The opening week of this NFL season featured a record number of close games that provided more than a hint of things to come. Because after Minnesota’s loss on Sunday to Philadelphia, there are no remaining undefeated teams. For reference, this time last year, there were five undefeated teams.
Sharon Katz at ESPN Analytics wrote Monday that every NFL team is flawed. Using Expected Points Added1 as her preferred measure of offensive and defensive efficiency, she showed that no team is excelling on both sides of the ball this season.
How does that fit into the league’s recent history? ESPN’s EPA data goes back to 2006, and the chart below shows the EPA for each team in each season since then. The top teams would be expected to occupy the far upper-right portion of the upper-right quadrant — those teams would have the most EPA on both offense and defense. But this year, no team is occupying that upper corner.
If you take the average of each team’s offensive and defensive EPA as a rough measure of aggregate strength, the highest-ranked team in 2016 is the Eagles at 28.0. However, of the 353 teams from ’06 to ’16 through seven weeks, that ranks as just the 33rd-best score. In other words, over the previous 10 years, there was an average of 3.2 teams per season that fared better than 2016’s top team. On the other hand, there are no truly dreadful teams, either. The Browns have the worst average EPA this year (-35.0), among teams that have negative grades on both offense and defense. Over the same span, there was an average of 2.5 teams worse than this season’s worst squad.
Eight teams form this season’s vanguard2, from the Vikings in the upper left on down to the Falcons in the lower right. That means that despite differences in how their strengths are distributed between offense and defense, there is no team in the league that has more EPA on offense than any of these teams and also has more EPA on defense than that same team. And the fact that there are eight of those teams is a good sign that there are no dominant teams this year. Each of these teams has its flaws, and many are similarly constructed, with solid defenses and sputtering offenses:
- Minnesota boasts the top defense in the NFL, but an offense that is far below average. The Vikings rank dead last in yards per carry, and prior to this season Sam Bradford had been one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL. And while Bradford had played well this year, he finished with the lowest QBR of any passer in week seven. Given the significant concerns on the offensive line, this figures to be a problem all season for the Vikings.
- Philadelphia presents a similar story: The defense looks great, but how far can the team go with a rookie quarterback and rookie head coach? Like the Vikings, Philadelphia also lacks a top-notch playmaker on offense to carry the team. Jordan Matthews is the team leader in yards from scrimmage, but leaguewide he ranks just 75th in that metric this year. Darren Sproles, at age 33, is second on the team and 77th overall.
- Arizona has a similar statistical profile to the Eagles, but the Cardinals are 3-3-1 against a schedule that has been below average. And while the Cardinals were a top team last year, it’s hard to be impressed by a team that has lost to the Patriots without Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, the 3-4 Rams and the 4-3 Bills.
- Denver, like the Vikings and Eagles, is trying to ride a strong defense to a Super Bowl title. Unlike those teams, the Broncos have some precedent for it: the 2015 season. Denver remains a Super Bowl contender, but the team is hardly balanced. In fact, the Broncos are averaging just 5.2 yards per play this year, down from 5.4 on last year’s hard-to-watch offense.
- Buffalo is another team that is hard to take seriously as a contender: The Bills are 4-3, with losses to the 3-4 Ravens, 3-4 Dolphins, and 2-5 Jets. The team will live and die with its rushing game: Buffalo has averaged 73 rushing yards in its three losses, and 212 in its four wins.
- New England? Well, no argument here. Expect the Patriots to be on top of just about every set of power rankings this week, including ours.
- Dallas, like Philadelphia, is a surprise behind a rookie quarterback. And while the Cowboys rank seventh in points allowed per game, the defense is below average, as its EPA rating indicates. Dallas leads the NFL in time of possession, which helps keep the raw numbers down, and the Cowboys defense ranks fourth in percentage of drives ending in turnovers, which is unlikely to continue. More worrisome? Dallas ranks 29th in third-down defense and is below-average against the pass.
- Atlanta is the mirror-image Vikings: Whereas Minnesota ranks first in defensive EPA and 28th in offensive EPA, the Falcons are first in offensive EPA and 28th in defensive EPA. But the Falcons are trending in the wrong direction, making it fair to question them. Atlanta began last year 5-0 yet managed to finish 8-8, and after starting this year 4-1, Neil Paine asked if the Falcons were going to screw it up again. Since then, Atlanta is 0-2.
Perhaps if Tom Brady had never been suspended, the 2016 season would be thought of as a year highlighted (again) by a dominant Patriots team. But through seven weeks, there are no longer any undefeated teams, and no teams that looked great on both sides of the ball. Parity may be a selling point for the league, but that doesn’t make it pretty.