We can see that immediately in our top 10, where only the Lions fell out. This does not necessarily mean a team outside the top-10 cannot become a legitimate contender of course—at this time last year, the Super Bowl champion Ravens were 11th, and eventual playoff participants Washington and Indianapolis were 22nd and 27th, respectively. Four of the top 10 teams also finished outside the postseason.
To figure out who might fall into that ignominious category in 2013, let's take a look at two of the most likely teams to miss the playoffs, despite what their current ranking might suggest.
At first blush, it appears the Bengals and Panthers look like the best bets to find themselves home come January. One could also argue the Eagles, but Philly's uber-efficient offense and extraordinarily weak division warrants a larger discussion outside the scope of this piece.
It's interesting that the Bengals and Panthers are essentially mirror images of one another. With the exception of Cincy fumbling slightly more and the Panthers intercepting significantly more passes (something that could regress given the mediocrity of Carolina's secondary personnel), the two teams have nearly identical efficiency ratings in every aspect of the game. The most important similarity: both are middle of the pack in the passing game, a reflection of unsteady progress by third-year quarterbacks Cam Newton and Andy Dalton.
Your first instinct might target Newton as the more likely candidate to deliver consistently enough to elevate his team. And yes, it's true that he has put up historically great early-career numbers. But compare the EPAs of the two quarterbacks thus far:
Newton is all over the place, and Dalton continues to fulfill his destiny as Matt Schaub 2.0. That might be ominous for Cincinnati's future Super Bowl aspirations, but before he started handing out pick-sixes like candy, Schaub was a very capable quarterback for a consistent playoff contender.
Considering their respective team strengths, Dalton's consistency is likely better short-term for the Bengals' playoff chances. Cincinnati possesses a top five pass defense and a stout front seven that thrives in tight ugly games. Meanwhile, the Panthers are a average or worse in both run and pass defense, and part of their elite offensive rushing attack is due to Newton.
Quite simply, Cam has much more on his plate, and with the Saints likely to win the NFC South, he must be consistently brilliant for the Panthers to earn a wild-card berth competing against the 49ers, Lions and Bears. Dalton and the Bengals may have a lower ceiling, but in the weak AFC North, they seem like a more viable 2013 contender.
The Chicago Bears have been a bit of a paradox in these rankings—the formula hated them when they eeked out a few close wins and were 3-0, but they have gradually risen since despite currently sitting at 4-2, with their lone win over the 0-6 Giants.
The number that jumps out right away is 30, namely their overall defensive ranking. That's a product of their 32nd-ranked pass defense, which seems counter-intuitive given that the unit has the third-highest interception rate.
However, that very reliance on turnovers may be the Bears' undoing, at least defensively. Turnovers are a generally high-variance year-to-year stat, but the Bears have defied the odds for a second straight year. Opponents are losing more fumbles per game against Chicago than any other team besides Kansas City and Seattle. The Bears do happen to force the third-most fumbles, which is a skill, but recovering fumbles is extremely fluky. Needless to say, it is not safe to rely on long-term.
There exists a perception that Chicago has transformed into an offensive team, something they envisioned in acquiring Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall. And yet, the Bears' defensive EPA still exceeds its rather average offensive production so far. Perhaps that perception exists because of several crunch-time plays the Bears offense has produced, which has led to a higher WPA than all but the Broncos, Chargers and Eagles.
But again, relying on a spike in production in late-game situations is a shaky plan. This is not to say the Bears are not a playoff-caliber team, as they are above-average in everything besides their aforementioned pass defense. But their margin of error is less than many might perceive, and a swing in luck might leave Chicago out of the playoffs for the third straight season.
- We have a new number one this week, with the Seahawks leapfrogging the Broncos for the top spot. Seattle does not have a historically great unit like the Denver offense, but they also might not have an exploitable weakness. Seattle ranks in the top five in both overall offensive and defensive efficiency; no other team is even top-10 in both categories.
- The Panthers were this week's biggest riser, and we already touched on their prospects. The biggest faller? The T.J. Yates-led Texans. At 2-4, the reeling Texans are facing the Chiefs and Colts, with the Indy game following a bye. Lost in the Matt Schaub hubbub has been Arian Foster's steady decline. Since leading all running backs in EPA in 2010, Foster dropped to 23rd and 77th the next two years, and currently sits at 51st with a -6.7 EPA in 2013.
- The 28th-ranked Ravens don't look particularly threatening at the moment, but at 3-3, they sit just one game behind the Bengals for the AFC North lead. Baltimore could greatly aid their cause by benching Ray Rice's doppelganger for the actual Ray Rice. Rice is 66th out of 76 running backs in EPA per play, leaving the Ravens tied with the Steelers for the league's least efficient run offense. Rice's form the rest of the season will be a huge factor in whether or not the Ravens get a chance to defend their title.
That's enough spiel for this week, here are the rankings after Week 6.
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