2016 in context: Ranking the Teams by Pick’em Difficulty

And now, the end is near…

It really feels like a few weeks ago that the 2016 season began, and yet here we are again, with just 13 games between now and 6 months of football-less existence. A time to savor the positives and more likely than not, over-analyze the 2016 season until we drive ourselves insane.

What better way to begin than by putting NFL teams and divisions into a ranking by how hard it was to pick each team in 2016? EXACTLY. THERE IS NO BETTER WAY.

Read on, my dear friends. (Oh, and if you’re interested, the ‘big’ 32 team ranking is at the bottom)

Ranking the divisions

division stats

Yes, this may be one of the few 2016 charts that places the AFC North ahead all other divisions, and again, bucking a trend that dates back to the 1980s, that ‘success’ is in no small part down to the Cleveland Browns.

The Browns, you see, were very easy to pick in 2016. It was a simple case, in almost every game, of picking the opposing team, which would have earned you 15 wins alone.


There’s something very ‘Cleveland-y’ about the naive optimism in week 8 that this couldn’t really be happening, and that the Jets were a good opportunity for the Browns to break their fall. Of course, they weren’t, and it really could be happening.

AFC North

But the Browns weren’t the only reason the AFC  North is top of the pick’em reliability charts. The Steelers were also in the top 4 teams in this regard, thanks to reliable performances against poorer opposition, and a steadfast ability to lose against the likes of Dallas and New England. The only two major upsets occurred against Philly in week 3 (91% favored) and Miami in week 6 (97% favored).

The NFL media has a habit of being quite uniform when it comes to game picks. That’s why we introduced ‘Clutch’ picks 4 years ago that track only games where there’s meaningful disagreement over the outcome. In this case however, the Steelers and Browns largely fell outside of this category and stayed true to the expert (and public) opinions of when they would rise and fall.

Here are the rest of the AFC divisions:

AFC East



The AFC East was again helped by a dominant team that won when asked (New England) and a poor team that generally failed to upset the odds much. Even Buffalo were more ‘streaky’ than unpredictable.AFC South

The AFC South was home to the unstoppable Jacksonville train wreck, where football goes to die. That reliable Gus Bradley chap ensured that there can be no hope in North Florida, and we in the pick’em industry salute that dedication. The division itself was a bit of a minefield however, with the Titans flattering to deceive after a mid-season surge, the Colts underperforming all year, and the Texans scraping into the playoffs by not being as bad as the others. That, compadres, doth not a happy picker make.
AFC West






The only division in the AFC that really screwed us with any regularity was the AFC West, home of 2 good teams, one decent team, and one average team. A pretty bad combination. All of the teams were capable of beating each other and delighted in doing so – however the Raiders and Chiefs provided some form of reliability by responding well to being favorites rather than underdogs as the season progressed.

A note here, on Denver. As reigning Super Bowl champions, perhaps it was to be expected that experts and the public would believe in the Broncos, and a 4 game winning streak to start the season certainly helped back up that point. Looking back at the teams beaten in that stretch however, is perhaps telling. Only one of those teams (the Bucs) had a winning record in 2016, and while you can only beat what is in front of you, this is classic pick’em fools gold, and a weird problem developed as a result.

A lot of experts are slow to react to change in the NFL, and their over-rating of the Broncos (many still had them favored in late season against the Chiefs and Titans, both on hot streaks) has as much to do with the context of those 4 wins as anything. experts were ‘all in’ on the Panthers this season after being Super Bowl runners up last season, while the Bengals also made the playoffs in 2015. Meanwhile, the Colts last year would have been an aberration without Andrew Luck at the QB position, and thus all three of those teams were suitably considered as likely – or at least possible in the Colts case – playoff candidates in 2016.

Our week 1 power rankings analysis shows the Panthers as the top rated team headed into this season, with the Bengals at an average position of 7.6. Those two teams alone would skew any dataset enough to send the Broncos to the top of the pile, and indeed, by week 5, the Broncos were top of the pile in the NFL’s collective ranking.

So what was the problem? Well it turned out that only the Bucs actually improved on their initial preseason prognostication, while the Bengals, Colts and Panthers plummeted down the rankings. They were in fact, bad teams, and beating them was a red herring that convinced more than a few experts to ignore the potential warning signs, even as the Broncos capitulated in their playoff hunt.


In the NFC, the picture was murkier from day one. The aforementioned Panthers and Bucs were prime examples of teams that confounded all expectations, but they were not the worst team for pick’em. No, that ‘honor’ went to the Philadelphia Eagles, who were so bad that analysts only predicted 45.35% of their games in 2016.

Here’s the NFC East

NFC East

The Eagles and Redskins both had QB’s who started hot and tailed off, but it was far more glaring in the case of the Eagles, where rookie Carson Wentz went from an early season star, 3rd in ESPN’s QBR metric, to, well, a rookie by seasons end, finishing a mere 25th. It’s such early season false dawns that are the bane of pick’em, and identifying which rookies and teams are ‘for real’ is one of the real arts of picking games both straight up and vs the spread.

NFC North

NFC South

NFC West

As for the rest of the NFC, the Cardinals were the second worst team to predict in 2016, along with Carolina at 48.91%. This, my friends, is what happens when good teams shatter their own and your hopes in a season long display of not quite getting out of first gear. But despite that narrative, the reverse was also true, as the Falcons consistently flew in the face of those waiting for their good run to end, leadingt o a perfect storm of pick’em nightmares in the NFC South.

As for the NFC North? Well, I’ve already spoken up on twitter, but the odd little brouhaha between Mike Florio and Aaron Rodgers/Mike McCarthy was proved to be a severely misguided attempt to predict the demise of one of the best QB-Coach combinations in NFL history too early, and frankly was all a bit… odd. I’m still trying to work out Florio’s agenda, but he is picking the Giants this weekend to win in the eild card round in Green Bay…

Team Rankings

So here’s the full list of NFL teams in order of correct pick percentage in 2016 for you to browse, peruse, or merely ponder. In the main, maybe it’ll make you think in October which teams you think are going to maintain their good early season form…


correct pick


Do we even need to say it? We’re going nowhere and we’ll have all your usual playoff picks too, both straight up and ATS. It’s been a difficult year for development, but we have a rough plan in place to hopefully solve some of our most pressing mobile issues once the season is over and we can do so without interrupting normal service. We’ll be sure to keep you informed in the coming weeks what roads that leads us down. If you have any suggestions, just let me know in the comments below.


About Shaun Lowrie

Shaun Lowrie is the founder and editor of Pickwatch, a site designed to give you a new perspective on experts in the NFL media by tracking their performance when picking games or predicting draft picks, team performance, or player potential. You can contact him at [email protected] or on twitter at @pickwatch

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