Member preview

The quarter season NFL power rankings

If all 32 NFL teams played a single-elimination tournament right now, who would win? We rank the teams 1 to 32

It feels like the NFL season just started, but we’re already through a quarter of the season. Football teams have already played the equivalent of 21 NBA or NHL games or 17 million hours of baseball. The last few years have taught us it takes about a month of real football for teams to settle in, so this is a great time to check in on the landscape and see how teams rank.

Anyone can do a power rankings, so I decided to do something a little different. I am decidedly not ranking teams by only their records. You can read the NFL standings on your own time. Four weeks of results only tell us so much, and teams have already grown and changed a lot. Instead, I went to an exercise I used to do as an obviously super cool kid.

I randomized all 32 NFL teams into a March Madness bracket and let the teams play simulated neutral-field games in my head. I didn’t agonize over matchups, forcing myself to go with my first instinct winner all the way to the Super Bowl. Then I randomized again and ran nine more tourneys, tallied up the results, and voila, power rankings. It’s a weird but effective way to get a real sense of how you feel about the teams, and it was a helpful reminder of just how much matchups matter in this league.

I didn’t fudge the numbers, so this is the actual order my ten non-simulations ranked the NFL. Who did I get wrong? It’s time to find out.

The bottom feeders

32. Buffalo Bills
31. Arizona Cardinals
30. New York Jets
29. Indianapolis Colts

These teams won one combined game in 10 simulated tournaments, and I honestly don’t even remember thinking too hard about any of them. That’s not so bad for the Bills, Cards, and Jets, who are all starting a rookie quarterback and are settling in for a long season of learning and growing. It’s not such good news for the Colts. There’s just not much talent around Andrew Luck, and unfortunately, that’s nothing new.

Not going anywhere? Grab a Snickers

28. Detroit Lions
27. Oakland Raiders
26. San Francisco 49ers
25. New York Giants

These teams tend to stick around and keep things interesting but not quite have that knockout punch. The bizarro Lions have two road losses by a field goal, a blowout defeat to the Jets … and a dominant win against the Pats. Maybe they’re not as bad as this ranking, but they’re not going to do anything too exciting in that loaded division.

The San Francisco Bay teams are already looking at lost seasons. The 49ers racked up way too many injuries and need to reload and try again next year. The Raiders have been better than expected and in every game, but I still don’t believe in that coaching staff. This is a little lower than I’d have expected the Giants, but honestly, how many teams above them would they beat? The G-Men are going to get beaten soundly by most real teams, and they’re a wildcard against average or worse. That’s not the right formula, especially with the schedule they’ve got.

Not a believer yet

24. Washington Redskins
23. Miami Dolphins
22. Dallas Cowboys
21. Cincinnati Bengals

I imagine I’ve got some explaining to do. Again, this is not a traditional power rankings. I’m well aware that these teams are a combined 10–5 and three of them are leading their division. Congrats on a favorable opening schedule. Not one of them made it past the Round of 16 in my simulations, and I’m not buying these teams as real playoff contenders either.

Washington leads the division thanks largely to an early bye. They’re about as average as a team can get, just average enough to stick around in the NFC East if Philadelphia keeps struggling. The Dolphins started 3–0 and a number of power rankings pushed them into the top five by virtue of an unbeaten record. And that’s why traditional power rankings are stupid. No one believed the Fins were a top five team, so why pretend otherwise just because they beat the Jets and Raiders and out-monsooned the Titans? The real Dolphins got murdered by the Pats, and they’ll be vanquished by a December stretch that includes New England, Minnesota, and Jacksonville.

The Cowboys have a solid defense and a good run game, but the passing game is nonexistent and the line is not what it once was. They can beat bad teams but won’t be able to keep up against modern offenses. The Bengals are the one team in this group that could really prove me wrong. They’re averaging more than 31 ppg and play four of their next five games at home against the Dolphins, Steelers, Bucs, and Saints. If Joe Mixon comes back healthy and this offense keeps rolling, maybe Cincinnati can win a weakened AFC North. But they’re my lowest ranked team in the division until I see more.

The gooey middle

20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
19. Houston Texans
18. Denver Broncos
17. Seattle Seahawks
16. Cleveland Browns
15. Green Bay Packers
14. Pittsburgh Steelers

Each of these teams won exactly half of their simulated first-round games. Each made the Elite 8 once or twice, and none of them advanced any further. This is the deeply flawed gooey middle of the NFL, the matchup dependent teams that can win or lose against anyone any given Sunday.

The Bucs and Texans certainly seem like the bottom of the tier. Tampa has one of the worst pass defenses in NFL history and may have a QB controversy on its hands, so the bye week could not come at a better time. Still, this Todd Monken offense is for real. I haven’t given up on the Texans. They were gifted a win by Frank Reich and have played in four one-score games, and they should improve as the stars get healthier.

Denver feels a tier too high, like they belong with Washington and Miami, but the defense should keep them in the mix. Seattle seems ready to slide after the Earl Thomas thing, but let’s wait to see how they handle a Rams visit this week. Cleveland could be 4–0, but it’s the Browns so naturally, they’re 1–2–1. This feels like a fair ranking right smack dab in the middle.

Are the Packers or Steelers any good? Both have a tie. Both have a Super Bowl-winning quarterback on his last legs. Both have overmatched defenses and will need to win shootouts. There’s more hope for Pittsburgh since help is on the way in the form of LeVeon Bell, but will it get there in time? They’re 1–2–1 with the Falcons and a trip to Cincinnati on tap before Bell’s return. They can come back from 2–3–1, but 1–4–1 is season lost. Green Bay fans can R-E-L-A-X. The Lions and 49ers before a bye are just what the doctor ordered.

The high variance teams

13. Atlanta Falcons
12. Los Angeles Chargers

I have no idea what to do with these two teams. The Falcons won only three of 10 first-round matchups but also made the Elite 8 three times and the Final 4 once. And honestly, that seems about right. This offense has shown it can get hot against anyone, but the defense has lost too much for me to take this team seriously. They’re an offense no one will want to face in the playoffs, but at 1–3, they won’t have to.

The Chargers are like a more talented version of the Browns. On the one hand, the two losses are to the unbeaten Chiefs and Rams. On the other hand, the wins were uninspiring victories over the Bills and 49ers. Sounds like the Chargers. They play to the level of their opponent, and they’re always banged up. I think L.A. could go on a run. They have a soft October and November schedule, and Joey Bosa should be back soon.

The not good enoughs

11. Baltimore Ravens
10. New Orleans Saints
9. Carolina Panthers
8. New England Patriots
7. Minnesota Vikings

Yeah, I know, you hate the rankings for all these teams. So sue me.

The Ravens are whatever. They’re the permanent good-bad team. They’re the good version of Denver or the bad version of Jacksonville. Either way, the defense is legit, the offense is not, water is wet, the sky is blue.

The Saints came out lower than expected, but I think we’re all just taking for granted that last year’s team is back. The offense is working, and now Mark Ingram’s back, but the defense is not the same. The Saints are going to have to win shootouts, and at some point, that’s going to bite you. Against other top teams in my simulations, I consistently struggled to talk myself into them. Carolina is as matchup dependent as they come. Some teams have no shot against Cam Newton, while other schemes could eliminate this offense.

I’m a Vikings fan, so feel free to blatantly disregard my thoughts, but I’m not that worried yet. The passing game has been excellent, no one can stop the Rams, and the Bills were the game from hell. The Vikings still have plenty of defensive talent, Dalvin Cook will get healthier, and the schedule lightens up after this week’s revenge trip to Philly. This is still a playoff team.

New England is fascinating. If you had to bet your life on one AFC team to make the Super Bowl right now, would you really pick anyone other than the Pats? New England always rounds into shape in September, Tom Brady’s security blanket, Julian Edelman, is back, and the defense is much improved. Still, this offense is in rough shape, and we’re power ranking teams right now. New England will still be my AFC Super Bowl pick by January, but there are some real problems to figure out before then.

Dominant defenses that don’t beat themselves

6. Tennessee Titans
5. Jacksonville Jaguars

This looks like a fun throwback smashmouth division race. The Titans have three wins with smoke and mirrors, but a win in Jacksonville and a softer schedule plus a seemingly healthier Marcus Mariota puts them in the driver’s seat. The Jaguars defense is better, giving up just 14 ppg, but we’ll see just how good they are in Kansas City this week. At some point, both of these teams are going to have to keep up with the league’s top offenses. And I trust Matt LaFleur’s offense, Mariota, and Corey Davis to do that by January more than I trust Bortles. But neither of these teams is going away, not in the AFC.

The Super Bowl contenders

4. Philadelphia Eagles
3. Chicago Bears
2. Kansas City Chiefs

These three teams were miles ahead of the rest of the field. They represented eight of my ten Super Bowl losers (with the Jags and Pats taking one each). You’re probably not surprised by two of these teams, so let’s spend most of the time considering the third.

The Eagles are just a really good, deep, talented roster. Carson Wentz is back, and he should only get better as he settles in. The coaching staff is great and there’s no perceptible weakness. Philly is only 2–2, and the schedule is stiff all season long, but 10 wins should take the division and they’ll be as tough as anyone in the playoffs. The Chiefs fell into this tier too, clearly above #3 but far below #1. We’ve seen the Rams be the Rams now for over a year. Kansas City is 4–0 with tough road wins over the Chargers, Steelers, and Broncos. The Jags and Pats are next. The Chiefs can score with anyone, but the defense is more than a little worrisome, and we need to see what happens once defenses like Jacksonville have a month of film on Patrick Mahomes.

But let’s talk about the Bears, who I think might be this year’s Jaguars. That defense is nasty. Khalil Mack should absolutely be in the MVP conversation with Mahomes and the Rams, and I’m intrigued to see what this offense will look like coming out of the bye now that Mitch Trubisky found his game and Tarik Cohen broke out. Chicago is a coaching brain fart away from 4–0, and they’re about to take a four-game trip through the terrible AFC East before a pair of Lions games and a home game against the Vikes. Maybe it’s fine the Cubs’ season is over, because this team could be 9–3 or 10–2 in a hurry.

Everyone knew Khalil Mack was great, but I think we all underestimated how much adding an elite defensive player meant to the other ten guys. All those extra single teams are freeing up Mack’s teammates, and the secondary has to cover guys a split second less. This is Chicago Bears football. And for once, they have some real weapons on offense and a Coach-of-the-Year-to-be that knows how to use them. So it’s all on the shoulders of a questionable quarterback — but what else is new?

The undefeated champs

1. Los Angeles Rams

I ran ten simulations and quickly realized I was going to end up with ten Rams championships. The way this team looked last Thursday night, there’s no one in the NFL that can beat them — right now.

The only question is which team could give them the best run for their money. The Chiefs? L.A.’s defense is better. The Eagles? Goff is outplaying Wentz right now. One of the juggernaut defenses? They don’t have the offense to hang. The closest I came to picking against the Rams was actually the Patriots, and that’s just out of respect for Belichick and Brady in a big game.

The Rams are the unquestionable #1 at the quarter season mark. We’ll see what happens in January.

Bonus Thursday night pick

New England -10 vs Indianapolis

Not exactly the old Brady-Manning showdown that used to be the game of the year. The Patriots have won seven straight matchups between these teams, by an average of 19 points. The Pats have the better QB, the better coach, and the better literally every other position on the field. With T.Y. Hilton out, they even have the better receivers. The Colts are terrible and New England will sleepwalk their way through this best bet.

Follow Brandon on Medium or @wheatonbrando for more sports, television, humor, and culture. Visit the rest of Brandon’s writing archives here.