Sorting division leaders: Rams, Chiefs legit; Bengals, Fins shaky


Through four weeks of the 2018 NFL season, the identity of each team is starting to come into focus. But it's fair to ask how important the standings are at this point of the year.

Well, over the past five seasons, more Week 4 division leaders have gone on to finish in first than you might think. In 2017 and 2015, five Week 4 leaders won their divisions; in 2016 and 2013, four Week 4 leaders claimed titles. In 2014, no Week 4 division leaders won their divisions, but three made the playoffs.

So which of this year's Week 4 division leaders are bound for playoff glory? And which will fall by the wayside? Using situational data that have a proven relationship with past success, I've used my model's predictive lens to separate the Week 4 division leaders into contenders and pretenders.

CONTENDERS (projected to make the playoffs)

Los Angeles Rams (NFC West, 4-0)

Current-end-of-season projection: NFC West winner, first in the NFC.

If teams were stocks in the NFL market, the Rams would be my model's biggest blue-chip. Their offense produces 7.4 yards per play (ranked first in the NFL), 0.55 points per play (ranked second) and 26.2 first downs per game (ranked first). It is sound in terms of the contextual indicators related to season-long success, including pass-play-to-run-play ratio (55 percent to 45 percent), rushing yards per game (125.2, ranked seventh), pressures allowed (sixth-fewest), total wide receiver production (that is, the contribution of receivers to touchdowns and first downs; L.A. is ranked third) and total running back production (the contribution of running backs to touchdowns and first downs; L.A. is ranked second). Their defensive front has created the second-most pressures on opposing quarterbacks. Despite being double- and triple-covered more than any other player in the NFL, Aaron Donald has racked up a league-high 28 pressures, per Pro Football Focus. The main area of concern here is their banged-up secondary, which was responsible for all three of their touchdowns allowed against the Vikings. In seven of their remaining 12 games, they currently have a win projection of over 65 percent (against every opponent other than the Packers, Saints, Chiefs, Bears and Eagles), which is the highest in the model.

Kansas City Chiefs (AFC West, 4-0)

Current end-of-season projection: AFC West winner, second in the AFC.

Before the season, my model projected the Chiefs to win the AFC West primarily because of their offensive upside. Patrick Mahomes' passer rating (126.5, second-best in the NFL) only drops to 90.3 when he's under pressure (third-best in the NFL). When the context is layered in -- like the number of different types of plays executed, production by play type and probable non-first-read throws -- it becomes clear that Mahomes' success is due to more than just smart play-calling. No quarterback has executed a greater number of different plays (he ranks first in play diversity) or has had success on more of the different routes in the route tree (Mahomes tops the charts in passer rating on six of the nine routes). The balance between the offensive skill players' ability to earn first downs and their quarterback's attributes is the primary reason for the Chiefs' lofty projection. However, if their defensive production drops below the level that the offense can overcome, their inability to get off the field (Kansas City has allowed 100 first downs, excluding those converted via penalty, which is first in the NFL) will keep this rocket-ship-like offense from taking off.

New Orleans Saints (NFC South, 3-1)

Current end-of-season projection: NFC South winner, third in the NFC.

No receiver has had a bigger impact on his team's ability to earn first downs than the Saints' Michael Thomas, both because of his own catch rate (he's caught 42 of 44 targets, or 95.4 percent) and his impact off the ball (including blocking and drawing defenders into coverage). If Thomas keeps up his receiver impact at this pace, it will be the highest for any receiver in my sample (five seasons). When you factor in the fact that Alvin Kamara's running back impact (measured for the key attributes of backs on and off the ball) ranks in the top four, it starts to become clear just how much upside this Drew Brees-led offense has -- and how it's helped stabilize the negative impact of the Saints' porous pass defense, which has allowed 9.6 yards per pass attempt. In Week 4 against the Giants, after allowing an early touchdown, New Orleans' defense started to function more like the 2017 version, holding up its end of the bargain -- even forcing a fumble -- when the offense started slowly. The Saints' schedule takes a difficult turn after the Week 6 bye (at Baltimore in Week 7, at Minnesota in Week 8, vs. the L.A. Rams in Week 9, at Cincinnati in Week 10, vs. Philadelphia in Week 11), and their ability to play complementary football will be tested. But ultimately, defensive improvements and offensive upside drive the projection for the Saints into January.

Chicago Bears (NFC North, 3-1)

Current end-of-season projection: NFC Wild Card, sixth in the NFC.

The trade for Khalil Mack changed the Bears' season projection before Week 1, vaulting them up from fourth in the NFC North to seventh in the NFC. Mack has generated the second-highest perimeter pressure rate (19.4, per PFF) himself, but what's more impactful is how he's catalyzed the biggest season-over-season defensive-front total pressure increase in 2018. In other words, the Bears' defense as a whole was above average before Mack (with a preseason projection of No. 13), but his addition has propelled them to third-best in my model. One example: Akiem Hicks has been able to generate an 18 percent improvement in pressure rate on passing downs. One of the ways my model ranks defenses is by their consistency in giving their team's offense the ability to win, even if the offense has periods of inefficiency. The Bears currently generate 6.25 more first downs per game than they're allowing (the fourth-best rate in the NFL) and give up the fourth fewest points per play (0.28; the average is 0.37) and the third-fewest total points per game. It's an ideal defense to be paired with a second-year QB in a first-year head coach's system. Through four games, the Bears now project to finish sixth in the NFC -- and their arrow is trending up.

Tennessee Titans (AFC South, 3-1)

Current end-of-season projection: Seventh in the AFC (but still "in" the postseason picture, for the purposes of this article).

The Jags are currently projected to win the division and the Titans are projected to finish seventh in the AFC. But it's important to note that the combined playoff percentage for the top six teams in the NFC is the same as the top eight in the AFC, meaning Tennessee is still very much in contention for the playoffs. Effective defensive pressure can have a greater impact on season win totals than a quarterback, and no defensive front has used different pressure packages more effectively than the Titans. Consistent interior pressure, as exemplified by Jurrell Casey on both passing and rushing downs, is schematically complemented by creative rushes, blitzes and spacing that have led to game-changing plays (e.g., Harold Landry's strip-sack against Philadelphia). As for the quarterback position, the improved health of Marcus Mariota could be the X-factor for Tennessee. Mariota improved on accuracy, scrambling and production while under pressure in Week 4, converting two fourth downs on a game-winning touchdown drive in overtime. If the Titans' offense can stay healthy, the efficiency of their defensive scheme and schedule makes a wild-card berth very attainable.

PRETENDERS (projected to miss the playoffs)

Cincinnati Bengals (AFC North, 3-1)

Current end-of-season projection: Eighth in the AFC.

The Bengals find themselves just outside of what my model deems as "in contention," because there is a steep drop in playoff chances from No. 7 to No. 8 in the AFC, but it's too early to toss Cincinnati aside, despite what the model says. Andy Dalton and the Bengals' offense have put up 27 or more points in three of their four games so far this season. Part of making the playoffs is being able to effectively exploit advantageous matchups and opponents' missteps. In their Week 2 win over Baltimore (34 points), Dalton connected with A.J. Green in the red zone in single coverage (ultimately accounting for three TDs on only five catches). In their Week 4 barn-burner victory in Atlanta (37 points), the Bengals' offense capitalized on injury-driven scheme changes to the Falcons' secondary. Both of these games forecasted in favor of their opponents (approximately 60 percent vs. 40 percent), and the Bengals defied the odds twice. Geno Atkins has been consistently disruptive up front, and that has increased the Bengals' win projections in almost all of their remaining matchups, but injuries at running back (Joe Mixon, who is working back from knee surgery) and tight end (Tyler Eifert, who suffered a serious ankle injury on Sunday) keep the lid on their potential to win the AFC North. Right now, my model has the Ravens taking the division; however, tough matchups between all four members (yes, this includes the Browns, whom the Bengals and Ravens both play twice) mean this division is most up for grabs.

Washington Redskins (NFC East, 2-1)

Current end-of-season projection: Eighth in the NFC.

Though there are only three games in this team's sample size, the defensive front already figures to be a big factor in its success. In Washington's Week 3 victory over Green Bay, 2017 first-round pick Jonathan Allen and 2018 first-round pick Daron Payne both saw a big uptick in playing time. In Weeks 1 and 2, Allen played 28 and 43 snaps; in Week 3, that shot to 64 snaps. Similarly, Payne played 30 and 39 snaps in Weeks 1 and 2 and 64 snaps in Week 3. The team benefitted from an increase in pressures and a suffocating run defense to ultimately hold off Aaron Rodgers after jumping up 28-10 in the first half. The biggest limiting factor for Washington is health, especially if elite left tackle Trent Williams, who underwent minor knee surgery during the Week 4 bye, misses any time. My model currently has the Eagles projected to top the division, but if the Redskins' offense can stay healthy and keep adding wrinkles like the efficient use of veteran running back Adrian Peterson and an increase in successful deep passing, then they'll sneak into the playoffs.

Miami Dolphins (AFC East, 3-1)

Current end-of-season projection: Ninth in the AFC.

Even before their lopsided Week 4 loss to the Patriots, the Dolphins were averaging 16 fewer plays on offense than defense, because they were allowing five more first downs per game than they were earning. It's rare to win multiple games with a negative first-down differential. Consider that playoff teams over the past 10 seasons average about four more first downs per game than first downs allowed over the course of a regular season; right now, the Rams and Jags (both contenders) are tracking at plus-8.5 and plus-8. In the Fins' first three contests, creative offensive scheming (using RPOs and hybrid backs/receivers in the short passing game) resulted in efficient scoring (QB Ryan Tannehill posted a passer rating of 121.8, fourth-best in the league), while their takeaway-generating defense posted the NFL's lowest passer rating allowed (65.6), which helped drive a per-game point differential of 7.7 in the Dolphins' favor (17.3 points allowed per game). Relying on defensive turnovers is a low-probability strategy, especially because they are less likely to occur or be impactful if opposing offenses build a lead. While Miami's overall win-total projection puts them in contention for a wild-card spot, my model projects the Patriots to win the AFC East.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cfrelund.



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