The NFL midseason power rankings, tournament edition
If all 32 NFL teams played a single-elimination tournament right now, who would win? We rank the teams 1 to 32
We’re halfway home on the NFL regular season, so it seemed like a good time to check in on where things stand. The Rams and Chiefs still reign supreme and the Bills still suck, but what about everyone else in the middle? We know now not to take the first quarter of a season too seriously. That’s become the new NFL preseason as teams like the Patriots and Eagles rally through some losses to find their way on a new season. But by the midpoint, the cream is starting to rise to the top.
That means it’s time for a Midseason NFL Power Rankings, tournament edition. Anyone can rank teams by records, but records lie. Not all wins are created equal, and neither are the schedules. So I threw out the records and randomized all 32 NFL teams into a March Madness bracket, letting them play simulated neutral-field games in my head, choosing winners all the way to the virtual Super Bowl. Then I randomized things again and ran 19 more tourneys, tallied the results, and produced the power rankings. It’s an oddly effective way to get a real sense of how you feel about teams. That 5–2 record might not be as cushy as it looks, and some teams under .500 are still quite dangerous. In the NFL more than any other sport, it’s all about the matchups.
I didn’t fudge the numbers, so some teams may surprise you with how high (Eagles and Vikings) or low (Bengals and Redskins) they are. Which NFL team would win a simulated Super Bowl today? Fine, which NFL teams would lose to the Rams and Chiefs en route to their Super Bowl? It’s time to find out.
FIGHTING FOR THE #1 PICK
32. Buffalo Bills (previous: 32)
31. Oakland Raiders (27)
30. San Francisco (26)
29. Arizona Cardinals (31)
28. New York Jets (30)
27. New York Giants (25)
These teams are terrible, and they went completely winless in my 20 simulations outside of the times they were lucky enough to draw someone else in the tier. For the record, that’s 9–9 against this tier and 0–111 otherwise. And lucky for us, the three worst teams in the league are all on national TV in a four-day span this week. #blessed
The Bills were the only team that didn’t win a single game. Josh Allen has thrown for 832 yards and 2 TDs in six starts. For reference, Patrick Mahomes has done that in a half at least three times this season. The Raiders have one win in overtime against the hapless Browns and have begun trading away anyone on their team with even a speck of talent. The 49ers are at least trying. They’re a soft 1–7, with four one-score losses and the unfortunate luck of having faced the Rams and Chiefs without their best QB, RB, or WR. At least San Francisco is trying.
It feels like Buffalo and Oakland will duke it out for the #1 pick, but don’t sleep on Arizona. Their only two wins are against the 49ers, and they’re -102 in the other six games. But they just had their most passing yards of the year and their season’s first 100-yard receiver, so maybe Byron Leftwich has this offense on the right track.
The New York teams aren’t as bad as the other four, but they certainly aren’t good. The Jets have three unimpressive wins amidst a litany of injuries. The Giants have played six one-score games and could be competitive in every game left on the schedule. That’s bad news for their pick, but the good news is the other five teams in this tier already have their QB of the future.
ONE AND DONE
26. Miami Dolphins (23)
25. Denver Broncos (18)
24. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (20)
23. Detroit Lions (28)
22. Indianapolis Colts (29)
21. Dallas Cowboys (22)
No team in this tier won more than a first-round game in any of my 20 simulations. One-and-done, all of them. But if you had to pick one of these teams to make the playoffs, who would you go with?
It wouldn’t be Denver. Their three wins have impressed exactly no one, and their next four games are against the Texans, Chargers, Steelers, and Bengals, all of whom would be in the AFC playoffs if they started today. Tough to rely on Miami, too. Their four wins have all been by one score and, despite the winnable schedule, have no healthy QB or WRs right now.
We might luck into a second Fitzmagic show. Tampa already announced he’ll start next week, and the Bucs secondary is still historically bad so he’s going to keep chucking. Tampa has a winnable November ahead with the Panthers, Redskins, Giants, and 49ers. Is there enough beard magic to get to 7–4?
The Lions make no sense. They’re 3–0 against teams better than .500 at the time and 0–4 against everyone else. So maybe it’s good news that their next five opponents are all over .500? It probably isn’t. Matt Stafford is still something like 4–91 lifetime against over-.500 teams.
The Colts and Cowboys could get interesting. Someone should really tell Dallas fans. They’re hosting Monday Night Football this week and at this writing, you can buy a ticket for $5. No, seriously. In fact, for a mere $88, you can actually get all five remaining home games. Of course, you’re still gonna have to pay $75 to park each week. America’s Team, huh? Oh right, the football part. Dallas has rotated wins and losses, been within one score all but twice, and could get to nine wins and contend in a bad NFC East.
The Colts are the other team that could turn into a surprise division contender. They’ve got a running game now, Andrew Luck looks healthy again, and the defense has been much better than expected. And boy is that division awful. Indy doesn’t leave home until December, and if things keep rolling, there’s a real chance they could be favored in every remaining game. Did you know Indianapolis has the second-highest scoring offense in the AFC? The Colts are 9-to-1 to win the AFC South right now. Just sayin’.
DEPENDS ON THE MATCHUP
20. Tennessee Titans (6)
19. Cleveland Browns (16)
18. Washington Redskins (24)
17. Jacksonville Jaguars (5)
16. Atlanta Falcons (13)
The teams in this tier each won about half of their first-round games, then won a second game about a third of the time before their torches were snuffed. And that’s about right for these teams, who have the talent to stick with some matchups but will get blown out in others.
The Titans and Jaguars took the biggest falls from the quarter-season power rankings. Tennessee plummeted from 6 to 20 and Jacksonville from 5 to 17, and the division rivals are on a combined seven-game losing streak. The Titans have lost twice by a point and get a bye at the right time, so maybe they can still get Marcus Mariota healthy and get the offense moving. Jacksonville has scored exactly one TD in four straight games, and two were in garbage time. We thought the Pats win in Week 2 was a breakthrough; turns out it might have been the end for this team.
How in the world did Cleveland end up this high? I have no idea. It’s not like they got a soft draw. Hilariously, the Browns drew the undefeated Rams six times in 20 simulations. The odds of that happening are roughly 1-in-33,852. Even the fake Browns have the worst luck in human history. Cleveland is talented, especially on defense. Too bad they don’t have a coaching staff, and their offense has no chance to keep up with most of the teams on the brutal remaining schedule. There’s still a chance they could lose out, get to 2–14, and steal the #1 pick. It’s on the table.
I don’t know if Washington fans exist, but they probably won’t be happy to be sitting at 5–2, ranked one spot above the Browns. I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t see anything to believe in. They’re just a placeholder for another NFC East team.
Atlanta remains much more dangerous, even with all the defensive injuries. Matt Ryan is on pace for 5,400 yards but the Falcons rushing attack is dead. They’ve had only one runner go over 51 yards all season. The schedule is winnable and the passing attack keeps Atlanta in any game, but if you can’t defend or run the ball, you can’t win enough games.
THE MOVERS AND SHAKERS
15. Houston Texans (19)
14. Baltimore Ravens (11)
13. Cincinnati Bengals (21)
12. Chicago Bears (3)
11. Carolina Panthers (9)
10. Seattle Seahawks (17)
These are the teams whose spot in the power rankings have changed the most since last time, for the most part. These teams typically won their first-round matchup around two-thirds of the time, won a second game about half of the time, and even eked out a spot in the final eight once or twice when the bracket fell in their favor. None of them ever made a final four — they’re the last remaining teams that didn’t. You probably have a beef with at least one of these teams being too low, but I need to see more.
Houston is on a five-game win streak thanks in part to catching teams at the right time. I picked them as the most likely 0–2 team to make the playoffs but haven’t been too impressed with the win streak. Of course, that may not matter with this schedule. Any NFL schedule requires you to play at least two playoff teams in a given season, since you play two entire divisions. The Texans look like they’ll face the minimum two playoff teams this year, and one of them is the NFC East champ. It’s hard to get a softer schedule than this.
Baltimore and Cincinnati may have missed their chance to blow open the division while Pittsburgh stumbled out of the gates. Baltimore has been the league’s best defense but has struggled against better offenses, and they face the Steelers, Bengals, Falcons, and Chiefs over the next month. Cincinnati’s offense is clicking, but they’ve quietly allowed the most points in the league at 237. One of these teams should grab a Wild Card spot. Their game next week looms large, as does Cincinnati’s Week 17 visit to Pittsburgh.
The Bears took a tumble from my quarter-season #3 ranking, which may have been a bit premature. They’re 4–0 against teams that were under .500 when they played them and 0–3 otherwise. Might they be this year’s good bad team? Chicago plays the Bills, Giants, Vikings, and Lions (twice) over the next month before a brutal closing stretch. They might need to sweep all five.
Carolina and Seattle continue to stick around thanks to outstanding QB play and just enough defense. The Panthers are 5–2 but just played their first game that did not come down to the final minute, and every game left on the schedule is losable. Be careful before you assume they’re a playoff team. Seattle has retooled its defense and won four of five. They’ve got a brutal Chargers, Rams, Packers, Panthers month on tap but close the season with four of five games at home. These teams might be fighting for one Wild Card spot, and their rough respective schedules should keep the door ajar.
THE FAUX CONTENDERS
9. Green Bay Packers (15)
8. Los Angeles Chargers (12)
These teams are neither here nor there. They’re the last two teams that never made one of my virtual Super Bowls, but they’re clearly better than the teams below them in the rankings. I found myself most analyzing these teams’ games. The Packers against the Bengals or Seahawks felt like coin flips; would the Chargers beat the Eagles or Patriots? It feels like the operative word there is “would.” Could the Packers or Chargers beat these teams? Yes, absolutely. But would they? Not as often as you’d hope.
The Packers have played five one-score games, only two of them against current playoff teams. That seems bad, especially since they’ve got the Patriots, Dolphins, Seahawks, and Vikings next, all but Miami on the road. Valiant losses like the one against the Rams won’t be enough; they need to win at least two of those.
The Chargers have lost to the league’s two best teams and beat the three worst (four, if you count the Browns). We need to see how they’ll respond against a normal team. They’re still waiting on Joey Bosa to get healthy and look like they might be awhile.
Either of these teams could make a run to the conference championship game and no one would bat an eye. But they might also miss the playoffs altogether.
A PATH TO THE SUPER BOWL
7. Minnesota Vikings (7)
6. New Orleans Saints (10)
5. Pittsburgh Steelers (14)
4. Philadelphia Eagles (4)
These four teams all made at least one simulated Super Bowl when the path opened up (aka when the Rams and Chiefs ended up on the other half of the bracket) but failed to win it. They’re deep, talented rosters on both sides of the ball, and each has weathered a rough first half but still looks like a tough out in January.
And yes, that includes my Vikings. Losses to the Rams and Saints were weirdly reassuring, with good all-around performances marred by a couple clear fixable mistakes in each game. Kirk Cousins has been worth every penny, Adam Thielen is an MVP candidate, and the team is ready for its upcoming bye. They spend November playing each division rival. It’s now or never.
The Saints haven’t lost since a Week 1 Bucs shootout, but I continue to be unconvinced. They should’ve lost to the Browns, Falcons, and Ravens, and they still face eight playoff hopefuls. This team plays far better at home. If they want to play their in January, this week’s home game against the Rams is an absolute must-win.
They haven’t shown it yet, but I still have more belief in the two Pennsylvania teams. The Steelers were my most schizophrenic team. Six times they lost in my first round; seven times they made the final eight. Isn’t that Pittsburgh? This team has the talent to beat anyone any given Sunday. Philly is even more talented. They’ve played seven one-score games already and have weathered the storm with the injuries along the line, RB, and of course to their franchise player Carson Wentz. This team’s depth has helped it survive a tough first half. The stars will need to carry them home. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are not playoff teams yet, but they’ve made it through the first half and come up for air. If the playoff started today, they’d still be as dangerous as anyone.
CONTENDERS TO THE THRONE
3. New England Patriots (8)
2. Kansas City Chiefs (2)
Just so it’s clear, the top three teams belong in their own separate tiers. The Chiefs remain at #2 and closed the gap slightly on the Rams. Kansas City basically won until they faced the Rams in most of my simulations. This offense will hang 30 or 40 on you and hope the defense can do enough, and they can blow anyone out in any game. Patrick Mahomes is on pace for 50 TDs at the midpoint, a runaway MVP favorite. He’s the NFL’s Steph Curry now, worth watching every second every week.
If anything, the Chiefs actually won me over in their loss to the Patriots. But it’s the same old New England. They found themselves after a couple September losses and look set to coast to another 12 or 13 wins and a first-round bye. Ho hum. They’ve turned James White into a fantasy superstar and no one even batted an eye. See you in the AFC championship game.
1. Los Angeles Rams (1)
For the record, the Rams won my Super Bowl simulation 17 of 20 times. They’re the favorites, and everything is clicking, but a perfect start can all be undone if they fall in New Orleans this week and fall out of the 1-seed. The world needs a couple home playoff games in the Coliseum. Sure looks like we’ll get them.