NFL Strength Ratings update: Cowboys climb to top of NFC

November 29, 2022 04:04 PM
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Thanksgiving weekend is always a critical juncture in the NFL season as it marks a transition into the stretch run, when teams make their final pushes for the playoffs. One of the interesting subjects that has arisen this season is the ascendence of the NFC East, a division that has regularly been the subject of ridicule over the past few seasons. As it stands, all four teams in that division would qualify for the NFC playoff bracket, and the supremacy of the teams was on full display this weekend when the four teams went 3-1, with the only loss being to another divisional rival.

Representing the NFC East with a surge of their own lately have been the Dallas Cowboys, who have reached the top of the NFC in terms of my power ratings. They have gone 4-1 SU and 3-2 ATS since the return of quarterback Dak Prescott, while averaging 33.8 points per game. It’s safe to say they are no longer an under-the-radar Super Bowl contender.

Elsewhere, there were some notable upsets with the Jaguars, Browns, Raiders and Colts striking blows to their opponents’ playoff hopes. At the same time, the Dolphins and Chiefs flexed their muscles as double-digit favorites, while the 49ers defense seems to be coming alive at the right time to balance out their incredible array offensive talent. Let’s take a look at how an impactful Thanksgiving weekend has moved my strength indicators.

Power Ratings: Bills sliding back to the pack

About six weeks ago, I proclaimed that the Bills were playing well enough to challenge the 2007 Patriots as one of the more dominant teams in the league since I started compiling all of my strength indicators. I don’t want to say I jinxed them, but since that proclamation, Buffalo has returned to the pack, this week slipping into a tie for the top spot in my power ratings with the Chiefs. By the eye test of late, Kansas City is the superior team, but by the body of work statistical numbers, the Bills remain the team to beat. That said, if quarterback Josh Allen doesn’t return to 100% health, same with linebacker Von Miller, and the team continues to struggle with turnovers, it could prove to be yet another disappointing season for the Bills Mafia. While the Chiefs and Bills remain at the front of the AFC, two other serious challengers have emerged in recent weeks: Miami and defending conference champion Cincinnati. Both teams have been stellar offensively of late, and both of their quarterbacks are in the MVP race.

On the NFC side, Dallas has climbed to the top of the power ratings with its recent offensive explosion while Philadelphia and Minnesota have shown some cracks. But the 49ers might strike the most fear in any fellow NFC contender right now as they have studs on both sides of the field and will be a real threat if they can put it all together. 

It's going to be an interesting final third of the regular season with teams’ levels of momentum wavering on an almost weekly basis. It will be important for contenders to find a rhythm this month.

Biggest upward movers after Week 12

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (+1.5 points)

The Steelers proved again on Monday night how feisty they are under coach Mike Tomlin. Betting against them as underdogs at any point in the season usually doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. While they don’t figure to be a playoff contender at the end, I can see Pittsburgh spoiling things for some teams down the stretch. Of note, over the last four games, the Steelers have averaged 158.8 rushing yards per game after gaining just 87.9 in the first seven games.

2. Miami Dolphins (+1 point)

Miami proved its explosiveness on Sunday in busting out to a 30-0 lead at the half on the Texans, only to take its foot off the pedal after halftime and see that winning margin sink to 30-15. Besides the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes, I don’t think any NFL team can match the Dolphins’ big-play capability right now. That could be a critical point in the playoffs, particularly if Miami is able to hold on to some level of home-field advantage.

3. New York Jets (+1 point)

It’s a shame it took so long for coach Robert Saleh to turn to backup quarterback Mike White to revive the offense. In his first start of the season, in inclement weather, White was sharp and efficient, guiding the offense to a seven-week high point total of 31. The Jets gained a season-high 466 yards in the rain. With the defense allowing just 12.1 points per game over its last seven, this is starting to look like a sleeper contender.

Biggest downward movers

1. Chicago Bears (-1 point)

Anyone expecting to see the Bears offense transition seamlessly with quarterback Trevor Siemian under center in place of Justin Fields was fooling themselves. Over the last five weeks with Fields as the dominant force in the attack with his legs and arm, the Bears offense had scored 29.6 PPG. Without him, it wasn’t even close to the same and the Jets were ready for it. Perhaps more discouraging, however, Chicago’s defense yielded 466 yards to an offense that just benched its quarterback for ineffectiveness.

2. Denver Broncos (-1 point)

It seems like I’m writing about the Broncos almost every week in the biggest downward movers section. This past week’s effort was notably bad once again, as the much-maligned Russell Wilson-led offense scored 10 points or fewer for the fourth time in seven games. They are on a noteworthy pace to produce one of the lowest point averages in the modern era, currently scoring just 14.3 PPG. Having now lost seven of their last eight games, playoff contention is a distant memory.  

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-1 point)

Just when it seemed that this frustrating Tampa Bay team was turning the corner, having made it back to the top of the NFC South at 5-5, the Bucs go and lay an egg as a road favorite in Cleveland. While still in control of the division and a would-be home playoff game, there is very little about this year’s team that resembles the last two versions. It’s going to be an interesting next month for Tom Brady and company as the upcoming schedule is not easy.

Effective Strength Ratings

In my Effective Strength Ratings, the Bills show the biggest separation between themselves at the top and the No. 2 team, the Cowboys. Buffalo’s ESR is 11.6, 1.9 points better than Dallas. However, that number has dropped about 5.0 points since its peak in October.  Remember, the ESRs are “effective” because they are a quantified indicator of how much a team has outplayed or been outplayed by its competition level to date. They take into account actual stats, opponent power ratings and any injury and home/road field adjustments made to games. The Chiefs are the No. 3 team at 6.9 and have stayed quite consistent around 7.0 all season. Philadelphia is at 6.3 and holds down the No. 4 spot. We have a new top-5 team: Cincinnati at 5.0. If you’re looking for some of the best teams on an Effective Yards Per Play Strength basis right now, consider Miami (No. 2) and San Francisco (No. 4) as top contenders. A couple of other teams to keep an eye on right now in the ESRs are the Jets (3.5, No. 8) and the Patriots (3.3, No. 9). These teams may be a little better than the oddsmakers are giving credit for. Other teams that might be a bit overrated by analyzing it in the opposite fashion include the Vikings and Chargers. Both of those teams are ranked higher in power ratings than in statistical measures. The current worst NFL team statistically speaking is Houston at -8.6, although the defending champion Rams are not much better at -6.8.

Bettors Ratings

The Bettors Ratings are a quantitative reflection of what the betting markets think about the teams in 2022. This week’s BRs also show the same two top teams as the power ratings with Buffalo’s -9.1 BR edging Kansas City’s -7.7. In essence, the markets are still indicating that they believe the Bills are almost 1.5 points superior. Philadelphia is 2.9 points off of the Bills in the No. 3 spot, while Dallas checks in at No. 4 with a -4.6 BR. Emerging San Francisco rounds out the top 5 at -3.6. The teams least respected by what they have accomplished lately are the Lions, Commanders and Jaguars, all of whom are ranked at least five spots lower in the Bettors Ratings than they are in the Power Ratings. Interestingly, Jacksonville plays at Detroit on Sunday. Other overrated teams at this point include the Cardinals and Packers, as deemed by the opposite metric. The betting market’s least favorite team right now remains Houston with a BR of +7.9. Essentially, bettors believe the Texans are 17 points worse than the Bills. The Rams are deemed to be four points better than Houston, and the Panthers check in at No. 30 with a BR of +3.7. For more clarification, that +3.7 indicates that the markets value Carolina to be 3.7 points worse than the average NFL team.

Recent Ratings

For the Recent Ratings, each team’s last few games and the effective strength they have demonstrated during that stretch is quantified. The hottest team in football is Dallas with a RR of 17.6. The Cowboys have been on a roll offensively and are laying a pretty big number to the Colts at home this week. Dallas’ RR of 17.6 bests San Francisco by 4.6 points. Coach Kyle Shanahan’s team has a huge matchup this week with Miami coming to town. Other hot teams include the Patriots (9.7), who square off with Buffalo twice over the next six weeks as well as the aforementioned Dolphins (10.5) rounding out the top four. Houston has not only been the worst team over the course of the season, it has also been the league’s worst team over the last few weeks, with a RR of -11.5, while the once-hot Giants are next to last at -10.1. Again, the best way for bettors to use the Recent Ratings is to look for variations between the RRs and Power Ratings to find opportunities. For instance, note that Minnesota, Buffalo and Philadelphia have cooled off immensely by recent statistical ratings while Detroit and Washington have exceeded their body-of-work numbers with recent hot stretches. Playing on recent hot teams as underdogs and against struggling teams as favorites is just one worthwhile strategy. 

Schedule Strength Ratings

The Schedule Strength Ratings, currently reflecting the difficulty of each team’s 2022 schedule, shows Pittsburgh continuing to pace the field in terms of schedule difficulty. The Steelers are coming off a MNF win at Indianapolis and heading to Atlanta for another indoor game on Sunday. The average power rating of the Steelers’ first 11 opponents has been 25.91, equivalent to playing a team the likes of Minnesota weekly on a neutral field. The Lions, Packers, Jets and Ravens have also played tough slates. The Lions’ situation is particularly inspiring as they have managed a 7-4 ATS record and have proven to be quite competitive despite facing one of the tougher schedules. The same can be said for the Jets and Ravens, who are deep in the thick of the AFC playoff race. Keep in mind that these ratings do include home/road field considerations, as well as any injury or situational adjustments, so it's not just about who teams play, but where and when as well. The easiest slate so far has belonged to the 49ers, who have climbed to 7-4, although their next five weeks are not going to be easy. Just ahead of them are the Eagles, Seahawks and Raiders. These teams’ actual strength levels should be analyzed more closely when matched up against more tested opponents. Philadelphia and Las Vegas host AFC playoff contenders this week, while the Seahawks travel to L.A. to take on the floundering Rams and will be huge road favorites. I like to finish this segment by reminding readers that the Schedule Strength are reflected in all of the other rating sets I build, either qualitatively or quantitatively. Obviously, I deem this indicator to be quite important.

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