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Underdog Rankings: Rating the Davids and Goliaths of the NFL

Posted on October 11, 2009 by John Wingspread Howell
The heroics of David have become symbolic for sports success by teams and players generally seen as having little chance at victory.

The heroics of David have become symbolic for sports success by teams and players generally seen as having little chance at victory.

For those who are the tireless supporters of teams, towns and players who are forever against the odds, it might be helpful to have a formula for ranking underdogs. Normally no analysis is needed to sort the Davids from the Goliaths but what about sorting the Davids from each other?

Our criteria include more than just team statistics. They include demographics and subjective factors related to the market they represent.

First is team history. One point is given for each year since a given team has played in the Super Bowl.  Another point is given for each year since the team has qualified for post-season play. If the team has never advanced that far, points are doubled. For each Super Bowl championship, 10 points are deducted.

Next is market size.  The largest market in the league receives a zero score. In descending order, each smaller market receives a score equal to its numerical rank. For example, New York/New Jersey would receive zero, Green Bay would receive 32, Buffalo 31, Jacksonville 30, and so on.

Next is the overall degree of sports dominance in the respective markets. For instance, Boston has had world championships in professional basketball, baseball and football multiple times in its history and in all three sports within the past five years. Therefore, 10 points would be deducted from Boston’s score for each world championship the city has had within the past decade and one point for each championship in previous decades.

Expansion teams are given an extra ten points. Franchises that have moved, are scored on the franchise’s continuous history, but only on the current market’s demographics and intangibles.

By league ruling, the new Cleveland Browns are a statistical continuation of the old Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Ravens are treated as an expansion team for statistical purposes, even though they are the original Browns franchise.  Our scoring would reflect that technicality.

Finally, subjective points are added or subtracted based on anecdotal evidence, such as the market’s image and reputation for being a desirable or undesirable place to live, for its socioeconomic status, for climate extremes, any superstitions or curses attributed to a particular team or market. A maximum of 20 points can be added or subtracted at the judge’s discretion to reflect these factors.

Using this criteria, Buffalo is the top rated underdog in the NFL with Cleveland and New Orleans tied for a close second.   One might expect the Lions to be among the top underdogs in the league but because of the success of the Red Wings and the Pistons in recent years, the Lions are a little further down the list, but, because of their long reign of futility, not too much further.

Even with the success of Thurman Thomas and other legendary Buffalo Bills, demographics makes Buffalo the number on underdog city in the NFL.

Even with the success of Thurman Thomas and other legendary Buffalo Bills, demographics makes Buffalo the number on underdog city in the NFL.

Here are the complete NFL underdog rankings:
1.    Buffalo
2.    Cleveland, New Orleans (tie)
3.    Kansas City
4.    Jacksonville
5.    Cincinnati
6.    Arizona
7.    Oakland
8.    Detroit
9.    Carolina
10.    Tennessee
11.    San Diego
12.    Seattle
13.    Denver
14.    Washington
15.    Philadelphia
16.    Minnesota
17.    Green Bay

Though a small market city, the Super Bowl success of the Pittsburgh Steelers has made them a clear NFL Goliath.

Though a small market city, the Super Bowl success of the Pittsburgh Steelers has made them a clear NFL Goliath.

18.    St. Louis
19.    Tampa Bay
20.    Atlanta
21.    Houston
22.    Baltimore
23.    San Francisco, Miami (Tie)
24.    New York Jets
25.    Chicago
26.    Dallas
27.    New York Giants
28.    Indianapolis
29.    New England
30.    Pittsburgh

The final factor in underdog ratings has to do with which team is the hottest in the current season, has the best chance of making the biggest upset compared to the above rankings and the same team’s previous year standings.

Thanks to the play of Drew Brees, the Saint are the hottest team from an underdog city in the NFL in 2009.

Thanks to the play of Drew Brees, the Saint are the hottest team from an underdog city in the NFL in 2009.

We will not rank the entire league according to this criteria. We only rank the top ten underdogs according to these criteria. This season the top ten aren’t faring as well as is typical for the parity laden NFL. That being said, our hot list is as follows:
1.     New Orleans
2.    Cincinnati
3.    Arizona
4.    Jacksonville
5.    Carolina
6.    Detroit
7.    Kansas City
8.    Cleveland
9.    Buffalo
10.  Oakland

We expect the hot list to be volatile all season. If any of the lower ranked teams starts a win streak of any significance and any of the top teams falter there could be a complete flip, especially since a five game win streak for Detroit could make them number one, considering their improvement over the previous year, but for now New Orleans and Cincinnati are at the top for obvious reasons.

John Wingspread Howell is a financial consultant, novelist, columnist and sportswriter. He publishes the online sports magazine Underdog Sports (www.underdog.sports.officelive.com) and is a syndicated writer and scribe for Bleacher Report and Sports Then and Now. He writes about underdogs, Buffalo sports, American soccer and women’s sports.


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