The top was not entirely constant, as only the top-ranked Seahawks, second-ranked Broncos and ninth-ranked Chargers remained in their spots. The Bengals sitting at fourth looks a bit curious, but the majority of the top-10 seems fairly reasonable. In fact, apart from the offensively-uberefficient Eagles, these rankings seem to agree with the mainstream perception.
However, there is one particularly curious disagreement, as the team at the top of the league standings is nowhere near the top of these rankings.
Hey, This Looks Familiar
The Kansas City Chiefs may be the NFL's lone undefeated team, but their eighth place ranking is an embodiment of how the fundamental factors that determine who wins football games have changed. Overall, the Chiefs possess the top-ranked defense and 26th-ranked offense. The Broncos, angling to become the first 14-2 fifth-seed ever, are the exact opposite, with the top-ranked offense and 26th-ranked defense. That Denver is second and has a GWP 11 percentage points higher illustrates how a prolific passing game is the ultimate trump card.
Plenty of writers have bandied about the 2011 49ers comparison with the Chiefs. That really rises from the fact that Alex Smith is/was the quarterback for both defensive-oriented teams, but it's almost spot on:
In terms of EPA per game, we can see that the 2013 Chiefs and 2011 49ers occupy the same quadrant, though Kansas City's defense has actually been better. That's likely due to their historically good pass defense—the Chiefs' minus-60.4 EPA against the pass is almost double the Seahawks' second-ranked pass defense. The 2011 Niners were "just" plus-2.5, and no team has put up a full-season mark better since the 2009 Jets.
Meanwhile, there's is/was a perception that Smith simply avoids turnovers while an elite running game carries the offense. But as we can see, the name value behind Frank Gore and Jamaal Charles didn't necessarily match the actual production:
Both the Chiefs and Niners actually had a below-average running attack. In fairness, Smith has never been Brady or Manning, but it's not as if he is the glaring weak link in an otherwise flawless team. The offenses got by with the advantages inherently provided by their defenses—both teams had the best average starting field position in the league, per Football Outsiders.
In today's NFL, no team is better equipped to win without a superstar quarterback than the Chiefs. The 2011 49ers were essentially a coin flip away from making the Super Bowl, as their loss to the Giants involved tons of crazy late-game swings. The Chiefs may or may not get the right bounces come this postseason (seven games is enough to know they're not a fluke), but they're certainly in position to take advantage of a weak AFC field.
Hey, This (Also) Looks Familiar
Below these rankings, take a look at the league average in all the stat categories. Then compare those to the Dallas Cowboys. This would be perfect if Dallas was ranked 16th, but the perpetually middling Cowboys are once again the barometer for passable mediocrity.
I've already earned the enmity of DC (and many other places as well) for coming out of the closet as a Tony Romo defender, but the numbers still don't lie. Romo has had another slightly-below elite season, ranking eighth in EPA, 12th in EPA per play, and fourth in success rate.
The defense and run game haven't been significantly worse this year, but the fall might be coming. DeMarcus Ware and DeMarco Murray will both miss multiple weeks, which is more crippling than under normal circumstances given the Cowboys' top-heavy roster construction. Like a college team with scholarship reductions, Dallas' salary cap mess has hampered them from building a viable middle class, meaning that they have less room for error with injuries than just about any other team.
The Cowboys have finished 9-7 or 8-8 five of the past eight years, and will likely end up in that neighborhood again. They'll likely end up stumbling into a division title, especially if they can take a Week 17 home game against the Eagles to sweep the season series, but that's more an indictment on the other three teams. Dallas' reward will be a first-round mismatch against either San Francisco or Seattle.
- These rankings are organized by GWP, which leaves Carolina at 12th. However, the Panthers have allowed the second-lowest opponent GWP, trailing only the Saints. Their GWP net difference is sixth-best, behind Seattle, Denver, Cincinnati, Green Bay and New Orleans. That's what a 26-point average margin of victory will do for you.
- The Cleveland Browns must have someone secretly working on a time machine to bring back Otto Graham. The Browns' third-ranked defense has again created the league's most competitive five-to-seven win team. Their pass defense is just a hair behind that of the Seahawks', but with a bumbling Brandon Weeden instead of Russell Wilson, that effort will go in vain.
- Can there really be three teams worse than the Jaguars? This graph would seem to defy that logic. Then again, the three teams below Jacksonville employ Josh Freeman, Kellen Clemens and Mike Glennon at quarterback, so who really knows?
Check out this week's rankings below.
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