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The Patriots may be champs, but the NFC South and NFC East will be NFL’s best divisions

The Dallas Cowboys were the second most-efficient team overall in 2016 per Football Outsider. (Roger Steinman/Associated Press)

The preseason games have started, which means that real pro football is just around the corner. And that signals the arrival of everyone’s favorite pastime: arguing over NFL power rankings.

Most power rankings are arbitrary in nature, but with a little help from Fancy Stats computer wiz Jack Barry, we will use the point spreads released by CG Technology for the first 16 weeks of the season (Week 17 is excluded because of increased uncertainty in those games caused by the then-nearing playoffs) to calculate Pro Football Reference’s Simple Rating System, a metric designed to adjust a team’s margin of victory for strength of schedule, denominated in points above or below average per game, where zero is average. The higher the SRS, the more that team can be expected to dominate on the field.

Over the past five seasons, the average division winner had an SRS of 5.3, with wild-card teams 3.4 points per game above average. Non-playoff teams were 2.8 points per game below average. Last season, the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots had the highest SRS overall (9.3) while their title opponent, the Atlanta Falcons, was close behind (8.5 SRS) — so the method definitely passes the smell test.

For the upcoming 2017 season, the NFC South and NFC East figure to be the league’s best divisions, and it’s hard to decide which of the two should get top billing.

NFC South, 1.05 average implied SRS per team

The Atlanta Falcons‘ Matt Ryan, the 2016 MVP, had the highest passer rating last season when kept clean in the pocket (128.9), completing over 77 percent of his passes with a 33-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. . . . The New Orleans Saints took a chance on 32-year-old running back Adrian Peterson, who has not carried the ball more than 37 times in two of the past three seasons because of suspension and injuries. Since 1970, there have been 10 running backs who topped 1,000 rushing yards in a season after their 32nd birthday, with just four of those meeting that mark this century. . . . The Carolina Panthers need quarterback Cam Newton to have a bounce-back season, but they also need their offensive line to control the line of scrimmage. In 2016, that unit allowed their rushers to be stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage 22 percent of the time, an above-average rate (19 percent) for the season. . . . The Tampa Bay Buccaneers led the NFL in goal-to-go offense, scoring a touchdown on 86 percent of their drives last season.

NFC East, 1.04 average implied SRS per team

The Dallas Cowboys were the second most-efficient team overall per Football Outsider’s Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric, which is designed to measure a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent. Only the champion New England Patriots were better in 2016 according to DVOA. . . . The Philadelphia Eagles go into 2017 with the best offensive line per the game charters at Pro Football Focus, no doubt improving the team’s productivity from last season, which saw just 57 percent of runs on third or fourth down and two yards or less to go achieving a first down or touchdown (25th in the NFL). . . . The New York Giants signed wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who has six seasons with 100-plus catches and eight seasons of at least 1,000 receiving yards, to play opposite Odell Beckham Jr. . . . The Washington Redskins replaced wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon with Terrelle Pryor Sr. and Brian Quick, making the receiving corps taller and more likely to win battles in the end zone.

AFC West 0.62 average implied SRS per team

The Denver Broncos had the league’s best defense last season per Football Outsiders’ efficiency metrics despite playing against the third-toughest schedule, holding opposing passers to a league-low 5.0 net yards per pass and the third-lowest points per drive (1.47). . . . The Los Angeles Chargers ranked seventh in defensive DVOA and stopped the run at or behind the line of scrimmage 24 percent of the time, fourth best in the NFL last season. . . . The Kansas City Chiefs ranked 14th in defensive DVOA and held offenses to 4.34 points per trip to the red zone, fourth best overall last year. . . . The Oakland Raiders’ defense has some catching up to do: It ranked 22nd in DVOA last season.

AFC East 0.16 average implied SRS per team

Dolphins need a quarterback that can work with a versatile offense

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady oversaw the NFL’s most efficient team in 2016, allowing the New England Patriots to set the pace for net yards per drive (6.7), net points per drive (1.1) and net drive success rate (8 percent), which measures the percentage of down series that result in a first down or touchdown. . . . The Miami Dolphins signed 34-year-old quarterback Jay Cutler to replace the injured Ryan Tannehill, but Miami’s offensive line allowed a 6.3 percent sack rate after adjusting for down, distance and opponent (21st), and Pro Football Focus sees more of the same in 2017, ranking the Dolphins’ offensive line as 26th for the upcoming season, likely limiting Cutler’s effectiveness even more than the fact he’s coming out of the broadcast booth. . . . The Buffalo Bills have moved on from Rex Ryan, and with few tough games on the schedule — the 11th easiest per Sharpe Football — there could be early success for new Coach Sean McDermott. . . . The New York Jets are trying to convince everyone they won’t be taking this season off after purging their roster of expensive veteran players, but the lack of experience won’t improve the league’s worst red-zone offense (35.2 percent conversion compared with a 55.6 percent average) in 2016.

NFC North minus-0.19 average implied SRS per team

The Green Bay Packers, led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, scored on 43.8 percent of their offensive drives last season, the fourth-highest rate in the league. . . . The Chicago Bears might boast the best offensive line in the NFL. Their offensive front converted a league-high 75 percent of runs on third or fourth down and two yards or less to go into a first down or touchdown while allowing the seventh-best adjusted sack rate (4.9 percent) last season. . . . The Detroit Lions, meanwhile, failed to control the line of scrimmage, producing just 3.5 adjusted line yards per carry — only the San Fransisco 49ers’ offensive line was worse last season. . . . Quarterback Sam Bradford stepped in admirably for the Minnesota Vikings after Teddy Bridgewater was lost to injury, throwing an accurate pass a league-leading 81 percent of the time after accounting for dropped passes, throwaways, spiked balls, batted passes and passes on which he was hit while throwing the ball.

AFC North minus-0.22 average implied SRS per team

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense did its job last season, producing 2.14 points per drive (eighth most) with an above-average rate of down series moving the chains or reaching the end zone (71 percent vs. league average of 69 percent). The defense, however, produced a three-and-out just 19 percent of the time … The Baltimore Ravens might be stuck with Ryan Mallett under center, and that could be worrisome — the 29-year-old journeyman completed 59 percent of passes for the team since 2015 with a 2-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio … Cincinnati Bengals‘ linebacker Vontaze Burfict was the fourth highest-rated player at the position last season per the game charters at Pro Football Focus for his ability to get to control the line of scrimmage (39 stops at or behind the line of scrimmage, including sacks) and play in coverage (84 passer rating against, fourth-best among linebackers in 2016) … The time for laughing at the Cleveland Browns could be coming to an end. The team invested heavily in the offensive line and enters the 2017 season with PFF’s second-best offensive front. That would bode well for Brock Osweiler, the starter for the preseason opener — his passer rating dropped from 83.1 to 47.3 under pressure last season.

AFC South minus-0.29

Three-time defensive player of the year J.J. Watt played just three games for the Houston Texans last season, and their pass-rush ranking by Pro Football Focus dropped from eighth in 2015 to 18th in 2016 as a result. . . . The Tennessee Titans‘ first-round tackles Jack Conklin and Taylor Lewan ranked seventh and 11th overall last season per PFF and anchored an offensive front that averaged the fifth-most adjusted line yards (4.63) in the NFL last season. . . . If Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts is limited in 2017, the team is in trouble. When healthy, Luck produces a passer rating of 88.9, on average, and has twice produced a rating of 96 or more. His backup, Scott Tolzien, has a career passer rating of 66.4. . . . Jacksonville Jaguars center Brandon Linder earned the fifth-highest grade from Pro Football Focus in 2016 after allowing just 13 total sacks, hits and hurries, tying him for the eighth-lowest rate at the position of pressures surrenders last season.

NFC West minus-1.52

Quarterbacks still don’t want to test Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman. Among the 31 corners playing at least two-thirds of their team’s snaps, only four were targeted less in coverage than Sherman but none allowed a lower rate of receptions to snaps in coverage (1 out of every 14). . . . The Arizona Cardinals’ defense stuffed the run (23 percent, sixth best in 2016) and got to the quarterback (7.5 percent of the time after adjusting for down, distance and opponent, third best), making it a top-three defense per DVOA. . . . The Los Angeles Rams had trouble creating momentum, going three-and-out an NFL-high 43.5 percent of the time. . . . The San Francisco 49ers suffered from the same fate, converting less than two-thirds of down series into a first down or touchdown, placing them 29th out of 32 teams in 2016.

Jack Barry contributed research to this article.

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