As we edge closer to the start of the NFL season, ESPN's Sports Analytics team has calculated our initial Football Power Index rankings for 2017. In short, a team's FPI rating combines its efficiency ratings on offense, defense and special teams -- based on each unit's expected points added per play -- with the sum of all three squad ratings yielding the overall FPI rating. (For more on how FPI is calculated, click here and here.)
We then use these ratings to simulate the NFL season 10,000 times in order to derive a team's chances to win its division, make the playoffs, win the Super Bowl, etc.
Without further delay, here's how FPI sees all 32 teams heading into the 2017 season. If you'd like to skip forward to a more specific breakdown, click the links below:
The gap between the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots at No. 1 (9.2 FPI) and the Packers at No. 2 (4.8) is about as large as the gap between the Packers and the Bengals (0.3), who are ranked 14th. The Pats are one of two teams to rank in the top 10 in projected offense (No. 1), defense (No. 3) and special teams (No. 4). The only other team with top-third units across the board is the Seahawks, who rank No. 8 in offense, No. 6 in defense and No. 5 in special teams.
The Patriots have won the AFC East in each of the past eight seasons, and FPI has them as overwhelming favorites to win a ninth consecutive crown. It's not just that the Patriots are seen as the clear top team in the league, it's that the remainder of the division (including a Dolphins team that reached the playoffs last season) is in the bottom third of the rankings heading into 2017.
The AFC North is once again set to be a tough division, with only the Browns not projected to finish .500 or better. The Steelers are the preseason favorite to take the division for a second straight year, with the Ravens and Bengals fighting for second place. If the division title race comes down to the final week of the season, take note that Pittsburgh faces Cleveland for the third consecutive season, while the Ravens will host the Bengals in what our projections suggest could determine a wild-card berth.
The AFC South might end up being the NFL's most competitive division in 2017. All four teams have at least a 10 percent chance of winning the title, and none of FPI's predicted division winners has a worse chance to win than the Colts at 36 percent. Part of the reason each team has a chance to compete is the relatively easy schedule each team faces (at least based on what we know about these teams three months before the start of the season). FPI has four of the nine easiest schedules in the league belonging to the members of the AFC South.
The AFC West is the home of the closest projected division-winner race. The Raiders are a slim favorite over the Chiefs by just more than 1 percent. The Broncos and Chargers also are seen as credible threats at just more than 15 and 11 percent, respectively. While the AFC South houses the teams projected to have the easiest schedules, the AFC West is the home of four of the 14 most difficult schedules, as projected by FPI.
The Cowboys are looking to become the first repeat champion in the NFC East since the Eagles won four consecutive titles between 2001 and 2004, and FPI gives Dallas a 46.4 percent chance to do so. "The field" of the Giants (22.6 percent chance), Eagles (19.3) and Redskins (11.7) collectively has a higher probability than the Cowboys (53.6), so don't bet against the title changing hands yet again.
Not surprisingly, FPI's top team in the NFC is our projections' decisive choice to take its division. The Packers have the No. 2 offense, per FPI, and are favored in each of their six division games. The Vikings' defense ranks No. 2, according to FPI, but their 24th-ranked offense ensures their spot behind the Pack.
Here's another division FPI sees as being wide-open. The defending NFC South and NFC champion Falcons are favored to repeat, but do so in just more than 40 percent of simulations. The Panthers are expected to bounce back after a disappointing 6-10 season that followed their Super Bowl appearance, and are projected to win the division 28.8 percent of the time. The Saints and Buccaneers are also reasonable threats, at roughly one-in-six and one-in-seven chances, respectively.
The Seahawks hold the league's second-highest chance to win their division at 75.8 percent, trailing only the Patriots at 92.3 percent. FPI projects the Cardinals to be the only real threat to the Hawks for the division -- but it is less than a one-in-five chance. Neither the Rams nor the 49ers are viewed as credible threats, and both reside in the bottom four of FPI's rankings.
2017 playoff probabilities
The Patriots, as the No. 1 team in FPI and an overwhelming favorite to capture their division (92.3 percent), are also the most likely team to make the playoffs in the AFC. They are also a slight majority favorite to earn the top seed in the conference and home-field advantage throughout the conference portion of the playoffs. The Steelers are the second-most likely playoff participant, as either a division winner or wild card. The two most likely AFC wild-card teams also come out of the North, with the Ravens (23.6 percent) and Bengals (20.6) projected to break through. Rounding out the top five are the Chiefs (20.1) and Raiders (19) -- whoever misses out on the division title there is a strong contender for a wild card.
Despite being the NFC's top team, according to FPI, the Packers are second in probability to make the playoffs within their conference. How is this possible? Well, the Pack plays in a tougher division and faces a more difficult schedule (15th easiest) than the Seahawks (third easiest), which also plays into the Hawks' favor when projecting the No. 1 seed. The Seahawks are a 22.8 percent favorite to earn home-field advantage, topping the Packers' 19.1 percent chance. The wild-card race is wide-open, as 12 of the NFC's 16 teams have at least a 10 percent chance of earning a playoff berth that way. The NFC South pair of Carolina (19.1 percent) and Atlanta (18.8) are the two most likely candidates to earn a wild card -- though one will more than likely earn its spot by winning the division. Outside of the Panthers and Falcons, the Vikings (18.5 percent) are is the next most likely to claim the No. 5 or No. 6 seed.
With a clear lead atop the team rankings, it should be no surprise that the Patriots are also FPI's early favorite to both reach and win Super Bowl LII in Minnesota. New England is a slight majority favorite (50.7 percent) to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, and a 34.7 percent favorite to win it. The only other team in the AFC with a greater than 10 percent chance of reaching the Super Bowl is the Steelers at 15.4 percent (FPI says the Steelers have an 8.5 percent chance to win it). The NFC is much closer, with the Seahawks (22.8 percent) and Packers (19.6) leading the pack and the Cowboys (13.5) and Falcons (12.5) rounding out the top four most likely Super Bowl candidates. Despite the Seahawks projecting as more likely to get to the big game, FPI has the Packers as the team in the NFC most likely to win it, at 9.8 percent to the Seahawks' 9.6 percent.
Strength of schedule
FPI strength of schedule is a far better measure of each team's schedule difficulty than traditional methods, because FPI looks beyond opponent win-loss records to incorporate other key variables (home/away, distance traveled, time off between games, etc.). This year the largest differences between FPI's strength of schedule and the traditional look are felt by the Lions and Chargers.
FPI sees the Lions' schedule as the 11th-most difficult, where looking at their opponents' winning percentage from 2016 has the Lions tied for the 21st-hardest schedule. Part of the reason FPI sees it as more daunting are some of the schedule effects. Let's use the Lions' 2017 games against the Packers as an example. Where the traditional strength of schedule counts both games the same (based purely off the Packers' 10-6 record from 2016), FPI takes into account factors that data suggests matter, including home/away team and rest differential. The Lions' chance to win its home game against the Packers is 43.7 percent, whereas the game at Lambeau Field is only 23 percent. The disparity isn't just about home field -- the Packers are coming off a bye week, giving them a rest advantage before they host the Lions.
In the case of the Chargers, the traditional method has them with the third-hardest schedule; FPI is a little more forgiving based on the way it views the AFC West. Traditional strength of schedule sees both the Raiders and Chiefs as 12-win teams; FPI isn't quite as high on them, ranking them at Nos. 7 and 8, respectively. The Chargers' home games against the Raiders and Chiefs are seen as near-coin flips; the Chargers are a 49.7 percent underdog versus the Chiefs and 47.2 percent against the Raiders. The Chargers are also 63.2 percent favorites over the Dolphins -- who won 10 games last season.
2018 NFL draft
After selecting first in 2017, FPI gives the Browns the league's highest chance to pick first again in 2018. The Browns are No. 31 in FPI, and the system projects them at No. 16 in schedule difficulty. That is enough for the Browns to "catch" the 49ers, who rank last in FPI but have the 10th-easiest schedule, for the best chance at the top pick. The Browns earned the top pick in 21.4 percent of simulations, and the 49ers in 19.5 percent. The Jets (15.9 percent) and Bears (10 percent) are the only other teams with a double-digit probability of earning the top pick overall.
Best/worst 2017 matchups
For more from ESPN Analytics, visit the ESPN Analytics Index.