The Seven Tiers of NFL Teams

By Harrison Chase and Austin Tymins

Over the past two weeks, we have been putting out articles with our POWER rankings for the 2015 NFL season, which are based on average win expectancy over the course of the game. While we have discussed the ordering of those rankings, we have not discussed their distribution. Below we have plotted the rankings of teams going into Week 9 sorted from top to bottom by tier. As you can see from this graph, there are several distinct clusters of teams. We have taken the liberty of coloring the most visible clusters. In the rest of the article we will break down these seven tiers. The teams are included in order of strength within each tier from best to worst.

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Clear Favorite: New England (0.791)

The New England Patriots regained the top position in our rankings after their utter domination of the Dolphins last Thursday in Foxborough. Don’t expect this to change next week when they host Washington.

Contenders: Green Bay (0.749), Seattle (0.729), Cincinnati (0.722), Denver (0.703), Arizona (0.696), Carolina (0.683)

These are all the teams that have clearly demonstrated their quality this season. While they may have a bad loss or two, they have been consistently good enough to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. Look at the sharp drop between Carolina and Kansas City. Bet on these teams to make the AFC/NFC Championship games.

Playoff Hopefuls: Kansas City (0.624), New York Giants (0.605), Oakland (0.598), Philadelphia (0.593), Minnesota (0.592), New York Jets (0.591), New Orleans (0.589), Pittsburgh (0.583)

You shouldn’t want your team to play these teams on the road. These teams are all competing for playoff spots either as division champions or wildcard teams (Jets, Chiefs, Saints). They are certainly good enough to beat almost any other team, especially when healthy. Kansas City is undoubtedly more dangerous with Jamaal Charles in the backfield than Charcandrick West, and it’s possible the Chiefs should be ranked lower to account for this structural change, but our rankings do not predict future performance so much as they reflect past performance; injuries will only be reflected in the rankings once they have manifested themselves in a team’s play.

Middle Ground: Dallas (0.562), Atlanta (0.548), St. Louis (0.543)

Atlanta, despite their gaudy record, is in this category due to the unconvincing nature of most of their victories. Additionally, they were throttled by the Saints on the road, and then lost to Jameis and the Bucs at home. Dallas is almost certain to climb into the Playoff Hopefuls tier when Tony Romo returns from injury, and the Rams look like a completely different team since Todd Gurley took the NFL (and fantasy world) by storm.

Needs Some Luck: Baltimore (0.509), Buffalo (0.496), Miami (0.482), Tampa Bay(0.478), Indianapolis (0.472), San Diego (0.470), Washington (0.468)

While none of these teams are THAT bad, it would be difficult to make the argument that any of them are actually an above average team. Baltimore, Miami, and San Diego have all underperformed preseason expectations and Buffalo, Tampa Bay, and Washington all seem to be better than they’ve been in recent years.

Many of our readers will be surprised to see Indianapolis in this tier. However, if you look at their performance to date, they deserve to be here. The first three quarters of the Panthers game were an unmitigated offensive disaster that eventually led to the firing of Offensive Coordinator Pep Hamilton. Andrew Luck has also apparently been hiding his fractured ribs from the official injury reports which makes full recovery seem less certain in the short term. The smart money is on a regression to the mean from the Colts over the rest of the season and an eventual playoff berth as AFC South champion at ~8-9 wins, but as of right now they deserve to be in this category.

Building for the Future: Detroit (0.441), Chicago (0.437), Jacksonville (0.435), Cleveland (0.427), San Francisco (0.427)

These teams have shown that they occasionally know how to play football (Detroit vs Seattle, Cleveland vs Denver) but ultimately those games appear to be more the exception than the rule.

Worse Than Harvard Football: Houston (0.411), Tennessee (0.410)

There is hopelessness and then there are these teams. Arian Foster’s noncontact season-ending injury puts a huge damper on the Houston offense and the defense can’t simply rely on J.J. Watt’s superhuman strength and Jadeveon Clowney’s rebirth to carry them on that side of the ball. The Titans looked noticeably worse without Marcus Mariota at Quarterback–here’s to his successful return from injury and Tennessee’s climb into the next tier.

The first two tiers are similar to DVOA ratings with a few exceptions. Firstly, DVOA has the Jets 5th overall while we have them 13th. The Jets struggled mightily against the Raiders and this was reflected in our model, as they fell from 9th going into Week 8. DVOA ranks the Seahawks 9th overall while we have them 3rd since they’ve been a strong team with the exception of a few 4th quarter collapses. DVOA puts San Francisco and Detroit at the bottom of the rankings, while we are more pessimistic on Houston and Tennessee. At some point in the future, we will test if our rankings are more predictive than other rating systems like DVOA and ELO.

As the season continues and we collect more data, our model should only become more exact. So check back next week to see how the rankings have changed and who has moved in or out of each tier.

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