Ranking the NFL's Divisions (11/08/16)

By Frank Brank @realfbra
Below are Prediction Machine's NFL Divisonal Rankings.

Not only does the Predictalator run every upcoming game 50,000 times, it plays every team against every other team to come up with the ultimate Power Rankings. The Predictalator is successful because it best accounts for actual matchups and team's abilities to exploit opponent's weaknesses using strength-of-schedule-adjusted statistics, so the Power Rankings are not necessarily the best way to know who would win between two teams. They are, however, the best possible way to measure which teams have put together the most impressive seasons.

To build the NFL Power Rankings for this article, we "played" every team against every other team 50,000 times each and ranked by overall winning percentage of those games. These Divisional Rankings are as of (11/8/2016) rosters and projected depth charts.

The AFC South is the worst division in football, and it's not even close. The Predictalator believes that the Titans are currently the best team in the division (18th overall), despite the fact that they trail the Texans in the win column. There isn't a single team in this division that ranks as an above-average team in the league. The Colts boast arguably the best offensive talent, but their 31st-ranked defense and inability to protect Andrew Luck has hurt them all season.

We are currently lower on the AFC North than one would expect, mostly due to the Steelers' low ranking (there is a reason for this). Ben Roethlisberger has been hurt or playing at less than 100%, crippling what was once a feared offense, and Pittsburgh's 22nd-ranked defense hasn't been able to pick up the slack. If Big Ben shows signs of being healthy this weekend against the Cowboys, Pittsburgh will receive a significant offensive boost and will likely return to being a top ten team (they were our favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl prior to the season). The Bengals have largely disappointed this season, but their peripherals show that they are better than their record indicates. The Ravens currently sit atop the division with just a 4-4 record, but this one is wide open. We would put a big asterisks next to this division as a whole, but with the current state of the Steelers, we'll slot them in at number seven for the time being.

Despite having the obvious number one team, the AFC East ranks sixth out of eight divisions. The Patriots have been marvelous for more than a decade. They've also benefited from a terrible division. The Bills, Dolphins, and Jets routinely finish as below average teams as they've struggled to find offensive weapons to make themselves relevant. Miami has been steadily improving on a week-to-week basis (they ranked dead last in our Power Rankings at one point this season), but they are still below league average. Buffalo's ranking may seem a bit low but the reality is that they don't pose much of a stylistic mismatch for many teams in the NFL.

The NFC West is a tale of two groups. The Cardinals and Seahawks rank among the top six teams in the NFL. The Rams and 49ers are among the worst eight. The Cardinals struggled out of the gate this year while maintaining good peripherals, as turnovers and special teams issues led to a few losses (and a tie). The Predictalator still views the Cardinals as one of the best teams in the NFL, and the betting market seems to agree. The Seahawks have remained steady on defense, leading them to a 5-2-1 record, and are the current favorites to win the division. The Rams lack of a quarterback has led to an offense that ranks dead last in offensive effiency according to our metrics. And the Niners... well, they're the Niners.

The NFC North makes a surprising appearance in the top four divisions that we wouldn't have expected at the beginning of the year. The Packers are certainly worse than anticipated on offense thus far, which has dropped Green Bay out of the top ten in the league. The Vikings, ranked 12th, have struggled lately after their great start to the season. On the backs of their defense, they are still expected to win their division although nearly every team is still in play (yes, including Chicago!). The Bears ranking at #15 will come as a surprise to a lot of people, but they've played better than their record indicates. Chicago ranks 10th in yards per play on offense and 8th in yards per play on defense, and they do hold victories over both the Vikings and Lions this season. Detroit's ranking of 25th overall may seem low, but their defensive efficiency has been abysmal this season, and their offense is simply not good enough to make up for that glaring issue.

The NFC South is another division that's top-heavy. The Falcons are proving to be the real deal on offense with Matt Ryan having a career year. They've gained more yards per play than any other team in the NFL by over half of a yard, which is rarely seen this late into the season. The Panthers have struggled but they continue to earn our respect going forward with the talent they have on each side of the ball, including a front seven on defense that has been great at stopping the run all season. The Saints rank 20th at 4-4 with Drew Brees having another incredible season, but the defense continuing to be a major liability. The Buccaneers have struggled with injuries all season, and that hasn't helped Jameis Winston's progress in his sophomore season.

It may come as a bit of a shock to see the NFC East as the second best division in football to date. Prior to the season, many pundits would have believed that a 9-7 record may have been good enough to win this division, but that doesn't appear to be the case. There's no real weakness among these teams as they all rank amongst the top 19 teams in the league. The Cowboys, now ranked second overall, have shown incredibly efficiency on offense. Led by two rookies, they are now the clear-cut favorites to win the division. The Redskins crack the top ten as they rank second in yards per play on offense behind the Falcons, and have seen their offense improve even more with the return of stud tight end Jordan Reed. The Eagles defense currently ranks eighth but they'll need Carson Wentz to throw the ball down the field a bit more if they want to make a run at the playoffs.

Not surprisingly, the AFC West is the best division in football. The Raiders are now leading the division but we do not like their peripherals going forward due to their 28th-ranked defense against a very weak strength-of-schedule. The Broncos, almost the exact opposite of the Raiders, have regressed on offense and thrived on defense, yet again. The reigning Super Bowl Champs are a game back of the Raiders after losing on Sunday Night Football in Oakland, but we still believe that Denver would be favored over Oakland on a neutral field. The Chiefs have had quite a few injuries to arguably their four most valuable offensive players: Jamaal Charles, Spencer Ware, Alex Smith, and Jeremy Maclin, but have managed to stay afloat. The biggest surprise here is likely the Chargers, who grade as a top ten NFL team in our Rankings (yes, you read that right). Despite their insanely long list of injuries, their peripherals have been outstanding, mainly due to the fact that Philip Rivers has been lights out. They are much better than their record incidates with almost all of their losses occurring at the end of games with a few unlucky turnovers or missed field goals. The best division in football is wide open heading through the second half of the season.