NFL Rankings, Week 7

Effect of lockout
What does The Power Rank say?
Have good leadership

Through the first six weeks of the season the results are decidedly lopsided.

Some of you faithful of The Power Rank are scratching your heads and thinking “Tom is off his rocker this week, doesn’t he remember that the average of all The Power Rank ratings always equals zero”? Even more of you must think I am insane, as the Power Rank shows that 18 teams have a rating over zero, while only 14 are below that magical mean.

But there is more to The Power Rank than just averages.  To illustrate the lopsidedness of the league so far this season I created the following graph which shows the distribution of NFL teams by their rating (rounded to the nearest integer):

As you can see, the “0” row, which should be at the center of the main bulk of the teams, is actually closer to the high side of the middle of the main pack of teams.  The reason for this are the transcendent outliers, the top three teams:  #1 New England (10.63), #2 Green Bay (10.11), and #3 Baltimore (9.27).  These three teams have been so consistent and solid that the Power Rank shows them as head-and-shoulders above all other competitors.

To be fair, there is a team that is as transcendentally bad as the top three are good (Sorry Temple).  The Rams (#32, -9.68) are just struggling as a franchise even though the recent acquisition of Brandon Lloyd may provide the team with a target for Sam Bradford and the spark they have been missing.  Until that turnaround happens St. Louis is still stuck in their hole far below the rest of the Power Rank field.

After removing these outliers the mean of the remaining 28 teams drops from 0 to -0.76, a fairly significant drop in Power Rank terms.  Only six pairs of teams in the Power Rank are separated by a rating gap of more than 0.76:

#2 Green Bay (10.11) and #3 Baltimore (9.27)

#3 Baltimore (9.27) and #4 Detroit (6.58)

#5 San Francisco and (6.12) and #6 New York Jets (4.08)

#19 Washington (-0.28) and #20 Atlanta (-1.50)

#21 New York Giants (-1.64) and #22 Minnesota (-3.44)

#31 Kansas City (-6.93) and #32 St. Louis (-9.68)

0.76 rating points are significant enough that adding them to #18 Philadelphia (0.24) would move them four steps higher to #14, just ahead of current #14 Chicago (0.98).

To make matters worse, emergent powerhouses Detroit (#4, 6.58) and San Francisco (#5, 6.12) are stranded somewhere in the no-man’s-land between the blob of average teams and the island of Super Bowl favorites.  Personally I think they belong with the majority of teams, but we may have some Lions or Niners faithful in the audience that would beg to differ.  To please those fans, I also calculated the average ratings of only the yellow teams, making the assumption that the Lions and Niners are poised to continue their meteoric rises to join the ranks of the Patriots, Packers, and Ravens.

The average rating of the 26 yellow teams comes out to an unimpressive -1.27, a full half a point lower than the average with Detroit and San Francisco in the group.  That means that the average performance rate of the yellow teams fall somewhere between the Redskins (formerly) Grossman powered team, and the Atlanta Failcons.

A lot of people went in to this season expecting chaos due to the lockout, players not being ready, and teams being in turmoil with new staff unable to get familiar with their athletes.  I think what we are seeing here is a graphic representation of that chaos.  The teams at the very top (New England, Green Bay, and Baltimore) all have had very few roster and organizational changes between this year and last.  Stadium lockouts didn’t prevent Aaron Rodgers from calling a captain’s practice with Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson.  I’d bet my left hand that Ray Lewis was on top of his teammates, making sure they stayed fit and ready to come back and win.

On the other hand teams without strong veteran leadership, teams that made significant roster moves (Eagles), and especially teams that are under new head coaches have been left adrift in this sea of yellow.  One thing is certain.  12 teams are going to be in the playoffs.  It is likely that the cream of the early crop, the teams highlighted in blue and green, will make the cut.  But that will leave seven spots for teams from the yellow blob of mediocrity.

Are the 2-3 Cowboys (#7, 3.86) a playoff team?  Their record would suggest that they are not.  In fact, their record is tied with the #31 Chiefs (-6.93).  And what about the future of the 4-2 Giants (#21, -1.64)?  The Power Rank is not impressed, but they are getting wins.

Keep your eyes open.  The surprises of the 2011 season are just beginning, and truly anything can happen.  Just ask the Bengals and their newly gained draft picks…

NFL Rankings, Week 5

Okay New England, we get it.  You’re good at football.  And St. Louis, it is likely that you’re already thinking more about the race to acquire Andrew Luck than the race to make the playoffs.  But today I’m not interested in the highs and lows of The Power Rank, I’m taking a shot at it’s sweet, juicy center.

To get a look at what truly constitutes the center of the Power Rank grouping, I used a mathematical formula for Standard Deviation, something that defines the variation from the mean (or average) in a data set.  If you’re enough of a nerd to not stick your tongue out at that definition and want to know more, you can look at Wikipedia’s explanation.

If you’re like me and most math classes made you go crossed-eyed and start drooling on yourself, all you really have to understand is that the bulk of a group (about 68%) falls within 1 standard deviation of the mean on either side, and that the bulk of the remainder (about 27%, for a total of 95% of the whole) falls within 2 standard deviations of the mean.

In other words, teams whose rating falls within 1 standard deviation of the mean (always 0.0 for the Power Rank) are all horribly mediocre.  Ok, that’s my inner pessimist coming out.  A more optimistic view for Eagles and Falcons fans might be to say that they are “on the bubble” when it comes to elite NFL teams (or horrible NFL teams, but we won’t dwell on that).  On the other hand, teams that exceed 2 standard deviations of distance from the mean are truly in a class of their own, either high class or low class depending on which side of the curve they are on.

That’s about as much explaining as I can do, although further questions about the mechanics of this process can be emailed to Ed, who will no doubt be able to give you a thorough explanation of the math that goes into this process.  For my part, I just plug numbers into a free online calculation program and analyze the output.  Ah… sweet, sweet technology.

On to football.

The standard deviation in this week’s power rank is 5.49.  That means that the bulk of teams will fall between 5.49 and -5.49, almost all teams will fall between 10.98 and -10.98, and teams beyond those ratings are truly special.

Congratulations to the Patriots (#1, 15.79) and the Packers (#2, 11.31) for pushing the limits and existing beyond the norm.  Perhaps even more congratulations are deserved by St. Louis (#32, -9.89) for not exceeding the norm…

Very few teams fall between the first and second standard deviations.  On the high side only Baltimore, Detroit, and New Orleans (by a hair) make the grade as especially good teams, whereas on the low end Denver, Arizona, Cleveland, Kansas City, Seattle, and St. Louis all currently qualify as truly not very good teams.

That leaves the other 21 teams in the true statistical middle of the road.  Being in the middle isn’t all that bad, as you are supposedly as close to the top as you are to the bottom.  This is great news for 2010’s weekly bottom dweller Carolina, who finds themselves just within the boundaries of that first standard deviation, but not great news for teams hoping to return strong and make another playoff run like Pittsburgh, Atlanta, or Philadelphia.  Most importantly for these middling teams, their current ratings are not a death warrant for the season, they have no cause for alarm and no need whatsoever to join in the chase for the Andrew Luck Sweepstakes.

A few things to consider for these middle teams:

1.  The current standard deviation is almost 1 point bigger than it was at the end of last year when it ended up at 4.59.

2.  At the end of last season The Power Rank was a little more balanced with one team above 2 standard deviations (New England) and one team below (Carolina).  Currently the two teams exceeding 2 standard deviations from the mean are both on the high side. Most likely, either New England or Green Bay will fall back into the sweet center during the season.

3.  When one (or both) of the juggernauts fall they will bring that standard deviation down with them.  This will cut some teams out of of the running for average status (look out Indianapolis, Jacksonville, and Carolina!) but on the upside a few teams may be thrust into greatness without needing to earn it (it may finally be the year for Houston or San Diego to go all the way).

4.  When the standard deviation shrinks a couple struggling teams may also become hopeless.  But come on, we are only one quarter of the way through the season!  Now is the time for Vikings fans to Ponder over whether or not they can finish out 12-4, Miami fans to Marshall their courage, and Colts fans to…  oh, who am I kidding?  Without Manning they have lost their identity…  they should focus on battling St. Louis and Kansas City in the race for the #1 draft pick in 2012.

NFL Rankings, Week 4

Upper middle class
The Eagles, Falcons, Steelers
Room for improvement

This week, we see the rankings compress a little bit more, a trend that should continue over the next few weeks as this year’s games stabilize.  The Patriots remain #1 with a 14.73 rating after losing in a shootout with red-hot Buffalo (#13, 1.20).  The Chiefs helped their fans get off the ledge by keeping the game with San Diego (#12, 2.02) to within a field goal, so despite their loss they climb out of the cellar to #30 with a rating of -8.26.  The Rams now occupy the not-so-coveted #32 spot with a rating of -10.96  after a humiliating loss to #3 Baltimore (7.75).

What this means is that last week the range of ratings between #1 New England and then #32 Kansas City was 35.63, whereas this week the difference between #1 New England and new #32 St. Louis is 25.69.  That’s not encouraging news for Rams fans, or for the entire state of Missouri.  What is does indicate is what the scoreboards have shown this year:  no team is utterly dominant (sorry, Mr. Brady) and no team is completely pathetic.  Bad, maybe…  but not insanely horrible as Kansas City’s -19.52 rating last week indicated.

The news is best for fans of the “upper-middle class” of the football teams.  Not the dominant upper crust teams like New England (#1, 14.73, Green Bay (#2, 11.37), and Baltimore (#3, 7.75) with giant stretches of blue glory next to their names.  No, this news is for the fans of teams between rank 4 and 16.  The fans of teams that were supposed to come out with guns blazing, but have somehow tripped over the starting line.  What happened to the free-agent force of the Eagles (#15, 0.82) that was so highly touted by the offseason hype machine?  Wasn’t the return of Matty-Ice with Julio “the missing piece” Jones supposed to take the Falcons (#16, 0.62) from a playoff team to a Super Bowl favorite?  Did the mighty Super Bowl runner-up Steelers really fall to #6 with a good but uninspiring rating of 3.97?

It is these teams who should take note of this week’s movement.  Success in climbing The Power Rank ladder isn’t going to be as much about raising their rating from the 0-4 range up to the heights of Patriots in the teens.  That just won’t happen.  Because the outliers like the Patriots and Packers have little to gain (mathematically speaking) by crushing teams that The Power Rank expects them to crush.  But they can lose a lot by falling to teams who are beneath them.  Even close wins to inferior teams will lower their prestige.  So Big Ben and the Steelers don’t have to worry about trying to hang 70 on the the Brown and the Bengals to catch up.  The Eagles don’t need DeSean Jackson to return 2 punts for touchdowns every game to become elite.  If they can just continue to win for a few more weeks, the over-inflated Patriots and Packers will fall to more reasonable and reachable positions.

*Interesting note:  Running numbers from this year alone, the Bills would be The Power Rank’s chosen team with a rating of 14.28, with the Raiders not far behind with a 13.97 rating.  St. Louis would still be in the cellar, but at an astounding -23.50 instead of their current rating of -10.96.  While the Bills are definitely the hottest team in the NFL and a quickly growing fan-favorite, their official position of #13 suits them quite a bit better.  The Bills have proven that they have the talent, but they still have yet to prove to the league and to the algorithm that they have the ability to be consistent.  Because after all, that is the mark of a true champion.  By considering last year’s data as well as this year’s, The Power Rank cuts through the knee-jerk reactions and keeps the Bills somewhat humble with objective mathematical analysis, while still allowing them room to continue climbing up the ladder if they continue their run of impressive wins.

NFL Rankings, Week 17

For the final week of the 2010 season, I’d like to review the playoff predictions made in week 14 and how things actually shook out in the last three weeks.

In the AFC, little changed.  Even though the predictions weren’t spot on, the only major change was that consistently underachieving San Diego (#8) slipped a game and lost the AFC West crown to the consistently overachieving Kansas City Chiefs (#22).  Other than that, things shook out as expected.  Some say consistency is the mark of excellence, and there’s no doubt that the AFC is the elite conference this year.

If consistency is the mark of excellence, then chaos must be the mark of…  the NFC.

The NFC has been consistently inconsistent this year, possibly led by The Power Rank favorite and NFL standings underachiever Green Bay (#2).  In week 14 Green Bay wasn’t even expected to make the cut, even though they enjoyed the highest rank in the NFC.  Instead they made the cut while the Giants (#15) lost out on tiebreakers.  Also, in a poorly officiated week 17 home game, Seattle (#29) edged out St. Louis (#26) for the NFC West title.

Of course, that Seattle team is now famous as being the first team to enter the playoffs with a losing record (in a non-strike year).  This has caused a little dissent among NFL fans who would rather see a team with a respectable record, like the 10-6 Giants or the 10-6 Buccaneers (#18) instead of the 7-9 Seahawks.

That’s not the only playoff conundrum.  In the AFC West, the Oakland Raiders (#17) are done for the season while the Chiefs go on to the playoffs.  Well, the Chiefs ended 10-6 while the Raiders only finished with an 8-8 record, so what’s the big deal?  The Chiefs went 2-4 in their division, while the Raiders swept the AFC West with a perfect 6-0 divison record.

Are the divisions too small?  Is this cheating NFL fans from the best football they can see?

Possibly.  I’m certainly among those wondering whether the Saints will score more or less than 50 points against the Seahawks this weekend.  I do, however, want to remind fans of one way in which the NFL’s organization has been wildly successful – parity.

In the last ten seasons, only three NFL teams have failed to make the playoffs:  Buffalo (#27), Houston (#20), and Detroit (#14).  All three teams have been consistently under-talented, and all three have lived in the shadows of consistently good teams in their divisions.  Buffalo and Houston are under two of the most successful teams since 2000, the Patriots (#1) and the Colts (#9).  While Detroit isn’t living under one dominant shadow, all of their three divisional companions have made the NFC Championship game in the last ten years.

So in today’s NFL it takes quite a bit to be kept out of the playoffs in the long term, which is good for fans, good for business, and ultimately good for the sport.

Just ask the Seahawks.

1. New England, 14-2, 10.87
2. Green Bay, 10-6, 7.07
3. Pittsburgh, 12-4, 6.25
4. Baltimore, 12-4, 5.90
5. Atlanta, 13-3, 4.72
6. New York Jets, 11-5, 3.48
7. New Orleans, 11-5, 3.48
8. San Diego, 9-7, 3.34
9. Indianapolis, 10-6, 3.10
10. Philadelphia, 10-6, 3.04
11. Chicago, 11-5, 2.74
12. Cleveland, 5-11, 0.60
13. Tennessee, 6-10, 0.44
14. Detroit, 6-10, 0.26
15. New York Giants, 10-6, 0.12
16. Miami, 7-9, -0.12
17. Oakland, 8-8, -0.37
18. Tampa Bay, 10-6, -0.83
19. Dallas, 6-10, -0.84
20. Houston, 6-10, -0.94
21. Cincinnati, 4-12, -1.02
22. Kansas City, 10-6, -1.30
23. Minnesota, 6-10, -1.65
24. Washington, 6-10, -2.80
25. Jacksonville, 8-8, -3.39
26. St. Louis, 7-9, -3.75
27. Buffalo, 4-12, -3.80
28. San Francisco, 6-10, -4.37
29. Seattle, 7-9, -5.49
30. Denver, 4-12, -5.50
31. Arizona, 5-11, -7.61
32. Carolina, 2-14, -11.64

NFL Rankings, Week 16

This last week was not as kind to The Power Rank predictions of winners as previous weeks have been.  A divisional upset in Atlanta, a poor showing in Cincy, and a postponed gamed in Philly all threw off last week’s predictions from The Power Rank.

Some of these misses made little difference in who is and is not expected to continue to the postseason, but two major changes did take place.

In the AFC West, San Diego’s (#7) abysmal loss to Cincinnati (#19) and Kansas City’s (#15) triumph over Tennessee (#16) made these two swap places as division winners and playoff spectators.  Little else has changed in the playoff expectations in the AFC.  In fact, five of the six playoff spots have already been clinched.  The last spot open is for the AFC South winner, who we predict will be the Indianapolis Colts (#9).  The Colts control their destiny, and earn their division title with a win over Tennessee (#16) this Sunday.  If the Colts lose and the Jaguars (#25) beat Houston (#22), then Jacksonville may just sneak into the playoffs with a 9-7 record.

There has been a change in the NFC playoff projection as well.  The St. Louis loss to Kansas city two weeks ago put the Rams’ playoff hopes in jeopardy and kept those of the Seahawks (#30) alive.  These two teams face off in Seattle on Sunday night for a nationally televised game.  The home field advantage tips the scales in favor of the Seahawks, who The Power Rank now predicts will knock the Rams out of the playoffs.

The NFC playoff picture still has some uncertainty to it.  The Packers (#2) control their destiny and can take the last wildcard spot with a win at Green Bay against the Bears (#11).  If the Packers lose and the Giants (#17) defeat the Redskins (#24), then the Giants will be in the playoffs.  If both the Packers and Giants lose, Tampa Bay (#18) will have a chance to slide into the postseason with a miraculous road win against the Saints (#6).  If all three teams lose, the Packers will make the playoffs.

This week presents some interesting viewing options for NFL fans.  Since so many of the games have little to no impact on the playoffs, a few games can really be spotlighted as the most important to watch:

St. Louis (#27) at Seattle (#30) – The Rams travel to meet the Seahawks and fight for the NFC West division title.  Neither team is particularly impressive so the game may be sloppy, but with a playoff spot on the line it should also be emotionally charged.  Luckily, this is also the Sunday night game so everyone will have a chance to enjoy it.  Although the numbers predict a Seattle victory, the game is really too close to call.  Expect the team that makes the fewest mistakes to win.

Chicago (#11) at Green Bay (#2) – The Bears travel to the Frozen Tundra to battle the Packers who are no doubt looking for redemption after their last minute loss to the Bears earlier this year.  Even though the Bears have clinched homefield advantage is still on the table, so do not expect them to go quietly.  The Power Rank predicts a solid victory for the Packers.

Tennessee (#16) at Indianapolis (#9) – Even though the Titans are out, they have a chance to spoil against a hated division rival.  The Colts can seal their playoff hopes with a win, and are playing at home where they have been 5-2 this year.  The Power Rank predicts a win for the Colts.

1. New England, 13-2, 10.36
2. Green Bay, 9-6, 6.92
3. Baltimore, 11-4, 5.94
4. Pittsburgh, 11-4, 5.40
5. Atlanta, 12-3, 4.64
6. New Orleans, 11-4, 3.52
7. San Diego, 8-7, 3.46
8. Philadelphia, 10-5, 3.39
9. Indianapolis, 9-6, 3.13
10. New York Jets, 10-5, 3.04
11. Chicago, 11-4, 2.78
12. Cleveland, 5-10, 1.38
13. Miami, 7-8, 0.41
14. Detroit, 5-10, 0.21
15. Kansas City, 10-5, 0.17
16. Tennessee, 6-9, 0.15
17. New York Giants, 9-6, -0.25
18. Tampa Bay, 9-6, -1.25
19. Cincinnati, 4-11, -1.31
20. Oakland, 7-8, -1.38
21. Dallas, 5-10, -1.51
22. Houston, 5-10, -1.55
23. Minnesota, 6-9, -1.58
24. Washington, 6-9, -2.59
25. Jacksonville, 8-7, -2.72
26. Buffalo, 4-11, -3.05
27. St. Louis, 7-8, -3.48
28. San Francisco, 5-10, -4.89
29. Denver, 4-11, -5.16
30. Seattle, 6-9, -5.78
31. Arizona, 5-10, -7.03
32. Carolina, 2-13, -11.37