NFL Strength Ratings update: Six title contenders separate from the pack

December 27, 2022 04:20 PM
Josh_Allen_new

The longevity of a 17-game NFL schedule has the innate ability to separate the true contenders from the pretenders. After 15 games for each team, it’s clear that three top contenders from each conference have emerged. Does that mean we can project a potential Super Bowl matchup among these teams? Not necessarily. Remember, in last year’s playoffs, two #4 seeds emerged from the proceedings to take the stage at Super Bowl 57. In order for that to happen this year, there would have to be some significant playoff upsets. That said, anyone trying to lock in on some Super Bowl futures’ wagers should understand that six teams currently boast power ratings between 28.5-31.5 on my scale, while no other team is shown better than 26.5. That is about as clear of a separation as we’ll tend to see at this point in a season. Can it change over the final two weeks of the season? Sure, but I wouldn’t count on it.

For as much as Buffalo, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Dallas seem poised to make playoff runs, there are a few other teams that could be finally starting to figure some things out, and are capable of putting a scare into the frontrunners. In the AFC, those teams would be Jacksonville and the Chargers, both winners of three straight games, and both boasting young starting quarterbacks that figure to be future stars. In the NFC, surely none of the top teams want to see QB Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in a wild-card matchup. They have also won three straight to get to 7-8 and are focused on “running the table” to sneak into the postseason party. All three of these teams were written off a month ago.

It's been a very entertaining season filled with plenty of plot twists and turns, but we aren’t done yet, as surely the final two weeks of the season will only add to the drama. Let’s take a look at the current status of all my strength indicators as we get ready for an impactful Week 17 slate.

Power Ratings – #1 Buffalo starting to look the part again

All teams go through peaks and valleys throughout the season. At one point, probably around Thanksgiving, I began questioning Buffalo’s legitimacy for title contention this season, as the Bills seemed to be going through the motions and had been impacted by injuries. The AFC’s current #1 seed has picked it up since, winning a sixth straight game last week at Chicago in blowout fashion. The big test for Head Coach Sean McDermott’s team comes Monday night, however, when they travel to Cincinnati. A loss there could make the postseason title quest much tougher, as they would likely have to win two games on the road. Buffalo is favored in the contest, despite the fact that the Bengals are red-hot themselves, having won seven straight games. The contest figures to be the best Monday Night Football has seen in a while. Kansas City is my #2 team in the Power Ratings and will be watching the result of this key game closely. Philadelphia is my top NFC-rated team right now, despite coming off the loss at Dallas. The Eagles played that game without QB Jalen Hurts and really couldn’t be dropped much after a game effort. San Francisco is the #2 team in the NFC and #4 overall, playing the best defense in football right now. Cincinnati is #5, and Dallas is #6. The problem for the Cowboys would figure to be having to play in a wild-card spot unless they can somehow win both games while the Eagles lose both.

Biggest upward movers after week 16:

  1. San Francisco (+2.5 points): I’m not sure if the 49ers were worth a 2.5-point move upward after their blowout win over the Commanders this past Sunday, or whether I was simply making up for an earlier mistake of not having them rated high enough. In any case, San Francisco is rolling, particularly on defense, as they have allowed just 12.1 PPG during the current 8-game winning streak. Quarterback Brock Purdy is also alleviating concerns on a weekly basis about his worthiness of taking this team all the way.
  2. LA Rams (+1.5 points): The Rams performed a Christmas Day miracle, putting up 51 points on a listless Denver team after failing to top the 24-point mark since Week 2. QB Baker Mayfield seems to have found a permanent home in L.A. leading his team to a 2-1 record in his three games played since being acquired. All that’s left for Head Coach Sean McVay’s team is a chance to put a dent in the seasons of the Chargers and Seahawks.
  3. Houston (+1.5 points): It’s always rewarding to see the league’s bottom feeders still putting in effort in the closing weeks of the season. Houston is doing just that, having won three straight games against the spread as we enter week 17. The latest triumph was an outright victory at Tennessee. One thing to watch with the Texans going forward—they have already lost six games by 8-points or less, meaning they will be one of the teams to watch for a massive improvement in 2023.

Biggest downward movers:

  1. Denver (-2 points): I’m not sure I can ever remember a more disastrous season for a team than the one we are witnessing in Denver. Not only have the Broncos underachieved to the tune of a 4-11 record, but their huge quarterback trade acquisition has also been awful. They just got blown out on Christmas Day in an ugly display marred by internal fights off the field. To top it off, the franchise fired its head coach after less than a full season. At this point, a bettor would be crazy to back the Broncos, regardless of how big the point spreads get.
  2. Indianapolis (-1.5 points): Since bolting out to a 33-point lead on the Vikings in Week 15, the Colts have been outscored 59-6 and look every bit the team that is struggling with quarterback play, the loss of its franchise running back to injury, and an inexperienced interim Head Coach. If you recall, Indy was a popular pick to take over the AFC South in 2022, instead, they will be playing out the string in their final two games with a 4-10-1 record, having lost eight of their last nine games.
  3. Detroit (-1.5 points): Although it didn’t damage their playoff prospects too greatly, Detroit’s brutal 37-23 loss at Carolina had to be sobering for all of the fans and experts who have been singing the praises of Head Coach Dan Campbell’s team over the last month or so. The loss snapped winning streaks of three games outright and seven games ATS. If you’re wondering why a 37-23 loss would be described as “brutal,” consider that the Lions allowed 570 yards to the Panthers, 320 on the ground.

Effective Strength Ratings

The Effective Strength Ratings (ESR) are important at this time of the season because they show how strong a team is statistically. Power Ratings (PR) and Bettors' Ratings (BR) sometimes don’t accurately depict that. Buffalo has regained its top spot in the Effective Strength indicator after its recent surge, and in fact, the Bills keep a pretty significant separation between themselves and the rest of the league. Their ESR of 10.3 is 1.8 points better than anyone else in the NFL at this point. Second on the list are Philadelphia and Dallas at 8.5, while San Francisco has moved into fourth at 7.8. Kansas City is all the way down at #5, perhaps an accurate reflection of a team that is just 6-9 ATS. I mentioned earlier that six teams have separated themselves on the Power Ratings. The same can be said about the ESRs, with Cincinnati’s #6 ratings of 5.8 being a full 2.3 points better than the next team on the list Baltimore. At the bottom of this list, you’ll find Houston at -6.9, just a tic behind Indianapolis at -6.8. Chicago sits at #30 with a rating of -5.2. To properly apply these numbers, currently, on a neutral field, using the ESRs as a barometer, the Bills would be expected as 16.9-point favorites over the Texans. In terms of teams playing better statistically than their Power Ratings indicate after Week 9, the Giants and Commanders each rank at least six places better on ESR than they do on PR. The Steelers and Packers are the most “overrated” teams on the other end of that argument, showing a PR ranking 7 spots higher than their ESR. Two teams to keep an eye on trending upward in the Effective Yards Per Play PRs are New Orleans and Miami, as both have proven to be better on a yards-per-play basis than on the scoreboard.

Bettors Ratings

As a reminder, the Bettors' Ratings are a reflection of what the betting markets think about pro football teams in 2022. My calculations take into account the closing lines to which teams have played in recent weeks, the power ratings of the opponents they have played, as well as any home/road, injury, or other situational adjustments I factor in. Kansas City is currently the highest-rated team in my Bettors’ Ratings, with a BR of -7.8, meaning the Chiefs are viewed as almost 8 points better than the average NFL team right now on a neutral field. Philadelphia climbs to the #2 spot in the BRs at -7, and Dallas is third in line at -6. The Bills finally check in at #4, as bettors have backed off of their early-season support in large measure. The Texans are easily the lowest-rated team in the BRs at +7.5, 2.9 points worse than the Cardinals at +4.6. Jacksonville and the Chargers are teams that the betting markets aren’t respecting as much as I am on my Power Ratings, as both rank 11 spots higher on my PRs than in the markets. On the opposite side, there are two teams whose BRs rank at least 10 spots higher than their actual strength ratings, and those are the Commanders and Titans.

Recent Ratings

The Recent Ratings now show San Francisco (15.2) in the lead, not surprising considering the 49ers have won eight straight games, including six in a row ATS. Jacksonville is #2 with a RR of 13.9, and they have their sights set on the AFC South title. Up next for the Jaguars is a Sunday tilt with Houston, but in Week 18 comes a winner-take-all battle versus Tennessee. Beyond that, you’ll see that Philadelphia, the Rams, and Cincinnati rounding out the top five for recent play. On the opposite end, note that the Colts have fallen to the bottom of the recent list. Denver sits at #31, while Tampa Bay, despite its come-from-behind win on Sunday, occupies the #30 spot. The Bucs continue to lead the NFC South Division but will have to play much better to both clinch a playoff berth and have any chance at a win once there.

Schedule Strength Ratings

The Schedule Strength Ratings reflect the difficulty of each team’s 2022 schedule to date. It shows Miami as the team that has faced the most difficult slate to open the campaign, but by the slightest of margins over the Jets. Both teams are on the road in tough spots this week before closing out the regular season against one another. Chicago has played the next toughest schedule, followed by Pittsburgh and Jacksonville. Interestingly, the top three power-rated teams in the NFC have played the three weakest schedules in the league, with San Francisco at #32, Philadelphia at #31, and Dallas at #30. Is this the potential chink in the armor that could provide hope for the rest of the eventual playoff qualifying field in that conference? Are those teams ready for high-stress games? We’ll see, and if it does turn out to be a problem, don’t overlook Kansas City as well, as the Chiefs have played the fourth weakest schedule and close the season with a home game versus Denver and at Las Vegas, not exactly a treacherous road.

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