Handicapping NFL games can be a bit tricky and time-consuming. It’s especially true when you factor in the point spread. While you may have a good sense of which team will win a game, figuring out whether or not they can cover the spread is a different matter entirely.
In the interest of saving time and your sanity, it can be helpful to have a few vital tools in your sports handicapping toolbelt. One of them is NFL power rankings, which can help in several ways.
For starters, a solid set of power rankings can help you quickly gain a sense of the overall strength of each of the 32 teams. While you may think you know this already, seeing the NFL teams ranked in order can put the hierarchy of the league into perspective. In addition, proper power rankings can help you get a handle on the weekly point spreads and allow you to spot potentially bad numbers and good wagering opportunities quickly.
How is it that bookmakers always know precisely where to put a line, which makes either outcome seem like it has a fair shot? That’s because the various US sportsbooks use their internal power rankings to help set the NFL betting lines for the week. They also happen to have it down to a science. Therefore, it takes the right amount of experience and know-how to successfully navigate the lines week in and week out.
So, what are NFL power rankings, and how can you use them to your advantage? Let’s take an in-depth look and find out.
Simple ways to start your NFL power rankings
Building a power ranking system from the ground up can take some doing. For those who already have a functioning system, it can also take quite a bit of maintenance to keep it going. After all, things move fast in the NFL. What was true last week may not apply in a couple of weeks. Rankings need to be adjusted accordingly based on the actual results on the field.
While that may make creating your power rankings sound intimidating, there are some simple ways to help you get the ball rolling. In the offseason, there’s an active NFL futures odds market. Oddsmakers will release odds on things like the favorite to win the Super Bowl and each division, as well as estimated win totals.
If you look at the odds to win the Super Bowl for the following year, you can quickly have a list of the teams in the league from top to bottom, at least as far as the NFL betting market sees it.
You can do the same for each of the eight divisions and gain a clear sense of which teams are expected to be better than the others.
Win totals are another great area to focus on to compile an initial list of power rankings. Here are the current estimates for the four teams in the AFC East as an example:
- Buffalo Bills: 11 wins
- Miami Dolphins: 9.5 wins
- New England Patriots: 9 wins
- New York Jets: 6 wins
There was a changing of the guard in the division last season as the Bills broke through and knocked the Patriots out of their familiar top spot. Oddsmakers are expecting more of the same this season and have set Buffalo with a benchmark of 11 wins. Meanwhile, Miami and New England are expected to battle for second place with the Jets bringing up the rear.
By taking the time to research the futures market, we now have a quick sense of all four teams in the division, and we can do the exact same thing for the other seven divisions. Afterwards, we’ll at least have a starting point of expectations for all 32 NFL teams.
Splitting teams into tiers
One other note on power rankings: When looking at a list, it can be helpful to split the teams into tiers. Take the top teams and place them in their category, followed by those who are just a step or two behind.
Continue doing the same with the rest of the teams on the list, and you will soon have a sense of which teams belong in the same neighborhood versus those who do not. This exercise also helps you to think through the actual strengths of each team in relation to their peers.
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The theory behind NFL power rankings
In a nutshell, NFL power rankings attempt to quantify the strength of each of the league’s teams in numerical form. Plenty of weekly lists out there rank the teams from top to bottom, power rankings take it a step further and show you the math behind it.
Power ranking systems can range from simple to highly complex. Few who share their exact ratings with the public will share their equations that go into calculating them, which helps to build the mystique surrounding them.
When looking at a reasonably advanced system, you can be confident that the person or group behind it has factored in the most important areas that help to identify the overall strength of a team.
A team’s key areas of strength:
- Overall production on offense.
- Passing game strength.
- Running game strength.
- Overall standing on defense.
- Defense versus the pass.
- Defense versus the run.
- Overall special team success or failure.
In addition, the more reliable ranking systems out there will include factors such as strength or weakness on the offensive line and defense, turnovers for and against, ability to generate pressure and protect against it and a team’s inclination to get called for penalties.
After generating the complete picture, the teams are ranked by their strengths and weaknesses. This information is then plugged into a formula that produces the team’s power ranking.
How to use NFL power rankings
When two teams are scheduled to face off, oddsmakers will place a point spread on an NFL game. This is a fair assessment of the difference between the two teams in terms of points.
As handicappers, our job is to solve this spread and determine which side makes for the wiser wager. Let’s consider this hypothetical example.
Team A will be paying a visit to Team B, a squad who has been playing well and looks like one of the best teams in the league. Team A is no slouch, but they don’t quite appear to be at the level of their opponents for the week.
As oddsmakers see it, a 4-point spread makes sense in this case. When they release the line to the public, Team B is installed as a 4-point favorite. To determine which side we want to go with, we can go through our normal handicapping process.
We can also take a look at the power rankings for the two teams involved:
Team A: 26.0
Team B: 29.5
According to the power rankings, these teams are about 3.5 points apart, in general. However, we have to factor in the home-field advantage. Generally, handicappers will add between 2.5 and 3 points to the difference in the power rankings to determine a fair line. If we add 2.5 points to Team B’s 29.5 power ranking, we now have a number of 32.
If we look at it in comparison to the 26.0 power ranking of Team A, we now have a 6-point difference. The power rankings are telling us that Team B has an advantage over Team A, which is greater than the point spread for the game so that we can place our best bets accordingly.
Where you can find NFL power rankings
Virtually every sports publication that covers the NFL regularly will release some power rankings every week of the season. Most of them are simplistic in nature and offer a simple rating of the teams in the league from 1 to 32.
However, power rankings are out there, which show you all of the nuts and bolts. Here are three of the more popular free rankings systems:
- Jeff Sagarin NFL Ratings
- Massey Ratings
Each of these ranking systems provides similar results, albeit not exact. As we see it, it makes sense to try each of them and find the one that makes the most sense for your approach. In addition, feel free to check them out weekly and simply use an average of the three as part of your research.
While those ranking systems are free and widely accessible on the internet, other options also exist.
ESPN puts together what it refers to as a Football Power Index, which is essentially another name for power rankings. Numerous subscription services share their proprietary rankings with subscribers.
If you’re hunting for a set of power rankings, any of the above sources are excellent choices. You can also seek out a top-notch subscription service and use their rankings throughout the season.
For that approach, we would recommend doing your due diligence before purchasing or at least search the web for some honest reviews by customers.
The bottom line on NFL power rankings
NFL power rankings can range from the simple to the advanced. A simple rating of each team in the league, from 1 to 32, gives you a sense of the top teams in the league versus the middle of the pack and the bottom tier.
For more advanced systems, a numerical value is assigned to each team who is representative of their overall strength. These numbers can prove to be an invaluable resource when handicapping weekly point spreads.
You can make your power rankings, but be aware that maintaining more advanced systems can take some work. Plenty of free sources are on the internet, as well as subscription services that share their proprietary rankings with users.