ESPN's NFL Power Rankings Dissected

With the release of the newest ESPN NFL rankings, now is a good time to dig a little deeper than the surface. We know the Atlanta Falcons are ranked 8th in the NFL and 5th in the NFC. The usual suspects are ahead of them: Super Bowl participants Colts and Saints, Conference championship runner-ups Vikings and Jets and playoff teams Cowboys, Ravens and Packers.

What do these rankings mean? How accurate are they are? Does a team finish close to where they begin? I dusted off my TI-85 and got to work. Hit the jump to see where the ESPN rankings could have the Falcons in January.

ESPN has been posting their Power Rankings since 2002. That gives us plenty of data to work with. Let’s get to it.

Average Preseason Ranking (since 2002)

The Falcons have been ranked as high #6 before the start of the 2005 season and as low as #32 at the start of 2008.

Average End of Season Ranking (since 2002)

Again, the Falcons were the best after their high-flying season in 2004 and the worst after the dreck that was 2007.

Average Over/Under Ranking (since 2002)

The Falcons have been ranked (on average) 15.8 in the ESPN offseason Power Rankings. They have finished (on average) ranked 16.6. That gives them a negative 0.8 delta. Which teams have ended the season better than they started and vice versa?

ESPN hates the AFC. That’s the only reasonable explanation that the top seven teams, which consistently out-perform their preseason rankings, are from the AFC.

How They’ll Finish in 2010

Now that we know how teams have performed in the past and what their rankings are in the present – let’s see what that means for the future.

To calculate the results we take each team’s 2010 preseason rankings and subtract the delta to give us their 2010 finish. For example, the Falcons are ranked 8th in the preseason rankings. They have averaged finishing 0.8 spots lower at the end of the season so their 2010 prediction is…8.8 – which puts them in the ninth spot.

Extrapolate this out further and we have:

NFC division winners: Saints, Vikings, Cowboys, 49ers.
NFC wild cards: Packers, Falcons

Obviously the Falcons of 2002 don’t resemble this team so take the data for what you paid for it. However, it’s interesting to see where team’s expectations begin and where they, ultimately, end.

Biggest Swings

What teams have the ESPN experts completely whiffed on? Which ones did they say would stink but turned out to be one of the best? Which teams were they certain would be great but ended up duds?

Biggest Surprises (Since 2002)

1. 2004 San Diego Chargers
Preseason Rank: 32
Final Ranking: 5

The year Drew Brees became Drew Brees.

2. 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers

Preseason Rank: 26
Final Ranking: 1

An rookie quarterback surprises everyone and never loses a game until the AFC Championship.

3. 2008 Atlanta Falcons
Preseason Rank: 32
Final Ranking: 7

A QB from Boston College transformed the worst team in the NFL to a playoff team in one season.

Biggest Disappointments (Since 2002)

1. 2003 Oakland Raiders

Preseason Rank: 3
Final Ranking: 32

Coming off a Super Bowl season, the Raiders crashed and burned with Rick Mirer starting eight games.

2. 2002 St. Louis Rams
Preseason Rank: 1
Final Ranking: 24

The Super Bowl champions started 0-5 and Kurt Warner was washed-up. Remember that?

3. 2002 Chicago Bears

Preseason Rank: 7
Final Ranking: 29

Jim Miller led the Bears from 13-3 to 7-9 in the third biggest disappointment.

I like the Falcons chances in the NFC. I love everything they’ve done in the offseason but there is a lot of talented teams and only six playoff chairs available when the music stops. I remain confident they’ll be one of the teams making some noise in January.

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Tags: Atlanta Falcons ESPN NFL Power Rankings

  • Ed

    Hello Troy,

    If the Ravens would not have knocked out Maddox in the first game of 2004, Pittsburgh probably would not have finished that good. That is the year Ben came in and went 15-0.

    • Troy Heinzman

      That’s probably true. NFL History is filled with stories like that. Mo Lewis + Drew Bledsoe = Patriots dynasty.

  • fila33lee

    Well that’s a great way to look at the preseason rankings, awesome article. I couldn’t agree with you more Troy, January seems right. I understood, and liked the offseason moves, but it seemed like they were highly criticized by most of the NFL scouts. First of all I think they averaged our draft a C at best. I didn’t understand that, we got more defensive playmakers to fill holes, added depth at the O-line, and receiving core. We may not see an immediate impact at first, but it was a smart draft.What do they say, it’s always good to have depth at every position, which alone could help catapult us into the playoffs. Look at the Vikings, if AP goes down, I really don’t think they could make that jump.

    • Troy Heinzman

      Lots of publications picking the Falcons to dethrone the Saints and even win the Super Bowl. The tide is turning for sure and I cannot wait for the season to get here. Dimitroff and staff haven’t given us a reason to distrust him yet, so the moves he made, though panned by critics as you mentioned, fit into the Falcons scheme.

  • fila33lee

    Agreed, I’m sure it’ll all work out, hopefully sooner rather than later we will be raising that Lombardi trophy.Only a few more weeks till we “Rise Up”