Predictions for the NFL Conference Championship Playoffs, 2015

2014_Conference_ChampionshipThe Divisional playoffs last weekend gave us some close games. New England and Green Bay won but didn’t cover the spread.

Even Seattle’s 14 point win over Carolina was closer than it seemed. Carolina moved the ball regularly against the Seattle defense and threatened to make it close until the interception return by Kam Chancellor, who played as well as any defender I’ve seen all season.

Moreover, Denver might have given Indianapolis a better game if Peyton Manning didn’t have a torn quad muscle. Somehow, news of the injury came out only after the game, as the line moved from 7 to 9.5 in favor of Denver before the game.

The bookmakers did their job, though. According to Sports Insights, every game closed pretty close to a 50% split for each game. Last week’s games certainly suggests taking the points this week.

Colts @ Patriots

The Colts dominated the Broncos in Denver. That’s incredible. The news about Peyton Manning’s torn quad didn’t surprise me. However, his receivers were blanketed for most of that game.

I thought Manning blatantly missed an open receiver only a few times. As we’ve realized before, this Colts defense is a little underrated.

Overall, the Colts pass defense ranks tenth in The Power Rank with a bit of a boost as of late. In the last three weeks, they’ve given up ten points to the Titans, ten points to the Bengals, and thirteen points to the Broncos.

The Colts also boast the ninth best sack rate (7.2%). However, pressuring Tom Brady may still be difficult.

The Patriots front have only given up sacks on 3.6% of drop backs as Tom Brady typically gets the ball out quickly. The Colts will have to blanket more receivers this week if they want a chance to win.

The biggest mismatch is Rob Gronkowksi, as usual. The Colts aren’t exactly known for their linebacker play. If they don’t move safety help or move a corner over to handle Gronk, he could have a huge game.

Even moving a capable body over to handle Gronk leaves so many options for Tom Brady. Defending Brandon LaFell, Julian Edelman, the resurrected Danny Amendola, and Shane Vereen out of the backfield is an insane task.

Not to mention, the Patriots offense completely ditched the run last week. They rushed once in the second half, and it was a Tom Brady quarterback sneak. Since passing has been 54% more efficient by yards per play than rushing in the NFL this season, this approach should only increase their likelihood of winning.

The Patriots defense doesn’t have it any easier. Andrew Luck doesn’t have the quick trigger like Brady or Manning, but he does have superior mobility inside and outside the pocket. He also is supported by an impressive offensive line.

Andrew Luck has had clean pockets for the last three weeks, hardly being touched at all. I was mildly surprised the Patriots weren’t able to pressure Joe Flacco last week, especially in the first half. Considering the Patriots front has about an average sack rate, I expect Luck to have some time and find his speedy receivers.

Bill Belichick typically puts Darrelle Revis on the opposition’s best receiver (T.Y. Hilton for the Colts), and matches up Brandon Browner with safety help on the next best receiver. This is what makes Belichick so efficient on defense; he makes other teams beat them with guys they don’t want to use.

For this week, that leaves Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, two capable tight ends, to get open and exploit their defense in the middle of the field. Joe Flacco and the Ravens were able to do this last weekend.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see Browner move in to cover Coby Fleener. However, that still leaves some decent match ups for Donte Moncrief and Hakeem Nicks.

Playing in Foxboro is clearly a big advantage for the Patriots this time of the year. The Colts play their home games in a dome.

The Power Rank’s ensemble predictions give a field goal advantage to the Patriots. I couldn’t agree more. Both these offenses will have success and keep this game close. Be sure to take the points, especially while you’re getting the whole touchdown. [Editor’s note: the line moved to New England -7 to -6.5 from the time Frank submitted this draft to publication on Wednesday afternoon.]

Packers @ Seahawks

The Packers are the beneficiary of some controversy this week as they advanced with the help of instant replay and a questionable rule. By the transitive property, the Seahawks will be the team receiving the benefit this week.

In all seriousness, the Seahawks secondary is terrifying. Kam Chancellor changed the outcome of last week’s game on his own. Richard Sherman may be the most sure-handed cornerback in the NFL. Teams that attempted to run to counter their defensive backs are stopped by a front seven that allows 3.49 yards per rush, second best in the league.

The one weakness of the Seahawks defense is the pass rush. And a lack of pressure against Aaron Rodgers will doom them.

I was actually surprised how well the Cowboys defense contained Rodgers last week. In the second half, though, he really caught his stride and threaded the needle through some tight coverages that doomed the Cowboys.

The aspect that ruined the Panthers last week was turnovers. Even with a costly fumble and an interception, the Panthers found themselves near the Seahawks ten yard line with the opportunity to make it a one possession game. Then Kam Chancellor squatted on a route and took the interception to the house, effectively ending the game.

Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback at avoiding interceptions (career pick rate of 1.6%). I can imagine he will have success against nearly any defense.

Unlike Belichick’s approach, the Seahawks keep Richard Sherman generally on one side of the field. This gives the Packers the opportunity to move Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson on the other side of the field or in the slot, which they do often anyway, providing some favorable match ups.

I still can’t buy into the Seahawks offense, ranked 17th by The Power Rank. After I bashed them last week, the Seahawks put up 31 points. But points can be deceiving.

The Seahawks scored touchdowns on the mentioned pick-six, a 63 yard pass, and after a fumble on the Panthers own 20 yard line. These are all unsustainable ways to continue to score. They only really drove down the field and scored once on the Panthers defense.

I am not trying to compare the Packers defense (24th) to the Panthers defense; the Panthers are much better. However, the Packers don’t need to be great, though, to give themselves a chance to win against this Seahawks offense that depends upon their own opportunistic defense.

The books have lined this game at Seahawks -7.5 which seems a bit inflated to me even with reduced mobility of Aaron Rodgers (slight tear in his calf). Any time you can get north of seven points in a football game, it’s good value. This game is no different.

I like the Packers to cover, and Aaron Rodgers always gives you a chance to win. The Power Rank’s ensemble predictions concur and give the Seahawks a 4.9 point edge (about 63% to win).

Thanks for reading and enjoy the few remaining games. Since I no longer have a horse in the race, I’ll be rooting for a Packers-Patriots Superbowl as that would seem to me to be the most entertaining to watch.

Frank Brank founded cheapseatanalytics.com, a site devoted to analytical sports information and betting systems. He majors in baseball but also covers the NFL and NHL. You can follow him on Twitter @realFrankBrank.

Predictions for the NFL Divisional Round Playoffs, 2015

2014_DivisionWhat’s the NFL without a little controversy? All news is good news for the NFL. The more folks blowing up social media on the missed pass interference call in the Cowboys-Lions game only made more tune into the game.

Conspiracy theorists rejoice.

Overall, I had a pretty solid Wildcard Round last week. Many of the outcomes ended up being as predictable as I had thought. This week will be a little more difficult as the teams get better, the weather gets worse, and the lines get tighter.

Ravens @ Patriots

The first game of the week renews the heated Flacco-Brady rivalry… just kidding.

The Joe Flacco in the Playoffs narrative continues after the Ravens beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh last week. Though his team’s record is impressive in recent years, let’s not depend on a small sample of games spread out across multiple seasons. Flacco will undoubtedly regress towards his career expectancy.

Flacco hasn’t played well on the road in his career. In 56 home games, Flacco has completed 61.7% of his 1740 passes for 7.56 yards per attempt (78 touchdowns, 35 interceptions). In 56 road games, he drops to 59.5% completion rate on 1907 attempts for 6.45 yards per attempt (70 touchdowns, 55 interceptions).

Those road numbers compare to teams like the 49ers, Titans, and Jaguars from this year. For what it’s worth, I quickly scrolled through home/road splits of other quarterbacks like Tony Romo, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and even Andy Dalton without finding a home/road difference even close to Flacco’s.

In addition, he will face New England’s 11th ranked pass defense and 12th best sack rate. That’s quite the step up from Pittsburgh’s abysmal secondary and pass rush.

The Patriots offense, ranked 6th by The Power Rank, also has a favorable match up. Tom Brady will draw the Ravens league average pass defense (15th).

Baltimore does make up for the secondary by getting after the quarterback. The Power Rank predicts they sack the opposing quarterback on 8.25% of pass attempts against average pass protection. The issue, of course, is Tom Brady doesn’t take many sacks. New England gives up a 3.7% sack rate against an average pass rush, second best in the NFL.

If you’re backing the Ravens because of Joe Flacco’s recent playoff success, you should look at the difference in his home and road performance. He doesn’t play well on the road compared to other quarterbacks.

Markets opened this game at Patriots -8.5. With some money coming in early, this line was adjusted moved down to Patriots -7.

This game is appropriately lined given the Patriots home dominance over the last decade; however, there’s some clear line value any time you can get an underdog north of seven points. Baltimore is still getting the slim majority of the bets, so this line has a small chance to get under seven points. The value would then be flipped to the Patriots.

I’ll take the Patriots to win with comfort and hope the Joe Flacco in the Playoffs story is put to rest.

Panthers @ Seahawks

The Panthers and Seahawks couldn’t be further away in the standings. However, they play similar styles of football with an aggressive defense and run first offense.

Throughout the season, the Seahawks executed that style better since they had 12-4 regular season record versus the 7-8-1 mark of the Panthers.

Continuing with the similarities, each of these teams have played some cupcake games recently. Seattle finished the season winning six straight games with two games against quarterback-depleted Arizona, two against San Francisco, Philadelphia, and St. Louis.

Carolina has won five straight against New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Atlanta, and a quarterback-depleted Arizona. Nonetheless, these are still professional football players and no opponent should be taken for granted.

The Panthers and Seahawks each have elite defenses. The Panthers defensive numbers are a little skewed as they’ve gotten healthy as the season has progressed and have played much better as of late.

According to The Power Rank, they still rank 13th on defense with the seventh best pass rush. Sacks have disrupted Russell Wilson and the Seahawks offense all season (8.8% sack rate).

I don’t believe this is a knock to the offensive line; Wilson has held onto the ball entirely too long. Lacking a real threat on offense could be the issue.

The Seahawks traded away Percy Harvin, leaving Doug Baldwin and Luke Wilson as the most dangerous weapons on offense. Wilson has been able to improvise with his legs; however, there is no doubt in my mind that Luke Keuchly will be spying him all game.

The Seahawks offense, ranked 17th, should struggle against a fast, opportunistic Carolina defense.

The Panthers offense will be in a similar situation. The Seahawks, who also struggled on defense at the start of the season by their standards, have worked their way up to the fifth best defense per The Power Rank.

Cam Newton has played better lately, but I expect him to have similar issues as Russell Wilson in this game.  Newton certainly has more weapons at his disposal, but he’ll also oppose the better defense.

The books have lined this game at Seahawks -10.5 after opening at Seahawks -11. This game should be much closer than that. Even with the Panthers playing much better lately, 56% of the public has laid all those points with the Seahawks.

I simply don’t think the Seahawks can score enough points to cover a double digit line. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Panthers have a good chance to win this game with such limited scoring. One big play can change the outcome.

Cowboys @ Packers

The Cowboys narrowly scraped by last week, as we thought they might, with a little help from the referees, of course. The Packers had a week to rest, which should only help them continue their home dominance.

The Packers have a ridiculous offense, which you don’t need me to break it down. The Cowboys also have a great offense, so where is the edge for each team?

For starters, the Cowboys defense is not very good. I was supremely impressed by their second half against Detroit. They shut down the running game, pressured Stafford, and held the Lions offense to three points.

However, the Cowboys defense was terrible in the first half against Detroit. If they lay an egg in either half of this game, Aaron Rodgers will take advantage and put them away early considering the Cowboys defense ranks 27th in passing defense and 29th in sack rate.

The Packers defense may have similar issues. Though the offense started slow last week, the Cowboys have roughed up even the best of defenses, including the Seahawks in Seattle.

According to The Power Rank, Green Bay’s defense now sits 24th in passing defense and 17th in sack rate. They have certainly been better than Dallas, but it’s not a wide margin by any means.

Even with temperatures expected to be around twenty degrees at game time, I expect some points. The books expect the same with a total of 53, only trailing the Broncos-Colts total by one point.

Having an opinion on this game is difficult. I really do trust Green Bay’s home dominance, but I also trust that they will give up some points.

There’s certainly a chance the Cowboys hang in there and win this game, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

The Power Rank has the Packers by a touchdown and I agree with that number. The betting line is also hovering around Packers -6.5.

On a neutral field, these teams are very close to equals. At Lambeau, I’ll take the Packers over any team.

This is a rare game where the hot and cold of the Cowboys isn’t swaying their betting line. If you’re going to take a side, grab the Cowboys and the points, but the books got this one right.

Colts @ Broncos

Many thought the Colts were in trouble after the closing weeks of the regular season. However, their offensive line dominated the Bengals pass rush in their Wildcard game and gave Andrew Luck plenty of time to find his speedy receivers.

The Broncos got the week off they desperately needed. They have some injuries on their offensive line.  Even the Bengals horrendous pass rush was able to exploit those soft spots up front.

The Broncos face a good Colts pass rush ranked 9th in sack rate adjusted for schedule. They also have a good secondary, as the Colts pass defense is very underrated at 10th in The Power Rank.

The Broncos front will be better this week than in recent weeks. Though it’s a tall task with his quick releases, but if the Colts front seven can disrupt Peyton, they might have a chance to win this game.

Ed and I have talked previously and agree that the Broncos are a better team, at least statistics-wise, than they were last year at this point.

The Broncos are the top ranked team in The Power Rank and have the second best pass defense with a strength of schedule adjustment for yards per attempt.

Peyton Manning still has the best overall protection with the aid of his quick timing routes and the best passing attack. Very few would question that.

The questionable part is their now run-happy offense. C.J. Anderson has emerged as one of the better power backs with added quickness in the league. Realistically, though, Peyton Manning should be throwing the ball more often, as he leads the top ranked pass offense.

If the Colts want to survive and advance, they’ll need to get to Manning. It’s that simple. If he has time in the pocket, Manning has proven for nearly two decades that opposing teams have a very small chance to beat him.

I don’t foresee the pressure being sufficient and expect the Broncos to win comfortably. The books have lined this around a touchdown. The Power Rank likes the Broncos by a little more with an ensemble prediction of -8.6.

The difference is the key number of seven points. You want to be on the correct side of that number. I can live with laying 6.5 points with Denver. You probably won’t see less than a touchdown anywhere, though. I also wouldn’t be opposed to taking the points at Colts +7.5.

Outlook

I really can imagine two of the underdogs, Panthers and Cowboys, winning this week. I would rank them in that order of likelihood, as well. The Panthers being double digit dogs may disagree with me, but I love the match up.

With no games inside of 6.5 points in Vegas, they are suggesting a pretty boring Divisional round. However, we know well enough the playoffs are always exciting. Sports have insanely random outcomes in the one game samples you’ll get this week.

Frank Brank founded cheapseatanalytics.com, a site devoted to analytical sports information and betting systems. He majors in baseball but also covers the NFL and NHL. You can follow him on Twitter @realFrankBrank.

Predictions for the NFL Wildcard Playoffs, 2014

nfl2014The NFL Playoffs have arrived. Remember, there are favorites to win the Super Bowl, but no team has great odds to win three or four games in a row against the NFL’s best teams.

That makes picking Super Bowl winners very difficult. It depends on both good play and luck. Nonetheless, that’s what makes the playoffs great: anyone can win.

Last year featured the consensus two best teams in the Super Bowl, but I wouldn’t expect that to happen often.

Finding edges in the playoffs is much more difficult than the regular season. There will be many more bets coming in and the public generally knows the worth of each team at this point. Valuing overlooked aspects like home field advantage and defense is important.

Let’s try to figure out who wins this week.

Cardinals @ Panthers

Over the last two seasons, the Arizona Cardinals have been the unluckiest team in the NFL.

Last year, the Cardinals won ten games but missed the postseason. This year, Arizona won eleven games but lost their first and second string quarterbacks to injury.

Now they travel to play a 7-8-1 Carolina team. And unfortunately for Cardinals fans, that 7-8-1 team is much better than them right now.

Ryan Lindley is the go-to quarterback for the Cardinals. He has nine career games, a 50% completion rate, and just threw his first touchdown pass last week.

Lindley will go up against a now healthy and very fast Carolina defense. The Panthers have given up more than 20 points in just one of their last six games and are beginning to look like the defense we saw last year.

The Carolina offense, on the other hand, hasn’t been great. Sure, they scored 34 points as a team last week but that was aided by two defensive touchdowns and incredible field position most of the game. Relying upon some fortunate bounces isn’t a sustainable way to win games.

Cam Newton will go up against a Cardinals defense that is a bit overrated. Early in the season, the Cardinals repeatedly found themselves in close games in which late turnovers and defensive touchdowns aided some victories.

In actuality, they’ve produced the 27th best sack rate and 21st best pass defense by yards per attempt adjusted for schedule.

Without being able to pressure Cam Newton, the Cardinals will find themselves in a bad situation. Newton will be able to exploit their defense on the ground and through the air.

The books have the line at Panthers -4.5. Considering they are playing at home, this line suggests the Panthers would be very small favorites on a neutral field.

The public will be largely backing the Panthers which should move this line towards the price of a touchdown. If you like the Panthers as much as I do this week, you may want to get them early or find another game to tease the line down with them.

I like to bet on defense and home field advantage. Panthers win big.

Ravens @ Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers come into the playoffs flying high. They’ve won their last four games by an average of 11.5 points against solid competition.

The Ravens have won three of four but haven’t played great in the last three games since cruising past the Dolphins. Baltimore slipped by the Jaguars, lost to the Texans who brought Case Keenum off the street, and pulled out a close one against the Browns led by Connor Shaw last week.

The Ravens defense has been about what one would expect in those games; however, the offense has been abysmal.

It all starts with QB Joe Flacco. This season, his 62% completion rate and 7.2 yards per attempt reminds you of quarterbacks named Eli Manning and Colin Kaepernick.

The match up couldn’t be better for Flacco and the Ravens offense this week, though. Pittsburgh rates as the third worst pass defense in the NFL, just beating out Atlanta and Chicago.

That not-so Steel Curtain defense ranks 25th in sack rate and 30th in passing yards per attempt against. Look for Flacco, who hasn’t been great in road games over his career, to have some success.

I do believe the Ravens best chance of advancing through the Wildcard round was to draw the Steelers. That doesn’t mean I’d pick them to win this game.

The Steelers offense has been incredible. Pittsburgh has the fourth best pass offense, only trailing Denver, Green Bay, and Indianapolis.

Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell are as good of a trio that you will find in the NFL. Bell did hyperextend his knee late in Week 17 and is likely a coin flip to play this week. I still believe they have success against an average Ravens defense with a mixture of Josh Harris and Dri Archer in the backfield.

The opening line favors the Steelers by more than a field goal. The Power Rank’s ensemble predictions favors the Steelers by a point. I’ll agree and back the Steelers to win with home field advantage. This game is lined appropriately given that the Ravens offense and Joe Flacco continue to struggle this season.

Bengals @ Colts

I am really stuck coming up with an opinion for this game. If it weren’t the playoffs, I’d pass on this one entirely. I do believe the Bengals are a little better than most people think. However, they have a large match up problem this week.

The Bengals front seven will not be able to stop Andrew Luck. In the few games that the Colts offense has struggled, it’s been mostly due to pressure on Luck where he’s become turnover-happy.

The Bengals have the second worst pass rush in the NFL. That’s a large mismatch since Luck takes sacks at the fifth best rate in the NFL.

Luck should be able to extend plays with his legs and inside the pocket while allowing the athleticism of T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, and Colby Fleener to really shine. Cincinnati’s secondary has been impressive, recently blasting Peyton Manning into mediocrity, but stopping Luck on the indoor turf in Indy is a different story.

The Bengals did take the Steelers down to the wire last week. The ten point difference doesn’t tell the whole story.

The Bengals were already inside of field goal range while down three with around three minutes left in the game before A.J. Green fumbled and cost his a team a shot to win the game.

In the process, Green was injured on the play and is questionable for Sunday’s contest. Green may be the best offensive player and threat for the Bengals. His potential absence or limited play should not be taken lightly.

There still is a slight misconception that the Colts defense isn’t very good. They represent the tenth best secondary and eighth best sack rate. According to The Power Rank, they rate overall at tenth, right between the Lions and Patriots.

Nearly every statistical aspect of this game tells me the Colts win easy. While the Colts have struggled recently, I think they play their best at home this weekend in their most important contest of the season. This agrees with the ensemble prediction of Colts by 4.8.

Lions @ Cowboys

As I’ve stated before, the Cowboys are the most publicly-driven point spread each week. I was amazed when I saw a Cowboys -7.5 pop up Monday morning. A bottom five defense is going up against an incredibly talented offense and is laying more than a touchdown in the books.

If we evaluate this game at an offense versus defense standpoint, I think it’s safe to say the Lions offense is a better match up for the Cowboys defense than the Cowboys offense against the Lions defense.

Detroit’s offense certainly hasn’t lived up to its talent level, but they’ve shown some flashes of what one would expect. Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, and Reggie Bush could give this Cowboys questionable defense some nightmares this week.

Detroit’s passing offense ranks right about average; however, they’ve spent a large portion of the season without their most important offensive player, Calvin Johnson. Either Orlando Scandrick or Brandon Carr will cover Johnson this week, while the other gets Golden Tate.

Both Scandrick and Carr have played better than expected this season but they still have their hands full dealing with all that speed in a dome and on turf.

Stafford has struggled at times dealing with pressure and their front line hasn’t protected him at a great rate. However, the Cowboys don’t get to quarterbacks that often (4.25% sack rate).

Not to mention, the Cowboys haven’t historically played great at home. Even with a substantial home field advantage, this game should be much closer than anticipated.

We all know how good the Cowboys offense has been this year. Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray, and Dez Bryant are as good as they come in the skill department. They will give any defense problems.

The Lions do boast the best run-stopping defense in the NFL and a top ten secondary. If the Lions secondary can find a way to stop Dez Bryant from catching multiple touchdowns this week and force Tony Romo to use Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley, they’ll have a great chance to win this game.

They will be without Ndamukong Suh who was suspended for stepping on Aaron Rodgers’ injured calf. Suh’s absence has a huge effect as he may be the best interior defensive lineman in the NFL. [Editor’s note: for some reason, the NFL has cleared Suh to play in this game.]

I am not suggesting the Cowboys are much worse than the Lions. I still think they win this game with superior offensive abilities.

This entire Cowboys team has been better than expected. However, the fact that the largest line of the week by a wide margin is given to the team with relatively no defense and no great home field advantage is a shock.

I expect the Cowboys to pull this one out, and the ensemble predictions agree (Dallas by 2.3). Take the points.

Enjoy the playoffs, all. It’s the best time of the year and it doesn’t last long. May the luckiest team win!

Frank Brank founded cheapseatanalytics.com, a site devoted to analytical sports information and betting systems. He majors in baseball but also covers the NFL and NHL. You can follow him on Twitter @realFrankBrank.

How passing and rushing affect winning in the NFL

bill_belichickBefore the Super Bowl, Bill Belichick told his Giants defense to let Thurman Thomas rush for 100 yards.

As David Halberstam writes in Education of a Coach, it was a tough sell before the 1991 Super Bowl against Buffalo. The New York Giants played a physical defense that prided itself on not allowing 100 yard rushers.

No matter, the short, stout coach looked straight into the eyes of Lawrence Taylor and Pepper Johnson and said, “You guys have to believe me. If Thomas runs for a hundred yards, we win this game.”

Just in case his players didn’t listen, Belichick took it upon himself to ensure Thomas got his yards. He took out a defensive lineman and linebacker and replaced these large bodies with two defensive backs. In football lingo, the Giants played a 2-3-6 defense designed to struggle against the run.

Did Bill Belichick go insane? I certainly thought so when I first read this story years ago.

However, analytics is on Belichick’s side. Let me explain.

Visual shows the importance of passing over rushing

When it comes to winning in the NFL, passing is king. Rushing hardly matters.

To quantify this, our football obsessed culture must look past misleading statistics such as rush yards per game. Teams with the lead run the ball to take time off the clock. Any team can rush for 100 yards if they run it 50 times.

To measure true skill, it is better to look at efficiency metrics like yards per attempt. A team can’t fake their way to 5 yards per carry by running the ball more.

Here, efficiency for passing and rushing is defined as yards gained per attempt on offense minus yards allowed per attempt on defense. Higher values indicate more team strength. Sacks count as pass attempts, and these negative yards lower pass efficiency on offense.

The visual shows the pass and rush efficiency during the regular season for all NFL playoff teams from 2003 through 2012.

nfl_pass_rush

From the left panel, playoff teams excel in passing, both throwing the ball on offense and preventing the pass on defense. Only 15 of 120 playoff teams in this era allowed more yards per pass attempt than they gained.

The visual also highlights teams that played in the Super Bowl. Eight of the ten Super Bowl champions were among the NFL’s elite in pass efficiency. However, excellence in the air does not guarantee playoff success. The New York Giants in 2007 and Baltimore in 2012 won the Super Bowl despite subpar pass efficiency.

Rushing hardly matters in the NFL

While the importance of passing in the NFL will not surprise anyone, the insignificance of rushing might. The visual for rush efficiency shows playoff teams as a random scatter of positive and negative values for their regular season statistics. A strong run game on offense and defense does not help a team make the playoffs.

Moreover, teams with a high rush efficiency do not suddenly become clutch in the playoffs. Almost half of the teams that played in the Super Bowl allowed more yards per carry than they gained. In 2006, Indianapolis won the Super Bowl while having the worst rush efficiency in the NFL. Green Bay in 2010 and the New York Giants in 2011 weren’t much better.

A guessing game of a team’s wins

Running the ball does not affect winning as much as you think. To illustrate this point, consider this guessing game. Suppose you want to guess how many games a team will win during the regular season. Without any other data, it makes sense to guess 8, the average number of wins in a 16 game season.

From 2003 through 2012, this estimate would be wrong by 3.1 wins. In technical jargon, 3.1 is the standard deviation of actual wins from the guess of 8. In normal people language, it says 2 of 3 teams will be within 3.1 wins of the guess. About two thirds of NFL teams won between 5 and 11 games between 2003 and 2012.

With the rush efficiency for each team, how much better does your guess get? The right panel of the visual below shows how rush efficiency relates to wins for every NFL team from 2003 through 2012. Simple linear regression gives the best fit line through the data.

nfl_pass_rush_scatter

The regression line gives a new guess about the number of games a team will win. For example, suppose a team has a rush efficiency of 0.6 yards per carry. Instead of guessing 8 wins for this team, the line gives 8.7 wins for this team.

How much better are these new guesses? Not much. The error only drops from 3.1 wins to 3.03 wins. In technical jargon, rush efficiency explains only 4.4% of the variance in wins. You might as well guess randomly.

The results get better using pass efficiency, as shown in the left panel. The error in estimating wins drops from 3.1 to 1.96. Pass efficiency explains 62% of the variance in wins in the NFL. The strong relationship is clear from the visual.

In college football, rush efficiency correlates more strongly with wins than in the NFL. Teams like Alabama, Stanford and Wisconsin have won with a power running game and a physical front seven on defense. The insignificance of running the ball is unique to the NFL.

Analytics gives a broad view of how passing and rushing affect winning. But to dig deeper, let’s look at specific teams and their strengths in these areas.

Indianapolis Colts

Under the leadership of GM Bill Polian and QB Peyton Manning, the Colts had a remarkable run from 2003 through 2010. They won at least 12 games each year before slacking off with 10 wins in 2010.

They achieved success through the air, ranking in the top 8 in pass efficiency each year. Peyton Manning and his offense played the bigger role, but the pass defense helped out some years. The Colts ranked in the top 10 in pass defense (yards allowed per attempt) from 2007 through 2009.

However, Indianapolis was really bad in the run game. Only once in this era (2007) did they gain more yards per carry than they allowed. As mentioned before, they were dead last in the NFL in rush efficiency in 2006 when they beat Chicago in the Super Bowl.

New England Patriots

New England won 125 games, 2 Super Bowls and played in 2 others during the 10 seasons covered by the visual. They followed the same script as Indianapolis: strong in passing, weak in rushing.

From 2003 through 2012, New England ranked in the top 10 in pass efficiency in each year except 2008 and 2012. In 2008, QB Tom Brady got hurt in the first game of the season. New England ended the season 13th in yards gained per pass attempt and did not make the playoffs, the only time this happened during these 10 years.

However, New England has never cracked the top 10 in rush efficiency. Coach Bill Belichick might not have seen the data presented here, but he gets the futility of rushing in the NFL. This understanding extends as far back as his days as defensive coordinator for the Giants.

Indianapolis and New England have built their teams around passing at the expense of rushing. They, along with New Orleans of recent seasons, have had success in winning games and Super Bowls. Now let’s look at teams that excel at rushing.

Minnesota Vikings

More than any other team, the Vikings dominate the ground game. They feature RB Adrian Peterson on offense and have tackles Pat and Kevin Williams clogging up the middle on defense. For the 6 years between 2007 and 2012, Minnesota has finished 1st in rush efficiency 4 of those years.

However, this strength has led to ups and downs in wins. Minnesota went 3-13 in 2011 despite leading the NFL in rush efficiency. The next season, they led the NFL again behind a monster season from Peterson, who made a remarkable return from knee surgery. The Vikings had 10-6 record that season.

The Viking’s best season over this stretch came in 2009. They finished 12th in rush efficiency that season. The difference? A QB named Brett Farve came out of retirement to play for Minnesota. The Vikings finished 7th in yards gained per pass attempt. They went 12-4 and came within a late turnover against New Orleans of playing in the Super Bowl.

San Francisco

The Niners started winning games when coach Jim Harbaugh became coach in 2011. However, they had their strengths before he arrived. Behind DE Justin Smith and LB Patrick Willis, San Francisco had an elite run defense. From 2007 through 2012, they never finished worse than 8th in yards allowed per carry.

This run defense didn’t help them win much the first 4 seasons, as the Niners won only 26 games. The pass defense never finished better than 15th during this time.

When Harbaugh arrived in 2011, San Francisco drafted LB Aldon Smith, a pass rush monster out of Missouri. They also signed CB Carlos Rogers, who had his first Pro Bowl season in 2011. The Niners have finished 9th and 3rd in pass defense in 2011 and 2012 respectively. This resulted in 24 wins during these two seasons.

How to evaluate NFL statistics

In Super Bowl XXV, Bill Belichick’s plan to let Thurman Thomas rush for 100 yards worked, maybe too well. Against a small defense designed to slow down the pass, Thomas ran for 135 yards on 15 carries, a staggering 9 yards per carry. In the second half, he broke off a 31 yard run for a touchdown.

The game ended when Bills kicker Scott Norwood sent a field goal attempt wide right. The Giants won the Super Bowl 20-19.

The Giants did not win the game solely because of Belichick’s defensive plan. The offense generated two long scoring drives in the second half that took time off the clock. And I would bet my life savings Belichick did not want his defense to allow that 31 yard touchdown run to Thomas.

But, as Halberstam discusses in Education of a Coach, Belichick did want the Bills to pick up small gains on the ground if it meant keeping Jim Kelly from throwing the ball. He understood that rushing means almost nothing to winning in the NFL.

If you’re going to remember anything from this article, it should be this: look at a team’s passing instead of rushing numbers to determine whether they will win games.

Will Andrew Luck save the Colts? How his numbers compare to Manning and Griffin

No. Andrew Luck will not save Indianapolis. That’s KC Joyner’s answer in ESPN The Magazine. Their analytics issue just showed up in my mailbox, and it’s remarkable that only one fifth of one article is devoted to football. One measly subsection out of 11 articles. At least Andrew Luck’s name appears on the cover. The Colts will most likely take the Stanford quarterback with the first pick in April’s NFL draft. However, this draft pick won’t save the franchise, argues Joyner, The Football Scientist. But does his reasoning make him seem more like Albert Einstein or Joe Morgan? Let’s take a look.

Yards per pass attempt. Joyner first looks at Luck’s passing numbers in the first half versus the second half of the season. This split makes sense since Stanford faced Duke and UCLA early but Oregon and USC late in the season. Against early season defenses that allowed 7.9 yards per pass attempt, Luck threw for 9.6 yards per attempt. The late season brought defenses that gave up 6.7 yards per attempt, a statistic we noted in our preview of the Stanford Oregon game. Luck threw for 8.0 yards per attempt against these defenses. Joyner cites this decrease as exhibit A against Luck.

But yards per pass attempt should go down against better competition. To put this in perspective, Luck threw for 1.7 and 1.3 more yards per attempt than the early and late season defense allowed, respectively. Luck exceeded expectation throughout the season. Moreover, if we take these excess yards as a percentage of the yards the defense allowed, Luck was 21.5% better in the early season compared with 19.4% later.

Bad decision rate. The article gets more interesting later, as Joyner introduces bad decision rate. This is the fraction of pass attempts that led to turnovers or near turnovers, such as a dropped interception. The job at ESPN must come with minions to watch games and track stats like this. Luck’s bad decision rate started at 0.6% early in the season only to balloon to 4.9% later against better competition.

Watching those late season games confirms Luck’s increase in bad decisions, or at least his increase in bad throws. Against USC, Oregon and Notre Dame, Luck had an interception in each game that he threw directly into the hands of a defender. The pick against USC came late in the 4th quarter and nearly cost Stanford the game. Against Oregon, I would go as far as to say Luck seemed tentative against the pass rush from the Ducks. But not all 7 of those late season interceptions were Luck’s fault. Against Oregon, Luck threw a perfect pass into the hands of Ty Montgomery, only to watch the freshman fumble the pass straight into a defender’s hands for a pick. It’s a play that makes evaluating quarterbacks very difficult.

Luck, Manning and Griffin. It’s really nice of ESPN to tell us about all these advanced analytics. But these numbers do little to compare Luck with Peyton Manning since ESPN didn’t calculate a bad decision rate for Manning’s senior year at Tennessee in 1997. Let’s look at two key statistics, completion percentage and yards per pass attempt, for Luck and Manning from their last year in college. And just for fun, let’s throw in Baylor quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, another entrant in this year’s NFL draft.

A comparison of Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin in their last year of college.

The most shocking aspect of this visual is Manning’s low completion percentage, 60.4%. Some schools of thought on drafting quarterbacks require a 60% completion percentage for success in the NFL. For example, San Diego Charger burnout Ryan Leaf completed 55% of his passes his last year at Washington State. Manning clears this 60% threshold, but not by much. Perhaps the SEC conference fielded particularly strong defenses in 1997. Or perhaps the Pac-12 and Big 12 had weak pass defenses this past year, leading to the gaudy numbers of Luck and Griffin. How would they have done in the SEC against Alabama and LSU?

From an analytics perspective, these numbers don’t account for strength of schedule, an omission that hinders all analysis of college football. Here at The Power Rank, we account for this strength of schedule in ranking teams. However, we have yet to adopt our algorithm to players. It gives us something to contemplate this off season.

What do you see in these numbers? Please leave us a comment.

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