There’s only one undefeated team left in the NFL, and it’s the Atlanta Falcons. However, I don’t think they’re the best team in the league. I don’t think I’m alone, as TMQ deems them scary but wants to see how they do against the Saints, and Bill Barnwell has them as more of a 5-2 or 6-1 squad, which would put them in even company with a number of teams. I, however, will argue that they’re behind a team with three losses. Deal with that!
Here are the power rankings after last weekend’s games. You’ll notice that the Falcons are 6th while the number 1 team is actually the New England Patriots.
Why might that be? Well, the Patriots have only lost close games (by 2 once and 1 twice) but generally won big; every win has been by double digits except for their overtime win over the Jets (a game in which they led by 10 at one point). They are above-average at passing, surprisingly (given recent years) decent at running, they don’t turn the ball over, they don’t commit penalties, and their defense is ok except for defending the pass (which, admittedly, is important). They’ve also played decent teams overall.
Atlanta, on the other hand, has obviously won all of their games but actually has a lower point differential than the Pats (yes, they’ve played one fewer game, but they’re behind by 20). Four of their wins have been by a touchdown or less, and it’s good that they’re winning them but not good that they aren’t winning by more. Their offense is statistically kind of mediocre (above average to be sure, but not great) and their defense is actually mediocre. They also haven’t played especially thrilling opponents. None of which to say that the Falcons are bad or anything; they just aren’t the best.
That being said, the Falcons have won 7 games already and that’s a good stash of wins to have tucked away when you look forward to the playoffs. Hey, let’s look ahead a little bit.
You can see that the Falcons are expected to have more like 4 or 5 wins if they played the season over again, a bit worse than Barnwell’s impression. But they are also pretty good and have an easy schedule ahead, so I expect them to win 5 or 6 more games. So even if they’re “objectively” (in the eyes of my model) only a 10 win team, they’re probably going to end up with 12 or 13 wins. They might very well get the number one seed in the NFC. They’ll be fighting with the Bears, 49ers, and Giants, all heading towards about 11 wins. As you might guess, those are your four NFC division winner favorites right now. Green Bay is kind of alone in the next tier at around 9 wins, and then everyone else is more like 8 or less. Unless someone turns things around soon, we could have an ugly, unimpressive battle for the last wild card spot in the NFC.
In the AFC, the top tier looks like Houston (12 wins), Patriots (10 wins), Denver (10 wins), and Baltimore (10 wins). So you’ll have the Texans and then the rest of the group. Pittsburgh and Miami may very well be your wild card teams, but with so many teams near .500 it’s hard to say. I always hope that things will clear up by around week 13, but it’s always week 16. Some teams just act like they don’t want to lock up a playoff spot.
Keeping an eye on the Lions, they’ve been a little unlucky so far and should probably have one more win (the Titans game would be an obvious choice for sheer bad luck). The win over Seattle was important because it was something of a 50/50 call, and that means that actually getting the W moves the needle a lot – if you win a game you had a 90% chance to win, you haven’t gained that much; if you win a 50/50 game or one you were expected to lose, you’ve gained a fair amount. Between the actual win and a bit better play, the Lions moved from 6.5 expected wins on the season to 7.1. Next week’s game against Jacksonville should be nice because while it’s perfectly winnable, it is on the road and thus not a gimme. But more critical are the next two games, at Minnesota and hosting Green Bay. Not only are both fairly even games, but they’re both divisional games that the Lions will need if they want to earn some tie breakers later in the year. They’ll need these games if they want to make the playoffs because their last six games include Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, and a road trip to Green Bay. The Lions will definitely have to up their play, and maybe get lucky, if they want to make the playoffs this year.