All-32: NFL Power Rankings Heading Into Week 8

How good can the St. Louis Rams be behind Todd Gurley and their defense?

Seven weeks through the NFL season, we're starting to get a clear picture of the good teams in the league. Even in these rankings there's a clear dividing line where the "okay" teams end and good ones start to appear.

But the thing is there's a lot of "okay" in the league this season, and some of those teams will be hanging around just long enough to contend for a playoff spot. Meanwhile many of the divisions are just about locked up at this point. Six divisions right now have a leader with at least 60 percent odds of winning, according to our calculations, but the other two divisions and the wild cards have just enough uncertainty to make many of the games though the second half of the season interesting even when the on-field product might not be.

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. 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.

32. Chicago Bears (nERD: -11.96, Record: 2-4, Last Week: 32)
31. San Francisco 49ers (nERD: -8.82, Record: 2-5, Last Week: 29)
30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (nERD: -7.51, Record: 2-4, Last Week: 30)

Within 60 minutes of game time there have been signs of progress and instances that set the franchise back for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. All of this came into play in Week 7 against Washington when the Buccaneers went up 24-0 before blowing the lead and losing 31-30. It would be hard for any Buccaneers fan to like that.

Kirk Cousins, and just about every other quarterback so far this season has been able to drive down the field on the Bucs' defense. Tampa Bay ranks 30th in Adjusted NEP per play defending the pass, below its ranking of 28th for overall defense. Lovie Smith’s Cover 2-based defense has continually showed itself as a fossil in the evolving age of NFL offenses, a problem exacerbated with a lead late in games when the defense plays even less aggressively than usual.

This season, opposing offenses have been able to do just about whatever they want at will against Tampa Bay’s secondary. The Bucs have the sixth highest completion percentage against and have allowed 15 passing touchdowns on only 188 attempts, an 8.0 percent touchdown rate. The Chicago Bears have allowed a touchdown on 8.2 percent of attempts, but no other defense in the NFL is above 6.8 percent.

All of this has been done while Tampa has seen one of the lowest pass-to-run ratios in the league on defense. Only three teams have seen more rushing attempts per pass, yet Tampa’s league-average rank of 17th against the run by Adjusted NEP per play means much less when so many big plays are given up through the air.

29. Jacksonville Jaguars (nERD: -7.50, Record: 2-5, Last Week: 31)
28. Oakland Raiders (nERD: -6.06, Record: 3-3, Last Week: 28)
27. Houston Texans (nERD: -5.89, Record: 2-5, Last Week: 25)
26. Detroit Lions (nERD: -5.67, Record: 1-6, Last Week: 26)
25. Cleveland Browns (nERD: -4.68, Record: 2-5, Last Week: 22)
24. Indianapolis Colts (nERD: -4.55, Record: 3-4, Last Week: 23)
23. Tennessee Titans (nERD: -3.54, Record: 1-5, Last Week: 27)
22. New Orleans Saints (nERD: -2.54, Record: 3-4, Last Week: 21)

New Orleans continues to be one of the most puzzling teams in the league. The Saints have lost to Tampa Bay and looked awful against the Eagles but played close against the Panthers and beat both the Falcons and Colts. We can probably peg the Colts as a bad team instead of holding them to preseason expectations (see their ranking, 24th), but while many can also make fun of the NFC, the Panthers and Falcons have played well this season -- the former more than the latter.

Still, the Saints continue to be in an unappealing purgatory, not good enough to contend and not bad enough to bottom outcompletely. The team looked like it could be heading toward a top pick in the draft, but play in the last few weeks has showed they’re nowhere near as bad as the league’s worst teams.

None of the means the Saints are playing particularly well, though. In fact, they’re the about the same Saints we’ve seen for the past few years. New Orleans ranks 31st in Adjusted NEP per play on defense and is carried to its mediocrity by the eighth best offense. Drew Brees has faded a little from his top-level status but still ranks 12th among quarterbacks in Passing NEP. He’s found new weapons in Willie Snead and 34-year-old Benjamin Watson, the latter surprisingly filling the void left by Jimmy Graham, ranking sixth among tight ends in Reception NEP.

New Orleans would probably be the best team in the AFC South this season -- by our rankings, that holds true -- and this version of the team could have been the best team in the 2014 edition of the NFC South. They won’t contend for a playoff spot this season -- just a 12.2 percent chance -- but the offense might lead the team to be just mediocre enough that the band stays together next season, and that might be the worst place the Saints can be.

21. Dallas Cowboys (nERD: -2.47, Record: 2-4, Last Week: 17)
20. Baltimore Ravens (nERD: -2.38, Record: 1-6, Last Week: 24)
19. New York Giants (nERD: -1.75, Record: 4-3, Last Week: 18)
18. Washington Redskins (nERD: -1.50, Record: 3-4, Last Week: 16)
17. Miami Dolphins (nERD: -1.23, Record: 3-3, Last Week: 19)
16. San Diego Chargers (nERD: -0.99, Record: 2-5, Last Week: 15)
15. Kansas City Chiefs (nERD: -0.88, Record: 2-5, Last Week: 20)
14. Minnesota Vikings (nERD: 0.52, Record: 4-2, Last Week: 14)

An ugly loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1 threw many off the hype surrounding the Minnesota Vikings as a potential playoff team. But, quietly, the Vikings have pulled themselves back into the conversation with a 4-2 record after six games. Minnesota has a 40 percent chance of making the playoffs per our odds, but they still haven’t been talked about much as a contender. This could be because there’s not one thing the Vikings do particularly well -- the Vikings rank no higher than 11th in any category by Adjusted NEP per play on offense and defense and only rank below 16th in passing offense.

Even the passing offense, which ranks 23rd by Adjusted NEP per play, has potential as the season progresses. Teddy Bridgewater has not yet hit lofty expectations placed on him entering his second season -- guilty party here -- but he’s found a groove with Stefon Diggs, whose 1.00 Reception NEP per target ranks sixth among players with at least 20 targets this season.

A few players outside of Bridgewater have also not met expectations, which could also play into the relative anonymity the Vikings have seen so far. While the Vikings’ rushing offense ranks 11th in Adjusted NEP per play, that hasn’t come from Adrian Peterson. Among the 12 running backs with at least 100 carries this season, only Matt Forte has a worse Rushing NEP than the former league MVP. Xavier Rhodes also hasn’t quite developed into the shutdown corner many were expecting, but the Vikings still rank 11th against the pass.

There’s still potential here, and the Vikings are failing to meet expectations by being above average instead of really good. With matchups against Chicago, St. Louis and Oakland upcoming, some of that potential could come out before a Week 11 meeting with the Packers.

13. Philadelphia Eagles (nERD: 3.13, Record: 3-4, Last Week: 12)
12. St. Louis Rams (nERD: 3.14, Record: 3-3, Last Week: 13)

Jeff Fisher must be in heaven. A great defense and run game can lead the Rams to all the 13-10 victories his heart desires. The defense the Rams have built is no joke: the unit ranks third in Adjusted NEP per play behind the Broncos and Jets. The Rams are also third against the pass thanks to a boom-or-bust secondary that’s been a little more boom so far and a defensive line that excels at getting to the quarterback.

The Rams are allowing the highest completion percentage in the league to opposing quarterbacks at 72.5 percent, but they have given up only 5 passing touchdowns. The 2.4 percent touchdown rate is the third lowest in the league behind only the Broncos and Panthers. Much of the effectiveness the Rams have seen in pass defense is thanks to the pass rush. While offenses are completing a high number of passes against St. Louis, many are on short routes designed to get the ball out quickly and avoid getting hit by Aaron Donald. Donald leads the team with 4.5 sacks and Robert Quinn trails closely behind with 4. At 9.2 percent, the Rams have the second best sack rate in the league.

All of this is really burying the lede, though. The real story is Todd Gurley. St. Louis ranks just 24th in Adjusted NEP per play on the ground, but that is surely to go up with the more games Gurley plays. Gurley current ranks seventh among running backs in Rushing NEP, which is remarkable as he’s really been the only threat of offense for the Rams as of late. Nick Foles has gotten worse by the week and currently ranks as the worst quarterback in the league by Passing NEP, but Gurley’s ability to break tackles and long runs could keep this offense afloat if the defense can continue to play at its current level.

11. Buffalo Bills (nERD: 3.21, Record: 3-4, Last Week: 7)
10. Denver Broncos (nERD: 3.86, Record: 6-0, Last Week: 11)
9. Pittsburgh Steelers (nERD: 4.25, Record: 4-3, Last Week: 4)
8. Atlanta Falcons (nERD: 4.39, Record: 6-1, Last Week: 10)
7. Seattle Seahawks (nERD: 4.70, Record: 3-4, Last Week: 6)
6. Green Bay Packers (nERD: 4.93, Record: 6-0, Last Week: 8)
5. Carolina Panthers (nERD: 5.88, Record: 6-0, Last Week: 9)

The Carolina Panthers are officially good. It’s probably safe to say that now. They’re not quite 6-0 good -- Carolina's point differential suggests a 4.2 win team -- but they’re still clearly among the better teams in football. While Cam Newton has gotten most of the praise for the team’s play, this improvement from last season has been a group effort.

This isn’t to diminish anything Newton has accomplished this year. He’s gotten the most out of a lackluster supporting cast and has been a major key in keeping the offense afloat, but in reality Newton isn’t doing much more than he’s done in previous seasons when he’s been vastly underrated. Newton only ranks 21st in Passing NEP among quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs this season, and he’s third among all players in Rushing NEP.

What’s getting overshadowed in Newton’s play so far this season has been the adequacy of the offensive line. The line -- which has seen Michael Oher on the field for 100 percent of its offensive snaps -- was expected to be one of the team’s biggest weaknesses heading into the season. The Panthers have only allowed 11 sacks this season, tied for the sixth fewest in the league. Newton’s rushing ability certainly helps, but Russell Wilson is a mobile quarterback, too, and Seattle leads the league with 31 sacks allowed. There’s a case here for line continuity helping, as no starting lineman has played fewer than 99.3 percent of the offensive snaps. The line has also helped create some hole for Jonathan Stewart, who has been impressive over his past two games, and the Panthers rank second in Adjusted NEP per play on the ground.

But like most successful Panthers seasons throughout the franchise’s history, the defense has played a significant role. The Panthers rank seventh in Adjusted NEP per play on defense, and that was without Luke Kuechly for three games. Carolina has excelled in the secondary with the second best pass defense by Adjusted NEP per play. Josh Norman has played a large role there, breaking out as one of the league’s best cornerbacks, already with four interceptions, and now forcing teams to gameplan around avoiding him in coverage.

4. New York Jets (nERD: 6.39, Record: 4-2, Last Week: 5)
3. Cincinnati Bengals (nERD: 7.57, Record: 6-0, Last Week: 3)
2. New England Patriots (nERD: 9.13, Record: 6-0, Last Week: 2)
1. Arizona Cardinals (nERD: 13.02, Record: 5-2, Last Week: 1)