Wild upsets made headlines in Week 15 with the winless Jets getting off the schneid as 17-point underdogs to the Rams and the Bengals defeating the Steelers on “Monday Night Football” after being spotted 14 points. The remaining games on the card did not materially affect playoff seeding as the Chiefs and Packers moved closer to securing their respective No. 1 seeds. The AFC playoff picture remains murky with the Ravens surging late but still not in control of their destiny as the Titans, Browns, Colts and Dolphins all continue to win. For the second straight week, the markets were tight in general as numerous sides and totals were decided late by variance. Influential backers had a mixed week with the hot sides of Denver, New England and San Francisco taking losses while Chicago, Cleveland and many of the early movers were winners. Middles landed in New Orleans, Indianapolis and Washington as well, making it the best week of the season for the arbitrage 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 have also been adjusted for known injuries as we head into Week 16. There is uncertainty around the quarterback situations for Washington, San Francisco and Cincinnati, so those numbers are subjective.
MOVING ON UP!
The three biggest movers to the positive this week are Buffalo, Baltimore and the New York Jets.
Over the last several weeks the Bills have crept into elite status in the NFL based largely on the play of third-year quarterback Josh Allen. The Bills hold the No. 2 seed with a chance to put an exclamation point on their AFC East title this week by punishing the Patriots, who have treated them like the younger brother for 20 years. The Bills offense is clicking on all cylinders. They’ve moved up to the No. 4 most efficient offense in the NFL and are not looking past inferior opponents, as evidenced by their 29-point win in Denver on Saturday. The defense has not played up to expectations this season, although it has shown signs of improvement over the last few weeks. The 2.5% upgrade to their win probability against an average team moves them to No. 7 in the NFL and honestly feels like a conservative adjustment for a team that is primed to make noise in the AFC playoffs.
For the second consecutive week the Ravens make the top 3 teams in terms of upgrades. Respecting that their opposition was weak last weekend, it is undeniable that the Ravens are peaking at the right time. The Baltimore rushing attack is as efficient as it was during the best of times in 2019, opening up opportunities in the passing game and unlocking the true potential of this unit. The Ravens continue to put their COVID-19 issues behind them and get important pieces back on defense, making them a dangerous potential wild-card team. The key question is whether any of the teams ahead of them will slip and allow the Ravens into the playoffs. The 2.0% upgrade this week moves them to No. 10 overall, giving them a power number of + 3.0 considering their body of work this season.
New York Jets: The Jets shocked the betting world and survivor pools on Sunday pulling off the impossible. In reality, the market determined the Jets had 9.5% breakeven probability to win, which was fair, and they hit everything they needed to do to pull off the upset of the Rams. The question is whether they can continue to perform at the level we saw in Week 15, which was by far their best performance of 2020. The offensive and defensive efficiency on display was not good enough to meaningfully change what we know about the Jets from their 13 previous games, but it was enough to upgrade them 2.5% to a win probability of 24% against an average team, which sadly keeps them in 32rd in the NFL despite the fact that they lost possession of the No. 1 pick in the draft to the Jaguars. It’s tough to project fair value on this team the final two weeks, but given that the threat of a winless season is over, it’s reasonable to expect the Jets to play more carefree and enjoy the remainder of the season.
Impressive wins by Cincinnati, Cleveland and the Los Angeles Chargers resulted in small upgrades for these teams to the tune of 1.0% win probability added against an average team. The Titans also were the beneficiaries of an efficient performance, moving up to No. 3 overall in power number, now at + 4.0 points over an average team on a neutral field.
SLIP-SLIDING AWAY …
The three biggest losers of the week were the Steelers, the Rams and the Broncos.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Anyone who watched the Steelers race out to an 11-0 start this season is left scratching their heads now that they have lost three straight games, two coming against truly inferior teams in Washington and Cincinnati. The overall play by the Steelers has been influenced by injuries and variance, which are somewhat random, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is in the midst of his worst stretch as a pro in every measurable way. The defense, which carried the team through Roethlisberger’s injury in 2019, is short-handed and has not turned teams over in recent weeks, making it that much more difficult for the Steelers to win. The result is a continued free fall in terms of power rating as the Steelers dip to + 3.0 based on their “Monday Night Football” defeat. The market has lost all faith in this team with Indianapolis coming to town as a small favorite in a must-win situation for Pittsburgh. A strong performance Sunday will bring support back to this talented team, but questions will linger about Roethlisberger’s ability, and that will depress the market price on Pittsburgh for the rest of the season.
Los Angeles Rams: When you lose to the winless Jets, you pay the price. The Rams came into their Week 15 game uninspired and looking past their opponent, which put them in a bad spot as the Jets clearly were motivated to get their first win of the season. The Rams have the top-graded defense in the NFL, but Sam Darnold and company were more than capable of moving the football on this team, which raises warning flags as the playoffs approach. The Rams offense continues to be hit-or-miss and sits at 21st in the NFL, the worst of all playoff contenders. The loss moves the Rams down to No. 11 overall with a power number of + 2.5 against an average team, their lowest point of the season.
Denver Broncos: A terrible performance by the Broncos at home on Saturday can largely be written off on the basis of the cluster of injuries they have suffered at cornerback. It’s clear the Broncos do not have the defense needed to keep them in games against an elite offense with multiple weapons in the passing game, and their power number has suffered for it. It was known that the Broncos offense was poor, as they rank 31st in the NFL. But their defense, which was carrying the team, has slipped to No. 16 overall, which lowers their power number to -3.5 — 27th overall. The Chargers and their high-flying passing offense are up next for Denver, which spells more trouble for a team that looks ready to throw in the towel. Don’t be surprised if they continue their slide in the coming weeks.
Interesting that the Cardinals get a small downgrade this week despite a big win against the Eagles on the heels of another inefficient offensive performance. The Saints, Giants and Falcons also take meaningful downgrades after losing in Week 15. Time is running out for the Giants if they hope to rescue their playoff hopes, which were bright just two weeks ago.