NFL Playoff Power Rankings: The Cardinals Are the Team to Beat
When it comes to playoff systems, the NFL has a good one.
There's a balance of division winners and wild card teams. The conference's best squads get a first-round bye.
But it's not -- and never will be -- a perfect system.
Sometimes, good teams get left out, and sometimes, weak teams (i.e. not one of the 12 best teams in the league) make the cut.
Look no further than the New York Jets, who finished the season ranked eighth in our power rankings. Our rankings, by the way, are based on nERD, which compares a team to expectation level. The Jets, who finished 10-6, owned a nERD of 4.4, meaning they should have expected to beat a league average opponent on a neutral field by about four to five points.
How do the teams who actually made the postseason rank?
12. Washington (14th Overall, 1.38 nERD)
According to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which compares a player to expectation level, Kirk Cousins was the league's sixth-best quarterback. He added 136.29 points above expectation on his drop backs and 9.72 more with his legs.
As a team, though, Washington ranked 30th in overall rushing efficiency this year after adjusting for schedule strength. A 23rd-ranked pass defense and an 13th-ranked run defense combined to give them just the 17th-best defense overall, the worst ranking of any playoff team. Aside from the passing game, the team showed a lot of weaknesses, relative to their playoff peers.
11. Houston Texans (12th Overall, 2.01 nERD)
Much of the Texans' success came from DeAndre Hopkins, who finished fourth among all players in Reception NEP. Basically, he was the fourth-best receiver in football this year. That's despite playing on the 27th-best passing offense after adjusting for schedule strength, the worst in the playoff group.
Of course, their defense wound up 3rd overall in our rankings, thanks to a 10th-ranked rushing defense and the 3rd-best passing defense in the NFL. These strengths will have to mask the 26th-best rushing attack in the NFL this year if they hope to make a playoff push.
10. Green Bay Packers (11th Overall, 2.17 nERD)
This isn't the same Packers squad as it was in past years, but they did still will themselves to the 12th-best schedule-adjusted offense in the NFL. Aaron Rodgers actually ranked 22nd in Passing Net Expected Points this year, just one year removed from leading the league and posting a top-10 season since 2000 in terms of Total NEP.
The defense actually finished 11th overall, mainly because of their 9th-ranked pass defense. Green Bay finished just 26th in rushing defense, by far the worst rank of all playoff teams. Thankfully for them, they get a first-round matchup against Washington, whose rushing woes are well-documented.
9. Minnesota Vikings (10th Overall, 2.45 nERD)
Behind Teddy Bridgewater, who finished fifth in rushing points above expectation among quarterbacks, and a top-seven running back in the metric, the Vikings wound up with the second-best rushing offense in the NFL this year. That running back was actually Jerick McKinnon. Adrian Peterson finished 14th.
Bridgewater did, however, rank just 29th in Passing NEP. Keep that in mind as we move forward.
8. Denver Broncos (9th Overall, 3.87 nERD)
If you told me before the season that the Broncos would have finished 28th in overall offensive efficiency, 25th in passing efficiency, and still wound up with the 1 seed in the AFC, I never would have believed it. But that's the kind of thing that can happen when you own the league's best defense.
Denver finished with an Adjusted Defensive NEP of -80.31, meaning they denied 80 points from their opponents. Second-place Carolina was at -35.60. Yeah, that's how they finished 12-4. Thanks to homefield advantage, they own a 9.2 percent chance to win the championship, second-best among AFC teams.
7. Kansas City Chiefs (7th Overall, 5.41 nERD)
Speaking of good defenses, Kansas City (-28.93) finished fourth overall. They were ninth in rushing defense and fourth in passing defense. Combine this with the third-best rushing attack in the NFL, and you have a candidate to control a playoff game -- especially against a team that struggles rushing the ball like the Texans.
Even without Jamaal Charles, this Chiefs team has a lot of the right components to compete for the Lombardi Trophy.
6. Cincinnati Bengals (6th Overall, 6.61 nERD)
Remember what I said about not believing things if I knew the Broncos would finish like they did? Well, the Bengals enter the playoffs with the second-best passing attack in the NFL, based on our metrics. Even with his missed time, Andy Dalton finished fifth in Passing Net Expected Points and led the NFL on a per-drop-back basis.
Tyler Eifert led all tight ends in per-target Reception NEP among those with at least 40 targets on the year. This passing offense combined with a top-10 defense could make some noise, provided Dalton returns healthy and as good as he was this year.
5. New England Patriots (5th Overall, 6.96 nERD)
Even with all of his missing pieces for some time -- Dion Lewis, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, LeGarrette Blount, Brandon LaFell, and on and on -- Tom Brady finished second in passing efficiency this year.
Unfortunately, their defense doesn't stand out in any particular area (12th overall, 13th against the pass, and 11th against the run). They're a well-rounded squad with a modest rushing attack, but health will be the key factor for them. The first-round bye should help, and their 13.6 percent chance to win it all is best among AFC teams and third overall.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (4th Overall, 8.34 nERD)
Pittsburgh eked into the playoffs because the Jets are the Jets. They boast the fourth-best offense in the NFL (third-best among playoff teams) -- and they had balance, ranking seventh in passing and fifth in rushing efficiency.
They did have top-11 units on defense, too. The Steelers finished 11th against the pass despite some shaky cornerback play and were 5th against the run. Cincinnati, their first-round opponent, was 20th in rushing efficiency, so this could be a key component to the wild card game. Despite the nERD ranking's suggestion that they're the best AFC team, they own a 6.4 percent chance to win the Super Bowl, third-highest among AFC teams.
3. Carolina Panthers (3rd Overall, 9.26 nERD)
Carolina didn't complete the perfect season, but they did finish with the 2nd-best defense and pass defense (in addition to a 12th-ranked rushing defense).
Even with a thin receiving corps and an injured Jonathan Stewart, they ranked seventh in offensive efficiency. With Cam Newton leading the league in Rushing NEP by a pretty decent margin (his 41.20 was about six points better than second-best), Carolina wound up fourth in adjusted rushing efficiency, giving them a stout defense and a hard-to-stop rushing attack. Their 19.4 percent chance to win it all is second highest in the playoffs.
2. Seattle Seahawks (2nd Overall, 10.17 nERD)
Seattle is only the 6 seed in the NFC, but our metrics have been high on them all year. Their early losses dented their record, but they were never really as bad as the win/loss column made it seem.
Remember how Teddy Bridgewater was barely a top-30 passer this year? That's bad news for the Vikings, as the Seahawks rank fifth against the pass.
On the other side of the ball, Russell Wilson and Doug Baldwin guided Seattle to the fourth-best passing offense in the NFL. Despite the 6 seed, they have a 7.5 percent chance to win the Super Bowl, fifth best among all remaining teams.
1. Arizona Cardinals (1st Overall, 13.11 nERD)
Arizona has lived at the top of our power rankings for just about the whole season. And for good reason.
They owned the best offense (their 214.30 schedule-adjusted NEP blew second-place New Orleans' 172.28 out of the water), and Carson Palmer led them to the best passing efficiency in the NFL.
They owned the seventh-best defense overall, the third-best run defense, and the eighth-best pass defense. That's why they have a 26.7 percent chance to win it all, by far the highest among all teams.