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The Chiefs Are In An Unfamiliar Place — No. 1 In Our NFL Rankings

Well, that didn’t take long. We’re just one week into the 2017 NFL season, and there’s already a new team atop FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings. The Kansas City Chiefs rose to the top slot after beating the preseason No. 1 New England Patriots 42-27 in last Thursday’s season opener, and now Elo gives them a league-best 14 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl.

OK, so maybe you shouldn’t bet the farm on that Chiefs championship just yet. (The Vegas books still list K.C. in a tie for the seventh-best Super Bowl odds of any team, alongside the Atlanta Falcons.) But Kansas City occupying first place in an NFL power ranking is a pretty rare sight nonetheless. Since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, the Chiefs have only held the No. 1 slot for eight total weeks,1 the same as the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Compare that with the team the Chiefs beat — the Pats, who lead all post-merger franchises with 137 total weeks at No. 1 — and you start to get a sense for just how unusual a top-ranked K.C. squad is.

The last time the Chiefs ranked first in Elo? Week 11 of the 2003 season, when Kansas City had just crushed the Cleveland Browns to move to 9-0 on the year. It was K.C.’s fourth consecutive week at No. 1, but the celebration wouldn’t last: Dick Vermeil’s Chiefs were upset by Cincinnati on the road the following week, part of a 4-3 stretch to close the regular season. And in the playoffs, they lost an epic shootout with Peyton Manning and the Colts in which neither team punted. K.C. fell to 7-9 the next season, and the offensive firepower briefly captured with Trent Green and Priest Holmes was never quite achieved again.

Most weeks spent at No. 1 in NFL Elo ratings, 1970-2017
RK TEAM WEEKS LAST YR AT NO. 1 RK TEAM WEEKS LAST YR AT NO. 1
1 New England 137 2017 17 L.A. Chargers 14 2009
2 San Francisco 114 2013 17 Jacksonville 14 1999
3 Dallas 108 1996 19 N.Y. Giants 11 2008
4 Green Bay 67 2011 20 Baltimore 9 2009
5 Pittsburgh 59 2009 21 Tampa Bay 8 2003
6 Indianapolis 52 2009 21 N.Y. Jets 8 2010
7 Washington 51 1992 21 Kansas City 8 2017
8 Miami 50 1985 24 New Orleans 6 2010
9 Oakland 43 2002 25 Cincinnati 4 1982
10 Minnesota 42 2016 25 Buffalo 4 1991
11 Chicago 40 1988 27 Carolina 2 2015
12 Denver 37 2016 28 Arizona 1 2015
13 Seattle 30 2016 29 Atlanta 0
14 L.A. Rams 27 2002 29 Detroit 0
15 Philadelphia 22 2004 29 Houston 0
16 Tennessee 17 2008 29 Cleveland 0

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Kansas City is far from being the franchise with the least time spent in first place. Among teams that have reached the top slot, five — New Orleans, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Carolina and Arizona — have spent fewer weeks in first than K.C. Four other teams — Detroit, Houston, Cleveland and (amazingly2) Atlanta — have never made it to No. 1 in the post-merger era.

Maybe the Chiefs will have the staying power of the Patriots, whose 11-week reign at the top K.C. snapped this week. Or maybe they’ll be like last year’s Minnesota Vikings, who spent one solitary week at No. 1 (Week 6, if you’re keeping track) before fading away.

 

FiveThirtyEight vs. The Crowd

Last week, we rolled out a new game in which we invite you, the readers, to make picks against our Elo algorithm — as well as each other. (The more confident you are in your choices, the more points you win.) After each week, we’ll tally up everyone’s scores, and you can see where you stand relative to Elo and your fellow players.

As a side benefit of this exercise, we can also use the results of your picks to figure out which games and teams the crowd most disagreed with Elo about — and who was right. For instance, in Week 1, readers were all over the woefully high 57 percent win probability Elo gave the Andrew Luck-less Colts on the road against the L.A. Rams. (In Elo’s defense, it doesn’t factor in key injuries like Luck’s.) Los Angeles ended up crushing Indy 46-9, costing our algorithm a lot of points in the process.

Here are all the games from the opening week of the season, in order of how much readers outsmarted Elo:3

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 1

Average difference between FiveThirtyEight reader points won and Elo points won per matchup

our PICK WIN PROB. READERS’ PICK WIN PROB. ACTUAL WINNER READERS’ NET PTS
IND 57% LAR 53% LAR +8.2
CIN 63 CIN 58 BAL +4.6
WSH 58 WSH 52 PHI +4.6
BUF 64 BUF 71 BUF +2.6
ATL 72 ATL 80 ATL +1.9
PIT 76 PIT 86 PIT +1.9
CAR 65 CAR 71 CAR +1.4
OAK 51 OAK 54 OAK +0.5
HOU 74 HOU 75 JAX -3.1
GB 61 GB 56 GB -6.6
MIN 59 MIN 54 MIN -6.7
DAL 65 DAL 60 DAL -6.7
DET 54 ARI 52 DET -8.3
DEN 74 DEN 66 DEN -8.5

 

The Week 1 winner is …

Congratulations to Dante Sblendorio of Livermore, California, who absolutely humiliated Elo with this week’s high score of 225 points. Dante, a 25-year-old physicist, went for an extremely aggressive approach that paid off: He picked 12 of 14 games correctly, all at 100 percent confidence. Too bad he wasn’t in Vegas.

Remember: You can start playing the prediction game this week, even if you didn’t get your picks in last week.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Including this week.

  2. Given that they’ve made two Super Bowls.

  3. The Chiefs-Patriots matchup isn’t included here because our game launched last Friday, after the season opener was played.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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