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Patriots rise up to 1st place in ESPN’s Football Power Index, 21% chance to win Super Bowl

The Patriots have put the rest of the league on notice.

I hadn’t heard of the ESPN Football Power Index until yesterday, but apparently the New England Patriots are in 1st place.

ESPN projects the Patriots to have 11.7 wins this year, a 94% chance of making the playoffs, and a 21% chance of winning the Super Bowl, all the top marks in the league. And they’ve done it without QB Tom Brady.

So what are these rankings? They’re not power rankings from a subjective standpoint, but instead a way to measure a team’s efficiency using statistics. The ratings looks like a soup of random bits of information, factoring in “altitude” and “seasonal effects” and “rest”.

ESPN says there are three main reasons why the Patriots are in 1st.

1. The quarterbacks have been outstanding. Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett have combined for the league lead in another one of ESPN’s funky stats QBR.

Garoppolo actually ranks #1 in the entire league with a QBR of 91.9 out of 100, which basically makes him a cheat code. His 99.3 out of 100 performance against the Dolphins in less than a half is the best of any quarterback all year, and his 76.6 performance against the Cardinals ranks 26th.

Brissett doesn’t qualify for the leaderboard, but he put up a 70.7 score against the Texans, which is good for the 31st best start in the NFL this season. If that’s an indictment on the quality of quarterback play, so be it.

2. The defense has been wonderfully efficient. ESPN notes that the Patriots rank 21st in “opponent’s average drive distance”, but have only allowed points on 21% of drives (the third-best rate in the NFL). That’s the base definition of bend, don’t break.

Although I’m not actually sure what “opponent’s average drive distance” means. Patriots opponents have averaged 30.4 yards per drive, which ranks 11th in the NFL. They’ve also only allowed points on 20% of drives, which is tied for 2nd with the Vikings (although the Vikings allow fewer points per drive, so I’ll allow it).

Still, the defense deserves plenty of credit for keeping the team atop the league rankings.

3. Special teams have been silly good. Any time you can force multiple fumble turnovers on special teams is a good thing and you should probably do it. The Patriots have also pinned their opponents back with the worst average starting field position from kickoffs in the NFL.

ESPN has the Patriots as being twice as good as any other team on special teams, worth roughly a field goal in added value each game.

Those three reasons, along with the three teams that had been ranked ahead of the Patriots all getting blown out in week 3, have vaulted the Patriots into the top spot.

ESPN notes that the model includes Brady’s return in week 5 and projects the Patriots to have “by far the best offense going forward.” They also note the Patriots have the 24th ranked strength of schedule for the rest of the year and the rest of the AFC East is terrible in this FPI model.

The Patriots project as favorites for the rest of the season, apart from the road trip to Mile High Stadium later in the year. This, of course, is subject to change over the coming weeks.

I should also note that the “three reasons” are kind of the most obvious reasons in football, right? 1. Have a good quarterback and offense; 2. Have a good defense; 3. Have good special teams. It’s not like the Patriots are reconstructing the wheel here.

Let’s see if the Patriots can continue their high level of play in all three phases for the rest of the year.