Halfway through the season, there are no more huge swings waiting to happen. That does not mean teams cannot rise or fall—last year, the 3-5 Bengals and Redskins made the playoffs while the 7-1 Bears and 6-2 Giants missed the dance—but the teams near the top are quite likely to stay there.
If we accept that, then perhaps we should start taking our new number team a bit more seriously.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dalton
No need to adjust your screen resolution, the Cincinnati Bengals really are the new top dog this week. Coming off arguably the year's most lopsided win in a 49-9 decision over the Jets, the Bengals surged to the top after an unspiring performance from the Seahawks and a shaky three quarters from the Broncos.
Cincinnati's reign likely won't last long, as a 40-point win against a competitive team is such a massive outlier that there is nowhere to go but down. However, the Bengals were the fourth-ranked team last week, so this week merely reaffirmed their status among the elite. Everyone knows about Cincy's stingy Atkins-anchored defense, but the key to their fourth-ranked offense lies behind one of their most (unfairly) maligned players.
In today's instant-gratification society, the mainstream media deems quarterbacks who are not instant sensations like Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson total failures, or middling options at best. Andy Dalton has suffered that fate, with people questioning his viability despite two playoff appearances in two years.
However, Dalton has exhibited a huge jump in his third year, leading Cincy to the sixth-most efficient passing offense. It's not solely because of A.J. Green's otherworldly skills either; as Grantland's Bill Barnwell points out, Dalton's numbers to non-Green receivers have steadily gotten better each season. A quick look at this year's WPA vs. EPA visualization shows Dalton in some pretty lofty non-Manning company:
A couple weeks ago, I mentioned how Dalton looked destined to become Matt Schaub 2.0. Well, with Dalton on pace to put up a 123.0 EPA season, let's look at some of Schaub's best years before the pick-six plague ruined him:
Subtracting an injury-shortened 2011, Schaub's average EPA from 2009-2012 was...114.2, almost exactly the area Dalton is headed for. If the Red Rifle replicates Schaub's prime, that's really not a bad thing. Remember, Schaub was firmly in the second tier of quarterbacks for years. All the noise that he couldn't lead the Texans to a championship is really just retrospective analysis.
The Bengals are part of a trio of 6-2 AFC teams (along with the Patriots and Colts) that will likely challenge for the number two seed behind whoever wins the AFC West. Avoiding the fourth seed is paramount for all those teams, since that would likely draw both Denver and Kansas City in some order. If Cincinnati can work itself into one of the two prime positions, don't be surprised if this team is still playing in late January.
A Giant Comeback?
Despite their consistently solid ranking, I've desperately been trying to avoid any mention of the Giants so far, what with their 0-6 start and their near-historic turnover rate. But after a modest two-game winning streak, New York is somehow just two games behind Dallas for the NFC East lead. Believe it or not, this team is still in legitimate playoff contention.
The Giants' two wins do come with a heaping pile of salt, as they came against the Josh Freeman-led Vikings and (mostly) Matt Barkley-led Eagles. The biggest difference from New York was really the regression in their turnover rate. A team can win with two turnovers in two games, but not when they average nearly four per game, as the Giants did in their first six losses.
Perhaps the biggest driving force to their respectable 13th-ranked position is their third-ranked defense, which is nothing short of mind-numbing given the injuries and underachievement throughout the unit. Moreover, their defensive EPA suggests something like a league-average unit rather than an elite one.
However, there are some peripheral stats that suggest a solid unit. The Giants rank ninth in opponent's yards per play, and as a result of the offense's plethora of turnovers, New York has suffered the worst opposing starting field position, per Football Outsiders.
Still, unless the turnovers somehow completely disappear, it's hard to imagine the Giants completely making up the deficit. New York still has games remaining against Seattle, Detroit, San Diego and Green Bay. If the Giants can sweep their three remaining division games (two vs. Washington, home vs. Dallas), there's a chance they could squeak in with tiebreakers. But don't hold your breath for the postseason, let alone another surprising Super Bowl run.
- Does defense still win championships? Ok, yes it definitely does still help, but it's telling that seven of the 10 most efficient defenses are on teams outside the top 10. On the flip side, only the Chargers and Bears possess top-10 offenses without an overall ranking in the upper-third.
- The Lions were this week's biggest movers, jumping up eight slots after one of the season's most thrilling wins. Quarterbacks are clearly the most influential position, but Calvin Johnson deserves MVP consideration nonetheless. The 0.57 WPA difference between Megatron and second-ranked Anquan Boldin is equivalent to the gap between Boldin and 20th-ranked Brian Hartline.
- There's a perception that Oakland may have its franchise quarterback in Terrelle Pryor, but the 32nd-ranked offense begs to differ. On the season, the Raiders rank 25th in Pass EPA per play and 24th in pass success rate. Pryor is still obviously a raw product, and while there have been promising glimpses, he and the Raiders still have a long ways to go.
Here are the rankings at the halfway point of the season:
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