NFL Strength Ratings update: Cowboys inching toward the elite

November 1, 2022 07:05 PM
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To this point in the NFL season, the talk has been that there are three elite teams in the league with the Bills, Chiefs and Eagles separating themselves from the pack. After back-to-back wins with their starting quarterback finally again under center, the Cowboys may be ready to join that elite group.

In each of their last two victories, the Cowboys have demonstrated the ability to dominate the game on both sides of the ball, a key trait in teams hoping to have postseason success. The level of talent has not been in question. The question has been whether the team could come together and realize its potential. Perhaps they are finally answering that call as they head into their bye week. Coach Mike McCarthy’s team will make its next appearance at a place that has doomed them — McCarthy’s former home in Green Bay.

Only five NFL teams have six victories or more. Amazingly, the once-downtrodden NFC East houses three of them. The Cowboys and Eagles are in that mix, as are the Giants. Perhaps even more shocking, the Commanders have evened their record at 4-4, meaning all four teams from that division are playoff contenders. That divisional race is just one of many surprises in the first half of the season. The rest of the NFC divisions are led by the Vikings, Falcons and Seahawks, none of whom were even close a year ago. The NFL acronym “Not For Long” seems to ring true every fall.

The Week 8 games featured five upsets, a shutout and another team scoring a season-high 49 points. Let’s take a look at how all of that action impacted my strength ratings as we head into a big Week 9 slate of games.

Power Ratings: Buffalo still a strong No. 1

Coming out of their bye week, the Bills, No. 1 in my Power Ratings, got off to a fast start at home against Green Bay on Sunday but then seemed to hit a wall in the second, eventually failing to cover the point spread, leaving backers frustrated. Did the Packers reveal a blueprint for stopping the explosive Buffalo offense, or was it simply a matter of complacency? We should get a good idea on Sunday when quarterback Josh Allen and company square off in a divisional battle at the Jets. No. 2 Kansas City was off last week and returns with a high-profile “Sunday Night Football” game against Tennessee, which has won its last five games SU and ATS. The Titans have played the Chiefs well in recent years, going 5-1 ATS in the last six meetings, including a resounding 27-3 win at home last season. Philadelphia moved up a point after its rout win of Pittsburgh and stays No. 3, while Dallas climbs into the No. 4 spot after putting up 49 points in a rout of Chicago. Baltimore rounds out the top 5, while Houston again finds itself at the bottom of the list, with a PR of 17, a full 17.5 points worse than the front-running Bills.

Biggest upward movers after Week 8

1. Carolina Panthers (+2 points)

This is truly a rare week for me in moving a team up two points after a loss. However, in reviewing the data and getting a good look at the Panthers on Sunday, I have determined that this is a far better team than one that was rated in the bottom two of the league a couple of weeks ago. If not for an excessive-celebration penalty on the late touchdown versus the Falcons, the Panthers in all likelihood would have made their extra point to win the game and avoid overtime. That would have put them in first place in the NFC South. As it stands, their scoring and yardage data suggest a Power Rating of 20 is appropriate, and let’s be honest, they are a better team with P.J. Walker at quarterback.

2. New Orleans Saints (+1.5 points)

New Orleans played its best game of the year on Sunday, and not coincidentally, running back Alvin Kamara was as big a part of the game plan as he had been in any of the seven prior weeks. That said, the defense did its part as well, holding the Raiders scoreless and to just 183 yards of offense. The Saints are right in the thick of the NFC South race and have a big Monday night game at home against the Ravens looming.

3. Cleveland Browns (+2.5 points)

It’s typically dominant performances that get a team on the exclusive biggest upward movers list, and that is exactly what Cleveland had on Monday night, outgaining the Bengals 440-229 en route to an easy 32-13 Halloween decision. It was a spooky effort for the Browns, who dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. They have four games left until QB Deshaun Watson returns from suspension, and although Jacoby Brissett remains serviceable, Watson could give this team the jolt it needs to make a late playoff push.

Biggest downward movers

1. Las Vegas Raiders (-2.5 points)

A lot of talking heads have been making the case that the Raiders' statistical numbers were better than their perceived strength and that they could break out at any time. Those thoughts were put to rest after the Raiders’ ugly performance in New Orleans on Sunday. They were shut out 24-0, and their supposedly uber-talented offense gained just 183 yards. At this point, the Las Vegas yards-per-play equivalent Power Rating is 18th in the league, almost on par with the overall Power Rating I have for them. In other words, to quote Dennis Green, “They are who we thought they were.”

2. Cincinnati Bengals (-2 points)

I typically don’t deduct any injury points in a game for a wide receiver, unless it is part of a cluster of injuries. However, it was obvious in watching Cincinnati on Monday that QB Joe Burrow is uncomfortable without his guy Ja’Marr Chase in the lineup. Of course, he seemed to be under intense pressure from the Browns’ defensive front all game as well. Cincinnati struggled on both sides of the ball in the ugly MNF loss, and it could prove to be a long few weeks until they get Chase back.

3. Los Angeles Rams (-1.5 points)

I haven’t seen a returning Super Bowl champion in this big of a freefall the next season in a long time. The 2022 Rams are nothing like their predecessor, and it goes to show how the loss of a few key players can disrupt chemistry. In their latest loss, coach Sean McVay’s team was dominated by a familiar opponent, the 49ers, gaining just 223 yards of offense. They have now lost three of four games to fall to 3-4 and in all honesty, their statistical numbers paint an even more bleak story.

Effective Strength Ratings

Buffalo maintains its top spot in the Effective Strength indicator. In fact, the Bills are keeping a healthy separation between themselves and the competition. Their ESR of 15.5 is 5.7 points better than anyone else in the NFL. Second on the list is Philadelphia at 9.8, while Kansas City remains third at 9.0. On the move upward after a pair of big wins is Dallas, with an ESR of 7.3. There is a big drop to the No. 5 team, Baltimore, at 4.1. At the bottom of this list, you’ll find Pittsburgh, at -7.2. To put that in perspective, on a neutral field, using the ESRs as a barometer, the Bills would be expected to be 22.7-point favorites over the Steelers. The Texans are next to the bottom at -6.5, while the Rams have slipped all the way to 30th after their home loss to the 49ers. In terms of teams playing better statistically than their Power Ratings indicate, the Falcons and Jets each rank eight places better on ESR than they do on PR. The Packers and Chargers are the teams on the other end of that argument, still overrated. Two teams to keep an eye on trending upward in the Effective Yards Per Play PRs are San Francisco and Miami, those teams rank No. 2 and No. 5, respectively, after eight weeks.

Bettors Ratings

The Bettors Ratings are a reflection of what the betting markets think about the teams. My calculations take into account the closing lines teams have played to in recent weeks, the power ratings of the opponents they have played, as well as any home/road, injury or other situational adjustments. Buffalo is currently the highest-rated team in my Bettors Ratings, with a BR of -9.5, meaning the Bills are viewed as 9.5 points better than the average team on a neutral field. Shockingly, Tampa Bay remains No. 2 in the BRs, at -6.6. Bettors have proven to be very slow in adjusting to the Bucs’ demise. Kansas City is No. 3 at -6.1, while Philadelphia and Cincinnati round out the top 5. In the case of the BRs, the more negative the better for this rating set. The Panthers are the lowest-rated team in the BRs at +8, 1.8 points worse than the Steelers at +6.2. Bettors overreacted to the Carolina trading of running back Christian McCaffrey, as Carolina has gone 2-0 ATS since against overinflated lines. Keep an eye on Seattle as a team that the betting markets aren’t respecting as much as I am in my Power Ratings.

Recent Ratings

The Recent Ratings also show Buffalo in the lead, not surprisingly considering the Bills have won four straight games. Just beyond them, however, the numbers for recent play get very interesting. Seattle is No. 2 with a RR of 11.7 as no team has surged more than the Seahawks, who have won three straight games by double-digit margins. Kansas City, Philadelphia and Dallas round out the top 5. On the opposite end, the Lions have fallen to their customary spot at the bottom of the recent list after what was an encouraging start to the season. Two divisional playoff combatants from last season, the Rams and Bucs, hold down the Nos. 30 and 31 spots in the recent rankings. Tennessee and New Orleans are also surging and will look to extend their runs of good play in prime-time games this week on Sunday and Monday, respectively.

Schedule Strength Ratings

The Schedule Strength Ratings, reflecting the difficulty of each team’s 2022 schedule to date, shows Pittsburgh as the team that has faced the most difficult slate to open the season. The Steelers are paying the price, too, having slipped to 2-6 after their 35-13 loss at Philadelphia on Sunday. They will take this week off before returning to host the Saints next weekend. Kansas City has played the next-toughest schedule, followed by Detroit, Miami and Arizona. Undefeated Philadelphia has officially played the weakest schedule in the NFL, so tread cautiously when analyzing the actual strength associated with the 7-0 record. Up next for the Eagles is an opponent that won’t raise the bar much — the Texans in Houston on Thursday night. Denver, Seattle, Dallas and Minnesota round out the top 5 for ease of schedule so far.

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