All-32: NFL Power Rankings Heading Into Week 3
We're through two weeks of the 2015 NFL season. While that gives us more data to work with than it did following Week 1, it by no means tells us what we should expect for the rest of the season.
There's some surprising teams entering Week 2 winless, such as the Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles, while others like the New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers just as surprisingly remain unbeaten. These types of starts can certainly help or hurt a playoff case early in the season, but there's still plenty of time for the true talent levels of these teams to come through. That likelihood is what these rankings show each week.
Unlike many other rankings across the internet, these are not some subjective rankings by a writer -- trust me, those would be way worse. Instead we use nERD, which 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. For the early part of the season, the nERD score still incorporates some data from last season and our preseason projections. As the season progresses and a larger sample of games play out, the nERD scores will be a closer representation to a team’s play this season.
Throughout the rankings we’ll also be using our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which is used as part of the nERD score. NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data.
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 around three times during the course of the season.
Not Entirely Hopeless
32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (nERD: -9.40, Record: 1-1, Last Week: 32)
31. Chicago Bears (nERD: -8.78, Record: 0-2, Last Week: 29)
30. Oakland Raiders (nERD: -7.50, Record: 1-1, Last Week: 31)
29. Jacksonville Jaguars (nERD: -5.65, Record: 1-1, Last Week: 30)
And here we have it, the AFC South leading Jacksonville Jaguars. Thanks to an 0-2 start from the Indianapolis Colts, the Jags now have a 20.1 percent chance of making the playoffs, which while still just the 24th best probability in the league, is higher than teams like the Giants, Lions and Ravens. An early win isn’t a sign everything is suddenly going to turn around for Jacksonville, but it’s one of the best signs this team has seen in awhile. Last year the Jaguars didn’t get higher than 32nd in our rankings until Week 17, and that was only to 31st.
Week 2’s win against Miami did not appear to be flukey, either. Sure they had to drive down and kick a field goal to win with under a minute left in the game, but for a majority of the game the Jaguars outplayed the Dolphins. Maybe that says more about the Dolphins (more on them later), but this Jaguars team is already an improvement upon last season. The Jaguars are getting a lot of help from their defense, which through two games ranks 10th in overall Adjusted Defensive NEP. Much of that comes from a stout run defense, which ranks second. Neither the Dolphins nor the Panthers in Week 1 ran often, but so far the Jaguars have held opponents to 2.9 yards per carry.
Then, of course, there’s arguably the brightest spot on the Jacksonville roster, receiver Allen Robinson. There are some quarterbacks in the NFL who can make credible wide receivers out of whoever is on the receiving end of passes. Then there are receivers who can transcend the quarterback’s ability, and Robinson has become one of those receivers. He’s currently 13th in Reception NEP through two weeks, and his route running and ability to win at the catch point could keep him there throughout the season even with Blake Bortles throwing the passes.
28. Tennessee Titans (nERD: -3.56, Record: 1-1, Last Week: 25)
27. Cleveland Browns (nERD: -3.30, Record: 1-1, Last Week: 27)
26. Minnesota Vikings (nERD: -2.92, Record: 1-1, Last Week: 26)
25. Washington Redskins (nERD: -2.74, Record: 1-1, Last Week: 28)
Digging A Hole
24. Detroit Lions (nERD: -1.77, Record: 0-2, Last Week: 22)
23. Houston Texans (nERD: -1.30, Record:0-2, Last Week: 20)
22. New York Giants (nERD: -1.17, Record: 0-2, Last Week: 21)
Two weeks into the season and the New York Giants are already underperforming their Pythagorean win expectation by almost a full win. Clearly it’s a small sample, but the Giants have played in two close games, ones in which they held a lead in the final two minutes of the game. The Giants could easily be 2-0 and in the driver’s seat of a depleting NFC East, but more likely we would expect them to at least be 1-1 (0.9-1.1 to be exact) through these two games. With the two early losses the Giants still have our lowest odds of making the playoffs in the NFC East, with only five teams only having a lower playoff probability overall.
While the Giants could easily be 2-0, that does not mean they’ve played particularly well. As the 22nd ranking in nERD suggests, the Giants aren’t some great team with unfortunate results like the Seahawks, who still rank highly.
Instead, the Giants have been a mediocre team outside of Odell Beckham. Beckham is 8th in Reception NEP through two weeks, but is slacking by only averaging 95 receiving yards per game opposed to the 108.8 he averaged in his rookie season. Eli Manning has continued his steady pace in 2015, currently ranking 14th in Passing NEP, but more importantly he’s thrown zero interceptions. While his efficiency has not been great so far this season, that could increase by not wasting 15.7 percent of his passes targeting Preston Parker.
The weakness of the Giants has been the defense, which currently ranks 26th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. The secondary was able to hold Julio Jones to short receptions -- though there were plenty of receptions made -- in Week 2 until the last drive of the game, but that last drive did happen. The last drive also happened against Dallas when the Cowboys were able to drive down the field at will. Some of that could be a turn to conservative coverages late in games with leads -- it's not an unfamiliar tactic for the defense regardless of the coordinator and is not an encouraging sign for the future.
21. St. Louis Rams (nERD: -1.02, Record: 1-1, Last Week: 17)
20. San Francisco 49ers (nERD: -0.98, Record: 1-1, Last Week: 12)
19. New Orleans Saints (nERD: -0.48, Record: 0-2, Last Week: 24)
18. Atlanta Falcons (nERD: 0.04, Record: 2-0, Last Week: 23)
17. Indianapolis Colts (nERD: 0.17, Record: 0-2, Last Week: 15)
16. San Diego Chargers (nERD: 0.56, Record: 1-1, Last Week: 18)
15. Miami Dolphins (nERD: 0.83, Record: 1-1, Last Week: 14)
Under the coordination of Bill Lazor, the Miami offense was supposed to be a version of Chip Kelly’s system in Philadelphia. Through the first two games, though, the Dolphins look more like a kid who read the CliffsNotes version of the Kelly offense and is now trying to take the test. Miami’s offensive efficiency has been just around league average -- 17th by Adjusted NEP per play -- but that’s underwhelming considering the offensive talent on the roster.
The Dolphins have a deep group of receivers, which can pose the problem of getting all of those players an acceptable amount of targets. So far the Dolphins have approached this problem by sacrificing Lamar Miller and the run game. Miami has the fifth highest pass-to-run ratio in the league through two weeks despite playing in two relatively close games. Miller has just 24 carries through two games, though he hasn’t done much when he’s been given the ball. Among the 43 players with at least 15 rushing attempts this season, only nine have a worse Rushing NEP than Miller. It’s certainly a small sample -- Marshawn Lynch and Adrian Peterson are among players below Miller -- but it’s not a great sign for the offense if the Dolphins continue to be so quick to abandon the run. Actually, this looks quite like the 2015 Chip Kelly offense.
Then there’s the defense that’s already been making headlines. Reports coming out of Miami are already painting Ndamukong Suh negatively, stating he’s been freelancing instead of following specific play calls. Whatever he’s doing has brought mixed results. The Dolphins rank 16th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play, a category Suh was brought in to shore up. With a weak linebacking corps behind them, the defensive line is going to have to get better stopping the run before it gets to the second level.
14. Philadelphia Eagles (nERD: 1.14, Record: 0-2, Last Week: 11)
13. Baltimore Ravens (nERD: 2.05, Record: 0-2, Last Week: 10)
Better Than Expected
12. Kansas City Chiefs (nERD: 2.48, Record: 1-1, Last Week: 9)
11. New York Jets (nERD: 2.80, Record: 2-0, Last Week: 16)
10. Carolina Panthers (nERD: 3.16, Record: 2-0, Last Week: 13)
9. Buffalo Bills (nERD: 3.24, Record: 1-1, Last Week: 8)
8. Pittsburgh Steelers (nERD: 3.37, Record: 1-1, Last Week: 19)
We knew Pittsburgh’s offense could be good, and they showed that potential in Week 2 against the San Francisco 49ers. Especially early in the season our numbers really like blowouts, which is a reason why the Steelers jumped all the way to 8th in nERD rankings despite having the 29th best defense by Adjusted NEP per play.
The great offense/bad defense balancing act is something the Steelers will have to manage throughout the season. If they can keep scoring 43 points on opponents, they might not have to worry about the defense as much, but that’s an unlikely scenario. What should be scary for opposing defenses, though, is the current ability for the Pittsburgh offense that has not yet included Le'Veon Bell or Martavis Bryant. Ben Roethlisberger currently leads the league in both Passing NEP and Passing NEP per drop back with Darrius Heyward-Bey acting as the team’s third target, so it can be safe to assume this offense should get even better.
What’s potentially more interesting about the Steelers offense this season is the propensity to go for two-point conversions after touchdowns. 15 teams have attempted a two-point conversion this season and the Steelers are the only team in the league to go for it more than twice. While three attempts may not seem like much on the surface, that’s quite a few for only two games and not a result of trying to come back from a deficit.
Pittsburgh is also going for conversions early, trying in the first quarter of Sunday’s game against San Francisco. The Steelers are the team best situated to take advantage of the new extra point rule after Week 1 thanks to an above average ability to convert and a below average kicker, and it appears they’re actually doing it. While Tomlin stated this week, his tendency to go for two is still feel based and not due to analytics, it should be a positive thing for the Steelers that Tomlin’s gut and analytics are on the same page, even if it’s not on purpose.
7. Dallas Cowboys (nERD: 3.85, Record: 2-0, Last Week: 7)
6. Cincinnati Bengals (nERD: 4.07, Record: 2-0, Last Week: 5)
5. New England Patriots (nERD: 4.30, Record: 2-0, Last Week: 4)
4. Seattle Seahawks (nERD: 4.79, Record: 0-2, Last Week: 1)
3. Denver Broncos (nERD: 6.37, Record: 2-0, Last Week: 2)
2. Green Bay Packers (nERD: 6.97, Record: 2-0, Last Week: 3)
1. Arizona Cardinals (nERD: 7.15, Record: 2-0, Last Week: 6)
So many signs before the start of the season pointed to regression for the Arizona Cardinals. They were an incredibly lucky 11-5 team last season and a tough division made it unlikely they would reach that record again. Then the Cardinals handedly defeated their first two opponents and looked like the best team in football. While they look the part, our numbers are giving them that title too.
Arizona’s offense has been a big reason for the surge up to the top of the rankings. While it’s easy to write off the play as coming against bad defenses in New Orleans and Chicago, the Cardinals blew both of teams out, something great teams are expected to do with bad opponents. Even after adjusting for opponent, the Cardinals offense ranks second in the league on a per play basis behind Pittsburgh. Carson Palmer is second behind Roethlisberger in Passing NEP and Passing NEP per drop back. Not only is Palmer playing as one of the best in the league, he's brought Larry Fitzgerald with him, who currently ranks second in Reception NEP, thanks to his three-touchdown performance against Chicago.
Unlike the Steelers, though, the Cardinals have the defense to back up the stellar play of the offense. Again it’s only been two games, but Arizona ranks seventh in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. That’s a promising start for a defense that lost coordinator Todd Bowles to a head coaching job during the offseason.
The Cardinals don’t appear to be an early season mirage either, and they could have some staying power. Before a bye in Week 9, the Cardinals play the 49ers, Rams, Lions, Steelers, Ravens and Browns. Only one of those teams ranks higher than 20th in nERD through two weeks. These rankings are always subject to chance on a weekly basis -- that’s why this article exists -- but Arizona is already set up for a favorable first half and to continue being one of the top teams in the league.