This season, there is one team in particular whose peripherals scream "Fluke!", yet their recent history screams "Contender!". After wallowing in the bottom half of these rankings for the entire first half, they were this weeks biggest movers, rising seven spots to move into 10th. But ignoring the past decade, should we really take them seriously?
Don't Call It a Comeback
If you haven't figured it out already, the New England Patriots are the team referenced in the intro, and they are the only new entrant into the top-10. On the year, the Patriots are essentially average in everything besides pass offense, where they are still firmly below average despite this week's 55-point outburst against the Steelers. That performance is almost certainly an outlier, but it looks like a sign of things to come offensively.
Indeed, perhaps the biggest flaw in this rankings system is that it does not account for personnel. Everyone knows the Patriots are a better offense with Rob Gronkowski in the lineup instead of Michael Hoomanawanui, but these rankings are blind to the massive tight end upgrade. Technically, you could also call that a strength, since it does not allow past perception to affect evaluation of present performance, but in this case, it has undervalued the Pats offense.
The overall numbers still aren't particularly pretty—one only needs to look at Tom Brady's player page to see the inconsistencies that have plagued the offense. But the stretches of success are getting more noticeable. Though the Pats are averaging just 5.1 yards per play, they've averaged 5.7 over the last three weeks, nearly identical to their 5.8 per play pace from 2012. Moreover, after ranking 30th in red-zone touchdown percentage pre-Gronk, his return has shored up their biggest bugaboo. The Pats have scored touchdowns on 10 of 14 red-zone possessions the past three weeks, a 71.4 percent clip that would rank behind only the Broncos for the whole year.
Of course, three weeks is a small sample size, but with reinforcements coming from Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen, it seems safe to assume the offense will be fine. The bigger problems may loom on defense, but with Aqib Talib set to return after the Week 10 bye, the Patriots secondary will remain the strength of the unit:
As you can see, the Patriots are now ensconced in the bad run D/good pass D quadrant, but that's actually an auspicious sign. No Super Bowl champion since the 2008 Steelers have had a negative run defense EPA, and three of the last four champs have fallen into the same quadrant the Pats currently occupy, with the 2011 Giants barely missing.
New England is by no means a complete team, but it may once again have the two most important ingredients: a very good pass offense and pass defense. A feasible playoff path might include Andrew Luck's Colts, Peyton Manning's Broncos and Drew Brees' Saints. We need a few more weeks to see if the Patriots have the firepower to combat that kind of potential playoff gauntlet, but the preliminary returns from Foxboro are encouraging.
Don't Pack It In
The second of our imperative-themed sections focuses on the Green Bay Packers, who will be without Aaron Rodgers for about three weeks. Consequently, many fans in Chicago and Detroit woke up this morning dreaming of an NFC North title and a home playoff game.
But as Lee Corso would say, not so fast! First off, Green Bay has drawn an extremely fortunate schedule break the next three weeks, with home games against the Eagles and Vikings sandwiched around a road trip to face the Giants. Philly and Minnesota are two of the 10 worst defenses in pass EPA per play, and New York is middle-of-the-pack. Seneca Wallace is likely reliable enough not to implode against those defenses.
More importantly, the Packers have established an excellent run game they can turn to in the absence of the 2011 MVP, as Green Bay has the second-most efficient rushing attack this year. Rookie Eddie Lacy may not be more than BenJarvus Green-Ellis 2.0, but even that is a massive upgrade from the flotsam that has occupied the Packers backfield in recent seasons. Last season, James Starks was Green Bay's best back, putting up 0.14 WPA and minus-8.8 EPA. Fortunately, the Packers are no longer actively reducing their chances of scoring when they run the ball now.
Examining the schedule, the Vikings are a terrible run defense, but the Giants and Eagles actually rank solidly on an EPA per play basis, though Philadelphia ranks poorly in run success rate. Still, the NFC East teams are tremendously flawed (is the division's name officially the "Flawed NFC East?"), so it's reasonable to expect the Packers to at least split those two. Coupled with an expected win over the Vikings, the Packers would still be sitting pretty at 7-4 in time for Rodgers' return. Wisconsin, you are free to exhale.
- So, um, about those Bengals. A week after I touted Cincinnati a legitimate AFC contender, the Bengals face-planted and ignominiously lost on a walk-off safety to the Dolphins. But Denver was on a bye, and Seattle's 21-point comeback win over the winless Bucs was hardly inspiring. So Cincy remains atop the rankings for another week, albeit now in a tie with the Seahawks.
- Is it bad that I didn't even notice the Arizona Cardinals were on a bye this week? The defense is solid once again, with a nice mix of rock-solid veterans, young stars and above-average contributions at every position. But the offense has once again submarined hopes of contention, with Carson Palmer ranking dead last in WPA and fourth-worst in EPA. Larry Fitzgerald deserves better, and he may get it soon.
- Might the Cleveland Browns crash the AFC playoff field? At 4-5, the Browns are just one game behind the sixth-seeded Jets, and Jason Campbell has stabilized the previously Weeden-infested offense. Campbell's 6.7 adjusted yards per attempt ranks sixth in the league, and his 16.3 EPA is already more than any Cleveland quarterback's season total since Colt McCoy in 2010. The sadness of that fact aside, the Browns defense is legitimately good enough to carry this team if the offense is even remotely competent.
With that, here are the first rankings of November:
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