All-32: NFL Power Rankings Heading Into Week 12

After weeks of seeing the Broncos on top, a new team takes the number one spot.

Week 11 was a wacky one in the NFL, and it led to the biggest shakeup atop our rankings. There’s now a new top team, and the playoff picture is becoming clearer and yet more puzzling at the same time (thank you, ties and NFC South). This week we’ll look at a few key playoff scenarios that will take place over the next few weeks.

A weekly reminder, our power rankings aren’t subjective, they’re based off our nERD scores put together by people much smarter than me. 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.

Each week, we’ll list all 32 teams from worst to best with a more detailed breakdown of five different teams. The highlighted teams will rotate each week, which will lead to each team being featured at least three times during the course of the season.

On to the Next One

32. Jacksonville Jaguars (nERD: -10.54, Record: 1-9, Last Week: 32)
31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (nERD: -8.26, 2-8, Last Week: 31)
30. Oakland Raiders (nERD: -7.89, 0-10, Last Week: 29)
29. Tennessee Titans (nERD: -7.14, 2-8, Last Week: 28)
28. St. Louis Rams (nERD: -5.45, 4-6, Last Week: 30)
27. New York Jets (nERD: -4.82, 2-8, Last Week: 25)
26. Chicago Bears (nERD: -4.77, 4-6, Last Week: 27)
25. Carolina Panthers (nERD: -4.38, 3-7-1, Last Week: 26)
24. Minnesota Vikings (nERD: -4.19, 4-6, Last Week: 23)
23. New York Giants (nERD: -3.17, 3-7, Last Week: 22)

Barely Hanging On

22. Cleveland Browns (nERD: -2.78, 6-4, Last Week: 19)
21. Atlanta Falcons (nERD: -2.65, 4-6, Last Week: 20)

It’s possible Mike Smith gets fired as the head coach of the Falcons after making the playoffs for the fifth time in his seven years coaching the team. For teams in the NFC South this season, making the playoffs appears to be more of a burden than a privilege. Heading into Week 12, every team in the division is under .500, and each team has looked the part. At 4-6, the Falcons are currently in the lead in the division, though we have them with just a 36.6 percent chance of making the playoffs behind New Orleans’ 49.7 percent.

Part of that can be credited to Atlanta’s remaining schedule. The Falcons still have road games against the Saints and Packers, while hosting games against the Browns, Cardinals, Steelers and Panthers. Only two of those teams are below Atlanta in our rankings, and Cleveland is only back one spot and 0.13 nERD.

Another part can be credited to the actual play of the Falcons so far this year. At best, Atlanta would have been a team that made up for defensive deficiencies with one of the league’s top offenses. The offense has gotten better, currently ranked ninth by Adjusted NEP, but that hasn’t been enough to make up for the 32nd-ranked defense. Atlanta’s 25.5 points per game allowed is 23rd in the league, but is helped by giving up only 17 points to the the Buccaneers and Panthers in back-to-back weeks. Again, your 2014 NFC South, ladies and gentlemen.

Outside of the recent Mike Evans emergence, neither the Buccaneers nor Panthers have been very successful throwing the ball regardless of the defense faced. That helps mask one of the biggest problems on the Falcons defense because they're the second-worst team against the pass by Defensive Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP), barely better than the Buccaneers.

At the start of the season, opposing offenses were picking on second-year cornerback Robert Alford and finding a lot of success in doing so. Alford also broke his wrist against Carolina, and is expected to miss two to four weeks. Even if Alford had been playing competently, the secondary would still be in a disadvantage due to the lack of pass rush from the defensive line. The Falcons have just 13 sacks on the year, 54 percent of which have come in two games against Josh McCown.

It would be interesting to see Atlanta’s defensive line would look like in a game going against its offensive line. The closest we might come to that in a game was last week against a Carolina defensive line that has also struggled to create pressure this season. The Panthers were able to hit Matt Ryan five times, which resulted in two sacks. Injuries along the offensive line have led to two undrafted free agents, second-year Ryan Shraeder and rookie James Stone, starting at right tackle and center. Constant pressure has been disruptive for Ryan and the offense at many points this season. While Ryan ranks ninth in Passing NEP, none of the quarterbacks in the top 10 have a lower Passing NEP per drop back.

20. Washington Redskins (nERD: -1.95, 3-7, Last Week: 17)
19. San Diego Chargers (nERD: -1.58, 6-4, Last Week: 21)
18. Cincinnati Bengals (nERD: -1.47, 6-3-1, Last Week: 24)

Frustratingly Flawed

17. Buffalo Bills (nERD: .20, 5-5, Last Week: 15)
16. San Francisco 49ers (nERD: .59, 6-4, Last Week: 18)

Without Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, the 49ers have managed to keep a top-10 defense by Adjusted NEP. Of course, five-interception games will help, but a positive sign for the defense is that it’s getting better while getting players back. Bowman has not yet returned to practice while recovering from his torn ACL, making it unclear if he will be able to play this season, but the Niners got back Aldon Smith for the first time in Week 11. In his first game back, Smith played 54 defensive snaps against the Giants with no impact on the box score. Just having him on the field will be a positive for the defense that’s seen other players step up in the first half of the season.

Smith will now join Ahmad Brooks on the outside, who has been San Francisco’s biggest pass rusher so far this season. With rookie Chris Borland tackling just about everything in sight on the inside, the 49ers are better than one would think they have any right being without two of the league’s top linebackers. Throw in the production from guys like Dan Skuta and 2014 fifth-round pick Aaron Lynch, and the 49ers have one of the deepest linebacking corps in the league.

Safety Antoine Bethea is a big reason for San Francisco’s number four ranking against the pass and number 12 against the rush. Bethea, signed as a free agent on a four-year, $21 million deal, might be one of the best signings of the offseason. Bethea is getting paid as the 21st best safety in the league, per Spotrac, but he’s playing at a much higher level. He’s a force in the secondary the 49ers had lacked in the past and his ability to play both the pass and the run has eased the responsibility on the rest of the secondary, which was perceived to be a weakness heading into the season.

The defense is going to have to step up for San Francisco to make a run to the playoffs, because the offense has not been impressive. The 49ers rank 23rd in Adjusted NEP, 19th through the air and 26th on the ground. The rushing rank in concerning, as the ground game has long been a dominant piece of the San Francisco offense. Only two running backs with at least 100 carries have a lower Rushing NEP than Frank Gore this season. The fall of Gore has been predicted so many times, as he’s practically an old-time medium waiting to get taken over by the Internet.

The podcast to Gore’s radio, Carlos Hyde, has only been marginally better with -.06 Rushing NEP per attempt compared to Gore’s -.09. The struggles for both backs are tied to the decline of the offensive line. Once one of the best lines in the league, the unit has underwhelmed both run and pass blocking this season.

San Francisco currently has a 46.9 percent chance of making the playoffs, which is currently higher than Seattle’s odds, though two games against the Seahawks still remain. While both teams are behind the Cowboys and Packers for the wild card, a split between those two games might knock both teams out of contention.

15. New Orleans Saints (nERD: .92, 4-6, Last Week: 13)
14. Pittsburgh Steelers (nERD: 1.11, 7-4, Last Week: 14)
13. Philadelphia Eagles (nERD: 1.58, 7-3, Last Week: 8)

A Step Away

12. Houston Texans (nERD: 2.86, 5-5, Last Week: 16)
11. Indianapolis Colts (nERD: 3.41, 6-4, Last Week: 2)
10. Seattle Seahawks (nERD: 3.58, 6-4, Last Week: 10)
9. Dallas Cowboys (nERD: 3.78, 7-3, Last Week: 12)
8. Kansas City Chiefs (nERD: 4.64, 7-3, Last Week: 11)

Kansas City has been incredibly efficient this season, turning unremarkable statistics into impressive wins. On their resume, the Chiefs have victories over the Patriots, Dolphins, Seahawks and Chargers (when they were good). In Week 2, Kansas City lost to the Broncos by just seven points.

Surprisingly, the Chiefs have been led by their offense this season. With so much talk about how no Kansas City wide receiver has a receiving touchdown, it would appear the passing offense as a whole would be incompetent. That hasn’t been the case, as the Chiefs’ passing game is ranked 10th by Adjusted NEP. While the passing game is still heavily reliant on running backs Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis, the overall structure of the passing game allows just enough room to succeed.

Dwayne Bowe and Travis Kelce might not have flashy numbers, as they’re ranked 40th and 42nd in Reception NEP, but their value goes deeper than that. Both Bowe and Kelce have a Success rate above 97 percent (the amount of receptions that positively impact NEP). The only player with at least 30 receptions and a higher Success Rate is Calvin Johnson, at 100 percent, because he’s Calvin Johnson.

Big plays aren’t happening in the passing game, but important ones are. Per the play index, on third downs, the Chiefs have completed 13 of 17 passes targeting Bowe and 12 of 16 targeting Kelce. All four of Kelce’s touchdowns have also come on third down. Charles has also caught 9 of 11 of his targets on third down this season. Another key has been short third downs. Of the 125 third downs Kansas City has faced this season, 71 (56.8 percent) have been with six yards or less to go.

That’s where this year’s magic of Alex Smith comes into play. Smith ranks 11th in Passing NEP, and of the quarterbacks ahead of him, only Tony Romo has dropped back fewer times. Smith is averaging fewer than 200 passing yards per game, but the amount of times he’s put the team in a position to make a mistake has been limited.

Playing this way, the Chiefs have a 85.2 percent chance of making the playoffs as at least a wild card. Now with the same record as the Broncos, and some injuries to key Denver players, the Chiefs have a 43.4 percent chance of winning the AFC West with a game against the Broncos Week 13 at Arrowhead.

7. Detroit Lions (nERD: 5.12, 7-3, Last Week: 3)
6. Baltimore Ravens (nERD: 5.33, 6-4, Last Week: 5)
5. Arizona Cardinals (nERD: 5.50, 9-1, Last Week: 7)

A Top Tier

4. Miami Dolphins (nERD: 7.01, 6-4, Last Week: 4)
3. Denver Broncos (nERD: 7.41, 7-3, Last Week: 1)
2. Green Bay Packers (nERD: 7.54, 7-3, Last Week: 9)
1. New England Patriots (nERD: 7.84, 8-2, Last Week: 6)

Let’s take a look at the Packers and Patriots, who both jumped ahead of the Broncos in the rankings this week. Denver was long the best team in football as we covered last week, but a bad loss to the Rams dropped the Broncos to number three, their lowest ranking this season. With possible looming injuries to Julius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, the door may be open for a new top team. Based on nERD, that team would be the New England Patriots, with the Green Bay Packers close behind. Both teams started off slow and have picked up with dominant play in recent weeks.

What’s gotten both of these teams to where they are at this point of the season has been the offense. The Packers are easily the top ranked offense by Adjusted NEP, but the Patriots are third with just the Colts in between. The teams rank third and fourth in passing offense by Adjusted NEP, though the two teams have gotten to those rankings differently. Green Bay has taken advantage of some shaky defenses in Chicago and Philadelphia for big plays and a lot of points. The Packers could have an even bigger lead as a pass offense if they haven’t felt the need to take their foot off the gas with huge leads in the third quarter during their past two games. The Patriots have gotten their share of big plays, but with an improvement from their offensive line, they’ve limited the amount of negative plays they had at the start of the year.

While they can be considered the two best teams in football, there’s a 10 percent difference in their playoff odds. New England currently has a 92.9 percent chance of making the playoffs, while the Packers are at 83.4 percent. These teams will meet at Lambeau Field next week, but the Packers will be hoping the Patriots will be coming into the game on a seven-game win streak.

New England will host Detroit in Week 12, with the Lions currently holding first place in the NFC North and a 54.1 percent chance of winning the division. Green Bay and Detroit won’t play again until Week 17 and the division could be wrapped up by that point. A Patriots win would give the Packers a huge boost in division odds as their opponents between the Patriots and Lions are the Falcons, Bills and Buccaneers. Even with the Packers not involved, the NFC North could take a big shift in Foxborough.