Success Rate. Prescott is fourth among quarterbacks in Success Rate at 53.4 percent.
Unfortunately for the Cowboys, the defense continues to be a unit in need of improvement. Dallas is 25th in Adjusted Defensive NEP through three weeks, and the biggest concern continues to be the lack of consistent pass rush. The Cowboys are 27th in sack rate and haven’t created much pressure outside of those plays. If Dallas is going to try to contend, the defense doesn’t have to get to the level of the offense, but it’s going to have to improve.
19. Washington Redskins (nERD: -1.48, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 21)
18. Oakland Raiders (nERD: -1.01, Record: 2-1, Last Week: 20)
17. New York Jets (nERD: -0.87, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 12)
16. San Diego Chargers (nERD: -0.04, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 14)
15. Atlanta Falcons (nERD: 0.20, Record: 2-1, Last Week: 19)
14. Baltimore Ravens (nERD: 1.31, Record: 3-0, Last Week: 15)
13. Buffalo Bills (nERD: 1.31, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 17)
Getting a western team to play at 1:00 pm on the east coast is exactly what the Buffalo Bills needed to get back in whatever groove they were supposed to be in. Yes, the Bills did outplay the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, but it helps that the Cardinals played some pretty sloppy football.
The Bills, for their part, played pretty well -- or least better than they had been in the first two weeks. Buffalo went into the game with a new offensive coordinator after firing Greg Roman, and the offense was a little better, but it would be hard to find significant changes from last week’s game against the New York Jets, unless you want to count wildcat snaps to Lesean McCoy.
Tyrod Taylor ran a little more than he had in the first two games. Some of those were from read option plays. Others, like his 20-yard touchdown run, were from scrambles with defensive pressure and no one open. Through the air, Taylor had his worst game of the season with -0.16 Passing NEP per drop back and a Success Rate of 27.6 percent. The Bills didn’t need to throw often because of the early and continually increasing lead, but they weren’t good when they had to throw against Arizona.
The defense was also hit-or-miss against the Cardinals. Buffalo had four interceptions on the day, but Carson Palmer had some dropped passes early in the game. He also had some dropped interceptions, which could have made the day look much worse. The Bills now rank 11th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play thanks to how highly the Arizona offense was coming into Week 3. But the Bills’ rank comes mostly from the run defense, which ranks fourth. Buffalo is only 15th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play, and the secondary still remains the weakness of the team. The Bills get the New England Patriots next, who will test that defense regardless of who plays quarterback.
12. Cincinnati Bengals (nERD: 1.60, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 8
11. Houston Texans (nERD: 2.01, Record: 2-1, Last Week: 7)
10. Minnesota Vikings (nERD: 2.30, Record: 3-0, Last Week: 13)
9. Pittsburgh Steelers (nERD: 2.73, Record: 2-1, Last Week: 2)
8. Green Bay Packers (nERD: 3.46, Record: 2-1, Last Week: 8)
Aaron Rodgers is back. Are we allowed to say that now? I think we can. Rodgers looked much closer to his normal self against the Detroit Lions -- though we should note Detroit is last in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play -- and he put up the second-best performance of the week by Passing NEP per drop back. The first touchdown to Jordy Nelson is exactly what Green Bay Packers fans have come to know from Rodgers -- maneuvering in the pocket, keeping his eyes downfield, and finding a receiver in the end zone who adjusts his route with the scramble.
It also helped that Nelson looked more like his pre-injury self than he had in the first two games of this season. His second touchdown of the game was a vintage Rodgers-Nelson connection from 17 yards out with Nelson beating his man after a slight hesitation off the line and a perfectly-placed ball in the corner off the end zone.
Rodgers’ most impressive play, though, might have been the pass interference penalty to start the second quarter. It’s not often we marvel at pass interference penalties -- unless it’s from how often Torrey Smith was able to cause them before he was lost in San Francisco -- but Rodgers threw this ball 70 yards in the air. It was an incredible throw, even if it wasn’t caught, and it did lead to a 66-yard gain from the penalty. It's a throw that needs the coach's film to appreciate.
While getting Rodgers back on track is nice, one of the biggest positives for Green Bay has been the running game. The Packers currently rank fourth in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play, thanks to some strong showings from Eddie Lacy. Individually, Lacy is seventh among running backs with 25 or more carries in Rushing NEP per attempt, and that’s without scoring a touchdown on the ground yet. Lacy was making a positive impact over the first two games, but had his best game of the season against Detroit with bigger running lanes open for him by the offensive line.
If there’s still a concern for the Packers, it’s their defense. The unit was injury depleted against Detroit -- Sam Shields, Clay Matthews, Letroy Guion, Datone Jones, and Morgan Burnett all missed Week 3 -- but this is still a team that ranks 20th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. They’ll get a bye in Week 4 to get healthy, then they have three straight home games.
7. Kansas City Chiefs (nERD: 3.76, Record: 2-1, Last Week: 10)
6. Carolina Panthers (nERD: 4.98, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 3)
5. Denver Broncos (nERD: 5.64, Record: 3-0, Last Week: 6)
4. Philadelphia Eagles (nERD: 5.79, Record: 3-0, Last Week: 11)
3. New England Patriots (nERD: 6.23, Record: 3-0, Last Week: 4)
The Patriots are still undefeated, but there was a significant difference in play from the first two games of Jimmy Garoppolo to Thursday night with Jacoby Brissett. After his first two games, Garoppolo still leads all quarterbacks in Passing NEP per drop back at 0.49. Brissett, on the other hand, is 32nd at -0.05 between his replacement duty in Week 2 and his Week 3 start.
Despite injuries, one of those two is expected to start of Sunday against Buffalo -- killing the dreams of "Julian Edelman, starting NFL quarterback” -- but no one knows yet which one. Garoppolo reportedly does not have full range of motion in his throwing shoulder, but he has not been ruled out. When looking at the difference in performance between the two, it’s not hard to see why the Patriots would want to hold out as long as possible before going with Brissett. Bill Belichick had his fun calling option plays on Thursday night, but he knows Garoppolo is the better quarterback to play in the last non-Tom Brady game of the season.
With so much focus on the quarterbacks, it’s easy to overlook how well the rest of the team has been playing. The other units haven’t been the best in the league, but put together, they’ve all been a force in the 3-0 start to the season.
LeGarrette Blount leads the league in rushing attempts through three games. While those rushes haven’t been particularly efficient -- he ranks 25th in Rushing NEP per attempt -- his ability to keep moving on the ground has helped take some of the pressure off the quarterbacks. Surprisingly, the Patriots have been the most run-heavy team over the first three weeks as one of two teams, along with the San Francisco 49ers, to have run more than they passed this season.
The defense ranks just 15th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play, but it was the biggest reason for the win over the Houston Texans on Thursday night. Brock Osweiler threw for 4.78 yards per attempt and had the fifth worst game of the week by Passing NEP per drop back.
Without Tom Brady, the Patriots have increased their odds to win the AFC East to 77.1 percent, which are the best odds for any division leader through three weeks. Some of that is based on the rest of the division, but New England gets a chance to increase that even more with the opportunity to go 4-0 after a game with Buffalo in Week 5.
2. Arizona Cardinals (nERD: 6.44, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 1)
1. Seattle Seahawks (nERD: 6.67, Record: 2-1, Last Week: 4)