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The Eight Biggest Takeaways From a Quarter-Season of NFL Watchability

The first four weeks of the year have generated many surprises on the field—and on our televisions. From the Rams’ dominance to the Eagles’ stumbles, here’s what we’ve learned so far.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

At the quarter-mark of the NFL season, the league consists of a near-perfect balance of knowns and unknowns. We’ve seen enough football to confirm that the Rams are one of the league’s best teams, the Chiefs offense is on fire, and the Cardinals and Bills will be the top contenders for the first pick in the 2019 draft. But beyond that, plenty of questions remain: Are the Eagles really in trouble? Are the Bears a true NFC contender? Are the Steelers really toast?

In all that noise, it can be hard to figure out which games to watch on any given Sunday. That’s where The Ringer’s watchability rankings come in. With four weeks in the books, this index—which uses six different statistics to identify the NFL’s most watchable teams—is becoming more reliable in determining which teams are fun and which teams aren’t. We started the season using 2017’s numbers and have been filtering in 2018’s as the year has gone along. So now, at the quarter mark, let’s rip off the Band-Aid and look at the numbers without any weight from 2017. Here’s how the teams rank after four weeks (this week’s Thursday Night Football results aren’t included):

Week 5 Watchability Rankings

Rk Team TDs Score Big Plays Score Punts Score TOs Score Sacks Score Takeaways Score TOTAL SCORE
Rk Team TDs Score Big Plays Score Punts Score TOs Score Sacks Score Takeaways Score TOTAL SCORE
1 Los Angeles Rams 1.85 1.68 2.55 1.38 -0.73 0.50 7.22
2 Kansas City Chiefs 2.46 1.68 1.20 2.43 -0.05 -1.00 6.72
3 Chicago Bears 0.33 -0.19 0.98 0.32 2.65 2.00 6.09
4 New Orleans Saints 1.24 1.26 1.20 0.85 -0.39 -1.00 3.16
5 Los Angeles Chargers 0.64 1.88 0.75 0.32 -0.73 0.12 2.99
6 Cincinnati Bengals 1.55 0.85 1.20 -0.73 -0.05 -0.25 2.56
7 Atlanta Falcons 0.94 0.64 0.30 1.91 -0.73 -0.63 2.43
8 Carolina Panthers 0.33 -0.53 -0.07 1.56 0.17 0.87 2.33
9 Baltimore Ravens 0.94 0.23 0.30 0.32 -0.05 -0.25 1.49
10 Cleveland Browns 0.33 0.43 -2.61 -0.20 0.62 2.75 1.32
11 Indianapolis Colts -0.28 -1.22 0.30 -0.20 2.31 0.12 1.03
12 Detroit Lions -0.28 0.64 0.98 -0.73 0.96 -1.00 0.56
13 Houston Texans -0.28 0.85 0.08 -0.20 0.29 -0.25 0.48
14 Green Bay Packers -0.58 -0.60 0.08 0.32 0.96 0.12 0.3
15 Washington Redskins -0.48 -0.26 -0.07 0.85 -0.28 0.37 0.14
16 Pittsburgh Steelers 0.64 0.64 -0.82 -1.79 0.96 0.50 0.13
17 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 0.94 1.05 0.75 -1.79 -0.73 -0.25 -0.02
18 Minnesota Vikings 0.03 -0.39 -0.37 -0.20 0.29 -0.63 -1.29
19 Denver Broncos -0.58 0.85 -0.37 -0.20 -0.05 -1.00 -1.37
20 New York Jets -0.28 -0.60 -0.82 -1.26 -0.05 1.62 -1.39
21 San Francisco 49ers -0.28 0.64 0.08 -0.20 -0.73 -1.00 -1.5
22 Seattle Seahawks -0.28 -1.02 -1.49 0.32 -0.39 1.25 -1.6
23 Dallas Cowboys -1.50 -1.22 0.30 0.85 1.30 -1.38 -1.65
24 Miami Dolphins 0.03 -0.81 -1.04 -0.20 -1.41 1.62 -1.81
25 Tennessee Titans -1.19 -1.64 -0.37 0.85 0.62 -0.25 -1.98
26 Oakland Raiders -0.28 0.43 0.30 -0.73 -1.74 -0.25 -2.27
27 New England Patriots 0.03 -1.02 0.30 -0.73 -1.41 0.50 -2.33
28 Jacksonville Jaguars -0.58 0.23 -0.37 -0.73 -0.05 -1.00 -2.52
29 Philadelphia Eagles -0.58 -1.22 -0.37 -0.73 0.29 -0.63 -3.25
30 New York Giants -1.19 -0.81 -0.14 0.32 -1.74 -1.00 -4.57
31 Arizona Cardinals -1.80 -1.02 -0.82 -1.26 -0.05 -0.63 -5.58
32 Buffalo Bills -1.80 -1.43 -1.94 -0.73 -0.05 0.12 -5.83

There are some unexpected squads at the top, as well as some teams that have taken major dives in the standings. With that, let’s look at the eight biggest watchability takeaways from four weeks of NFL action:

Most Dramatic Turnaround: Chicago Bears (2017: 24th, 2018: Third)

Chicago’s defense—particularly Khalil Mack—is the main reason to tune into a Bears game. The unit has the most sacks in the league and the second-most takeaways, making it not only the best in the league (it rank first in defensive DVOA), but the most exciting, as well.

The offense has been roughly league average in terms of watchability, ranking around the middle of the pack in touchdowns, big plays, and turnovers and well above average in number of punts. Some of those stats were buoyed by the team’s incredible 48-10 win over the Bucs in Week 4, but they’re enough to make the Bears one of the biggest risers of the young season.

The Biggest Riser: Cincinnati Bengals (2017: 28th, 2018: Sixth)

The 3-1 Bengals have jumped up 22 spots this season—and it’s still hard to process that they’re actually fun. Cincinnati’s leap this season is due to a high number of touchdowns and big plays and a low number of punts. I guess games like this help:

The Biggest Faller: Philadelphia Eagles (2017: 4th, 2018: 29th)

There’s an asterisk on this one, considering that the Eagles played their first two games with backup QB Nick Foles under center, but the team hasn’t been much more exciting to watch with Carson Wentz back. Last week, Philadelphia scored just two touchdowns in a 26-23 overtime loss to the Titans, bringing up major concerns for the now-2-2 defending champs.

The Eagles’ slow start has resulted in below-average marks in every watchability category except for sacks. Philly is an obvious bounce-back candidate if it can find its Super Bowl form, but through four weeks the team certainly hasn’t been much fun to watch.

Agents of Chaos: Cleveland Browns (2017: 32nd, 2018: 10th)

The Browns are the NFL’s takeaways kings. Cleveland’s defense has forced 13 turnovers this season—an average of more than three per game. If that pace continues, it would amount to the highest total this century. With ballhawks Damarious Randall and rookie (!) Denzel Ward, pass-rushing savant Myles Garrett, middle linebacker Joe Schobert, and a host of others, this unit is finally coming together. They just fly to the ball:

The Browns have climbed to 10th in the watchability rankings this year. They could be even higher, but ...

The Team That Always Punts: Cleveland Browns

… Cleveland has punted the football more than anyone else. The Browns have punted 30 times on the season—7.5 times per game, which is by far the most in the league (the next closest is the Bills, with 6.75 per game). Cleveland has recorded 64 drives in four games (the most in the league, thanks in part to two overtime periods), which means nearly 50 percent of its drives have ended in punts. I hope the Browns get more aggressive this season, but head coach Hue Jackson doesn’t exactly like to take chances:

Come on, Browns, did you really draft Baker Mayfield to punt on fourth-and-inches?

The Never-Punters: Los Angeles Rams

By contrast, the Rams almost never punt (which is fitting, because L.A. also differs from Cleveland in virtually every other way)—just seven times all season. The next-lowest teams (the Bengals, Saints, and Chiefs) have all notched 13 punts.

This is a product of the Rams offense’s incredible efficiency. L.A. has the most yards in the league, the most yards per play, and the second-most points. That all adds up to the league’s eighth-most efficient offense since at least 1986, by DVOA. You probably don’t need the watchability rankings to tell you this, but the Rams are really, really good.

Big Play Kings: Los Angeles Chargers

You’d think the team with the most big plays would be the Chiefs, Rams, or Saints, who have high-octane offenses that are as explosive as they are efficient. But it’s the Chargers, who have 25 plays of 20 yards or more through four weeks.

They’ve done this using a mix of playmakers: Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Tyrell Williams, and Austin Ekeler have all recorded between three and six big plays. That’s a real testament to how talented the Chargers are on offense, as Philip Rivers has gone deep on just 11.6 percent of his pass attempts—19th-most in the league. Most of these long plays are the result of the L.A.’s talented position players making magic happen.

Protectors of the Football: Kansas City Chiefs

You probably already know that Patrick Mahomes II and Co. have the most touchdowns in football. But the Chiefs’ lack of turnovers has largely flown under the radar. Kansas City has coughed it up just once all season: a Chris Conley fumble with a little more than five minutes left in the Chiefs’ 42-37 win over the Steelers in Week 2.

The team’s ability to protect the ball is particularly impressive when Mahomes is making throws across his body:

Zipping the ball into tight windows:

Or tossing it with his left hand:

Mahomes isn’t going to finish the season with zero interceptions, and the team won’t continue to fall on five of every six offensive fumbles, like it has through four games. But Kansas City’s continued ability to avoid turnovers even as it fields one of the league’s most aggressive offenses helps make the Chiefs the second-most watchable team in the NFL.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to the Chargers as the San Diego Chargers.