The 5 Best Teams for the Upcoming 2014 NFL Season
"If you ain't first, you're last."
In addition to being the most memorable line of a mediocre comedy movie, the quote above applies to most NFL fans' thoughts on pre-season power rankings.
Ahead of every NFL season, hope is abundant for fans, who believe the moves their team has made will put them over the top heading into the next year. So clicking on a link just to see a writer rank their team outside of the top spot of mostly meaningless rankings is nothing but a bucket of cold water to douse the flame of optimism for the season to come.
Here at numberFire, our rankings are a bit different, as they're based on our nERD, a calculation of how a team would fare against a league average opponent. And while you can check out the whole list by visiting our NFL Team Rankings page, here are the top-five teams, and some reasons to be optimistic about each one.
1. Denver Broncos
They didn't win it all last year, but the Denver Broncos are still our numbers' favorite team heading into 2014. Peyton Manning returns to lead a historically good offense that led the league by a huge margin in our Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) metric last year. Just how big of a gap was it from the Broncos to the second-best team? The second team, the Saints, were 70 Net Expected Points behind the Broncos in total offense. If a team had earned a 70 NEP over the course of the season, they'd have finished in the top 10 offensively.
The Broncos have a fairly tough division, but still have an 87.4% chance of making the playoffs and a 17.4% chance of winning it all, according to our algorithms. They have the highest rated offense and one of only 11 defenses projected to be better than a average, "expected" defensive output. The additions of Aqib Talib and Demarcus Ware will certainly help the defense improve from last season, along with the return to health of Von Miller.
Our nERD calculation says that the Broncos would beat an average NFL team by 11.4 points, and our offensive and defensive rankings don't really see a flaw for the defending AFC champions. Until someone figures out a way to slow Peyton Manning down on a regular basis, the Broncos are going to be top-tier contenders while he remains under center.
2. Seattle Seahawks
The defending champions "fall" to second in our team rankings, but not by a very big margin. Just over one point in our nERD calculation separates Seattle from the Denver team they crushed in the Super Bowl earlier this year, and as you might expect, it's the defense for Seattle that boosts their ranking.
Our defensive metrics that influence the nERD rankings see Seattle's defense as the best, and by a wider margin than it sees Denver's offense as the best. The dominant Seahawk secondary led by Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas will be the driving force for the team in 2014 as it was in 2013, when they finished with the best defense according to our Adjusted NEP metric. Seattle was 100 points better than an average, expected defense last season when adjusting for strength of schedule, and seem poised to continue that trend this season.
The offense isn't too shabby, either. It ranks seventh in our preseason ratings, helping the Seahawks to join the Broncos as the only teams with a nERD over 10. As a result, the defending Super Bowl winners have a 10.8% chance to repeat, and a 67% chance of making the playoffs despite finding themselves in possibly the toughest division in football.
3. New Orleans Saints
With all of the focus on the Seahawks and 49ers in the NFC, it seems a lot of fans outside of Louisiana have forgotten just how good of a team the Saints have. Our metrics haven't ignored Sean Payton's team, however, and that's why they're in the third spot in our power rankings.
Their offense ranks third-best according to our numbers, a season after finishing second to the Broncos in our Adjusted NEP. Brandin Cooks replaces Darren Sproles as the "shifty short receiver", and Kenny Stills steps up to fill Lance Moore's shoes as the offense retools. But most importantly, Drew Brees continues his reign under center, where he's been the most consistent quarterback in the NFL over the past few years.
The defense is top 10 within our metrics as well, thanks to the leadership of Rob Ryan and the addition of star safety Jairus Byrd. Despite falling well short of the Broncos last year on offense, they finished with a better defense that is much better against the pass, something that would make for a very interesting matchup should the two teams meet in the Super Bowl. The Saints are one of the most well-rounded teams on paper, and figure to be key figures in the NFC playoff picture yet again in 2014.
4. New England Patriots
A wise man once said: "never count out Touchdown Tom."
Tom Brady might not ever return to his record-breaking form of a few years ago, but he and the New England Patriots are still one of the NFL's best teams, and our numbers see them as a true contender in a top-heavy AFC this season.
New England have a 74.7% chance of making the playoffs out of a very weak division, but have a 9.1% chance of winning it all, just shy of the Saints' 9.2%. And like the Saints, the Patriots are good on both sides of the ball, and adding some intriguing talent this offseason. The offense ranks in the preseason top five coming off of a fourth-place finish last year, led by Brady and a seemingly healthy Rob Gronkowski.
The defense ranks in the top 10, but the addition of Darrelle Revis could prove to be the catalyst to send the Patriots to another Super Bowl title. If he's able to impact the game as he did during his time in New York, combined with the talent all over the Patriots' roster as it's currently constructed, there may not be a better team in the NFL.
But the uncertainty about Gronkowski's health, Revis' true impact, and the skill at the receiver position keep New England at the fourth spot for now. Just don't be shocked if they're three spots higher by the end of the season.
5. San Francisco 49ers
A top-five team with a coin-flip chance of making the playoffs? When you're in the NFC West, things are never easy, but the 49ers are our fifth-best team heading into the 2014 season.
Despite the lofty ranking, the Niners only have a 49.5% chance of making the playoffs, with a projected 9-7 record. Considering that their division rivals are the Seahawks (2nd), Cardinals (11th) and Rams (19th), it's easy to see why they may struggle to find any "gimme" games this year.
Yet there are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about San Francisco. Both their offense and defense rank in the top 10, and while neither are on pace with the Seahawks, the 49ers are still one of the more balanced teams in the NFL. Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis return to haul in passes from Colin Kaepernick in an offense we see as on the rise after a 13th place finish last season in our Adjusted NEP metric.
The defense is loaded with great players and is very well coached, but there are question marks for the Niners. Are the corners good enough, and will Aldon Smith get (and stay) on the field for most of the season? The offense has its grey areas, as well, including the health of the running back position in general, and a question as to Colin Kaepernick's ability to take a step forward and provide something truly special from the quarterback position.
The 49ers are one of six NFC teams in the top 10 of our rankings, and one of eight in the top 12. So while they face a tough road to the playoffs, our metrics see them as the third-best of the bunch in their conference, and a team to keep an eye on this year.