All-32: NFL Power Rankings Heading Into Week 9

Just how good are Dak Prescott's Dallas Cowboys this season?

Here we are, somewhere around the midpoint of the NFL season. Not every team has played eight games yet, but many teams are somehow closer to the end of the regular season than the beginning.

While there are not necessarily any standout teams this season, we do have a back-to-back number-one in the rankings for the second time this season. It happens to be the same team that did it the first time, and part of that might be due to that team having the best defense in the league.

But the middle-of-the-pack teams in the league continue to shift, and there are a ton of fringe playoff contenders at this point in the season. Nine NFC teams are at .500 or above, and eight AFC teams are there, but even that doesn't do the jumble of teams justice.

Arguably the third best team in the AFC right now might also have the third worst record.

A weekly reminder: our power rankings aren’t subjective. They’re based off our nERD scores 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 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. Cleveland Browns (nERD: -9.01, Record: 0-8, Last Week: 32)
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (nERD: -8.05, Record: 2-5, Last Week: 31)

The Jacksonville Jaguars started the season as the 32nd-ranked team by nERD, which seemed a little strange at the time. The Jaguars were the offseason darlings of the NFL, and even if they didn’t turn into a playoff contender like some imagined, it was fair to assume the team would at least improve some over the performance of the past few seasons.

Then, Jacksonville started playing games, and the ranking increasingly made sense. The Jaguars, to put it lightly, have not been good. Almost everything they have done this season has been well below expectations. Of course, this all starts with the offense. Jacksonville has the 26th-ranked offense by Adjusted NEP per play. The most disappointing part is the passing offense, which ranks 28th by Adjusted Passing NEP per play this season. Blake Bortles was never as good as his raw statistics indicated last year, but even with that in mind, he’s clearly regressed this season.

Bortles is 26th among quarterbacks in Passing NEP per drop back, and even with his garbage time comeback against the Tennessee Titanson Thursday, even his raw stats are bad. He’s completing a career high 60 percent of his passes, but that’s 26th among qualified quarterbacks, and it says more about Bortles’ past seasons than it does about his performance this year. The completions are mostly empty as he ranks 25th in yards per attempt, and he’s thrown touchdown passes on a lower rate and interceptions on a higher rate than last season. He’s also regressed mechanically with a long, low, winding throwing motion.

After the loss to Tennessee, the Jaguars fired offensive coordinator Greg Olson. In a vacuum, the move makes sense. It was the clear card to play for the coaching staff, short of firing head coach Gus Bradley mid-season. The problem is that the Jaguars replaced Olson with Nathaniel Hackett, who was the quarterbacks coach. It’s an interesting move considering he’s the one who has worked the closest with Bortles this season and former head coach Doug Marrone is on staff as the offensive line coach.

Marrone, though, might be saved in case Bradley is still let go during the season. Bradley didn’t have to take full responsibility for the offense, but his defense has also performed well below expectation. The Jaguars are 25th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play this season.

30. San Francisco 49ers (nERD: -7.00, Record: 1-6, Last Week: 30)
29. Indianapolis Colts (nERD: -6.84, Record: 3-5, Last Week: 27)
28. Los Angeles Rams (nERD: -6.13, Record: 3-4, Last Week: 28)
27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (nERD: -4.81, Record: 3-4, Last Week: 23)
26. New York Jets (nERD: -4.62, Record: 3-5, Last Week: 25)
25. Chicago Bears (nERD: -4.31, Record: 2-6, Last Week: 29)
24. Detroit Lions (nERD: -4.12, Record: 4-4, Last Week: 26)
23. Baltimore Ravens (nERD: -3.61, Record: 3-4, Last Week: 24)
22. Pittsburgh Steelers (nERD: -2.68, Record: 4-3, Last Week: 19)

It’s been quite a fall for the Pittsburgh Steelers in these rankings over the past few weeks, as they ranked as high as eighth after Week 5. But two straight losses, one to the Miami Dolphins and one with Landry Jones starting a quarterback, have dropped the Steelers down to the bottom third of the league.

A lot of this falls on Pittsburgh’s defense, which is 28th in the league by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. This stems from an inability to get to the quarterback this season. The Steelers are tied for the worst sack rate in the league at just 2.8 percent, along with the New York Giants. However, the Giants are getting pressure at a higher rate -- 16 percent to 13.9 percent -- and have been playing better defense on the back end, allowing significantly fewer passes to be completed with a 59.6 percent opposing completion rate compared to Pittsburgh’s 66.4 percent. The Steelers’ opposing completion percentage is the seventh worst in the league.

But soon enough, the offense might be at full health to overcome the defensive shortcomings. Coming off a Week 8 bye, Ben Roethlisberger may be healthy enough to start in Week 9 after missing just one game. There’s currently a wait-and-see approach, but having Roethlisberger back would obviously be a welcomed boost to the offense. He’s currently eighth among quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs in Passing NEP per drop back this season.

Getting the quarterback to return seems more important now to the Steelers than it would have a few weeks ago. At 4-3, Pittsburgh still sits atop the division, but they’re just one spot ahead of the 3-4 Baltimore Ravens by nERD and seven below the 3-4-1 Cincinnati Bengals. Pittsburgh does still own the best playoff odds in the division at 53.4 percent.

If Roethlisberger doesn’t return for Week 9 in a road game against the Ravens, the offense will look the Le'Veon Bell to carry the load. That has not been a problem since Bell returned from his suspension. Among 39 running backs with at least 50 carries, Bell is 11th in Rushing NEP per attempt. He’s been an even bigger asset in the passing game, where he’s already sixth among running backs in targets and fifth in receptions.

21. Houston Texans (nERD: -1.60, Record: 5-3, Last Week: 16)
20. Oakland Raiders (nERD: -1.56, Record: 6-2, Last Week: 21)
19. New Orleans Saints (nERD: -1.52, Record: 3-4, Last Week: 20)
18. Tennessee Titans (nERD: -1.48, Record: 4-4, Last Week: 22)
17. New York Giants (nERD: -1.46, Record: 4-3, Last Week: 18)
16. Miami Dolphins (nERD: -1.16, Record: 3-4, Last Week: 17)
15. Cincinnati Bengals (nERD: -0.46, Record: 3-4-1, Last Week: 14)
14. Carolina Panthers (nERD: 0.67, Record: 2-5, Last Week: 15)

The Carolina Panthers finally looked like a dominant team in Week 8 against the Arizona Cardinals. Arizona had some handicaps of their own after coming off the 6-6 tie against the Seattle Seahawks last Sunday night and facing the time change of a Western team traveling east for a 1:00 p.m. start, but the Panthers still dominated in every facet of the game. Unfortunately for the Panthers, it might be a little too late.

No team among the top-23 has playoff odds lower than 10 percent except for the Panthers at just 6.2 percent. Even the Detroit Lions, 24th by nERD, have higher odds than Carolina at 6.9 percent. It’s not until the 25th-ranked Chicago Bears that a team has worse playoff odds than the Panthers. Historically, teams with a 2-5 record make the playoffs just four percent of the time and Carolina has slightly higher odds, so they’ve got that going for them, which is nice.

Even with the Panthers’ best showing on Sunday, their problems haven’t magically gone away. Carolina is 23rd on offense by Adjusted NEP per play for the season, 15th on the ground, and 25th through the air. Cam Newton is 23rd in Passing NEP per drop back among quarterbacks in a season he was expected to improve with a returning Kelvin Benjamin to the lineup.

The Panthers have scored the 4th-most points in the league and gained the 7th-most yards on offense, but breaking that down per drive, the Panthers are 15th and 10th, respectively. Turnovers are also killing the offense, as Carolina has the highest percentage of drives this season that end with a turnover at 18.1 percent.

Surprisingly, the defense has turned into one of the better units in the league after a rough start. The Panthers rank 10th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play, though they’re still just 20th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. The secondary is still a work in progress, and the rotation of cornerbacks is still getting worked out. James Bradberry has begun to be the emerging top performer in the four games he’s started this season.

Per Sports Info Solutions charting data from Football Outsiders, Bradberry is allowing 5.7 yards per pass attempt in coverage, which is 18th among 84 corners who have been targeted at least 20 times this season. Daryl Worley is the only other Panthers corner who has been thrown at 20 time or more, and he’s allowing 7.9 yards per attempt, which ranks 53rd.

13. Washington Redskins (nERD: 1.85, Record: 4-3-1, Last Week: 13)
12. Kansas City Chiefs (nERD: 2.48, Record: 5-2, Last Week: 12)
11. Buffalo Bills (nERD: 2.68, Record: 4-4, Last Week: 10)
10. San Diego Chargers (nERD: 3.72, Record: 3-5, Last Week: 11)
9. Seattle Seahawks (nERD: 4.43, Record: 4-2-1, Last Week: 8)
8. Arizona Cardinals (nERD: 4.52, Record: 3-4-1, Last Week: 4)
7. Green Bay Packers (nERD: 4.66, Record: 4-3, Last Week: 6)

Aaron Rodgers is not the problem in Green Bay. If that wasn’t clear before, the Week 8 game against the Atlanta Falcons should put the opposing argument to rest. Rodgers was back to his typical self, moving around in the pocket, buying time, and finding receivers down the field. It helped that the Packers were using some different personnel, running some bunch formations, and scheming some receivers open, which makes the job of the quarterback much easier.

After all the panicking about the offense, Green Bay is eighth by Adjusted NEP per play. Rodgers is still just 16th in Passing NEP per drop back among quarterbacks, but that’s a steady increase from where he was at the start of the season. Against Atlanta, Rodgers looked more like the quarterback we’ve been accustomed to seeing. Throughout the year, Rodgers has made some great throws, and the game against the Falcons was no different. On a touchdown pass to Trevor Davis, Rodgers scrambled to his left and placed a ball low near the pylon that might not be in a better spot if any other quarterback had thrown it.

Where the Packers will have to continue to improve is in the running game. Green Bay still ranks 10th in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play, but much of that is from the performance of Eddie Lacy early in the season. Lacy is still fourth in Rushing NEP per attempt among backs with 50 or more carries on the season, but the Packers have not had much success replacing him since he was put on injured reserve. Ty Montgomery hasn’t been great running the ball with his shift to running back/receiver hybrid (-0.46 Rushing NEP per attempt on 14 carries), but his presence there has added to the passing game with an added threat from the backfield. He had 12 and 13 targets in the past two games he played before missing the Atlanta game with a kidney issue. His status for the game against the Indianapolis Colts is uncertain, but the release of Knile Davis after a week might be a good sign.

At 4-3, the Packers still find themselves in good position for a playoff berth. We have their overall playoff odds at 63.1 percent, though their division odds are only 31 percent even after the Minnesota Vikings lost to the Bears on Monday night. The Vikings have a win in hand over the Packers, and the two do not play again until Week 16.

6. Minnesota Vikings (nERD: 4.80, Record: 5-2, Last Week: 3)
5. Philadelphia Eagles (nERD: 5.13, Record: 4-3, Last Week: 5)
4. Atlanta Falcons (nERD: 5.16, Record: 5-3, Last Week: 9)
3. Dallas Cowboys (nERD: 7.40, Record: 6-1, Last Week: 7)

The Dallas Cowboys are 6-1 and have the second-best playoff odds in the league, behind only the New England Patriots. The Sunday night win over the Philadelphia Eagles gave them a huge boost as the favorite in the NFC East as they now have an 89.2 percent chance of winning the division. Yet all anyone can talk about is Tony Romo.

It’s not completely unfair. Romo is a talented and underrated quarterback. But with each game the Cowboys play, the stronger grip it appears Dak Prescott has on the starting quarterback job. Despite the win against the Eagles, Prescott easily had his worst game of the season. But even so, it wasn’t that bad, and he still had a positive Passing NEP for the day. His interception was probably the worst throw he’s made this season, and he potentially threw the game away with a should-have-been pick late in the game, but those throws shouldn’t mask how well the rookie has played overall this season.

Prescott is third among quarterbacks in Passing NEP per drop back behind Tom Brady and Matt Ryan, two MVP candidates. He’s also not just moving the offense with his arm. Prescott is sixth among quarterbacks in Rushing NEP, and his ability to move the ball on the ground adds an extra layer to the Cowboys’ offense.

What might be the most impressive part of that this year is how the Cowboys' coaches have adapted to the quarterback. Take the touchdown run Prescott had on a zone read against Philadelphia. The Eagles were ready for the option, despite defensive end Connor Barwin crashing down on Ezekiel Elliott. Rodney McLeod had the open gap and was set up for Prescott, but Jason Witten was pulled from the opposite side of the formation to open up that lane even more, and it gave the quarterback an even bigger opening for the touchdown.

Of course the running game runs through Elliott, and Barwin isn’t crashing down as hard on that play if Elliott hasn’t been nearly unstoppable this season. Elliott is fifth among running backs with 50 or more carries in Rushing NEP per attempt, and the Cowboys as a whole are first in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play, a standing they never had during the DeMarco Murray era.

With this combination in the backfield, the offense can make up for a defense that is 18th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play.

2. New England Patriots (nERD: 7.70, Record: 7-1, Last Week: 2)
1. Denver Broncos (nERD: 8.12, Record: 6-2, Last Week: 1)