The team Philadelphia resembles heading into the Super Bowl – a numbers driven preview

In the 2016 NFL playoffs, the Carolina Panthers and Cam Newton were on fire. They entered the playoffs as the top seed in the NFC.

In the Divisional playoff, they beat Seattle 31-24 as Newton threw for 6.6 yards per attempt. Then Newton went really nuts against Arizona in the Conference Championship.

Arizona’s defense had excelled all season, but Newton threw for 11.2 yards per attempt in a resounding 49-15 win. Carolina looked invincible heading into the Super Bowl against Denver.

Does this sound familiar? Does it remind you of a more recent team?

Philadelphia in 2018

In the 2018 NFL playoffs, the Philadelphia Eagles were on fire. They entered the playoffs as the top seed in the NFC.

Even with back up QB Nick Foles, they beat Atlanta 15-10 in the Divisional playoff as Foles threw for 7.7 yards per attempt. The Foles went really nuts against Minnesota in the Conference Championship.

Minnesota’s defense had excelled all season, but Foles threw for 10.2 yards per attempt in a resounding 38-7 win. Philadelphia now enters the Super Bowl against New England.

Two years ago, Carolina faltered in the Super Bowl against Denver. Newton struggled as they lost 24-10. Will Philadelphia also fail to live up to expectations?

Nick Foles versus Cam Newton

But wait just a minute, you might be thinking. The comparison between Philadelphia and Carolina breaks down at the quarterback. How can you compare a back up like Foles to a career starter and Most Valuable Player like Newton?

It’s a good question. In some aspects of the game, there’s no comparison. Newton gains yards as a punishing, physical runner, a skill that Foles lacks.

However, let’s compare their career passing numbers.

  • Nick Foles, 60% completion percentage, 6.2 yards per attempt
  • Cam Newton, 59% completion percentage, 6.0 yards per attempt

The career stats for Foles can be deceiving, as he looked like a future Hall of Famer in 2013 before regressing to a back up the past two season.

However, Newton has never been an elite passer. He did throw for 7.2 yards per attempt in the 2015 season in which Carolina made the Super Bowl, but that season seems like an outlier.

The career numbers for Foles and Newton are similar. This suggests not to make too much of Foles’s performance in the last two playoff games.

Philadelphia’s pass offense with Foles

Let’s dig into Philadelphia further by isolating their passing numbers with Foles. For this analysis, I’ve consider 4 regular season games, but I only include pass attempts for Foles in two games.

  • at the Los Angeles Rams, when Carson Wentz played most of the game but then hurt his knee
  • Dallas, the week 17 game in which Philadelphia had nothing to play for, and Foles didn’t play the entire game

I’ve included the two playoff games as well. With Nick Foles, Philadelphia’s pass defense ranks 22nd in adjusted yards per attempt. They rank 9th with full season numbers.

I don’t like to make conclusions from 6 games of passing data. However, a rank of 22nd does suggest the Minnesota performance was an outlier.

New England’s pass defense

You might also object to the comparison of Philadelphia with Carolina because of the defense faced in the Super Bowl.

Carolina faced an elite Denver pass defense that ranked first in my adjusted yards per attempt. In contrast, Philadelphia goes against a New England’s pass defense ranks 19th this season by the same metric.

However, one number doesn’t tell the full story of New England’s pass defense. This unit came into the season with high expectations, as they cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a big free agent contract this off season.

Then the unit struggled the first half of the season. Gilmore got benched in a game, then suffered a concussion that caused him to miss a few games.

Gilmore returned against Denver in New England’s ninth game. I’ve isolated New England’s defense the second half of the season starting with this game. In addition, I removed the Jets game since they started back up QB Bryce Petty.

Since Gilmore’s return, New England’s pass defense ranks 6th by my adjusted yards per attempt. They’re not Denver from two seasons ago, but this suggests improvement the latter part of the season.

Philadelphia’s offensive line

I’ve heard multiple mentions about the strength of Philadelphia’s offensive line. This surprised me as they lost Jason Peters, one of the best left tackles in football, to injury.

To see how this might affect the game, I look at the sack rate allowed by Philadelphia’s offensive line and adjust for the pass rushes faced. This adjustment is similar to the pass numbers mentioned in this article.

For the season, Philadelphia’s offensive line ranks 14th in adjusted sack rate allowed, about NFL average. When I remove the first 7 games of the season in which Peters played, Philadelphia’s pass protection actually moves up to 6th.

So are the Eagles better without Jason Peters? Probably not.

According to Pro Football Focus, Peters allowed 7 pressures in 7 games before the injury. His replacement Halapoulivaati Vaitai has allowed 7 sacks and 30 pressures in 11 games. The pass protection without Peters has excelled due to the other four linemen.

Since Vaitai has allowed 7 of the 19 sacks in the games he has played, look for New England to attack him in pressuring Nick Foles.

Prediction

During the NFC Championship game in which Philadelphia crushed Minnesota, I thought the Eagles should be a 7 point underdog against New England. The Eagles should have been a home underdog in both playoff games with Foles, and I didn’t think two games should change that. Small sample size.

When making a prediction for this game, I rely on market data to evaluate Foles instead of Wentz. Philadelphia has played 5 games since the Wentz injury, but I don’t consider the meaningless week 17 game against Dallas.

Based on these 4 games for Philadelphia, my market rankings consider closing point spreads and adjust for schedule based on my methods. This model predicts New England to win by 6.8.

Podcast: Super Bowl Preview

In this 7 minute episode, I preview the Super Bowl by comparing Philadelphia to a recent Super Bowl team. This comparison leads to looking at my adjusted numbers for the following:

  • Philadelphia’s pass offense with only Nick Foles
  • New England’s pass defense the latter part of the season

To listen on iTunes, click here.

To listen here, click on the right pointing triangle.

How Andy Reid wins football games with interceptions

Andy Reid’s teams throw a low rate of interceptions. The visual shows how his teams in Philadelphia and Kansas City have had a lower than NFL average interception rate (interceptions divided by attempts) in all but 3 of 18 seasons.

Reid’s Eagles had a particularly good stretch of pick suppression from 2000 through 2004. Led by quarterback Donovan McNabb, Philadelphia never won fewer than 11 games in any of those 5 seasons.

Despite a decreasing interception rate across the NFL, Reid has continued to beat the NFL average over the past four years in Kansas City. Led by quarterback Alex Smith, the Chiefs have won 43 regular season games and never dipped below 9 wins in any one season.

The randomness of turnovers

The visual goes against the typical quant narrative that turnovers are random.

For example, I’ve shown this visual that shows the relation between interception rate the first 6 games of the college football season versus the remainder of the season.

The lack of correlation between these quantities shows that you can’t predict a team’s interception rate later in the season based on the same quantity during first 6 games.

This suggests interceptions are random, and a team has a 50% chance to have a better or worse than average interception rate. However, if you assume this for Andy Reid’s teams, there’s only a 0.37% chance his teams would have had 3 or fewer seasons with a below average interception rate.

Randomness certainly plays a role in interceptions. No one who has ever seen a tipped pass fall into the hands of a defender should doubt that.

However, the Reid visual suggests that some coaches can suppress interceptions over a very large sample of games.

Steelers at Chiefs

This has implications in predicting the outcome of the Steelers at the Chiefs playoff game this weekend.

Kansas City doesn’t seem like much of a Super Bowl threat with the 16th and 11th ranked pass offense and defense, respectively, by my adjusted yards per attempt. I use these pass efficiency numbers to evaluate teams for two reasons:

  • My research shows the importance of passing over rushing in the NFL.
  • Turnovers have little impact on yards per pass attempt.

However, if Kansas City is truly skilled at not throwing interceptions, then these pass efficiency numbers will underestimate their team strength.

Team rankings based on adjusted margin of victory might be a better way to evaluate Kansas City. Their low interception rate will impact margin of victory, as I’ve found that an interception is worth 5 points in the NFL.

My member numbers combine both pass efficiency and margin of victory to make Kansas City a 1.3 point favorite against Pittsburgh. However, my team rankings based on only points would make Kansas City a 3 point favorite.

I interviewed Ben Alamar on the Football Analytics Show this week, and his FPI (Football Power Index) makes the Chiefs nearly a 5 point favorite. They use an expected points added, a metric which accounts for interceptions but their own twist. To listen to that part of the discussion, go to 14:50 of my interview with Ben Alamar.

NFL Rankings, Week 12

Rodgers, Manning twice
Quarterback, changes destiny
Happy Turkey Day

Happy Thanksgiving Power Rank readers!

Here are the rankings for tomorrow’s menu:

1.  Turkey legs  10.43

2.  Stuffing  8.74

3.  Turkey breast  5.21

4.  Mashed potatoes and gravy  4.98

5.  Pumpkin Pie  3.16

6.  Cranberry sauce  -25.47

Just kidding!

On a more serious note, here is something I’m very thankful for this year:  19 years of the Packers (#1, 12.14) having a future Hall of Fame quarterback under center.  Not every fan base is as lucky as the one I am proud to be a part of, and it is good to reflect on that unbelievable fortune from time to time.

The Colts (#32, -12.18) are at the opposite end of that spectrum, losing their future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning to neck problems this year, sending them from a top-tier AFC powerhouse to the worst team in the league by almost every metric available.  For fans who have seen Peyton taking snaps every week since 1997, this season is quite a shock to the system.

Other teams haven’t been so stable at the quarterback position over the years, and their ups and downs have shown it.  The Bears, for instance (#5, 5.39) have always seemed to have trouble finding a reliable trigger in spite of years of talented defenses and running backs.  Chicago fans largely applauded the coming of Jay Cutler, the best quarterback talent the Windy City has seen since Jim McMahon.  Now Cutler is likely out for the rest of the regular season, and possibly a portion of the postseason, with an injured thumb.  The Power Rank has been measuring the Bears success with a competent starter leading the offense. With backup Caleb Hanie, their true power is likely diminished, which will show in the coming weeks both in their record and in their ranking.  For this week, do not count on the raw numbers as Chicago is favored over Oakland (#17, -1.15) by 4.5 on the road.

Another team made a big change under center this week.  The Kansas City Chiefs (#31, -8.22) have acquired the benched Kyle Orton from their division rival Broncos (#22, -2.35) to fill in for an injured Matt Cassel.  Tyler Palko was given a shot on Monday night to take the reigns, but a performance that yielded no touchdowns and three interceptions sent the Chiefs looking elsewhere.  Personally, I believe that not only is Orton an upgrade over Palko, he’s an upgrade over Cassel.  This is sure to be controversial, but I think Orton can deliver a ball to gifted receivers, which the Chiefs have in Dwayne Bowe and Steve Breaston.  It may not be enough for them to beat the Steelers (#8, 3.71) this week, but it may be enough for the Chiefs to start climbing out of the cellar and back into playoff contention.

Finally the Eagles (#13, 1.59) have been struggling all year, but managed to beat the Giants (#14, 0.99) with backup quarterback Vince Young last week.  This improbable loss helped bring the Giants’ division leading record closer to what the Power Rank has expected of the G-Men all year (mediocrity) and they are now tied for the lead with Dallas (#10, 2.85).  The Power Rank has considered the Cowboys a strong team all season in spite of a slow start with a tough schedule, but as things shake out they are rising to the top and The Power Rank expects this trend to continue.

That is, of course, assuming that Cowboys fans give their thanks tomorrow to ensure that Tony Romo can stay healthy for the remainder of the season!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

NFL Rankings, Week 8

This week I am going to take a page out of the Fox News playbook.

Hey?  Where are you going?  Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to sell you Food Insurance.  I just want to focus this week’s discussion on the key battleground divisions the way news networks look at swing states while ignoring the rest of the country.  So Rams fans can breathe easy, I won’t be taking so many shots at your team this week.  Besides, you should all still be celebrating the (baseball) Cardinals victory!

Battleground Division #1 – NFC North

The NFC North is stacked with talent this year, led by the Super Bowl champion and The Power Rank leader Green Bay Packers (#1, 11.55).  Normally having a team like the Packers in a division would settle matters, but this year it does not.  The reason is that the Lions (#4,  5.17) are right on the Packers’ heels, and the Bears (#9, 3.78) are not that far behind.  That’s three top ten teams in one division.  The Lions may have a hard time keeping up their pace especially with their oft-injured quarterback having ankle problems last week, and the Bears are legendary for pulling wins out of thin air.  Just ask Dennis Green!  Even if the Packers’ high level of success continues and they lock up the division title early, the Bears and Lions will both still likely be in the playoff hunt, in fact if the playoffs started today both teams would receive a wildcard berth.  With a lot of division games left the NFC North division is going to be an interesting one to watch.

Battleground #2 – AFC North

What’s with the North being so good at football?  Although the AFC North doesn’t feature three top ten teams as the NFC North does, it comes very close.  This division is led by the Baltimore Ravens (#3, 7.80) but they are actually a half-game behind the Steelers (#11, 2.58) and only a half game ahead of the Bengals (#12, 1.69).  Now, I know nobody talks about the “top twelve” of any lists, but it is nonetheless impressive that this tight grouping all falls within the top 12 teams in The Power Rank.  It’s hardly a revelation to NFL fans that the Steelers and Ravens are going to be battling for a division title, or that the loser is likely to grab a wildcard spot.  What is unlikely is the upstart Bengals sticking their noses into the mix.  With a third solid team to contend with the Steelers and Ravens will not be able to take anything for granted this season, and the fight for a playoff berth may get ugly in this division that is known for misconduct both on and off the field.

Battleground #3 – NFC East

The NFC East doesn’t carry nearly as many strong teams as the NFC and AFC North divisions do, but with some schedule oddities the team that The Power Rank picks as the clear division favorite is lagging behind in the actual standings.  The Cowboys (#8, 3.85) should be running away with this division in light of the fact that their closest competition should be the Eagles (#18, -0.89) who are also struggling to find wins.  Instead the Giants (#24, -3.29) are leading the division with a 4-2 record.  True, it’s early in the season.  And yes, we at The Power Rank do think that as things shake out the Cowboys’ record will start to match their apparent strength.  Even so, with poor starts from teams with high expectations and surprising starts from teams with low ones, everyone is in the mix here and every game is going to be an especially heated contest.

Non-Battleground – AFC East

The Power Rank is scheduled to get some East Coast bias with our next software upgrade.  If you want to hear how this is the only division that matters this year (or any other) tune into ESPN.  We apologize for the inconvenience.  Sure, the AFC East has a lot of strength in top ten teams New England (#2, 9.77) and New York (#7, 4.36) but in spite of what some sports news anchors would have you believe, this is not news.  The addition of the up and coming Bills (#16, 0.41) is shaking some fans’ confidence in the Patriots and Jets getting their perennial playoff spots, but The Power Rank thinks otherwise.  The Bills are indeed a good team right now but good is not enough in a division that has contained two top ten (and usually top five) teams for the last few years.  This division will get down and dirty where it normally does (in the playoffs) with the teams it normally sends (the Pats and Jets).  Until then, my attention will be elsewhere.