The drama thickens in the playoff races as we have huge questions still to be answered in both conferences regarding who will even be in the 14-team field, let alone the seeding and matchups. The three biggest winners last weekend were the Chiefs, who secured the AFC’s No. 1 seed, the Steelers, who clinched a home playoff game by winning the AFC North, and the Ravens, who grabbed a spot (for now) thanks to losses by the Colts and Browns. The Packers seemed like they also were poised to clinch the No. 1 seed, but wins by the Seahawks and Saints have kept them from clinching ahead of a frisky matchup against the Bears in Week 17. Influential action on heavy favorites, including Tampa Bay, Chicago and Buffalo, won with virtually no sweat. The major market moves on totals were rewarded in general with some steam chasers getting exceptionally lucky on the Miami Over and the Dallas Over. Steam players got burned on the Green Bay Under with the total landing on 54 after getting beaten down during the week from 56 to 53 at kickoff.
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 17. There’s uncertainty around the quarterback situations for Washington, Arizona and the Rams, so those numbers are subjective.
MOVING ON UP!
The three biggest movers to the positive this week are Tampa Bay, Chicago and Dallas.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Coming off of their most complete performance of the season, the Bucs get a healthy upgrade in both offensive and defensive rating and are playing their best football at the optimal time. Their late-season surge obviously has been influenced by their opponents. Detroit was playing with numerous backups and offered no real test for Tampa in Week 16, but nevertheless the offense was a well-oiled machine with all of their weapons being used perfectly. Tampa now has the No. 5-ranked offense, No. 4-ranked defense and is No. 3 overall with a win percentage against an average team of 68%, up from 64% in Week 15. This moves their power number up to + 4.5 and makes the Bucs the proverbial team no one wants to play in the NFC playoffs.
The Bears have put together a solid winning streak that has them back in the playoff hunt, where they control their destiny. A Week 17 win over the rival Packers would secure the second playoff berth of the Mitch Trubisky-Matt Nagy era, which is wild considering the state of this team at midseason. Many of the Bears’ wins in their current streak were unimpressive in terms of efficiency until Week 16, when both the offense and defense flexed against the hapless Jaguars in their best game of the season. It is clear that the Bears offense has a much higher ceiling with Trubisky taking snaps, however, it is not obvious whether this is sustainable against higher-quality opponents. The test against the division champion Packers on Sunday will reveal a lot about this team, but for the time being they’ve earned a 2.5% upgrade and would have a 47% win probability against an average team on a neutral field. This moves them to No. 19 overall in terms of power number at -1.5 points against an average team.
How bout them Cowboys!?! A team that was left for dead after an embarrassing loss on Thanksgiving is somehow still alive to win the NFC East and host a playoff game, thanks to the weakness of the division. The Cowboys pulled off an impressive upset over the Eagles on Sunday in what amounted to an elimination game. Now they find themselves healthy favorites over the Giants in Week 17. A win would put them in the playoffs if Washington loses at Philadelphia on Sunday night. But it is undeniable that the Dallas offense has recaptured the potential that was lost in the wake of Dak Prescott’s season-ending injury. The defense is still near the league bottom, but overall the team has risen to No. 27 in the NFL and gets a 2.5% upgrade based on its Week 16 performance, putting them at a 37% win probability against an average team and giving them a power number of -3.5 heading into the finale.
The New York Jets are out of the cellar for the first time this season on the back of their second straight win. They still have a -7 power number but are narrowly ahead of Jacksonville in terms of win probability, which is an achievement considering how low they sunk this season being compared to the all-time worst teams.
SLIP-SLIDING AWAY …
The three biggest losers of the week were Detroit, Arizona and Tennessee.
To a degree, it’s unfair to downgrade the Lions substantially based on one week when they were missing their interim head coach because of COVID-19 protocols. On the other hand, the talent and effort the Lions played with in Week 16 was among the least competitive we’ve seen in the NFL in 2020. Matthew Stafford sustained another injury and is likely done for the season and with the head coach and general manager already having been fired, it is unclear if the players are even motivated to fight for 2021 roster spots as a house-cleaning is coming. The Lions have performed so poorly down the stretch that they have the 22nd-ranked offense and the 32nd-ranked defense. Their power number has slid to -4.0, which is quite low for a team that was expected to win seven or more games this season and was a dark horse to win the NFC North. Their Week 17 game does not reflect an overreaction to back the Lions either as they aren’t even getting 7 points against the Vikings who also were eliminated from playoff contention.
The most egregious letdown performance of the week goes to the Cardinals who hosted a 49ers team with nothing to play for and lost outright, putting their playoff hopes in the balance. Coach Kliff Kingsbury rolled out an uninspiring game plan, and the Cardinals were pushed around in all phases of a game they had to win, which brings many questions to the table about their ability to compete for or in the playoffs. Both the offense and defense were inefficient and have been downgraded based on this performance, with each now ranked No. 13 in the NFL. Overall, the Cardinals slide to No. 14 with an expected win percentage against an average team of 52% which is only good enough for a 1.0 power number and is their lowest of the season at the worst possible time. Week 17 may be a reasonable buy-low spot on the Cardinals as they draw a wounded Rams team that will be starting a rookie replacement quarterback and has also been playing below its talent level of late.
To a degree, it’s fair to excuse the Titans’ performance on Sunday night based on the weather conditions in Green Bay. But it was well known that snow was in the forecast and the Titans looked completely unprepared with their offensive lineman unable to move or pass block, which led to an offensive unraveling. Similarly the defenders were out of their element, and adding stress to an already bad defense was a recipe for disaster against the extremely efficient Packers. Even considering the poor numbers the Titans recorded Sunday, the offense still ranks No. 2 on the season, but the woeful defense is down to No. 28. That’s a major problem as the Titans could face any number of high-flying offenses in the AFC playoffs. Their ranking falls to No. 7 overall with a power number of + 3.0. Thankfully the Titans draw a similarly poor defense in the Texans in Week 17, which can help them clinch the AFC South and give them a home playoff game on wild-card weekend.
Cleveland gets a downgrade off its letdown performance against the Jets. The Browns’ COVID-19 absences were temporary, but the issues on defense remain glaring and they face elimination from playoff contention with a loss to the Steelers in Week 17 despite their terrific season. The Patriots also are as low as they’ve been rated in 20 years coming off an embarrassing showing in Week 16. The vision and the future for this team is murky, which few would have seen coming at this time last year. But so it goes in the NFL. Regression comes for everyone, even Bill Belichick.