Third-best NFL team in AFC: Nine candidates' strengths, weaknesses

Sunday's game between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs might not have been the sort of classic shootout many fans expected. What we saw instead, though, was a closely fought battle between two excellent teams. I'm comfortable saying the Bills are the best team in the AFC (if not the league as a whole), but the Chiefs aren't far behind. Along with the Philadelphia Eagles, they seem like a clear top tier at the top of the NFL.

I don't think many people would argue with that assessment after six weeks. When it comes to the AFC, though, who's next? If the Bills and Chiefs are the conference's two best teams, who's No. 3? I spent a couple of minutes thinking about an answer and realized I probably needed to write out an entire column to figure things out.

Let's run through the various candidates for No. 3 in the AFC, and I'll make my choice. I can see six plausible candidates with three more teams that would be on the fringes of the discussion, so settle in. None of these teams are perfect, but one of them has to be third:

Jump to a candidate:
Bengals | Chargers | Colts
Dolphins | Jaguars | Jets
Patriots | Ravens | Titans

Baltimore Ravens (3-3)

On a play-by-play basis, the Ravens likely have the best quantitative case for being the AFC's No. 3. In fact, DVOA has the Ravens as the third-best team in the entire NFL -- behind the Bills and Eagles but ahead of the Chiefs, who rank seventh. ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) ranks Baltimore as the conference's fourth-best team, trailing the big two and the Bengals, who moved ahead of them only this week.

I'll put it this way: Through the first three quarters of games this season, the Ravens have generated 1.77 win probability added (WPA) on offense, defense and special teams. If the games ended after the third quarter, they would be the second-best team, trailing only the Eagles. In other words, John Harbaugh's team has done more to clinch its games over the first 45 minutes than either the Bills or Chiefs.

Of course, football games are four quarters long, and you know what has happened to the Ravens in the final frame this season. They have cost themselves 1.77 WPA in that fourth quarter, the worst mark of any team. The same Ravens who have outscored their opponents 136-77 in the first three quarters of the game have been outscored 64-22 in the final stanza. As a result, a team that could very well be 6-0 right now is 3-3 instead.

In trying to understand what has gone wrong for the Ravens in the fourth quarter, it might be easier to point to what doesn't decline: Kicker Justin Tucker is still great late in the game. But everything else goes south. Pick a stat, concept or Baltimore player, and what you see in the first three quarters isn't happening in the fourth:

  • Lamar Jackson has posted a 72.6 QBR in the first three quarters, the third-best mark in the league. In the fourth, he's down to 28.4.

  • The league's fifth-best pass defense by QBR before the final 15 minutes is suddenly dead last in QBR in the fourth quarter.

  • The Ravens have a plus-six turnover differential in quarters 1-3 but a minus-two differential in the fourth.