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Which Of The NFL’s Top Teams Have Been Lucky, And Which Are Actually Good?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): In Week 6 of this NFL season, London fans got an exciting finish in the excruciating matchup of Jaguars vs. Dolphins, the Cowboys and Patriots took a wild fourth quarter into overtime, and Aaron Rodgers verified his sole ownership of the Chicago Bears. 

We’re a third of the way through this season now, so it’s time to take stock of the teams that are starting to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. Let’s dig into the six teams with at least five wins so far (with apologies to our model’s favorite, the Buffalo Bills, who could get their fifth win Monday night): the Baltimore Ravens, Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

In last week’s Monday night game, we saw Lamar Jackson put on a second-half show in the Ravens’ comeback win over Indianapolis. This week, the Ravens were dominant against a Los Angeles Charges team that had looked very strong. Just how good are the Ravens?

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): They certainly deserve to be in this group of teams. I think their struggles against inferior opponents has given people a negative impression of the team 6 games in, but with all the injuries to the team so far this year, I think folks on the Ravens have to be pretty happy with how they’ve played. 

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): You like to see a team have multiple paths to victory. It’s been the Lamar show. I had written off this defense, but they pulled out a great game plan against Justin Herbert and completely confused him. 

I think this cements them as a true Super Bowl contender because Lamar had a bad game — for him, at least — and it didn’t even matter. Wink Martindale showed again why his defenses have been consistently great no matter who the players are

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): They definitely have been among the best teams. They are top-11 on both sides of the ball by schedule-adjusted expected points added (EPA). Jackson has had some amazing games, but they’ve also gotten lucky with some of the close wins. According to the Pythagorean formula, they have the fourth-biggest gap between actual and expected winning percentage: 

The NFL’s ‘luckiest’ teams in close games this year

Largest differentials between actual and expected (based on point differential) winning percentage, 2021 NFL season

Winning %
Team Wins Losses Actual Expected Diff.
Packers 5 1 .833 .526 +.307
Cardinals 6 0 .000 .742 +.258
Buccaneers 5 1 .833 .635 +.198
Ravens 5 1 .833 .644 +.189
Cowboys 5 1 .833 .650 +.183
Rams 5 1 .833 .652 +.181
Chargers 4 2 .667 .494 +.173
Raiders 4 2 .667 .509 +.157
Bears 3 3 .500 .394 +.106
Titans 3 2 .600 .507 +.093
Steelers 3 3 .500 .445 +.055
Falcons 2 3 .400 .348 +.052
Bengals 4 2 .667 .629 +.038
Browns 3 3 .500 .515 -.015
Chiefs 3 3 .500 .523 -.023
Football Team 2 4 .333 .361 -.027
Vikings 3 3 .500 .532 -.032
Saints 3 2 .600 .648 -.048
Jets 1 4 .200 .253 -.053
Bills 4 1 .800 .859 -.059
Broncos 3 3 .500 .562 -.062
Texans 1 5 .167 .241 -.075
Panthers 3 3 .500 .576 -.076
Dolphins 1 5 .167 .257 -.090
49ers 2 3 .400 .492 -.092
Eagles 2 4 .333 .453 -.119
Seahawks 2 4 .333 .472 -.138
Giants 1 5 .167 .309 -.142
Patriots 2 4 .333 .493 -.159
Jaguars 1 5 .167 .327 -.161
Colts 2 4 .333 .527 -.194
Lions 0 6 .000 .303 -.303

Source: pro-football-reference.com

But while this wasn’t necessarily Lamar’s finest game, it might have been the team’s most impressive of the season.

Salfino: I hear you, but dominating the Chargers, who I thought were a Super Bowl contender, sort of erases the lucky narrative, for me.

Baltimore’s offense and passing game with Lamar has been legit great all year (and I think those things are most predictive). I have to put the Ravens in the championship contender box. Plus rookie Rashod Bateman, who made his debut Sunday, may be good.

joshua.hermsmeyer: There’s a lot of weird stats for Baltimore. Among the teams with at least five wins, they’ve notched the greatest number of plays of 20+ yards but are second to last in EPA per play. I think the Ravens will be a better team overall in the second half of the season, mainly due to getting healthy and the O-line gelling. So I think the best is to come.

sara.ziegler: That EPA stat is so interesting, Josh. Is that just a weird quirk, or might something else be going on?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m unsure. I think it might be driven by them being last in that group in third-down conversion rate?

Salfino: They’re sort of the anti-Cardinals. I think those third- and fourth-down stats are a fluke. Good offenses don’t even get to third down.

neil: And we would expect a good rushing team like Baltimore to be able to handle third-and-shorts better than they have (21st in the league in conversion rate) so far.

In fact, Baltimore’s overall rushing EPA success is lower than we’d expect so far this year. (Of course, they’re also using a collection of the Best RBs of 2016 to do it.)

Salfino: The Old Timer’s Day Baltimore backfield is testing the limits of the zero-RB theory. I know they ran well Sunday, but the Chargers run defense is a travesty of a mockery of a sham. 

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL, I saw a Bill Barnwell tweet saying that the Ravens should sign every old RB and get them a TD before they retire. 

sara.ziegler: Truly the best idea.

Salfino: I’m waiting for Jamal Lewis to get snaps.

sara.ziegler: LOL

Moving over to the NFC, we’ll start with the 6-0 Cardinals — maybe the best story of the season. They went into Cleveland as underdogs, without coach Kliff Kingsbury, and they simply rolled the Browns behind four touchdown passes from Kyler Murray and 144 yards rushing from the team. How are you all feeling about the Cards now?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Who needs Kliff?

neil: Their defense continues to be a total revelation.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills

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Salfino: I was shocked by how they controlled the game. 

I still don’t believe in them, though I guess I have to throw them in the bucket with the Super Bowl contenders in the NFC. But I would be surprised if they were the team in February. They have converted 43.5 percent of their third-down attempts so far and allowed opponents to convert only 31.3 percent of their third downs. That balance could turn on a dime, and it’s the foundation of their success so far.

neil: I think that is selling them short, Mike. The overall fundamentals are strong here — they are the only team in the top five in EPA per game on both offense and defense. In particular, they’re fifth passing and second against the pass.

That’s an elite combo. 

Salfino: That’s fair, Neil. I may be being stubborn with my priors.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Their defense hasn’t allowed that many points — very stingy — but they’re fourth among this group of five-win teams in yards per play allowed. I’m not sure what to make of that side of the ball.

Salfino: I think yards per play is a very important/predictive stat — more than points. The Cardinals are giving up a point every 18.9 yards, and the average is 15.4. Major regression coming.

I don’t like that DeAndre Hopkins is not being fed targets and James Conner, who is a great story and a courageous person but a bad running back, keeps being fed touches. But, yes, it’s all working. Hopkins did get two TDs on his four targets yesterday.

sara.ziegler: Efficient!

I will say that the Browns were pretty banged up, and that likely contributed to this specific game. But still, the Cardinals have handled everything in front of them (in very different ways), and that does matter.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I am now seeing takes that the Browns are the NFL’s most disappointing team, and it’s a very Browns time to be alive.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

neil: The Browns … IDK, man. Baker Mayfield has been mediocre again this year. And their defense is bad.

joshua.hermsmeyer: It will be interesting to see if Cleveland re-signs Baker this offseason.

Salfino: We’ll see how analytical the Browns actually are.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Indeed.

Salfino: Baker is the rich man’s Andy Dalton. Name the game the Browns ever won because of Baker. 

sara.ziegler: 

Salfino: QBs make donkeys of us all.

sara.ziegler: All right, then. Just behind the Cardinals in the NFC West are the Los Angeles Rams, who didn’t find much resistance Sunday in the form of the New York Giants. You all have expressed skepticism about the Rams already; did you see anything this week to bolster L.A.’s case as a top team?

joshua.hermsmeyer: It was a very impressive day for Matthew Stafford, who I have been down on. I have to admit he’s playing very well — even if it was the Joe Judge-led Giants he was beating up on. 

neil: I’m probably higher on the Rams than y’all are, and they took care of the business they needed to. The Giants had a boo-worthy performance; sorry, Leonard Williams.

Salfino: I wish they played a professional football team yesterday. I’m sticking with them coming into Week 6 allowing nearly 100 yards more per game than in 2020. However, I will say that if Stafford stays near 9.0 net yards per pass play, which through six games is top 20 all-time, they are going to be very tough to beat. Cooper Kupp is on pace for 130 catches and 20 touchdowns. 

neil: I admit I had been kind of skeptical of the “Stafford is what this offense needs” hype train going into the season. But they have been the best passing offense in the league this year by a bunch of different metrics. He has made a huge difference.

joshua.hermsmeyer: And they’re doing it without smashing the easy buttons: The Rams’ play-action rate is well beneath Sean McVay’s rates when he had Jared Goff.

sara.ziegler: Is that a Stafford thing, do you think? Or an adjustment in scheme for some reason?

neil: Or are they saving it for later, when they need it in the playoffs against good teams? (Is that even a thing?)

sara.ziegler: Play-action as a long game — I like it.

neil: Never show future opponents everything you want to do on tape. 

joshua.hermsmeyer: I really don’t know! Good plays work no matter who the QB is. McVay likely has a plan — or maybe he’s just dialing up all the plays he couldn’t with Goff and just enjoying himself.

neil: BTW, the long pause Lions coach Dan Campbell took when talking Goff in his postgame presser said it all.

sara.ziegler: That was brutal.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Campbell seems like the good kind of football guy. I like him.

Salfino: I love Campbell. He has a very bad hand though.

sara.ziegler: Let’s stay in the NFC North and talk about Green Bay. The Packers are a team I can’t quite figure out, though their position in this woeful division means they will likely still rack up wins. Since their stunning season-opening blowout loss to the Saints, they’ve had a couple of close calls against so-so teams. Are they for real?

joshua.hermsmeyer: We have them well behind the Rams in probability to win the Super Bowl, and tied with Dallas. I’m higher on them than that, probably equal to the Rams.

Salfino: They are still somehow a receiver short. 

I put them behind the Cowboys, Rams and Bucs in the NFC. Rodgers has also predictably regressed but his trash talking has not. 

neil: As Aaron Jones said: He was right, though. He does own them.

Salfino: I think the rest of the non-Davante Adams receiving corps is not NFL-caliber, and this will be their undoing.

neil: Adams alone has 44 percent of their total team receiving yards. That leads all players this season, though it’s also kind of nothing new.

sara.ziegler: This disrespect for Allen Lazard will not stand.

neil: I remember thinking Lazard would be good when he had that 146-yard game against the Saints Week 3 last year. He hasn’t had more than 56 yards in a game since.

sara.ziegler: I said it will not stand, Neil — not “pile on more.”

neil: Lol. Sorry!

He does have a good Chris Berman-ism on NFL Primetime though: Allen “Lounge” Lazard.

sara.ziegler: Haha

joshua.hermsmeyer: Where are all the targets for Randall Cobb, who Rodgers pounded the table for? Maybe they’re coming …

sara.ziegler: Neil did his best to jinx the Cowboys by writing about whether this was their year, and it came thisclose to working. How are you feeling about Them Boys after that performance against the Pats?

neil: HOW BOUT THEM COWBOYS?!

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL

Salfino: The Cowboys kicked the crap out of the Patriots. I don’t care what the scoreboard said. This team is DANGEROUS. There is no weakness.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The weakness is in Dak Prescott’s calf, I think. 

neil: We saw the good and bad of the Cowboys on back-to-back plays within 16 seconds at the end of regulation, between Trevon Diggs’s pick-6 and then that awful blown coverage on the TD to Kendrick Bourne.

Arizona Cardinals v Los Angeles Rams

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Salfino: They had 15 more first downs, 232 more yards. That fluke long TD on the medicine ball by Mac Jones is even counted here.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Someone compared Trevon to Jameis Winston, and I think it’s apt. 

Salfino: Trevon has more TDs this season than his brother.

Neil, that ball was screaming to be picked or have the WR killed. 

neil: Yes, and somehow the Cowboys D turned it into a TD.

That’s my concern (beyond Dak’s health) — that this defense regresses. Because that’s been the big difference this year, but it was less impressive this Sunday.

Salfino: But they have the Defensive Player of the Year right now and, when DeMarcus Lawrence returns from injury, a star at every level of the defense. Is it top 12-ish? Yes. And that offense is insane. The stat that blows me away, courtesy of BetPrep, is that in CeeDee Lamb’s past 11 games with Dak, he has a catch of at least 25 yards in 10 of them. On Sunday, he had two — including the overtime TD. They can dial up a big play whenever they want.

neil: Well, I feel like they were trying to dial up the big play late in that game almost to prove a point, not necessarily to maximize winning. I will say it worked in OT, though.

sara.ziegler: I feel like one weakness might be Mike McCarthy? There was some very confusing clock management in that game …

joshua.hermsmeyer: I missed it as I was attending the Raiders-Broncos game, but that sounds very McCarthy-like.

Salfino: What does McCarthy do though, Sara? The rest of the coaching staff — the actual coordinators — are good. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore is the hottest coach in football. No way does Jerry Jones let him get away. McCarthy is going to get fired even if he wins the Super Bowl.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Salfino with the fire takes.

sara.ziegler: Always, LOL.

OK, let’s wrap this up with the NFC team in our model with the best Super Bowl odds. Tom Brady and his Buccaneers didn’t look especially dominant against Philly on Thursday, and yet I never felt like that game was in doubt. But injuries are starting to pile up for Tampa’s defense. How much of a problem does that pose for them?

joshua.hermsmeyer: They were the healthiest team in the league last year, and health and Super Bowls seem to go hand in hand. If they continue to get beat up, I would be worried.  

Salfino: It’s a big problem. You ideally want a good pass defense and a crappy run defense when you have a high-flying passing offense. You want to entice teams to beat you with short ball. The Bucs are the reverse, and that’s not ideal. They are inviting you to shoot it out with them, and against the Rams or Cowboys or really any of the top NFC teams, that’s VERY dangerous.

neil: That being said, they’ve still been one of the best teams this year even with the shakier-than-expected defense. Sixth in SRS, fifth in SOS-adjusted overall EPA per game. Brady and that offense have scored 32.5 PPG, which would be third (behind only the 2007 and 2012 Pats) among Brady teams. 

joshua.hermsmeyer: Amazing.

sara.ziegler: It’s wild that Brady has the most passing yards in the league so far.

How.

neil: Brady this season already has accounted for 50.5 percent of all NFL yards ever thrown by anybody at age 44 or older.

Salfino: Did you see this: 

sara.ziegler: Wowwwww

Salfino: Tampa Grady.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Sara Ziegler is the sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Hermsmeyer is a football writer and analyst.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

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