NFL Power Rankings Explained

NFL power rankings have exploded in popularity over the past few years. They were originally reserved almost exclusively for the NBA, but their success has incited a mushrooming trend across other spots. What are power rankings? How can they be used on the NFL betting front specifically? What are some mistakes gamblers make when looking at them? We have the definite breakdown right here.

What Are NFL Power Rankings?

Power rankings are basically a rolling look at the NFL's competitive landscape. Most outlets tend to publish them on a weekly basis, but they can be updated on bi-weekly and monthly patterns.

All 32 teams are included in the power rankings unless a particular edition is based off the postseason field. They are then presented in a certain order, from worst to first or first to worst, based on their place the in league.

From there, every team's progress is tracked over the course of an entire season. Every subsequent edition will usually show you where each team ranked in the previous installment.

If the Seattle Seahawks went from ranking at No. 11 in Week 11 and then moved to No. 8 in Week 12, that trajectory should be documented with a +3 or something along those lines. It works the same way when a team tumbles down the order. If the Indianapolis Colts place No. 15 in Week 11 and fall to No. 20 in Week 12, you should see that delineated with a -5 or something similar. 

Easy enough, right?

What Do NFL Power Rankings Actually Mean, Though?

This is an interesting question, and one many bettors and NFL fans might not actually consider. Too often people just assume that power rankings are representative of the standings—of every team's win-loss column. Well, they're not. They can be, but they are almost never that basic.

Some also presume they are a straight ranking of the best teams in football based on a number of determining factors. Win-loss records would be an ingredient to this formula, but they're not everything. According to this criteria, they also take into account things like point differential, injuries, upcoming schedule and all different kinds of content.

Though this depiction of NFL power rankings is closer to a perfect fact, it's not entirely spot-on. Not always. Many outlets will deliver power rankings under this guise. Others, though, place an emphasis on recency bias. They weight the past two, or three, or four, or however many weeks more so than the bigger picture. This is sometimes done for effect, for clickbait or because certain analysts believes the past few games can more accurately inform the larger scale than a bigger past sample size.

To get a feel for what this means, consider the following hypothetical: The Pittsburgh Steelers enter Week 11 with an 8-1 record, the NFL's best record, but they're working off a loss in Week 9 before their Week 10 bye. The Los Angeles Chargers enter Week 11 at 6-3, but they've won five in a row, during which time they have a better point differential than the Steelers. It's possible they could place No. 1 in the power rankings over Pittsburgh because of that recent hot streak.

Be sure you understand the difference. The most reputable websites will explain their thought process behind their rankings. The ones that don't probably aren't worth reading into. Either way, it's imperative you understand whether you are looking at a hierarchy that takes into account the whole season, just the past few games, some combination of the two or something else entirely. The reasoning behind every ranking will impact your interpretation of them.

How Can NFL Power Rankings Help You When Betting?

Much like win-loss records, NFL power rankings are best used to help shape your Super Bowl futures bets and the occasional moneyline wager. They should not be used as a tool for much else.

Indeed, it helps to know that the Steelers have held a top-two spot in a certain power rankings for 11 straight weeks entering a matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs, who have, in our hypothetical, conversely spent most of the year hovering outside the top half of the pecking order.

That anecdote helps you pick the Steelers outright in the upcoming game; it does not point you toward the spread one way or the other. Power rankings are made independent of what a Steelers -6 spread means.

If you're looking to glean insight into point differentials and over/under lines, look instead to past single-game results for that particular season. Also check out the Steelers' stats at home versus when on the road; how they fare against winning opponents versus sub-.500 opponents; and all that good stuff. Information like this will give you a better hold on specific bets, whereas power rankings are more so a generalized resource that help keep you privy to the NFL's current power structure.

Tips To Using NFL Power Rankings

In the event you're looking to extract the most possible betting value from NFL power rankings, dedicate yourself to poring over weekly deliveries that explicitly note they're taking in-depth statistics into account.

Websites like FiveThirtyEight are a good example of this. Whenever they drop power rankings or blanketed league-wide previews, they're using all sorts of analytics to build their totem pole. And this goes well beyond the typical points per game and points allowed per game. It accounts for more thorough tidbits like strength of schedule played, strength of upcoming schedule, offensive production versus top-tier defenses, defensive output when challenging first-rate offenses, etc.

To this end, it's good to note that not all scores are created equal—hence the importance and usefulness of stats-centric power rankings. 

If you're looking to see whether the Steelers can cover a -7.5 spread against the Baltimore Ravens, it isn't enough to just add up the margins of victory for the season, divide that total by the number of games played and apply that averaged to the -7.5 line. You want to weight context of their opponents—i.e. how they fared when playing crummy defenses, expert defenses, elite offenses, below-average offenses and anything along those lines.

All of that information is tough to synthesize on your own. That's where the value of analytics-heavy power rankings come in. Find a site—or handful of sites—with esteemed reputations and rely on them as a guiding light.

Spending some time reviewing certain catch-all metrics can help as well. Pro-Football-Reference's Simple Rating System (SRS) is a prime example of one such resource. It takes a cumulative measurement of team point differentials and strength of past opponents and then weights them accordingly. The result is a more nuanced ranking of where every team stands—one that goes beyond the win-loss column and can help you spot sportsbook inefficiencies in which oddsmakers are giving enough moneyline, spread or Super Bowl futures credit to select squads.

Once more, this should not be your end-all, be-all when it comes to single-game and big-picture wagers. But these types of NFL power rankings should give you a feel for which teams are the best investments. Especially when it comes to working Super Bowl futures. 

Lessons Learned About NFL Power Rankings

  • Power rankings are essentially weekly updates on the NFL's competitive landscape
  • These rankings are not always definitive renderings of which team is the best overall
  • They can have a bias that tilts toward the big picture or more recent results
  • They are most useful when betting Super Bowl futures
  • Sites that specialize in statistical-based power rankings can help inform your weekly betting ventures more than other iterations that don't weight in-depth numbers as seriously—or at all