NFL Playoff Power Rankings: A Seahawks Repeat?
And then there were 12.
We all want to believe that the best NFL teams are the ones remaining in the playoffs, but that's not always the case. Yes, good teams certainly make the postseason, but sometimes those teams aren't as worthy as squads that are on the outside looking in.
Take the Houston Texans, for example. According to our nERD metric, the Texans were a surprisingly great team this season, finishing with a 3.76 nERD -- they'd be expected to beat a league-average team by 3.76 points on a neutral field -- which was good for eighth-best in the NFL. Per our numbers, Houston was better than roughly 42% of the playoff teams this season.
The Chiefs, Bills, Dolphins and Eagles could make a case as well, but we know that games aren't won or lost through nERD -- nERD is there to be predictive and to tell us how good a team actually is versus what their win-loss record indicates.
So while the NFL's system has narrowed the league down to 12 teams based on record, remember that team record isn't always the best indicator of how good or bad a squad is. That may seem counterintuitive, but there's more to team analysis than two numbers.
With all of that being said, let's rank the remaining teams in terms of nERD and see which ones actually are the best remaining.
12. Cincinnati Bengals (17th Overall, 0.23 nERD)
The Bengals failed to win the AFC North, and they'll travel to Indianapolis this weekend as a result. Snagging the five seed in the AFC is nothing to be upset about, but the Bengals, according to our numbers, are the worst team in the playoffs.
A key reason for this is the team's passing attack, which ranked 21st in the NFL during the regular season. Quarterback Andy Dalton finished the year with a 24.54 Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) total, which ranked 20th in the NFL. This total was far worse than the 54.69 Passing NEP he posted a year ago.
The rush defense is a big reason for this low power ranking as well, which came in 26th during the regular season. That's the worst ranking of any rush defense in the playoffs.
If the Bengals make noise this year, it'll be because of Jeremy Hill (the fourth-best running back in the NFL per our metrics) and a top-notch pass defense. That means early-game leads will be huge for Cincinnati.
11. Carolina Panthers (16th Overall, 0.49 nERD)
Though the Panthers won just seven games this season, their final four contests of the year shot them up dramatically in the power rankings. Over this stretch, no team played better defense, and Cam Newton returned to his old form.
Once a weakness, the Panthers' secondary has become a strength, ranking eighth in the NFL this season in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP. The team's offensive passing attack ended the season as a middle-of-the-road one, but that came after a start of the season to forget.
The biggest weakness the Panthers have right now is running the football. Despite Cam Newton's efforts in finishing as the second-best running quarterback in the league this year, the team's ground attack ranked 24th in the NFL at season's end. If the Panthers are in a position to close games, it'll be interesting to see just how effectively they can do so.
10. Arizona Cardinals (15th Overall, 0.70 nERD)
Despite injuries at the quarterback position, Bruce Arians' Cardinals finished as the 15th-best team in the NFL per nERD, making them the 10th-best squad remaining in the playoffs.
Obviously, the strength of Arizona is on the defensive side of the ball. In terms of overall defense, the Cardinals ranked 7th in the NFL this season, led by an 11th-ranked rush defense and a 13th-ranked pass defense. They're balanced on that side of the ball, giving opposing offenses few matchups to actually exploit.
Offensively, Arizona's been, well, somewhat of a dumpster fire. The overall numbers peg them 19th on offense, but that's dropped significantly after Carson Palmer's season-ending injury. Andre Ellington's injury really didn't hurt the Cardinals, as he was the least effective runner in the NFL prior to being placed on IR.
Limiting turnovers will be key to Arizona's success, and if they advance at all in the playoffs, it will most certainly be because the defense steps up.
9. Pittsburgh Steelers (10th Overall, 3.14 nERD)
After a slow start and plenty of finger pointing, the Steelers made it back to the postseason. Traditionally, you'd expect this to be because of a top-notch defense. But this new era of Steeler football is offensively-driven, led by the number-one running back and wide receiver in football, per our Net Expected Points metrics.
Unfortunately, that top running back, Le'Veon Bell, will more than likely not play Saturday against the Ravens. As a result, Ben Roethlisberger, who's having by far the best season of his career, will be relied upon even more than usual.
Without Bell, the team's defense will need to play better ball to advance and play Denver. The secondary is now led by inexperienced corners and poor safety play, and that led to a 26th-ranked pass defense this season. The rush defense was a little better, ranking 13th, and that will be key when facing a Ravens offense that can run just as well as anyone in the NFL.
We all know, however, that if the Steelers end up going on a run, it'll be because Le'Veon Bell is healthy and playing at the high level he did all season long.
8. Indianapolis Colts (9th Overall, 3.27 nERD)
Generally speaking, the Colts have been tough to predict all year. They once owned the top-ranked offense in the league per NEP, but by the end of the season, that ranking dropped to ninth. This drop was the result of poor quarterbacking from Andrew Luck, who played 30 points below expectation over the final four games of the season. That's bottom-tier-quarterback-like.
I've already talked through why Luck, who has an amazing future and ceiling in the league, isn't as good as you probably think right now, so I won't dive much into his four-game slump. Instead, let's look at the other aspects of this team.
The rush offense ranked 27th this season according to our numbers, which may not be a surprise considering who toted the rock for them all season long. The rush defense improved slowly over the course of the year, and comes in as an average one per NEP.
Aside from standard Andrew Luck -- not the last four games version of Number 12 -- the area where the Colts are tough is in the secondary. Despite surrendering six touchdown passes to Ben Roethlisberger earlier in the season, when you adjust for strength of opponent, Indy, led by Vontae Davis, still ranked 11th against the pass this year.
In the end though, the Colts obviously need better play from Luck to find success in the postseason. He'll have a tough test on Sunday against one of the league's best secondaries.
7. Detroit Lions (7th Overall, 4.24 nERD)
Since Matthew Stafford's big 2011 season, the Lions have always tried to beat teams with their offense -- one that was led by now Cowboys passing game coordinator Scott Linehan, who loved to throw the ball 40 to 50 times per game. This season, Detroit's won games with their fourth-ranked defense.
Don't take this as the Lions can't play offensive-driven games anymore. They're still a team that likes to throw the football, finishing the 2014 season with the eighth-highest pass-to-run ratio in the NFL. And Stafford ended the year with a 65.38 Passing NEP total, the second-best of his career. The ground attack was a little below average, but in all, the Lions ranked 11th in the league in team offense.
Back to the defense though. Detroit's rush defense continued to be a force in 2014, and ended the year as the best one in the NFL. The secondary's production dipped down the stretch, but still finished as the 12th-best unit this year, per our metrics.
The Lions are balanced well, but will have a tough road ahead as the sixth seed in the NFC. Even if they beat Dallas this weekend, they'll have to travel to Seattle and try to knock off the defending Super Bowl champs.
6. Dallas Cowboys (6th Overall, 4.71 nERD)
Can we finally stop the Tony Romo hate, or does he have to win the Super Bowl before it ends? If the latter is what needs to happen for it to stop, I don't want to be on the Internet if and when the Cowboys lose.
The fact is, if not for Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo should be the league's MVP. That's not some random hot take, either -- according to our per drop back Passing NEP numbers, only Rodgers was more efficient this year. And over the last 15 seasons, Romo's per drop back NEP average comes in as the 14th-best among 200-plus attempt passers.
His season has been that good.
Clearly Romo hasn't been asked to do as much as a guy like Rodgers, as indicated by the team's third-lowest pass-to-run ratio in the NFL. DeMarco Murray and the offensive line is a huge part of the offense, and it'll be fascinating to see how they can move the ball on the ground against the aforementioned Lions this weekend.
The Cowboys defense was a surprise to start the year, but they've fallen back to Earth over the season's second half. The unit ranks 23rd per Adjusted Defensive NEP, while the pass and rush defense rank 24th and 23rd, respectively.
Make no mistake about it: Dallas' number-three offense is the reason they're in the playoffs, and it will be the reason if they go deep into it as well.
5. Baltimore Ravens (5th Overall, 5.53 nERD)
Perhaps the most surprising piece on this entire list comes in at number five, as the Ravens, per nERD, are better than all but four teams in the NFL. But when you dig into the reasons why, it kind of makes sense.
Baltimore's offense was incredibly underrated this season, ranking eighth in the league in Adjusted NEP. Surprisingly, the ground game, led by a great season from Justin Forsett, wasn't the strongest part of it. Rather, it was Joe Flacco's arm that made the offense a success.
Though the final two games of the season were a little rough on Flacco, he ended the year as the 10th-best quarterback in terms of Passing NEP, posting the highest score of his career. Much of this had to do with smarter passes under offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak's direction, as Flacco's Success Rate -- the percentage of positive Net Expected Point plays -- was by far the best of his career (49.30%).
Defensively, the Ravens can be beat through the air. They lost cornerback Jimmy Smith earlier in the year, and since, the team's pass defense has dropped nearly 10 spots in our power rankings. Strong play in the secondary will go a long way for Baltimore in this postseason.
4. New England Patriots (4th Overall, 7.68 nERD)
There's a significant gap between the top-four teams in our rankings versus the rest of the field. Not surprisingly, these four squads represent the four teams with first-round byes in the playoffs.
After a sluggish start, Tom Brady returned to his usual form this year, ending the season ranked fifth in Passing NEP. This, of course, coincided with Rob Gronkowski's return to full health. Gronk, for the record, finished as the best tight end in football analytically this year, but you probably didn't need advanced metrics to figure that out.
The Pats secondary is very strong, and should scare any passing attack in the playoffs. The rush defense was once gashed early in the season, but has rebounded nicely down the stretch and now ranks as an average one. In the end, it's very difficult to score points on New England.
There's no doubt that New England is one of the -- if not the -- best teams in the NFL. Both aspects of the offense rank in the top six, while the pass defense is a top-five unit as well. If the rush defense continues to play at an average to an above-average level, New England's going to be incredibly hard to beat.
3. Denver Broncos (3rd Overall, 8.15 nERD)
Since the end of Week 10, Peyton Manning has watched his Passing NEP score go from 130.03, the best in the league at the time, to just 167.47. The increase in 37 Net Expected Points over seven games isn't horrible, but it's certainly not Peyton Manning-like. For reference, his per game average over the team's final seven games is worse than what Joe Flacco saw throughout the 2014 season.
Fortunately for Denver, CJ Anderson has emerged as a top, legitimate runner, ending the year as numberFire's sixth-best running back. As a result, the Broncos offense still ranks second heading into the playoffs.
What often goes unnoticed for Denver, probably because they have Peyton Manning and a high-powered offense, is that the team defense is really strong as well -- both the rush and pass defenses ended the season as top-10 units.
The new-found balance on offense will be important for Denver in the playoffs. Can they still win games with Peyton Manning's arm, or will they need to rely more on the rather inexperienced CJ Anderson? If they do end up playing against New England in the AFC Championship, be prepared for the latter.
2. Green Bay Packers (2nd Overall, 8.41 nERD)
How good has Aaron Rodgers been this year? Well, since 2000, his 188.41 Passing NEP ranks 10th best among all quarterbacks. And on a per drop back basis, Rodgers' 0.34 average ranks number eight.
If he isn't the league's MVP, then I must not be watching the same game that voters are. He's been the most impactful player in football this year, and to me, it's not all that close.
The Packers come in second in our power rankings because the offense, overall, is just so much better than any other unit in the league. In fact, according to our data, it's the ninth-best one we've seen over the last 15 years.
Defensively, the Packers aren't nearly as strong. They can be beat on the ground, making it a nightmare if they have to travel to Seattle in the NFC Championship this season -- Marshawn Lynch led the league in Rushing NEP this year. Their secondary is average per our numbers, and both units, in general, have played exponentially better at home than on the road this year.
That's what will make the second round so important for Green Bay. Playing at home, if they do end up winning their first game in the playoffs, would give them a much bigger edge than if they have to travel to Seattle. Packer fans should be hoping for a big upset in Seattle next weekend.
1. Seattle Seahawks (1st Overall, 8.95 nERD)
Speaking of the Seahawks, the defending champs are still best in the league entering the playoffs. Given the way they've played over the last 10 weeks, this should surprise no one.
Russell Wilson was fantastic again this year, finishing the season as the ninth-best quarterback in the league in Total NEP. I mention Total NEP here because his rushing metrics were off-the-charts good, as he put together one of the greatest running quarterback seasons we've ever seen.
This translated into one of the best rushing offenses...ever. The duo of Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson catapulted the Seahawks' rushing offense to a 93.50 Adjusted Rushing NEP total, which is the top score of any rushing attack since 2000, beating LaDainian Tomlinson's 2006 Chargers.
Seattle's defense ranked third in the NFL at season's end, led by a pass defense that turned it on down the stretch. Both the Seahawks' pass and rush defenses rank in the top five.
Whether the Seahawks repeat or not will come down to simple execution. Nearly every part of the team is tops in the league, and although Russell Wilson's efficiency through the air dipped in this year versus last, the added rushing component still makes the offense one that can give defenses a lot of trouble. Don't be surprised to see them lifting the Lombardi once again.