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Strength ratings show NFL's 20 best in last 20 years

By Steve Makinen  () 

With most live sports on hiatus, we’ve had many opportunities to reminisce, especially since many networks have been replaying greatest games from days gone by. Having been in the sports betting industry since 2000 and possessing data going back even further, I’m starting a series looking back at some of the best teams from my time spent building strength ratings. Which 21st-century teams have been the best, according to my Effective Strength Ratings? It will provide some great food for thought and debate.

 

Before unveiling the list of the top 20 NFL teams of the last 20 years, I’ll share the basis for the ratings. Essentially, they are a statistical calculation that quantifies the margin by which a team has outplayed its competition. My Effective Strength Ratings are a power ranking that can be used to create a neutral-field point spread between teams, even from different seasons. In fact, for the top two teams on the list, it could be determined that the 2007-08 New England Patriots would theoretically have been 4.8-point favorites over the 2013-14 Seattle Seahawks. The formula I have used to create these ratings has not changed in the 20 years I have done them, an important factor when comparing teams from different seasons.

 

These ratings are 100% statistically based and are not impacted by playoff accomplishments. Exactly half of these teams, or 10, won Super Bowls. As always, your feedback is welcome.

 

Top 20 NFL Teams Since 2000 by Effective Strength Ratings

 

1. 2007-08 New England: + 18.4

Record: 18-1 SU and 10-9 ATS

Playoff fortunes: Lost in Super Bowl

Season recap: Yes, this is the team that lost in Super Bowl XLII to the Giants, depriving the Patriots of becoming the only team with an undefeated season since the 1972 Dolphins. They outscored opponents by a 34.5-17.0 margin and won their first eight games against the spread. Unfortunately for bettors, oddsmakers turned the tables in the second half of the season by dramatically overinflating New England’s lines. The result was a 2-9 ATS finish, including 0-3 ATS in the playoffs and an eventual loss in the big game.

 

2. 2013-14 Seattle: + 13.6

Record: 16-3 SU and 13-6 ATS

Playoff fortunes: Won Super Bowl

Season recap: Like many franchises, the Seahawks live with the regret of winning only a single Super Bowl in what has been a pretty dominant era under coach Pete Carroll. Fittingly, the Seattle team that took home the Lombardi Trophy was its statistically best. This was QB Russell Wilson’s second season, and Seattle relied heavily on RB Marshawn Lynch. But its biggest strength was the Legion of Boom defense, the top-ranked unit in the league. The Seahawks were a healthy 13-6 ATS, highlighted by a 43-8 win over Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII.

 

3. 2019-20 Baltimore: + 13.6

Record: 14-3 SU and 10-6-1 ATS

Playoff fortunes: Lost in divisional round

Season recap: The Ravens’ loss to the Titans in the divisional round was even more improbable when considering they were the third-best statistical team of the last 20 seasons. Riding QB Lamar Jackson’s MVP season, the Ravens boasted the league’s top-ranked offense and third-ranked defense. Baltimore was actually playing its best football of the season when the playoffs arrived in January, having won its last 12 games while going 9-2-1 ATS and scoring 33 PPG. This is arguably the most wasted regular-season effort of the century.

 

4. 2001-02 St. Louis: + 13.4

Record: 16-3 SU and 10-8-1 ATS

Playoff fortunes: Lost in Super Bowl

Season recap: This team was the last of the Kurt Warner era featuring the “Greatest Show on Turf.” The Rams were trying to win their second Super Bowl in three years when they were upset 20-17 by New England as 14-point favorites. The franchise has not won a title since. The Rams were highly respected by oddsmakers. After a three-point win and push in the season opener at Philadelphia, they didn’t play to a favorite line of fewer than six points the rest of the way. This was the No. 2-ranked offense of the 21st century, with Warner throwing for 4,830 yards and RB Marshall Faulk totaling 2,147 yards from scrimmage.

 

5. 2010-11 New England: + 13.3

Record: 14-3 SU and 10-6-1 ATS

Playoff fortunes: Lost in divisional round

Season recap: You’re probably surprised to see a team that was so disappointing in the playoffs check in as New England’s second-highest-rated squad statistically. Coming off a 14-2 regular season, the heavily favored Patriots (-9) were upset by Mark Sanchez and the Jets in the divisional round. This was another major surprise from a team that had been playing great football heading into the postseason, riding an eight-game winning streak in which it had scored at least 30 points each game. While New England returned to the Super Bowl the next season, it would be four years until it won another.

 

6. 2004-05 New England: + 12.5

Record: 17-2 SU and 13-4-2 ATS

Playoff fortunes: Won Super Bowl

Season recap: This Patriots team repeated in the Super Bowl, edging Philadelphia 24-21 while disappointing bettors who laid the points in that contest. It was the second straight New England team that failed to reward bettors in the biggest game, despite owning a plus-3 turnover edge over the Eagles. But overall, coach Bill Belichick’s team enjoyed a 13-4-2 ATS record, following up an even better 15-4 ATS mark the previous season. Strangely, QB Tom Brady posted only modest numbers for this team (3,692 yards, 28-14 TD-INT ratio). The offense relied more heavily on the running game, with RB Corey Dillon gaining 1,635 yards.

 

7. 2012-13 New England: + 12

Record: 13-5 SU and 10-7-1 ATS

Playoff fortunes: Lost in AFC championship

Season recap: The 2012-13 Patriots had the top-ranked offense in the NFL and scored 49 or more points three times yet came up short in the AFC title game, falling 28-13 to the Ravens as eight-point home favorites. It was another solid season for the franchise, even at the betting window, as it posted a 10-7-1 ATS mark. The offensive stars were Tom Brady (4,827 yards, 34-8 TD-INT ratio), Stevan Ridley (1,263 yards, 12 TDs) and Wes Welker (118 receptions). The defense ranked 25th in the NFL in yardage, though, perhaps a sign that the Patriots were ripe for a playoff upset.

 

8. 2000-01 Baltimore: + 12

Record: 16-4 SU and 14-5-1 ATS

Playoff fortunes: Won Super Bowl

Season recap: Although this Super Bowl champion team ranked only No. 5 over the last 20 years in terms of its statistical defense, it can be argued that by the end of the season, it boasted the best defensive unit of the 21st century. During the four-game playoff sweep, which included a 34-7 Super Bowl win over the New York Giants, Baltimore allowed just 23 total points and 209.8 YPG. The Ravens rewarded bettors with a 4-0 ATS postseason run and finished the season at a highly profitable 14-5-1 ATS. The offense, which featured backup QB Trent Dilfer in the Super Bowl along with RB Jamal Lewis, took an obvious back seat to LB Ray Lewis and the defensive unit.

 

9. 2014-15 New England: + 11.6

Record: 15-4 SU and 11-8 ATS

Playoff fortunes: Won Super Bowl

Season recap: This team broke the Patriots’ 10-year championship drought by beating Seattle 28-24 in Super Bowl XLIX. New England won as a one-point underdog despite having walloped Indianapolis 45-7 in the AFC title game. Having finished No. 4 in scoring offense and No. 8 in scoring defense and with an ATS record of 11-8, this wasn’t one of the most dominant scrimmage teams in the Patriots’ run. But it was one of the most efficient and fortunate, enjoying a plus-14 turnover differential and winning six games by 10 or fewer points. Quarterback Tom Brady carried the offense, evidenced by RB Jonas Gray leading the team with just 412 yards rushing.

 

10. 2007-08 Indianapolis: + 11.5

Record: 13-4 SU and 9-8 ATS

Playoff fortunes: Lost in divisional round

Season recap: Despite rising from No. 23 to No. 1 in NFL scoring defense, the Colts were unable to repeat their Super Bowl title from the previous season. Instead, after outscoring opponents by an average of double digits and lining up as 10.5-point favorites in the divisional round, they were upset 28-24 by the Chargers. The cast of characters was excellent, with QB Peyton Manning, RB Joseph Addai and WR Reggie Wayne. But the handwriting may have been on the wall for a playoff collapse when Indy went just 3-5 ATS in its final eight regular-season games.

 

11. 2002-03 Tampa Bay: + 11.3

Record: 15-4 SU and 13-6 ATS

Playoff fortunes: Won Super Bowl

Season recap: Jon Gruden won the Super Bowl in the first of his seven seasons in Tampa after taking over for Tony Dungy, whose playoff failures were haunting the franchise. This team was similar to the 2000-01 Ravens — a modest offensive team with a dominant, top-ranked defense. Surely you remember the names from that unit, such as Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Simeon Rice and Ronde Barber. It’s much easier to forget the top contributors on offense, such as QB Brad Johnson. After ripping through San Francisco and Philadelphia in the NFC playoffs, Gruden’s Bucs beat Oakland 48-21 to win Super Bowl XXXVII. They finished 13-6 ATS, winning their final four games by 21 PPG.

 

12. 2009-10 New Orleans: + 11.2

Record: 16-3 SU and 10-9 ATS

Playoff fortunes: Won Super Bowl

Season recap: The Saints’ only Super Bowl appearance came in the 2009-10 season. Coach Sean Payton’s team was fortunate to win it all as, on paper, the Saints played their best football in the first six weeks of the season, going undefeated both SU and ATS while scoring 45 or more points four times. For the rest of the campaign they were just 4-9 ATS. Quarterback Drew Brees captured the headlines as well as the MVP trophy in the 31-17 Super Bowl win over Indianapolis.

 

13. 2010-11 Green Bay: + 11.1

Record: 14-6 SU and 13-7 ATS

Playoff fortunes: Won Super Bowl

Season recap: Other Packers teams over the last 20 years posted better won-lost records, but the 2010-11 group that entered the playoffs as the No. 6 seed in the NFC and went on to win the Super Bowl rated highest statistically. In his third season as the starter, QB Aaron Rodgers posted only a 28-11 TD-INT ratio in 15 regular-season games. But he elevated his game to new heights in the postseason, throwing nine TD passes in a four-game SU and ATS sweep for coach Mike McCarthy’s team. Rodgers hasn’t returned to the Super Bowl since despite seven playoff appearances. Green Bay went 11-3 ATS in its final 14 games.

 

14. 2005-06 Indianapolis: + 11

Record: 14-3 SU and 9-7-1 ATS

Playoff fortunes: Lost in divisional round

Season recap: The 2005-06 season was the pinnacle of frustration for a Colts franchise that seemed that it had enough in place to win a title. Coming off a 37-year-best 14-2 regular season and expectations of the Super Bowl, Indianapolis was upset by Pittsburgh 21-18 as a 10-point home favorite in the divisional round. While they won the Lombardi Trophy a year later, the way the Colts ended the 2005-06 season made it seem as if a title would never come despite an incredible core of QB Peyton Manning, RB Edgerrin James and WRs Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. After starting 13-0, Indy finished 1-3 SU and 0-4 ATS.

 

15. 2017-18 Philadelphia: + 11

Record: 16-3 SU and 13-6 ATS

Playoff fortunes: Won Super Bowl

Season recap: The Super Bowl champion Eagles boasted the No. 3-ranked offense and the No. 4-ranked defense en route to winning 16 of 19 games. They were also an impressive 13-6 ATS, highlighted by an eight-game ATS winning streak in October and November and a perfect 3-0 ATS run through the playoffs. Perhaps most impressive, the point spread in the 41-33 win over New England in Super Bowl LII was the biggest underdog line (+ 4.5) Philadelphia faced all season. Carson Wentz started the season, going 13 games at quarterback before being lost to injury. Nick Foles then took the reins and led the Eagles to a title while capturing SB MVP honors.

 

16. 2016-17 New England: + 10.9

Record: 17-2 SU and 16-3 ATS

Playoff fortunes: Won Super Bowl

Season recap: The last of the six New England teams on the top 20 list is the 2016-17 Super Bowl champion squad that came back from a 28-3 deficit to Atlanta. This was perhaps the Patriots’ most impressive effort. Besides the record comeback in Super Bowl LI, they were 16-3 ATS and won their final nine games outright and final eight against the Vegas number. They had the top-ranked defense in the NFL and the third-ranked offense. Tom Brady threw 28 TD passes against just 2 INTs in 12 regular-season starts. RB LeGarrette Blount found the end zone 18 times.

 

17. 2000-01 Oakland: + 10.8

Record: 13-5 SU and 12-6 ATS

Playoff fortunes: Lost in AFC championship

Season recap: The first year of the century was Oakland’s best in the regular season, as coach Jon Gruden’s team went 12-4 SU and 11-5 ATS. The Raiders eventually lost 16-3 at home to Baltimore in the AFC title contest, but it was the start of a three-year playoff run. Gruden’s team was led by QB Rich Gannon, RB Tyrone Wheatley and WR Tim Brown on the league’s No. 3-ranked offense.

 

18. 2004-05 Indianapolis: + 10.8

Record: 13-5 SU and 10-7-1 ATS

Playoff fortunes: Lost in divisional round

Season recap: Indianapolis made the top 20 list three times with teams spanning a four-year period. The 2004-05 team was the first that really stepped into the elite category. The Colts had the NFL’s top-ranked offense, scoring 32.6 PPG while topping the 40-point mark six times. It was QB Peyton Manning’s best season with the Colts, as he threw for 4,557 yards with 49 TD passes and an incredible 9.2 yards per attempt. But again, a premature playoff exit, a 20-3 loss to New England, cost the team a shot at the Lombardi Trophy.

 

19. 2011-12 New Orleans: + 10.7

Record: 14-4 SU and 13-5 ATS

Playoff fortunes: Lost in divisional round

Season recap: The Saints have had four 13-3 regular seasons in the last 11 years. In two of those years, they had to play on wild-card weekend. After the 2011 campaign, coach Sean Payton’s team rolled in its first playoff contest, putting up 45 points on the Lions. The next week the Saints put up 32, only to fall short at San Francisco, snapping a nine-game SU and ATS winning streak. New Orleans, which had the No. 2 offense in the league, was an underdog only once in 18 games yet posted an impressive 13-5 ATS record.

 

20. 2019-20 Kansas City: + 10.6

Record: 15-4 SU and 14-5 ATS

Playoff fortunes: Won Super Bowl

Season recap: The league’s most recent champion is the final team on my top 20 list. Though it seems like longer, it was only three months ago that Kansas City captured its first Super Bowl title behind the amazing exploits of QB Patrick Mahomes. Like most title teams, Kansas City was a godsend for bettors, going 14-5 ATS, including 3-0 ATS through the playoffs and a perfect 9-0 SU and ATS to end the season. Coach Andy Reid’s team scored 39 PPG in the playoffs. Although they wound up No. 5 on offense and No. 7 on defense, the Chiefs saved their best football for the right time.

 

Those were the overall Effective Strength Ratings. Here are the top 10 offensive and defensive teams of the last 20 years using my play-by-play calculations:

 

Top 10 Offensive Teams (Per Play)

1. 2000-01 St. Louis: + 1.64 — Lost in wild-card round

2. 2001-02 St. Louis: + 1.25 — Lost in Super Bowl

3. 2016-17 Atlanta: + 1.23 — Lost in Super Bowl

4. 2004-05 Indianapolis: + 1.15 — Lost in divisional round

5. 2000-01 Minnesota: + 1.14 — Lost in NFC championship

6. 2004-05 Minnesota: + 1.11 — Lost in divisional round

7. 2018-19 Kansas City: + 1.1 — Lost in AFC championship

8. 2011-12 New Orleans: + 0.98 — Lost in divisional round

9. 2019-20 Dallas: + 0.95 — Missed playoffs

10. 2002-03 Kansas City: + 0.95 –— Missed playoffs

 

Top 10 Defensive Teams (Per Play)

1. 2018-19 Baltimore: -1.03 — Lost in wild-card round

2. 2008-09 Pittsburgh: -0.99 — Won Super Bowl

3. 2015-16 Denver: -0.92 — Won Super Bowl

4. 2002-03 Tampa Bay: -0.92 — Won Super Bowl

5. 2000-01 Baltimore: -0.86 — Won Super Bowl

6. 2009-10 New York Jets: -0.85 — Lost in AFC championship

7. 2016-17 Denver: -0.84 — Missed playoffs

8. 2003-04 Buffalo: -0.83 — Missed playoffs

9. 2004-05 Washington: -0.82 — Missed playoffs

10. 2013-14 New York Giants: -0.81 — Missed playoffs

 

I’ll continue this series next week with a look at college football’s top teams of the 21st century.

 

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