So if we (mostly) accept the data that 10 weeks have shown us, the teams in the top and bottom 10 are likely to stay that way. Looking at the rankings from this time last year, eight of the top-10 teams remained there at the end of the season, and eight of the bottom-10 stayed near the basement.
The middle is still terribly ambiguous, and it's probably best to wait for a few more returns before making any more definitive evaluations. The last couple weeks have seen me make some pretty foolish-looking predictions about these teams (more on that soon), so we'll step aside from the middle class for a week.
Instead, let's take a look at arguably the biggest surprises from the top and bottom third, and try to explain how they got there.
I've attempted to ignore the Eagles all season, mostly because their record never matched their lofty ranking. At first glance, it seemed simple enough to dismiss their constant top-10 status as a product of an uber-efficient offense.
And yet, when Nick Foles throws 10 touchdowns over two weeks, that alone demands some attention. Indeed, there's a common misconception that Chip Kelly's offense demands a mobile quarterback. Mobility certainly helps, but its breakneck pace is really predicated on fast reads and decisions, something that has never been Michael Vick's strength.
According to Pro Football Focus, Vick has held the ball for an average of 3.38 seconds this season, the second-highest time in the league behind only Terrelle Pryor. Foles has held it for 3.09 seconds on average, which is still the seventh-highest mark, but certainly a considerable difference. That has manifested itself in pretty clear ways:
Interestingly, however, the Eagles haven't really fared any better or worse as an offense with either QB. Exclude the Week 8 Giants game where Vick only threw nine passes and Foles was out with a concussion, and the Week 5 Giants game where both quarterbacks played roughly a half. Removing those, Philadelphia has had four full games with Vick as their quarterback and four full games with Foles at the helm. Per Pro-Football-Reference's Game Play Finder, take a look at their offensive output in that time:
If that is the case, the Eagles look pretty solid. They're probably not the fifth-best team in the league, as these rankings imply, but they may at least be the favorite to win the NFC East, especially given the Sean Lee injury in Dallas. The Philly defense is nothing special, but it's also not nearly as atrocious as many believe:
That good-offense-bad-defense quadrant is a perfectly acceptable one to be in—of the 11 teams, nine are in serious playoff contention. The Eagles have a three-game homestand coming up, so now would be a good time to snap that bizarre 10-game home losing streak and take advantage of a reeling Cowboys squad.
The Atlanta Falcons were a trendy Super Bowl pick before the season, but injuries and under-performance have turned the NFC's top seed of 2012 into a 2-7 disaster. While the Falcons have certainly had some bad breaks, this isn't exactly totally out of nowhere.
When Kansas City started 8-0 this year, Andrew Carroll wrote a post speculating as to whether they were the worst 8-0 team of all time. Based on Pythagorean wins, the Chiefs were a middle-of-the-pack team, but near the bottom of that pack? The 2012 Falcons, who went 13-3, actually had a final Pythagorean win expectancy of about 11 wins.
Even without Julio Jones and with Roddy White struggling through a season-long ankle injury, the Falcons offensive production is still solid. A year after ranking ninth in total EPA per play and third in pass EPA per play, the Falcons have actually risen to eighth in the former category, and still sit a very respectable ninth. In terms of efficiency, the Falcons rank 11th in the passing game. And Matt Ryan ranks eighth among quarterbacks in EPA per play, even with three rough weeks in a row.
It's really the rest of the team that's fallen apart. The Atlanta defense was really a house of cards last season, getting by with a defense that forced the sixth-most turnovers in the league. They're down to 27th in that department in 2013, leading to the fifth-least efficient pass defense this season.
A lot of that is personnel-related. Atlanta lost its only plus-pass rusher from 2012 in John Abraham to free agency, and front seven starters Kroy Biermann and Sean Witherspoon went on IR early in the year. Their replacements have fared poorly, with Akeem Dent and Paul Worrilow being borderline unplayable at times.
In the secondary, the Falcons have gotten an encouraging rookie season from Desmond Trufant, but starting safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud probably would not start for the majority of NFL teams, and veteran Asante Samuel has missed time with injuries.
Atlanta, who was due for some regression, is not as bad as their record indicates, and next year should see some movement back towards the mean. They'll likely have better injury luck, and that 2-4 record in one-score games should improve as well. Ironically, coming into the year, the Falcons had the fourth-best winning percentage in one-score games since the Ryan era began in 2007.
The Falcons badly need an infusion of depth this offseason, particularly on defense. But even the law of averages should bring them back to about a .500 team next season. Whether or not they go above that will depend on if they change their top-heavy roster construction.
Quick Hits (Comeuppance Edition)
As mentioned in the intro, I've made some pretty poor predictions in recent weeks on the league's middle-class teams. Consider this an exercise in self-accountability. And no, I'm not trying to reverse-jinx these teams to make my original predictions come true. As far as you know.
- My Week 8 post featured the Bengals, and I argued that a breakout season from Andy Dalton made Cincy a top AFC contender. In the two games since, Dalton has promptly put up a combined minus-19.3 EPA and minus-0.51 WPA against the Dolphins and Ravens, two solid but certainly not immovable defenses. The Bengals are still heavy favorites to win the AFC North, but look at his game log and tell me what stretch looks like the outlier.
- Three weeks ago, I argued that Cam Newton would have to carry the Panthers into the playoffs. Newton is having a decent season, but the defense is the story. After holding the 49ers to nine points, Carolina's defense moved up to third in Football Outsiders' DVOA metrics. They're a top-10 unit in both pass- and run-defense efficiency, with young front-seven studs and unexpected secondary contributors. In retrospect, a pretty heinous oversight.
- Last week, I mocked the relatively quiet season the Cardinals were having. I stand by my criticism of Carson Palmer, who continues to throw interceptions as hideous as Arizona's black jerseys. But Andre Ellington has emerged as an offensive savior for this week's biggest risers, and check out their next five games: @JAX, vs IND, @PHI, vs STL and @TEN. Their last two games are at Seattle and home against San Francisco, so 5-4 Arizona probably needs four of those five games. But the playoffs are not out of the realm of imagination.
I will now kindly refrain from torturing these fan bases further. Apologies to those in Philadelphia this week. Here are the rankings after Week 10:
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