In the middle is where the room for significant variation still lies. Eight teams moved at least six places in the rankings (though interestingly, only the Giants at 17 stayed in the middle third). And yet, even with all this movement, five of the top six and five of the bottom six remained at their respective opposites of the totem pole.
Even though the small sample size caveat still applies, it's safe to assume the top and bottom are fairly fleshed out. So now the goal is to find which lesser-heralded teams are contenders who could steal the Super Bowl, just as the Ravens and Giants have done the past two seasons. Let's start in the top 10, where we find two teams who few would consider serious threats.
The NFC North-leading Lions were actually ranked fifth last week, but were only three-point favorites over Chicago, largely due to the Bears' shiny undefeated record. Detroit demolished the Bears in dominating fashion, with the final eight-point margin not illustrating the lopsided quality.
Ironically, Detroit is almost the same exact team as last year, pairing an elite offense with an above-average defense. But a year after finishing 3-8 in games decided by one touchdown or less, the Lions were due for a correction. With a couple critical breaks going the right way, Detroit should find itself back in the playoff hunt.
The Chargers, this week's biggest risers, are a little tougher to figure out. San Diego possesses the best non-Denver passing attack, an important ingredient that can carry a team far in today's NFL. On the other hand, they continue to do very Charger-like things, such as blowing three-touchdown leads and having victory slip through their fingertips.
Moreover, with the 31st-ranked defense by efficiency and worst by EPA, it seems a bit impractical to expect San Diego to gun its way deep into the postseason with just an elite offense, a la the 2011 Patriots. The Chargers might hang on until after their Week 8 bye, when they have to face the Broncos and Chiefs four times in their final eight games. But with Denver and Kansas City looking likely to snag playoff spots, that would leave San Diego battling with about four to five teams for one wild card spot, unlikely odds in the end.
No Beasts in the East
Excluding the Eagles, who have a couple of anomalies working to buoy their ranking (top rushing attack, high SOS after playing the Broncos and Chiefs, etc.), six teams in the AFC or NFC East are clustered between 13 and 21, with only Washington falling below that ledger.
If we're searching for contenders, the Patriots are the most obvious choice based on track record. The offense is actually ranked higher than the defense, a perception many miss simply both units have regressed from historical extremes to mere competence.
But asides from their typically positive turnover margin and low penalty rate, New England does not have much going for it. That could change offensively with the impending returns of Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola, but Vince Wilfork's loss is a devastating blow. The Patriots have long built their hybrid defensive schemes around Wilfork's foundation in the middle, and the numbers paint an ugly picture for a defense that had finally demonstrated some improvement.
The Dolphins and Cowboys seem like other logical choices, if only by default. And yet, the Fins are below average or worse in nearly every efficiency category; with the exception of their defensive line whenever Cameron Wake returns, no unit appears particularly threatening. Meanwhile, Dallas has earned its two wins over the 0-4 Giants and the 32nd-ranked Rams, only proving that they are not an atrocious squad.
- The Titans are in a similar position to the Chargers in that they are a fringe AFC playoff contender who shot up the rankings this week. However, Jake Locker's long-term injury throws a monkey wrench into those hopes. Ryan Fitzpatrick has proven capable in short stretches, as Bills fans painfully recall, but if he costs Tennessee even one win, that's likely enough to knock them out.
- From the FYI category: There is a 0.10 GWP difference between 15th-ranked New England and 30th-ranked Oakland. There is also a 0.10 GWP difference between Oakland and the bottom two teams, the Jaguars and Rams. Yeesh.
- Lots of wide chasms between offensive and defensive rankings. In the top half, there are seven teams with double-digit differences between offensive and defensive rankings, including six in the top 10.
- The Saints lead the league in defensive interception rate, en route to an above-average defense buttressed by a top-5 turnover rate. In related news, 2009 was the last time the Saints had that formula, coincidentally the year they won the Super Bowl.
Here are the rankings at the quarter mark of the season:
|RANK||TEAM||LAST WK||GWP||Opp GWP||O RANK||D RANK|