NFL Power Rankings — Falcons Leapfrog Patriots for Top Spot


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.





The Atlanta Falcons offense is not getting anywhere near the credit it deserves this year. Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott, and the Cowboys offensive line dominates the headlines, and whatever oxygen is left is spent talking about Tom Brady and the Patriots. It is the Falcons, though, who are averaging 33.5 points per game this year. The next closest team is the Saints at 29.1, over four points per game behind! This offense is historically prolific. Should they score 25 points against the Saints at home this week, they will become the third-highest scoring offense in history, trailing only the 2013 Denver Broncos and the 2007 New England Patriots.

They have been doing a lot of their damage lately without Julio Jones. That should be increasing the chances that Matt Ryan wins the MVP, but again, nobody is talking about him the way they talk about the Cowboys rookies. It is interesting that the Seahawks have defeated both the #1 and #2 teams on the rankings. They have also lost to the 31st team.

Strength of schedule is what puts the Falcons ahead of the Patriots. Atlanta has faced one of the toughest schedules in the NFL, while the Patriots have faced one of the easiest. Dallas is the same. If you are looking for truly battle-tested teams headed to the playoffs, cast your gaze to the Falcons, the Steelers, the Chiefs, and the Raiders. Each faced one of the ten toughest schedules in the league.

That Patriots #1 scoring defense? They have faced exactly one offense ranked in the top ten, and that was the flawed Buffalo Bills. Seattle? They faced five of the top ten offenses, including the Falcons, Patriots, Saints, Packers, and Bills. Add two games against the the Cardinals and seven of the Seahawks 16 games will come against top eleven scoring offenses. That Patriots defense deserves some skepticism.

A bigger question in the playoffs might be whether the Falcons or Cowboys defense is better. Points allowed clearly favors the Cowboys, but they played a far easier schedule. Don’t bet against Dan Quinn. The Steelers would appear to be the Patriots biggest threat in the AFC after the Derek Carr injury. The Chiefs have a better defense, but it’s so hard to imagine Alex Smith beating Tom Brady in any game that matters.

If Seahawks fans want some hope, the Saints remain one of the top ten teams in the rankings, and have one of the few offenses that can hang with the Falcons. The Saints defense has improved dramatically from the start of the year, and is roughly equivalent to the Falcons. An upset is not completely out of the question.



Scatter chart

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:

(YPC (offense) + YPA (offense) + Avg Pts/Game Scored) – (YPC (defense) + YPA (defense)+ Avg Pts/Game Allowed)

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 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:

(YPC (offense) + Passer Rating (offense) + Avg Pts/Game Scored) – (OPP YPC (defense) + OPP Passer Rating (defense)+ OPP Avg Pts/Game)

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.