While the New England Patriots have captured the headlines with their vanilla play in a lame division, the real beast of the NFL this season (if there is such a thing) is the Philadelphia Eagles (sorry Vikings' fans).
Below are this week's rankings for each team and each division, followed by some commentary. Contrary to other rankings, these rankings rely on groupings. The purpose of these groupings is to acknowledge that there is little difference in NFL team qualities at certain intervals. This is attributable to the fact that most NFL teams win the games that they are expected to win (at least in hindsight) and lose the games that they are expected to lose.
This should make ranking NFL teams relatively easy, but it does not.
What confounds rankings is that NFL teams play highly unbalanced schedules. Each team plays its division brethren twice a season and each division team plays every team from a select division in the opposing conference each season. The rest of each team's schedule is based on the previous year's performance.
All of this makes it difficult to assess the performance of teams at the beginning of the NFL season. But, after five weeks of play (four for some teams) there is at least something upon which to base a ranking of NFL teams.
The ranking system I provide does not consider record as the overriding factor. Instead, it considers record, combined with good wins, bad losses, and division rank, in determining rank. A good win is defined as a win against a team above .500. A bad loss is defined as a loss against a team below .500. Good wins and bad losses are elastic, meaning that a win against a good team today may become a win against a bad team by year's end. Division rank is determined by net good wins/bad losses for the division as a whole with minor consideration given to overall division record.
Without further ado, the season's inaugural rankings:
I begin with the division rankings since I will make reference to these rankings throughout.
The current division rankings, in order, are as follows: AFC South, NFC East, AFC North, AFC West, NFC North, AFC East, NFC West, NFC South.
The first four teams in this year's inaugural rankings are Philadelphia, New England, New York (AFC), and Indianapolis, in that order. The Eagles have three good wins to New England's one good win and thus win the early-season ranking battle. The Jets and Colts also have one good win.
The most likely fraud in this group is the Jets. Although the Jets are 4-0 with one good win and no bad losses, they have beaten three teams with records below .500. The Jets also play in one of the weaker divisions in the NFL, a division with a combined record of 8-9, two teams without a victory this season, and a division tally of 3 bad losses to 2 good wins. The same could be said of the Patriots, but the Patriots have a better history than do the Jets, so the Patriots get a pass--for now.
The next six teams in the rankings are Denver, Detroit, Atlanta, Jacksonville, San Diego, and Cleveland. The most likely fraud in this group is Atlanta. Although the Falcons generally have played good defense, they have done so against weak competition. While the Falcons likely will make the playoffs, this will be a result more of the fact that they play in the weakest division in the NFL than a consequence of a strong Falcons' team. The pundits suggest that the Falcons will only get better once Vick takes flight. It hasn't happened yet against suspect competition, and I would not bank on it.
The next group of four includes Minnesota, Seattle, New York (NFC), and Pittsburgh. The most likely fruad in this group is Minnesota. The Vikings likely will compete for the NFC North title this season, but a tough seven week stretch near the end of the season will determine of what this team is made. Despite being 3-1 with a good chance of going 4-1 on Sunday, and despite a formidable offense, the Vikings still have an atrocious defense--ranked 31st out of 32 teams. The Vikings have yet to beat a winning team this season and failed miserably against the only winning team that they faced. Unlike 1998, when Minnesota rode a strong offense to the NFC Championship game, other NFC teams, such as Seattle, St. Louis, Philly, New York, and Green Bay, can keep pace with Minnesota's offense. And Philly and New York, and possibly Seattle, have the defense to slow Minnesota's offense. Without significant improvement on defense--improvement that the Vikings have yet to show this season--the Vikings look like the biggest fraud of this group.
The next group in the rankings includes Baltimore, St. Louis, Dallas, Houston, and Tennessee. The fraud in this group is Dallas. The Cowboys are old, hurt, and/or awful at quarterback and wide receiver, and appear to have one of the worst defenses in the NFL--despite broad acclaim to the contrary at the beginning of the season. It doesn't help that Dallas will face two of the better teams in the NFL twice each this season. But that's life in Big D.
The next group includes Chicago, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Carolina, Oakland, and Kansas City. It would be an oxymoron to define a fraud in this group since none of the teams is ranked high enough. Each of these teams has struggled this season, with Carolina and KC suprising some with their poor play, Oakland showing its age, Chicago showing its injuries, and Cincinnati showing, well, that it really is Cincinnati at heart.
The most disturbing performance in this group, though not unexpected, has to be that of the New Orleans Saints. The Saints continue to underachieve (if you believe that Brooks is a quality QB and that Haslett is a quality coach), losing two games to teams with losing records, and generally playing lousy football given the prevailing expectations. I happen to believe that the proper expectations for the Saints are that they are a middle-of-the-pack team, but that just confirms their placement here.
The team most likely to rise from this group is Carolina, by default. Chicago has no QB and too many other injuries, particularly in the secondary, Cincinnati is not very good even when healthy (though that could change if they play Kitna), Oakland is old with a weak offense and slow defense, and KC is in a tough division with Denver and San Diego and has no defense. Carolina plays in the weakest division in the NFL and has 12 games left to catch Atlanta. I like Carolina's odds.
The final group in this year's inaugural rankings includes Arizona, San Francisco, Buffalo, Green Bay, Washington, Tampa Bay, and Miami. These teams truly have been pathetic this year. Only Green Bay appears to have the ability to score against any defense, but Green Bay has a putrid defense of its own and will not be able to outscore too many teams. Plus, Green Bay has lost four of its first five games, with three losses already at home! Arizona will improve with the return of Anquan Boldin, and they play in the second worst division in the NFL, but if St. Louis shows any ability this season, St. Louis and Seattle should ensure that Arizona does not rise above this plateau in 2004.
That's it for now. Check back tomorrow for Vikings' pregame!