The major storylines as we come out of Week 14 revolve around the reshuffling of playoff seeding with the Packers and Chiefs moving into the No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences. The Cardinals also slipped into the NFC’s No. 7 seed with a convincing win against the Giants, paired to a sloppy Vikings loss. Washington moved into the No. 4 seed as the current leader in the NFC East with its fourth straight win and third straight upset. We are clearly in the time of the season when the markets are tightening; numerous sides were decided by variance and late-game scores that didn’t affect the win or loss but flipped the winner against the spread, including Green Bay, Kansas City and Baltimore. Influential backers of the Bills were rewarded with a superlative second-half performance, which was enough to bust the Wong Teaser leg of the Steelers for a number of players.
The current power numbers and rankings across the NFL are tabulated here. These are my rankings based on a weighted sum of offense and defensive efficiency as measured by EPA per play with offense up-weighted relative to defense and passing up-weighted relative to running. These rankings reflect a two-thirds weight on 2020 game data and one-third weight on the market consensus win total prior, generally. They also have been adjusted for known injuries as we head into Week 15. The Saints’ power number assumes that Drew Brees will return as the starting quarterback, but this is entirely speculative as he is still recovering from a serious rib injury.
Bear down for Mitch Trubisky! The enthusiasm for Trubisky has been a little much this week despite his very strong performance on Sunday. It is clear that the offense has a much higher ceiling with Trubisky than with Nick Foles. However, Trubisky’s propensity for critical mistakes is still too much to take the Bears seriously as a true contender. Chicago’s defense also had a vintage performance Sunday and on the heels of their most efficient day, against a good quarterback no less, the Bears have earned an upgrade to both units and move up two spots to No. 22. Chicago now has a 43% win probability against an average team on a neutral field and has closed the gap on their next opponent, the Minnesota Vikings, but not as much as the market has adjusted the Bears in a potential overreaction spot for Week 15. Market number at the time of this article is + 3.5 in Minnesota, when the power numbers would suggest a gap of 5.5 points between these teams.
It was fair speculation to wonder how far Dallas would fall in the power rankings after failing to cover in two high-profile games in which they were well-supported in the betting market, against Washington and Baltimore. Market makers put pressure on the Cowboys price in Week 14 with the line against the Cincinnati Bengals getting bet down from + 3.5 to + 3 during the week. However, the Cowboys proved they don’t belong in the basement of NFL teams as the Bengals showed us how Andy Dalton, with no pressure in a clean pocket, can still play quarterback at the NFL level. Similarly the Dallas defense, which has been much maligned this season, executed a great game plan, holding the Bengals to one touchdown. The performance was good enough to net the Cowboys a 2.5% win probability increase against an average team, which moves them up to a power number of -4.0 (an increase of 1.5 points), but they stay put at No. 29.
The most entertaining game of the week, possibly the season, was played on Monday night with the Ravens securing a crucial victory over the Browns. On the back of Lamar Jackson’s contributions in the running game, the Ravens have snapped out of their offensive funk and have risen to the No. 14 offense in the league after being as low as No. 23 midseason. Their defense was uncharacteristically poor Monday, but the net effect of their win against a quality opponent was a 2.5% increase in their expected win percentage against an average NFL team. They are now + 2.5 points better than average for the season and No. 11 in the NFL with respect to overall power number.
Seattle and Tennessee move back into the second tier of contenders after convincing wins over bad teams. Denver also put together a complete performance, moving the Broncos up 2.3% and two spots to No. 26.
New England Patriots:
What a difference a few days make as Bill Belichick’s team no-showed on “Thursday Night Football” against the Rams after destroying the Chargers in the same Los Angeles stadium a week earlier. The offensive weaknesses were exposed early and often by the Rams defense, which remains the best in the NFL, and questions swirl as to whether Cam Newton will remain the starter for the Patriots, considering they are out of realistic playoff contention and need to evaluate their roster for next season. Their defense continues to improve relative to the first half of 2020, but the offense is down to No. 23 in the NFL, dragging their overall ranking down four slots to No. 19. The Patriots would be 1.5-point dogs to an average team with only a 47% win probability in their current form. Additional downgrading may be warranted if the bottom of the roster gets more playing time.
The undefeated start feels far in the rearview mirror now as the Steelers dropped their second consecutive game and continue to be plagued by receiver drops and injuries on defense. Their poor second half against the Bills not only cost them the win on Sunday night but also the AFC’s No. 1 seed, now held by the Chiefs. Only the top seed in each league gets a first-round playoff bye under the new format. In addition to Ben Roethlisberger getting no help from his usually reliable receiving corps, his accuracy and decision-making are in question considering his lackluster performances in recent weeks. The Steelers have slid two slots for the second consecutive week and are now No. 6 in the NFL with an updated power number of + 3.5. Thankfully for Mike Tomlin’s crew, they have an ideal bounce-back spot on deck against the helpless Bengals. As 12-point favorites, it is difficult to make the case that this is the buy-low spot on Pittsburgh, but a comfortable win in Cincinnati would do great things to pull this team out of its tailspin.
San Francisco 49ers:
For weeks the 49ers overperformed despite the injury bug that has taken more starters out of action this season than any other team, but that run of positive variance has come to an end as a lower-tier team, the Washington Football Team, beat the Niners despite losing their starting quarterback on Sunday. Nick Mullens has not been able to hold the line at quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo’s absence, and the solid game-planning abilities of coach Kyle Shanahan are no longer resulting in efficient offense for San Francisco. The 49ers are now the 22nd-best offense in the NFL, and their power number is down to it’s season-low of -3.0. This may be the ideal buy-low spot for San Francisco, however, as the 49ers draw the Cowboys in Week 15, a team with a defense that is a huge step down relative to recent competition and a quarterback who melts under pressure. The market is excited about a bounce-back day for San Francisco as we’ve seen the opening number of -1 get bet out to almost -3 so far. If the 49ers reward their backers, expect them to be a popular play during the final two weeks of the season.
It was a bad week to be a bad team in Week 14 with the Jets, Giants, Texans and Bengals all giving back more than 2% win probability on the heels of uncompetitive performances. It is unclear what will motivate the bottom teams in the league going forward, but it’s a fair bet that double-digit spreads will be available for anyone willing to back the dregs of the NFL.