Official 2012 NFL Preason Rankings: New England Patriots #1 By A Mile

The NFL seson starts in only four days. Now that rosters are set, and every team has named a starting QB (finally, Ken Wisenhunt), we can publish our final 2012 NFL preseason rankings and ratings for all 32 NFL teams.

These ratings are the numbers that go directly in to our 2012 NFL preseason projections, another set of numbers that are now official. (These projections will update daily throughout the season, and are posted on our NFL projections page.) Our season projections and preseason ratings debuted last year, and overall were successful at identifying value teams.

We’ll post the official standings projections soon. For now though, let’s dive in to the rankings…

How Our Preseason NFL Ratings Work

(Quick primer for newbies on the difference between ratings and rankings: We first calculate numerical ratings for every team, which represent, in points, how much better or worse we think a team is than the average team, when playing on a neutral field. If you sort the list of all 32 NFL teams by rating, you now have our team rankings.)

Normally our team power ratings are computed by examining games that have already been played in a season. With no games played yet, however, that method doesn’t really work for evaluating the strength of teams in the preseason.

In its place, we’ve examined past seasons of NFL data to determine how a variety of statistical factors have related to a team’s end of season rating. These factors include previous season ratings (e.g., how good a team has been the past few seasons), the number of high draft picks the team has had in recent years, certain statistics from the prior season, and who this year’s starting quarterback is. You can get more detail in our preseason ratings methodology post, though keep in mind we have made some improvements this season.

It’s important to note that our preseason team ratings are our best guess at a team’s most likely level of performance this year, based on the data we have available to us and comprehensive number crunching. The “official” goal of our preseason ratings is to do a good job predicting our end-of-season ratings. Some of them will end up being really close, and some will end up way off. That’s the nature of the beast. (However, we even account for expected error in our preseason projections as we update our team ratings throughout the season.)

Our preseason ratings also provide an interesting alternative perspective on every team’s prospects, once you strip out media hype and bias and all the other agendas individual human analysts may have. Our methods are far from perfect, but so far they have generally done well at picking out teams to which the public and the analysts aren’t giving enough credit regarding their prospects this year.

Notable 2012 Preseason Rankings

For the full list of rankings, skip down to the table below. First, here is some discussion of a few of our ratings that might raise eyebrows.

San Francisco 49ers (#18). The 49ers were the most common topic of discussion on the threads about version 1.0 and version 2.0 of this year’s preseason projections. As you can see below, we project San Francisco to decline this year, and to be only roughly average. There are a couple main reasons for that.

First, they had one of the highest turnover margins in recent history, which is generally an indicator that they were very lucky last season; our model assumes they’ll have only average luck in 2012. As Bill Barnwell pointed out, since 1978 teams with turnover margins of +20 or better in one season averaged only +3 the next. That’s not a good sign for San Francisco.

Second, the 49ers took a huge leap forward last season, after being mediocre to bad the previous few years. Usually teams that make huge gains in one season give some of those gains back in the next. Now, it’s certainly possible that Jim Harbaugh is a genius coach and fantastic motivator, but past data indicates it’s more likely that the team played over its head some in 2011, and will regress in 2012.

New Orleans Saints (#3). Many people are pessimistic about the Saints, for an obvious reason: the “headhunting” scandal resulted in suspensions of not only several players, but also head coach Sean Payton. Our predictive models don’t take Payton’s suspension into account at all, simply because there are no prior data points for something like this, so we can’t quantify the effect. So this one comes with an asterisk. Still, there are good signs: they were rated very high last season, they’ve been good in the immediate past, and they had a negative turnover margin last season, so may have been a tad unlucky.

Chicago Bears (#24). The Bears played great last season before Jay Cutler got injured, then abruptly fell apart. We include a QB adjustment in our ratings, which helps adjust for situations exactly like this. However, Chicago’s late season swoon was far larger than what you would expect based on past data. Our model sees that as a warning sign that the Bears had deeper problems that may not miraculously fix themselves with the return of Cutler.

Final 2012 Preseason Rankings, Ratings & SOS

All the ratings below are expressed in “points above average”. It’s essentially how much we expect the team to win (or lose) by, if they play a perfectly average opponent at a neutral site. The SOS (Strength Of Schedule) value is simply the average projected opponent rating this season.

2012 RankTeam2012 RatingRating ChangeRank ChangeSOSSOS rank
1New England10.2+1.10-0.627
3New Orleans5.6-3.2-1-0.525
5Green Bay5.3-3.1-2-1.332
9New York Giants2.5-1.6-20.74
10New York Jets2.3+0.3+30.312
11San Diego1.5-0.5+30.215
18San Francisco-1.5-5.6-12-0.324
25Kansas City-3.3+2.3+40.59
30Tampa Bay-4.0+4.4+1-0.121
32St. Louis-7.0+3.20-0.626

As always, let us know what you think. Which teams do you think should be lower or higher, and why?