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The general perception suggests that the NFC is the superior conference this season.  That's partially based off of recency bias, as the NFC has indeed been superior to the AFC over the past few years.  The AFC owns a slight 19-17-1 edge in inter-conference games this season, but that alone is obviously far from enough to declare that the league's power balance has once again shifted.

However, it would at least appear that the once-lopsided distinction is moving back towards an equilibrium, a notion these rankings would agree with.  Nine of the top 16 teams are from the AFC, and the second-ranked NFC team would seemingly serve as an indictment of the entire conference (I won't ruin the surprise for you, but it's a team I've discussed at length before). 
Though the Broncos and Patriots receive most of the pub, the conference's strength really lies in its depth.  These rankings may have a couple cooky placements, but for the most part, the model does a good job of staying ahead of the mainstream curve. We'll examine a couple (perceived) second-level contenders from the AFC who have thus far exceeded preseason expectations by becoming borderline top 10 squads in these rankings.

January Darkhorses?

Two AFC teams have steadily risen after a rough first month.

- Widely derided as one of this year's most likely regression candidates, the Kansas City Chiefs seemed destined to fulfill that ignominious role after a blowout Week 1 home loss to the Tennessee Titans.  Integral starters Derrick Johnson and Mike DeVito suffered season-ending injuries in that defeat, while All-Pro cornerstones Jamaal Charles and Eric Berry have both missed time with nagging injuries.  For a top-heavy roster, this would seemingly be a death blow.

Nonetheless, the Chiefs have somehow emerged from the wreckage and surged to a 5-3 record, as well as an eighth-place standing in these rankings.  This isn't the only model that likes KC, as Pro-Football-Reference has them tied for third in Simple Rating System (SRS).  That Titans loss has become arguably the season's biggest outlier, as Kansas City's other two losses are one-possession road defeats to the Broncos and 49ers. 

The Chiefs' success starts with their pass defense, which ranks third by efficiency, behind only Denver and Miami.  It's utterly remarkable that Kansas City has gotten by without Johnson or (mostly) Berry.  The Chiefs also cut erstwhile top cornerback Brandon Flowers in the offseason, while 2013 starting corner Marcus Cooper has fallen totally out of the rotation.

The pass rush is obviously the catalyst behind Kansas City's strong start, as the Chiefs lead the league with a 9.7 percent sack rate.  Justin Houston is garnering Defensive POY consideration (non-J.J. Watt category), while Tamba Hali, Dontari Poe and sneaky breakout defensive end Allen Bailey join to form one of the league's best front sevens.

Additionally, Alex Smith has moved past his persistent "game manager" label to emerge as a legitimately excellent quarterback.  Many will dismiss his 67.1 percent completion percentage as the byproduct of an ultra-conservative scheme, but the peripheral numbers suggest that Smith is actually having the best season of his career:

Those aren't just inflated by Smith's career context, either.  The Chiefs quarterback ranks eighth in Expected Points Added per play (EPA/P), eighth in success rate and 10th in Win Probability Added (WPA) per game.  Half of Kansas City's opponents rank in the top 10 in pass defense efficiency, and in those games, Smith has posed seven touchdowns, one interception and a 7.66 adjusted yards per attempt average.  That number would rank 12th if extrapolated to a whole season, quite impressive considering both the level of competition and Smith's relatively barren receiving corps.

The Chiefs' long-term concern isn't Smith or the offense, which should be fine behind Charles and a steadily improving offensive line.  Remember how I just praised the front seven's pass rush?  Well, that excellence is in stark contrast to their run defense's steady decline, where Houston and Hali are not nearly as effective:

This is where they really miss Johnson, as the drop-off to the high-motor yet limited Josh Mauga has been significant.  Berry's reintegration into the lineup will help, as the big safety provides better run support than most defensive backs, but this is still an issue.  Moreover, though the defense is not as scheme-dependent as it was in 2013, it's still frightening to think what might happen if the pass rush ever dried up (or if Houston or Hali got hurt, as was the case last year) and left the secondary exposed.

The Chiefs already have wins in hand over fellow AFC wild card contenders San Diego and Miami, and two juicy games against the Raiders await in the second half.  Next Sunday's game at Buffalo, as well as Week 16 and 17 games at Pittsburgh and home against the Chargers, respectively, appear likely to determine Kansas City's playoff fate.  Either way, it appears the Chiefs are going to surpass the doomsday forecasts following their 0-2 start.

- A few weeks ago, I pinpointed the Chicago Bears as the toughest team in the league to get a read on.  Though the Bears' implosion has since clarified the picture in the Windy City, the Pittsburgh Steelers may have taken that mantle after two dominant victories.

Ben Roethlisberger is the obvious storyline, and he's been about as great as 12 touchdowns in two games would suggest.  In reality, though, the Steelers are hitting big passing plays at roughly the same rate.  Pittsburgh hit 20 plays of 25 or more yards over the first seven weeks, most in the league in that span; over the past two weeks, they have accrued seven such plays, also leading the league.  That's roughly three per game in both instances; it's just that four of those seven plays in Weeks 8 and 9 went for touchdowns.

Obviously, Big Ben's touchdown rate is not sustainable, and his EPA and success rate should sink back to his typical borderline top 10 area, which is where he sat before this incandescent fortnight.  But even before their three-game winning streak, Roethlisberger was never the Steelers' problem.  What's really relevant is how the rest of the team has changed since that three-touchdown debacle of a defeat to Cleveland.

The most obvious change is location, as all three of Pittsburgh's wins have been at Heinz Field.  We shouldn't dock the Steelers for taking care of business after a fortunate break from the schedule-makers, but the most glaring change has been in Pittsburgh's run defense.  The change is obvious on the EPA graph:

It's not just the running game either, as the Steelers have conceded 7.86 yards per play on the road, well below the NFL average of 6.73 yards per play away from home.  Nor is this difference due to a quirk in the schedule, at least when looking at opponents' run success rate.  Pittsburgh has already played both division games against Baltimore and Cleveland; their other splits consistent of the ninth and 25th-ranked rushing attacks on the road and the seventh, 23rd and 29th-ranked running games at home.  These are similar schedules that would not portend major splits.

The Steelers play four of their next five games on the road, and location is obviously out of their control.  Apart from Roethlisberger, the other major change has been turnover rate.  After accruing six turnovers in their first six games, the Steelers defense has forced seven in the last three games.  Those turnovers have also been particularly well-timed—two straight turnovers catalyzed a 24-point flurry against Houston, William Gay recorded a pick-six against Indy and Jason Worilds' interception shifted the complexion of the Baltimore game. 

That's obviously not a repeatable streak, either. The Steelers have been a weird turnover team—though they've forced a relatively plausible 33 turnovers over the past two regular seasons, Pittsburgh has also had eight games with no turnovers forced, seventh-most in the league in that span.  A lack of secondary speed makes this a streaky turnover defense, and with Roethlisberger taking his customary share of downfield shots, his current career-low 0.9 percent interception rate is likely to rise as well.

In fairness, the Steelers do have games against the Jets and Titans coming up, meaning there is a very real chance they enter their Week 12 bye at 8-3.  It would be hard to fathom them missing the postseason with that type of head start, even with a tricky final month.  But unlike the Chiefs' pass rush, the Steelers do not have an ace in the hole to hang their hat on.  Thus, even if their two-year postseason drought ends, Pittsburgh looks like a flawed team elevated by an MVP candidate at quarterback.

Biggest Movers

One team takes control of its division, while another loses control of theirs.

- Pittsburgh's Sunday night opponent, the Baltimore Ravens, sat at 5-2 two weeks ago.  Facing a chance to place an early stranglehold on the AFC North, the Ravens have since dropped two consecutive division games, and have tumbled to 15th after a brief stay in the top 10.  The Week 8 loss to the Bengals was particularly painful—Baltimore had an 83 percent win probability with just under four minutes left, but will now lose any tiebreaker to Cincy, having been swept this season.

Sitting in last place, there is likely a mild sense of panic around Charm City.  However, there are signs that the Ravens' two-game skid may represent a small dip rather than a long-term downswing.  Joe Flacco has been undeniably woeful the past two weeks, averaging a putrid 5.1 adjusted yards per pass attempt, a mark that would rank ahead of only Blake Bortles and Geno Smith this season.  Even with those two poor games, however, Flacco is still putting up career-best EPA/P and success rate numbers:

Indeed, Gary Kubiak's zone- and play-action tendencies have been a boon to the Baltimore offense.  The running game is back to a roughly league-average 41.3 percent success rate after experiencing its first two negative EPA games over the past three weeks against the Steelers and Falcons.  But with left tackle Eugene Monroe and left guard Kelechi Osemele just returning to the lineup, the ground game should see its success rate jump back up to its early-season levels as the two Pro Bowl-caliber linemen reintegrate themselves into the lineup.

The Ravens' one significant long-term concern lies in the secondary, where injuries and general haphazard roster construction have left the team barren at cornerback.  Jimmy Smith almost single-handedly kept the secondary afloat, but a sprained foot suffered against the Bengals will keep him out a few weeks.  Lardarius Webb has looked like a shell of himself while playing through persistent back issues, as his 1.25 EPA/G rate would rank tied for 42nd among 45 qualified cornerbacks.  Nickel corner Asa Jackson is on short-term IR, while Chykie Brown and Dominique Franks were promptly cut on Tuesday after starting on Sunday.  After claiming ex-Lion Danny Gorrer off waivers, Baltimore also promoted undrafted rookie Tramain Jacobs from the practice squad.  Those two, plus Webb, are the only healthy corners on the Ravens roster at the moment.

Fortunately for the Ravens, only three of their final seven opponents rank in the top half of the league in passing EPA/P, and one of those games is a home date with the imperceptibly tumbling Browns.  Smith should return at some point during a three-game post-bye stretch against the Saints, Chargers and Dolphins, as those latter two games could have a particularly large say on the AFC Wild Card chase.

Ultimately, the overarching metrics suggest the Ravens will be fine.  These rankings have Baltimore a reasonable seventh among AFC teams, but AFA is actually harsher on the Ravens than most metrics.  Entering Week 8, DVOA ranked them second overall, while SRS currently sees them as the best team in the AFC North.  Indeed, looking purely at success rate, the Ravens are above-average on both offense and defense this season. Their week-to-week rates have not really deviated over the past two losses, suggesting that misfortune is at play during this mini-losing streak:

Baltimore sacrificed much of its margin for error by losing two straight division games, and disaster could still strike if that aforementioned three-game post-bye stretch goes poorly.  Nonetheless, with Jimmy Smith and the offensive line on the mend, any panic surrounding the Ravens seems premature.

- If only by default, the New Orleans Saints have appeared to seize control of the woebegone NFC South.  With their Thursday night romp at Carolina, the Saints moved into sole possession of first place in the South for the first time this season, and given the dysfunction of the other three teams, it would be a surprise if New Orleans ever relinquished control.

In last week's Pooch Punts segment, I suggested that the Saints weren't taking advantage of their quietly excellent running back corps.  Against the Panthers, New Orleans ran the ball 37 times, compared to 34 pass attempts for Drew Brees.  Overall, the Saints didn't have a ton of success running the ball, but they did call 12 run plays compared to five passes in the red zone.  Perhaps not coincidentally, New Orleans scored touchdowns on four of its five red-zone trips, with the lone exception being a Brees interception.

With Mark Ingram's return from a broken hand, it appears the Saints have discovered a happy medium.  Over the past three weeks, only six teams have run the ball more, and in third-and-short (three yards or less to go), the Saints are one of 12 teams to run more often than they have passed.  Essentially, New Orleans is not only running well, but they are running in game situations when the math suggests that running is more advantageous.  Denver may be the best passing offense by a wide margin, but it is quite clear which team possesses the league's most well-rounded attack:

The offense alone will likely suffice to take the division crown, but if the Saints also happen to exhibit a bigger gap between offensive and defensive efficiency than any other team.  In determining whether the Saints could challenge the top NFC contenders, it would be helpful to look for solutions to their 28th-ranked defense.

The tempting solution is to suggest that, much like the offense, the Saints defense has been measurably worse on the road than at home.  However, breaking down the splits, the Saints actually exhibit a puzzling reverse platoon:

It's actually the road improvement that is new; under Sean Payton, New Orleans has been one of the worst defenses in terms of yards allowed per play, regardless of location.  It's not entirely opponent-related either, as the Saints have played two top-15 offenses on the road (Cleveland, Dallas) and one at home (Green Bay). 

As we discussed with the Steelers, location is obviously not a controllable element.  What might be controllable is New Orleans' improvement on pass defense.  Even with big free-agent acquisition Jairus Byrd out for the season, the Saints have steadily been on the rise since that disastrous Sunday night showing at Arlington:

Indeed, after conceding 20 pass plays of 20 or more yards over the first five weeks, fourth-most in the league, the Saints have allowed just eight such gains over their last three games, ninth-fewest in the league.  Notoriously blitz-happy defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has dialed back the pressure in that time span, and the edge-rushing tandem of Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan has actually boosted New Orleans' sack percentage to 9.2 percent over the last three games.  At the time of their Week 6 bye, the Saints' 3.3 percent sack percentage ranked 28th in the league.

New Orleans has uncracked a couple holy grails, generating pressure with a four-man rush on defense and finding a happy run-pass equilibrium on offense.  Three games is too small a sample to draw long-term conclusions from, but this is a trend to keep an eye on as the NFC seeks a clear-cut top contender.

Pooch Punts

Is there hope for the bottom-feeders?

- The Jacksonville Jaguars have been one of the most talent-deprived teams since Gus Bradley took over in 2013.  Nonetheless, the winning foundation needs to start somewhere, and it appears the Jaguars have found theirs through defense and discipline.

Given Bradley's background as the Seattle defensive coordinator, it's hardly surprising that defense would be the first area of significant improvement for Jacksonville.  The Jags rank eighth in sack percentage this season, headlined by budding young Pro Bowl defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks.  As a whole, Jacksonville's defense ranks 15th in pass defense success rate and eighth in run success rate.  Considering that the Jaguars have lost their two most reliable veteran starters in Paul Posluszny and Alan Ball to season-ending injuries, that step forward is quietly impressive.

Jacksonville also refuses to beat itself, except in areas where inexperience can't help it.  The Jags are the least-penalized team in the NFL, and their 1.2 percent offensive fumble rate is second-best in the league.  Jacksonville does have the highest interception rate, largely because of Blake Bortles' growing pains, but that's virtually inevitable when starting a raw rookie quarterback.

This is still a barren roster, one whose highest upside may have been four or five wins this season.  However, while Bortles' development and future drafts will play the largest role in determining how soon the Jags are postseason-relevant again, Bradley appears to have a promising foundation in place.

- Two weeks ago, I inscribed a pessimistic view on the Minnesota Vikings, noting the historic beating Teddy Bridgewater was taking based on sack rate.  Nothing on the offensive front has changed—Bridgewater's 85 Sack % Index is still third-worst among QBs with at least four starts—but this time, it's the Vikings defense that warrants recognition.

Much like Bradley, new head coach Mike Zimmer has taken his background as the Cincy defensive coordinator and translated it into results.  Behind a droolworthy foundational quintet of Anthony Barr, Everson Griffen, Sharrif Floyd, Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota has surged to seventh overall in defensive efficiency, demonstrating a clear improvement over the past month:

As the five aforementioned players show, the Vikes have drafted well on defense in recent years.  However, savvy free-agent shopping has also aided the cause.  In inking Captain Munnerlyn, Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson, Minnesota has found valuable niche players, the type of above-average contributors who are as essential to filling out a top-notch defense as starry Pro Bowlers.

There's still the small issue of, you know, the offense.  Cordarrelle Patterson and Matt Kalil have regressed to concerning levels, and waiting for young quarterbacks to develop equates to parking the offense in purgatory.  Nonetheless, Minnesota is not that far away from contending, and a top-10 defense will likely anchor the next Vikings team that reaches the postseason.

- As the league's last winless squad, the Oakland Raiders have finally sunken to the rankings basement.  Considering that Tampa Bay has suffered arguably the season's two most lopsided losses, that's an especially ignominious feat.

The Raiders are as bereft of hope as any team, and it was extremely tempting to simply paste GIFs of Khalil Mack into this space.  Nevertheless, the real hope for Oakland likely hinges upon Derek Carr's development.  Though his competition level is low in an unspectacular rookie class, it seems clear that Carr has been the best and most consistent quarterback to come from the 2014 draft:

Oakland has opened the playbook for Carr more than Jacksonville and Minnesota have for their rookies, and the Fresno State product has rewarded them with surprisingly refined pocket presence and deep-ball accuracy.  Carr's adjusted net yards per attempt metric currently sits at 5.27, and the list of rookie quarterbacks to have reached that mark is rather promising.

If you click on the link, there's only 12 players since the merger who have had that ANY/A.  The worst player on that list is probably Charlie Batch, though Robert Griffin III and Andy Dalton may lower the bar a bit.  Still, there's not one bonafide bust in that group.  The Raiders have been a wretched organization playing in an even worse stadium, but Carr might finally represent the solution to the Curse of Rich Gannon.

Here are the updated team efficiency rankings after nine weeks.  As always, observations, questions and snide remarks are welcome in the comments section.

1 DEN 1 0.68 0.51 2 2
2 MIA 2 0.66 0.49 9 1
3 IND 3 0.59 0.51 3 21
4 GB 4 0.59 0.52 6 14
5 WAS 9 0.57 0.48 4 9
6 CIN 5 0.56 0.49 8 10
7 SEA 7 0.56 0.51 11 8
8 KC 6 0.56 0.52 19 6
9 NO 14 0.55 0.47 1 28
10 DET 11 0.55 0.47 17 4
11 DAL 8 0.53 0.50 7 23
12 SF 12 0.52 0.50 23 5
13 PIT 18 0.52 0.49 5 22
14 NE 15 0.52 0.51 13 12
15 BAL 10 0.52 0.49 14 15
16 CLE 13 0.52 0.46 10 13
17 BUF 16 0.51 0.50 27 3
18 PHI 23 0.50 0.49 15 11
19 CAR 17 0.49 0.52 21 18
20 CHI 21 0.48 0.51 12 29
21 TEN 20 0.48 0.53 25 16
22 ARI 25 0.47 0.51 24 20
23 HOU 22 0.46 0.50 16 27
24 NYG 24 0.46 0.50 22 24
25 SD 19 0.46 0.51 20 25
26 JAC 26 0.44 0.54 31 19
27 MIN 27 0.42 0.49 30 7
28 NYJ 28 0.41 0.52 29 17
29 STL 29 0.39 0.49 26 26
30 ATL 30 0.36 0.49 18 32
31 TB 32 0.33 0.47 28 30
32 OAK 31 0.33 0.51 32 31

ATL 6.9 36 2.9 1.7 8.0 57 1.8 0.48
ARI 6.4 35 0.7 1.5 7.0 64 3.8 0.44
BAL 6.7 41 2.5 1.2 6.6 65 1.5 0.41
BUF 6.2 36 2.2 2.1 5.7 64 4.0 0.55
CHI 6.3 49 2.7 2.3 7.3 57 3.0 0.42
CAR 6.1 42 1.6 2.2 6.7 59 2.9 0.45
CIN 7.2 40 2.3 1.3 6.0 48 3.0 0.38
CLE 7.2 38 1.6 1.3 6.3 54 3.3 0.41
DAL 7.0 44 2.8 2.6 7.0 60 3.1 0.34
DEN 7.9 39 1.6 1.4 5.5 66 2.3 0.52
DET 6.4 41 2.3 1.6 5.7 62 3.2 0.44
GB 7.1 42 1.6 1.5 6.1 49 3.6 0.38
HOU 6.8 39 3.1 2.3 6.8 50 2.9 0.40
IND 7.4 45 2.3 1.6 6.7 60 1.8 0.42
JAC 5.4 38 4.4 1.2 6.7 63 1.5 0.26
KC 6.1 42 1.6 1.8 5.7 55 1.6 0.32
MIA 6.0 53 2.1 1.9 5.2 65 3.1 0.32
MIN 5.1 41 3.5 0.6 6.0 59 2.8 0.46
NE 6.6 41 0.9 1.3 6.2 52 3.1 0.58
NO 7.2 49 2.4 1.5 7.2 61 2.1 0.35
NYG 6.3 40 1.8 2.4 7.5 67 4.0 0.34
NYJ 4.7 48 3.4 2.7 6.6 63 0.3 0.52
OAK 5.6 34 3.2 2.1 7.2 57 1.2 0.45
PHI 6.6 42 3.6 1.6 6.3 60 1.3 0.44
PIT 7.2 40 0.9 1.6 6.8 61 2.2 0.56
SD 7.2 30 2.7 1.3 6.4 50 1.3 0.47
SF 6.2 39 1.9 1.3 5.8 61 3.3 0.53
SEA 6.1 48 1.2 2.0 6.3 64 1.8 0.51
STL 5.9 41 3.0 2.1 7.1 62 1.3 0.61
TB 5.8 36 3.7 2.3 7.4 62 2.0 0.44
TEN 6.4 39 3.1 1.7 6.4 55 2.9 0.58
WAS 7.6 42 3.5 1.5 6.2 62 1.0 0.56
Avg 6.5 41 2.4 1.7 6.5 59 2.4 0.45