Top Five NFL Over and Underachievers (12/06/16)
There's a lot of fortunate or unforunate bounces or circumstances that can sway football games. Let's leverage our NFL Power Rankings to break down the biggest over and underachievers in the NFL season thus far.
Miami Dolphins (7-5, 2nd AFC East, 22nd in Power Rankings)
The Dolphins were on a good run prior to getting destroyed this week against the Ravens. However, they lead our over-achievers category. In the previous four games that they won, the Dolphins played the Jets, Chargers, Rams, and 49ers. All of these games were within one score and involved a few late comebacks. Rya Tannehill has improved as the season has progressed---mainly because his offensive line has gotten healthier---but the Dolphins' defensive efficiency is getting worse, sitting around league average in most categories.
New York Giants (8-4, 2nd NFC East, 20th in Power Rankings)
Similarly, before running into the Steelers, the Giants went on a run against a weak schedule playing the Rams, Eagles, Bengals, Bears, and Browns. Though their defense has been somewhat of a letdown after having extremely high expectations, they are still a bit above average. Eli Manning is having a decent season compared to his career numbers, but he's merely performing as a league-average quarterback. Their schedule will get tougher after playing the Steelers and getting the Cowboys, Lions, Eagles, and Redskins next. New York's peripherals read more like a 4-8 team than an 8-4 team.
Detroit Lions (8-4, 1st NFC North, 18th in Power Rankings)
The Lions needed seven fourth-quarter comebacks to achieve their current eight wins. Matt Stafford is much improved and is hardly turning the ball over, which is the main reason for the Lions' continued success this season. Nonetheless, Detroit's defense is going to hold them back going forward. They've allowed 5.8 yards per play and a 73.7% completion rate against opposing quarterbacks, which is one of the reasons that they have been inefficient on the defensive side of the ball. The Lions have the division lead and are favored to represent the NFC North in the playoffs, but they will likely be one of the weaker division winners heading into the postseason.
Oakland Raiders (10-2, 1st AFC West, 15th in Power Rankings)
We've talked quite a bit about the Raiders overachieving despite being a good team. Their offense is top notch. Derek Carr has exhibited outstanding quarterback play and their offensive line has held up for the majortiy of the season. As good as they've been, their defense has been worse, particularly in the secondary. The Raiders have only out-gained four opponents this season. Only two of those opponents were out-gained on a yard per play basis. While it's true that points win games---not yardage---it is also true that yards per play differential is heavily correlated with future success. With a lead in their close divisional race, the Raiders secondary will need to hold up and improve down the stretch if they want to make a Super Bowl run.
Kansas City Chiefs (9-3, 2nd AFC West, 11th in Power Rankings)
The Chiefs run over the last few years has been truly incredible. They've won 19 of their last 22 regular season games, and that often goes unnoticed. In contrast to last year, though, their peripherals are a bit underwhelming this year. Their offense is extremely limited and even their defensive metrics have merely been around average. Granted, the Chiefs have been without top pass rushers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali at points this season, but the defense has not been nearly as efficient as the rest of the league's elite stop units. A large portion of the Chiefs' success has been through scoring on defense and special teams. These methods of producing points are not highly variant but mostly unsustainable. They aren't a bad team, by any means, but they are also lucky to be six games over .500 at this point in the season.
Arizona Cardinals (5-6-1, 2nd in NFC West, 17th in Power Rankings)
One of the biggest letdowns this season are the Arizona Cardinals. Their issues could be easier fixed than perceived, though. For starters, the Cardinals still grade as having the fifth most efficient defense in the league, behind the likes of Denver, Kansas City, Seattle, and Minnesota. They rank second in yards per play, fourth in yards per attempt passing, sixth in completion rate, and fifth in yards per attempt rushing. Much like Rivers, Carson Palmer has thrown some untimely red zone interceptions, and it looks as though the former first overall pick is on his last legs. The rash of injuries and lack of wide receiver play outside of Larry Fitzgerald have massively hurt their output on offense. The Cardinals schedule coming up is weak outside of playing in Seattle, and it's still possible (although highly unlikely) that they could make a playoff run.
San Diego Chargers (5-7, 4th in AFC West, 10th in Power Rankings)
The Chargers are the anti-Lions. They've collapsed massively at the end of games and are now out of the playoff hunt. Philip Rivers has had a few untimely interceptions in the last few weeks that have cost the Chargers additional wins. That being said, they are much better than their 5-7 record would indicate. Their defense isn't great but it's slightly above average in nearly every category, and has taken a big step forward ever since Joey Bosa stepped foot onto the field. Some untimely injuries in their secondary have cost them over the past month. Similarly to their defense, the San Diego offense has been plagued with injuries but nevertheless, Rivers is having another solid season and Melvin Godron is proving to be a top end force out of the backfield. Look for the Chargers to play spoiler down the stretch in their tight divisional race.
Washington Redskins (6-5-1, 3rd in NFC East, 9th in Power Rankings)
The Redskins offense is the headline for their team. They are second to, and closing in on, the Falcons for the league leaders in yards per play. Kirk Cousins ranks third in yards per attempt on offense, completes 67.6% of his passes, and gains 4.5 yards per rush. Their offensive line has been supportive of their deep passing attack, and the Redskins have hung some big numbers on opponents this season. Part of the Redskins underachievement is their front seven on defense. They've allowed 4.6 yards per rush. The Redskins have played a lot of close, shootout games, and they'll need to crank the screws on defense down the stretch if they want to make a playoff run, but make no bones about it, Washington's passing game makes them a tough matchup for anyone in the league.
Minnesota Vikings (6-6, 2nd in NFC North, 7th in Power Rankings)
The Vikings have massively struggled after their hot start. They are still seventh in our rankings due to their incredible defense, especially in the secondary. Their offensive line injuries, along with Stefon Diggs being in and out of the rotation have really set them back. While we often make light of Sam Bradford and his persistent checkdowns, the fact is that Bradford simply has no time in the pocket to find receivers downfield. As is often the case in the NFL though, great defenses fly under the radar, and the Vikings are constantly dismissed because of their deficiencies on offense. Minnesota's backs are against the wall but their lighter schedule in the last four weeks could help them sneak into the playoffs.
Denver Broncos (8-4, 3rd in AFC West, 3rd in Power Rankings)
The most underachieving team are the Denver Broncos. The Broncos defense still leads the NFL in yards per play and yards per attempt passing. They've allowed a ridiculous 55.3% completion rate and 195.2 yards per gain through the air. Their offense is certainly better than last year, but that's not saying much. Trevor Siemian has been better than expected, but he's still well below average at the quarterback position. Their merely average offense has some catching up to do, but they've shown the ability to sweep through the playoffs with much less than their current production. The Broncos are following up their Super Bowl win with a current 8-4 record and are holding down a playoff spot at the moment while trailing the divisional lead by two games. Fortunately, the Chiefs and Raiders have been overachieving, and the Broncos may be the team to watch to make a late season push towards the top. Their work will be cut out for them. They play the Titans, Patriots, Chiefs, and Raiders in the final four weeks, but they still grade as having the league's best defense, so they should be up to the task.