NFL Power Rankings — Saints, Titans Are Sneaky Strong
Editor’s Note: NEW RANKINGS FORMULA
I rarely tinker with my rankings formula. It has proven a useful indicator of team strength, even early in the season. A few years ago I replaced yards per attempt with passer rating because of the historical significance of passer rating differential when it comes to Super Bowl winners. I also liked that it was a more holistic measure of offensive and defensive pass efficiency. More recently, I added in strength of schedule (SOS) because performance without consideration of who it was achieved against is only part of the story. I was not entirely satisfied with the formula because it left the run game almost irrelevant to the rankings.
Passer ratings range from the 60s to over 100. Yards per carry in the running game range from 2.0 to 6.0. Leaving those two numbers unweighted basically meant the running game was about 10X less important, which I don’t believe to be true. That was demonstrated this season as a team like Dallas was consistently outside the top ten in the rankings. Much of that was due to their SOS being among the worst in football, but their strong run game was not getting the credit it deserved.
I’ve updated my rankings formula, starting with the Week 11 Rankings, to increase the weighting on the run game. I will make the previous formula results available until Week 14 as a comparison, and then will phase those out. Enjoy.
The New Orleans Saints rise to #3 in the new rankings formula and #4 in the old one. How is that possible? The Saints have the third-highest passer rating, and one of the better passer rating differentials as a result. They also have a decent yards per carry differential (4.3 versus allowing 3.9). They are in positive, if not dominant, territory in point differential and have one of the harder strength of schedules (SOS) in the league. Their losses have been to the Raiders by one, at the Giants by three, to the Falcons by 13, at the Chiefs by six, to the Broncos by two, and at the Panthers by three. Each of their losses were to a top team in the league except for the Panthers. They also have a nice win over the Seahawks, on the road in San Diego, and a blowout against the stingy Rams. The Saints are having a sneaky good season that may not be rewarded with a playoff berth, but they will make their opponents sweat the rest of the way.
Atlanta made a sizable climb following their big win over Arizona. Their defense is a major achilles heel, but their offense is the best in football and their SOS is toughest in the league. If you remove the SOS factor, Dallas vaults to #2 and Atlanta falls to #3. They will be a handful for whoever has to face them in the playoffs. One of the more fascinating aspects of the numbers is that the Cowboys actually allow a higher opponent passer rating than the Falcons (101.9 vs 98.9) and similar yards per carry (4.1 vs 4.2), but Dallas somehow allows far fewer points (19.4 vs 27.5). The fundamentals of the Cowboys defense are weak. Their offense is the fourth-most efficient in the league, and their ability to control the clock with their ground game lowers the requirements of their defense. They are a team built to stay out in front. A team that could get a jump on them and take a lead would be challenging for them.
Seattle takes the second-largest plunge in the rankings, dropping 8.6 points. Only the Rams (9.4) fell further. The Seahawks only saving grace was they raised their yards per carry to put them in a positive run differential for the first time.
Watch out for the Tennessee Titans. They play the Broncos and the Chiefs the next two weeks, which seems like a mismatch. The rankings say otherwise. The Titans are held back by easiest SOS in the league, but their pure efficiency numbers suggest a team in the top five in the NFL. They run like the Cowboys without the fanfare, have their own wunderkind quarterback with a great passer rating, and have a significantly better defense statistically than Dallas. Their big drawback is points allowed. They allow five more points per game than Dallas. Only Tampa Bay has climbed higher the past three weeks than the red-hot Titans. Do not be surprised if they take over the top spot from the Texans before the seasons is over.
New Rankings Formula (increased run weighting)
Old Rankings Formula (minimal run weighting)
Scatter chart (based on new formula)
I like this view as it shows tiers of strength that develop over the course of the season.
Power rankings are always debatable. I don’t buy into the gut feel methods most places use to determine their rankings, so I developed a formula a few years back that attempts to take at least some of the subjectivity out of the discussion. My approach was simple, I measured offensive and defensive efficiency based on the Yards Per Carry (YPC) and Yards Per Attempt (YPA), as well as points scored and points allowed. The formula to calculate “Team Strength” was as follows:
The formula has proven to be a pretty accurate predictor of success (roughly 70% of the teams ranked in the Top 10 by week 3 make the playoffs), but I am always looking for ways to improve it. I read a great article on ColdHardFootballFacts.com. There was one gem in there about predicting championship teams. The article mentioned passer rating differential as the “mother of all stats.” A full 69 of 72 champions have ranked in the Top 10 in this statistic. It is a stat after my own heart, as I believe offensive and defensive efficiency is the key measurable outside of point differential. Turnovers would factor in there as well, but I am not convinced a team has as much control over that. My power rankings use YPA and YPC differentials. I went ahead and replaced the YPA with offensive and defensive passer rating, to give me this:
As of September 23, 2014, I have added a strength of schedule component to the rankings as well.
As of November 22, 2016, I have increased the weighting of the run game and point differential. Yards per carry will be multiplied by 10 to make it more evenly weighted with the passer rating. It is still roughly half as important, but will have a greater impact. Point differential will be multiplied by two as it still should be among the most important aspects of measuring teams.