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Return of the NFL Power Rankings spreadsheet for 2017

After 8 weeks of NFL action, the stat-based rankings spreadsheet is back.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots
Bill Belichick is not impressed with the Patriots’ score.
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

With the success of the last two spreadsheets, I’ve also started the 2017 edition. Normally I would wait only 6 weeks, but given how discombobulated the Patriots defense was for the first 4 games of the season I decided to extend it for 8 games to see if the Patriots defense can improve enough to counterbalance it. The sheet compiles all the many NFL stats such as yards, points, percentage of drives that end in a score/turnover, and Red Zone efficiency, compares the rate numbers to the NFL average and assigns a percentile relative to the NFL average (50).

The weighted final score is based on the Offense, Defense, and Special Teams score and the number of plays those units are on the field. The calculations are very straightforward and I don’t hide anything on the sheet other than the data I copy-paste from stat websites like Football Outsiders (Drive Stats, Field Position, Red Zone Efficiency), ESPN (Downs and Punting), Pro Football Reference (Kick and Punt Returns) and Team Rankings (Red Zone Attempts, Kickoffs).

The approach is similar to Football Outsiders, but their formulas are more precise than mine although the rankings for the different units may finish the same by the end of the season. So what’s the reliability behind such a spreadsheet? It takes into account a team’s schedule as well as the different stats I listed in parenthesis in the previous paragraph.

Each team has a Schedule, Offense, Defense, and Special Teams score. The score is then compared with the team’s overall winning percentage, which is in the data tab. The idea is to get a linear relationship between score and winning percentage and a coefficient of determination (R-squared) value as close to 1 as possible. After 8 weeks of data, the slope of the line is 0.0168 with an intercept of -0.331. The R-squared value is currently 0.918, whereas last year the final season numbers was 0.92. But enough about the boring math stuff, we’re here to discuss football.

Here’s how the Patriots scores break down on the spreadsheet:

Overall 63 (3rd): The Patriots rank 3rd behind the top 2 NFC teams, the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings, both of which are well-rounded teams that get production from all 3 phases of the game. The Patriots lead the AFC teams, which a slight edge over the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs, who both have a team score of 62. All 3 teams pace the AFC with 6-2 records each where the Steelers have a win over the Chiefs and the Chiefs have a win over the Patriots. That makes the Patriots vs. Steelers game in Week 15 extremely important for seeding purposes.

The Patriots project to go 6-2 in the 2nd half of the season and finish with a 12-4 record. Curiously enough, the spreadsheet predicts the Chiefs to go 12-4 as well and the Steelers to finish 11-5, which would put the Patriots in the #2 seed spot and potentially playing Pittsburgh before the AFC Championship Game.

Schedule 81 (4th): The Patriots have the 2nd best record in the NFL, sharing a 6-2 mark with the Vikings, Steelers, and Chiefs. The Patriots have a current Strength of Schedule of 62-49 (.559) at the halfway point, which is tied for the 2nd best SoS behind the Miami Dolphins. The Patriots have also have a strength of victory above .500 with a 20-18 record (.526), which shows they’ve been beating good teams like the Saints.

For the Patriots, they do deal with some tough teams in the 2nd half, although given the current state of some of the teams that rank near average and trending down, this number could be negatively affected. The games against the Bills and Steelers will greatly affect SoV.

Offense 71 (1st): The Patriots lead the NFL in yards gained per drive and most plays per drive, which wears out defenses over the course of a game. Even though the play-calling can get suspect at times and the team isn’t performing to max capacity, the overall unit has done really well. Only the Dallas Cowboys (2.59) have averaged more points per drive than the Patriots (2.52), but the Patriots have had more scoring drives than the Cowboys and a better turnover rate.

The Patriots have also done a great job of converting key downs overall, although the red zone 3rd down rate is subpar for now, with the 2nd best Downs Grade on offense behind the Eagles. Given that the Patriots offense has a lot of room for improvement, I think it’s very possible for that unit to finish with a 75+ grade at the end of the season if the unit stays healthy and the coaches fix the issues that’s slowing down this well-oiled machine.

Defense 41 (24th): The Patriots defense was the fatal flaw of the team in their losses to Kansas City and Carolina. Mental breakdowns in the secondary resulted in the team allowing 75 points in those two games and the performance got bad especially at the end of halves. The defense has had decent games against the suddenly unstoppable Saints and Chargers as well as shutting down their former Super Bowl opponent in the Falcons. The unit had a score of 34 before the Falcons game, so the trend is in the right direction.

The Patriots defense will have to continue to improve to around 50 as the season continues in order for the offense to be able to carry the team. That means the team needs to allow fewer chunk plays, as a 6.49 yards per play number is anything but good, even if the team is able to prevent opponents from scoring due to great field position and the scoring rate somewhat affected by Matt Bryant having the worst game of his life.

Special Teams 63 (3rd): As expected, the Patriots have a top-5 ranked Special Teams unit. The team ranks well in all 5 component grades, scoring 58 or better in all 5 and 60 or better in all 4 core units. The Patriots average 1.49 net yards of field position per drive, which means the offense is starting 1.5 yards better per drive than the defense. Winning the field position battle has always been a big thing for Bill Belichick teams, so this year isn’t any different.

The Patriots have also gotten production from their punt return unit, which has averaged 10.5 yards per return and 5 yards gained of field position per punt, both being strong marks. This has come with long time ST ace Matthew Slater missing for the first 4 games of the season as well. With strong performances across the board, the Patriots have been able to play solid enough complementary football to win games.