Do you make this mistake in predicting NFL games?

blountAfter last weekend’s Division round of playoff games, former Super Bowl winning coach Brian Billick proclaimed rushing the ball still matters in the NFL.

Who could disagree after those 4 games? New England ran for a startling 234 yards against Indianapolis, as LeGarrette Blount ripped off a 73 yard touchdown run to seal the game.

Seattle rushed for 174 yards against New Orleans, as Marshawn Lynch again terrorized the Saints defense in the playoffs.

San Francisco and Denver, the other two winners, also rushed for 100 yards while their opponents didn’t.

Rushing hardly matters in the NFL

However, as a smart sports fan, you know better than to draw conclusions after 4 playoff games. The sample size is too small.

Moreover, rush yards per game is a misleading statistic. New England ran the ball 46 times in amassing 234 yards. It’s better to consider yards per carry in judging how well a team runs the ball or stops the run.

In a previous article, I looked at the pass and rush efficiencies for 10 years of NFL playoff teams. To capture team strength in these two areas, efficiency is defined as yards gained per attempt on offense minus yards allowed per attempt on defense. The visual shows regular season numbers for NFL playoff teams from 2003 through 2012.

nfl_pass_rush

For rush efficiency, the visual shows NFL playoff teams as a random selection of positive and negative values. Unlike college football, rush efficiency has almost no correlation with winning in the NFL.

Moreover, teams with high rush efficiency do not play better in the playoffs once they get there. Almost half of the teams that played in the Super Bowl gave up more yards per carry than they gained.

Passing is a different story. Most NFL playoff teams had a positive pass efficiency, and 8 of 10 Super Bowl champions had some of the top values in the NFL.

Did these trends hold up in the 2013 season?

Pass and rush efficiency in 2013

Here are the same rush efficiencies for the 2013 season. Playoff teams are highlighted by links that take you to their team page at The Power Rank.

1. Philadelphia, (10-6), 1.37
2. New York Jets, (8-8), 1.02
3. Minnesota, (5-10-1), 0.93
4. Washington, (3-13), 0.78
5. Oakland, (4-12), 0.67
6. San Francisco, (12-4), 0.49
7. Seattle, (13-3), 0.45
8. St. Louis, (7-9), 0.37
9. Carolina, (12-4), 0.24
10. Denver, (13-3), 0.19
11. Kansas City, (11-5), 0.16
12. Cleveland, (4-12), 0.12
13. Tennessee, (7-9), 0.07
14. Green Bay, (8-7-1), 0.02
15. Miami, (8-8), -0.00
16. Arizona, (10-6), -0.00
17. New England, (12-4), -0.07
18. Houston, (2-14), -0.10
19. Buffalo, (6-10), -0.15
20. Tampa Bay, (4-12), -0.18
21. Detroit, (7-9), -0.21
22. Indianapolis, (11-5), -0.21
23. Dallas, (8-8), -0.23
24. New York Giants, (7-9), -0.34
25. Cincinnati, (11-5), -0.36
26. San Diego, (9-7), -0.54
27. Baltimore, (8-8), -0.69
28. Pittsburgh, (8-8), -0.76
29. Chicago, (8-8), -0.82
30. Jacksonville, (4-12), -0.82
31. New Orleans, (11-5), -0.85
32. Atlanta, (4-12), -0.89

5 of 12 of the playoff teams, led by New Orleans at 31st, appear in the bottom half of these rankings. The top 5 includes Minnesota, Washington and Oakland, teams that gave their fans major indigestion this season.

Here are the numbers for pass efficiency.

1. Seattle, (13-3), 2.13
2. Cincinnati, (11-5), 1.62
3. Denver, (13-3), 1.61
4. New Orleans, (11-5), 1.56
5. Arizona, (10-6), 0.96
6. Philadelphia, (10-6), 0.86
7. San Francisco, (12-4), 0.86
8. Pittsburgh, (8-8), 0.51
9. San Diego, (9-7), 0.44
10. Carolina, (12-4), 0.39
11. Detroit, (7-9), 0.29
12. New York Giants, (7-9), 0.28
13. Green Bay, (8-7-1), 0.15
14. Buffalo, (6-10), 0.15
15. New England, (12-4), 0.12
16. Chicago, (8-8), 0.10
17. Cleveland, (4-12), 0.05
18. Tennessee, (7-9), -0.08
19. Indianapolis, (11-5), -0.35
20. Houston, (2-14), -0.40
21. Kansas City, (11-5), -0.51
22. Miami, (8-8), -0.56
23. Dallas, (8-8), -0.62
24. New York Jets, (8-8), -0.73
25. Baltimore, (8-8), -0.84
26. Minnesota, (5-10-1), -0.86
27. St. Louis, (7-9), -0.98
28. Oakland, (4-12), -1.04
29. Atlanta, (4-12), -1.08
30. Washington, (3-13), -1.35
31. Jacksonville, (4-12), -1.45
32. Tampa Bay, (4-12), -1.51

Of the 12 playoff teams, only Kansas City and Indianapolis do not rank in the top half for pass efficiency. All but two of the top 10, Arizona and Pittsburgh, made the playoffs.

Passing dominates the NFL. Rushing hardly matters.

How will this impact this weekend’s championship games?

What would Belichick do?

New England travels to Denver as a 6 point underdog in the AFC championship game. Vegas doesn’t believe in this Peyton Manning will choke in the playoffs stuff.

Does New England have a chance? I think so. Let me explain.

In their regular season meeting in New England, Bill Belichick played a defense geared towards stopping Denver’s aerial attack. Even when down 24 points at one point in the game, Belichick only had 6 defenders in the box to defend the run. Instead, New England played 5 defensive backs, two further than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage at the beginning of the play.

Against this defense, Denver ran the ball 48 times for absurd 5.83 yards per carry (NFL teams have averaged 4.1 yards over the last 10 years). Manning only threw for 3.47 yards per attempt on 38 pass plays.

It’s difficult to say that Belichick’s defensive plan won the game for New England. There were so many turnovers and fluky plays on both sides that finally allowed New England to win in overtime. But New England’s defense did shut down Denver’s passing attack.

From watching the game, New England’s secondary had an amazing game, especially CB Aqib Talib on WR Demaryius Thomas. It’s unlikely they’ll play that well again.

I give Denver 67% chance to win this game.

The return of Carlos Rogers

Before the 2011 season, San Francisco had a weak pass defense. They fixed this by signing CB Carlos Rodgers as a free agent and drafting pass rush LB Aldon Smith. In the 3 last years, San Francisco has been a top 10 pass defense by yards allowed per attempt.

However, Rogers missed the last two playoff games with a hamstring injury. San Francisco’s defense held up in the cold of Green Bay, holding QB Aaron Rodgers to 5.23 yards per attempt, less than the league average of 6.1. However, Carolina QB Cam Newton threw for 7.73 yards per attempt last weekend.

If Rogers can be effective coming off an injury, San Francisco has a much better chance to contain Seattle’s offense. However, the numbers suggest a win for Seattle, probably by 5 points.

How to predict NFL games

When running backs such as LeGarrette Blount and Marshawn Lynch run for so many yards, it’s easy to get fooled into thinking rushing matters in winning playoff games.

But the numbers simply do not support that claim. To think about this another way, New England rushed for 5.09 yards per carry, which includes Blount’s 73 yard touch down run. NFL teams average 6.1 yards per pass attempt, including lost yards on sacks.

This doesn’t mean that rushing has no place in the NFL. Deception is a key factor in sports, and I believe run plays can set up play action fakes that result in long pass completions.

But do yourself a favor. Don’t look at rushing numbers like yards per carry when making NFL predictions. Instead, focus on passing numbers. For more, click here.

Comments

  1. Many pundits are going on SF Bay Area radio and saying Seattle and Russell Wilson’t passing attack have taken a steep downturn in past several games. Does your formula add weight to recent games and subtract it from September and October games? Any way of knowing if this would change results? Presumably without Percy Harvin and Sydney Rice, SEA’s efficiency is different, just as SF’s is with addition of Crabtree.

    • I do not weight recent games more. I think you inevitably pick up some noise by doing this, although I reserve the right to change my mind about this in the future.

      I’m not sure Percy Harvin matters so much. He caught one pass during the regular season. With Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin at full strength, Seattle should be fine through the air.

  2. Marc Kenyon says:

    Ed has uncovered a very interesting trend here and it certainly reinforces the adage that the NFL has become a passing league. However while objectively looking at the passing numbers is obviously very useful in predicting the outcomes of games, one cannot ignore the synergy that exists between the running game and passing game. If a team is effective running the ball, then it draws defenses up and opens the field up for the passing game.

    As shown by the scattergram in the article, rushing yards efficiency obviously does not correlate to making the playoffs, but does that mean the rushing game should be ignored entirely? Here I think Ed is right again that YPR is much more important than total rushing yards, or rushing efficiency. If a team that is built around the passing game can rush for only 100 yards per game, but at a clip of 5.0 YPR or better, then that signals that the opportunities to air it out are there in my opinion.

    • Marc, thanks for adding to the conversation. We can say with some certainty that looking at yards per carry won’t help you predict future games much. But I do think there is some synergy between rushing and passing via deception and play action passes. I don’t know how to quantify it, nor do I think anyone else does either. Good stuff to think about during the off season.

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