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The Rex Ryan Awards

There’s plenty of mediocrity across the NFL this season, but a few teams might be better than their records suggest. Who are the best two-, three-, four-, and five-win teams in the league?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Earlier this week, Bills head coach Rex Ryan described the Jaguars as “the best two-win team I’ve ever seen.” That may sound like coach-speak — under the rule of “don’t give them any bulletin-board material” — but this is Ryan we’re talking about. You know, the guy who frequently trash-talks his rivals and recently joked about having sources inside the Patriots locker room. So, are the Jags that good despite being, well, so bad?

Well, they’re certainly the best two-win team in the league right now — that’s pretty clear. So, while the standings probably aren’t lying to you as much as they were earlier in the season, some teams are still better than their records indicate. Going off of Ryan’s rubric, let’s examine why Jacksonville’s the league’s best two-win team and then take a look at the best three-win, four-win, and five-win teams in the NFL standings through 11 weeks.

Best Two-Win Team: Jacksonville Jaguars (2–8)

The Browns (the only zero-win team) and the 49ers (the only one-win team) both come out on top of their categories purely by default, so let’s just skip right to the two-win category. You don’t want to hear about either of those teams anyway.

We’ll never know if Ryan is being truthful about the Jaguars being “the best two-win team [he’s] ever seen,” but they’re definitely the best two-win team in the league this season.

Note: That’s not saying a whole lot. They hold that honored distinction over just one team — the Bears — whose already-bad season has turned into an uncontrollable tire fire after losing quarterback Jay Cutler (to a labrum injury), Alshon Jeffery, and Jerrell Freeman (both to suspension) in a matter of weeks. Still, despite facing a less than 1 percent chance of making the playoffs per Football Outsiders, Jacksonville is the perfect example of a franchise that’s struggled to convert its talent-rich roster into wins.

Head coach Gus Bradley is the main culprit, and Blake Bortles and his regression as a passer sure haven’t helped, but there have been brief glimpses of quality this season that hint at a team capable of stealing a few wins before it’s all said and done. That was on display last week in Detroit, when they gave the NFC North–leading Lions a real run for their money before losing 26–19. For Jacksonville, the key in that game was creating turnovers — the Jags forced two after going five straight games without one — and this defense has enough playmakers with Jalen Ramsey, Tashaun Gipson, Telvin Smith, and Dante Fowler Jr. to make that more of a habit.

Of course, they still have to score points, and with explosive pass catchers Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, Marqise Lee, and Julius Thomas, and a pair of solid running backs in T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory, opposing teams at the very least have to match up with a multitude of weapons — even if Bortles can barely get the football to them.

Best Three-Win Team: Cincinnati Bengals (3–6–1)

The Bengals have been outscored by a total of five points over their past three games and have exactly zero wins to show for it. They couldn’t finish against Washington in Week 8 and ended up with a 27–27 tie, they failed to score on their last possession in a 21–20 loss to the Giants in Week 10, and then lost a hard-fought battle to the Bills on Sunday, 16–12. Cincy is probably not a good team … but it’s also probably better than its 3–6–1 record would indicate.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The offense has fallen off from the incredible efficiency it sustained last season, but still ranks 11th in offensive DVOA through 11 weeks. All this despite an inability to protect Andy Dalton — the offense has given up 29 sacks, fourth worst in the NFL — and the absence of star tight end and key red zone threat Tyler Eifert for the first six games of the season as he rehabbed from a back injury. Dalton will have to make do without injured receiver A.J. Green and running back Giovani Bernard going forward, but with Jeremy Hill to lean on in the run game and an emerging weapon in Tyler Boyd to target more often, the Bengals should still pose plenty of problems for the playoff hopefuls — the Ravens, Eagles, Steelers, and Texans — left on their schedule.

Best Four-Win Team: New Orleans Saints (4–6)

It’s pretty hard to believe, given what we expected coming into the season, but the Saints are a more complete, balanced team than the Cardinals, Panthers, Packers, and the formerly best-worst Chargers after 11 weeks. The Drew Brees–led offense, ranked fifth by DVOA, is as deadly as ever. The future Hall of Fame quarterback is on pace to top 5,000 passing yards for the fifth time in his career and now has a deadly arsenal to throw to with three equally dangerous targets in Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead, and Michael Thomas.

Except, it’s no surprise that the Saints have a good offense. What’s shocking is the recent improvement of New Orleans’s defense, which was historically bad last season — like, the worst defensive-DVOA-of-all-time bad. Defensive end Cameron Jordan is creating havoc for opposing quarterbacks, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins has come back from a broken fibula to provide pressure up the middle, and outside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe has provided another spark with his return to the lineup. New Orleans’s top cornerback, Delvin Breaux (also dealing with a broken fibula), should return from injury soon as well, which means the Saints aren’t going to be such pushovers on defense for the rest of the season.

The defense hasn’t been exactly suffocating — it’s still just the 24th-ranked group by DVOA — but over their past four games, the Saints have held serve against some quality opponents, beating the Seahawks and Niners and narrowly losing to the Broncos (on a weird, last-second extra-point return for two points) and Panthers. Football Outsiders gives them just a 10.7 percent chance at making the postseason, but teams like the Lions and Falcons are going to be facing a much more balanced opponent — one that still features an explosive passing game under Brees and now doesn’t completely fold on defense.

Best Five-Win Team: Buffalo Bills (5–5)

While the Ravens, Steelers, and Colts may have a better chance of making the postseason, the Bills are the most dangerous of the bunch. Why? They’re built to win late in the season for two reasons: They’ll run the ball all over you and they’ll get after your quarterback.

We talk about the Cowboys’ unstoppable run game a lot, but with LeSean McCoy and Tyrod Taylor at the forefront, the Bills went into Week 11 with the top-ranked rush DVOA, leading the NFL in rushing yards per game (157.8) and rushing touchdowns (17). They will run at you in a number of different ways, including unbalanced offensive line looks, the read option, the wildcat, Power-O, wide zone … you name it, it’s in their arsenal. They’re not going to pass it all over the yard, but with a physically oppressive run game providing the foundation, they’re averaging 25.3 points per game, 10th best in the league.

Defensively, the Bills do one thing very well: They get opposing quarterbacks off their spot and onto the ground. Buffalo is tied for the league lead in sacks (31.0) and it racks up most of that production using a variety of zone blitzes, confounding offensive lines by bringing pressure from all over the field. There’s no better illustration of the type of blitz-heavy pass-rushing attack that the Bills bring to the table than veteran linebacker Lorenzo Alexander being tied for the league lead in sacks with 10. His previous single-season high was 2.5. With Buffalo, you just never know where the blitz will be coming from.

The Bills aren’t flashy, but they bring a physical and aggressive offense along with an exotic, multiple defense to the table. They may be facing the best two-win team Ryan has ever seen this week, but for a five-win team with just a 22.5 percent shot at the playoffs, Buffalo is pretty good, too.