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Last week, we took a look at a lot of the NFL's wild card morass, attempting to differentiate between the bevy of realistic contenders for just four combined postseason slots in both conferences.  Those races didn't receive any more clarity, as there are still many plausible scenarios in which three- and four-way ties bring obscure tiebreaking procedures into play.

While the AFC races need another week (or four) to ferment, the NFC postseason picture is starting to receive clarity.  There are seven realistic contenders for five postseason slots—this excludes the NFC South, which itself managed to mercifully expunge Carolina and Tampa Bay from serious postseason consideration. 

Our deeper dives this week will focus on a few of the teams in these races, highlighting a quartet of teams whose stock seemed to shift most drastically during Week 13.


Picking Up Steam

These two won their most difficult remaining game on Sunday, putting them in prime position for December.


- "Game of the Week" labels often lead to drastic overreactions, as pundits feel the need to make sweeping conclusions to justify all the pregame hullabaloo.  However, even disregarding Sunday's result, there is a very real possibility that the Green Bay Packers are the league's best team.  AFA ranks the Packers third, but with a season-high 0.66 Gross Winning Percentage (GWP), Green Bay is closing the gap on top-two fixtures Denver and Miami.

Since winning the Super Bowl in 2010, the Packers have been a wholly imbalanced team, with a lack of defensive speed often forcing the burden onto Aaron Rodgers.  Based on Pro-Football-Reference's Simple Rating System (SRS), the Packers have only had one season in which their defense has outstripped their offensive productivity—not coincidentally, in 2010.

That's not going to happen this year, and every metric will suggest that the Packers are powered by an elite offense.  However, some systems are at odds over how effective Green Bay's defense truly is.  AFA ranks the Packers' D 13th overall, including 10th in pass Expected Points Added (EPA) per play and 31st in rushing EPA/P.  That latter number obviously jumps out, as the run defense would seemingly be Green Bay's defensive Achilles' heel:



That graphic may appear slightly misleading.  Although Green Bay's run defense has evened out over the past five weeks, they have posted an above-average rushing EPA/P just once in that stretch, which came in Week 10 against Chicago.

However, that five-game point of demarcation is not simply a round arbitrary one, for that Bears game was when Dom Capers undertook the surprising shift of Clay Matthews to inside linebacker.  In that stretch, the Packers' surface run D stats have improved dramatically, as Green Bay has allowed just 3.67 yards per rushing attempt in that span, 12th-best in the league and over a yard better than their 4.78 average over the first nine weeks.

It's strange that the advanced metrics don't seem to align with that seemingly massive improvement.  While yards per carry is flawed, it's strange that the EPA/P and success rate stats would barely have budged.  Since Week 10, the Packers have allowed an average of 0.25 rushing touchdowns and 2.25 carries of 10+ yards per game, well below their average of 1.13 scores and 3.63 "big gains" per game through the first nine weeks.  The lack of overall improvement may stem from critical short-yardage situations—on 3rd- and 4th-and-3 or less since Week 10, Packers opponents have turned 83.3 percent of rushes into first downs, as opposed to 66.7 percent over the first nine weeks.  But there have only been six such rushing plays in the past five games, so a small-sample size caveat is in order.

Truthfully, though, nothing really matters so long as Aaron Rodgers continues piling up a historically successful season.  The Patriots' excellent secondary payed its worst game of the season since Week 4 against Rodgers (based on both EPA and SRS), as he was able to abuse younger nickel and dime backs with secondary targets like Davante Adams and Richard Rodgers.  The graphic below illustrates how Rodgers has not only been the best QB in 2014, but how his season is on pace to match legendary campaigns like his own 2011 season, 2013 Peyton Manning and 2007 Tom Brady:



Like those previous three seasons, Rodgers looks like the leading MVP candidate at this point.  MVP voters will probably use Rodgers' head-to-head victory over Brady as justification for that vote, and while that's flawed logic, it's hard to make an argument against Rodgers based on the objective big picture.

It will be interesting to see how the playoff odds update, but it appears Green Bay should have the inside track to the No. 1 seed in the NFC.  The Packers hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Philly but lose it to Seattle, though the Seahawks face a brutal closing stretch.  The Lions could also steal the division by winning out, which would include a Week 17 win at Lambeau.  We'll get to the Cardinals later, but in spite of these scenarios, it is extremely difficult to envision the Packers hitting the road during the conference playoffs.


- If the Packers have been a locomotive picking up steam, the New Orleans Saints are more like a dilapidated horse-and-buggy carriage wheezing along a rocky path.  Still, while the 2014 NFC South will always be a cherished source of schadenfreude, the Saints at least possess the elements of a scary playoff team, unlike the rest of their woeful division.

New Orleans ranks 13th this week, and has hung around the top 10-15 slots all season.  The reason for that partially stems from AFA's de-emphasis of turnovers—while the Saints rank 21st in giveaways per game, the offense also ranks third in EPA/P and first in success rate, suggesting an elite per-play unit.

Drew Brees has declined a bit from his heyday, but despite whispers about the Saints moving on, the 35-year-old still ranks third in EPA/P and sixth in adjusted yards per attempt.  The latter stat illustrates how some of Brees' turnover issues are slightly overblown.  Though he has had high-profile game-changing mistakes against the Niners, Lions and Ravens, Brees' 106 INT%+ suggests he is still above-average in terms of taking care of the ball.

However, unlike in recent seasons, the Saints can complement their spread sets with an actual power-running game.  Mark Ingram has shed the curse of recent Heisman Trophy winners to turn around a moribund career.  Among backs with at least 100 carries, Ingram ranks sixth in EPA/P, as he has been one of the best high-usage backs in the league (though as a side note, Le'Veon Bell has absolutely blown the NFL away and has probably taken belt for best all-around running back): 



In terms of career path, Ingram's trajectory is eerily reminiscent of Cedric Benson.  Like Ingram, Benson was a former first-rounder who floundered his first three years in the league, never accruing more than 674 rushing yards in a season (Ingram never had more than 602 until this year).  Based on PFR's Approximate Value metric, the former fourth overall pick ranked 46th among all running backs in total value between 2005-07.  Benson accrued 12 total AV in that span; Ingram accrued 11 AV over his first three years.

Whereas a change of scenery jumpstarted Benson's career, Ingram has been the beneficiary of injuries and the Saints' general salary-cap mismanagement.  Benson posted 1,251 rushing yards on 4.2 yards per attempt over 13 games during his breakout 2009 campaign in Cincinnati; Ingram is on pace for 1,107 yards on 4.5 yards per attempt over 13 games this year.

Ingram isn't the only young breakout on the Saints' offense, as Kenny Stills has also experienced a huge sophomore year jump.  Stills leads New Orleans in receiving yards, yards per receptions and catch percentage, no small feat when surrounded by Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and (for a while) Brandin Cooks.  Stills is on pace for 942 receiving yards on 15.7 yards per catch; even in the pass-happy era since 2000, only one second-year receiver per year typically reaches those benchmarks:



That's an extremely impressive list, as most of the future busts were derailed by injuries (Johnny Knox, Cecil Shorts) or off-field issues (David Boston, Koren Robinson).  Quincy Morgan is the only player who truly regressed into irrelevance on his own accord, though the jury is still out on Michael Floyd.

The Saints have far too many defensive holes to pull out anything beyond a mild Wild Card round upset at the Superdome.  But when Brees and his young brigade of weapons do go down, there should at least be fireworks.

Losing Ground

A look at two teams whose early-season luck may be running out.


- Probably the most controversial team in these rankings all year has been the Arizona Cardinals.  Despite holding at least a share of the top seed in the NFC every week this season (!), the Cards have never risen into the upper half of AFA's rankings.  Now having lost two straight, Arizona's once impregnable hold on a playoff spot suddenly appears shaky.

In fairness, AFA hasn't been totally prescient about the Cardinals, who have suffered from poor injury luck.  But while many will put the blame on Drew Stanton for Arizona's recent offensive woes, it's interesting to see that the Cards' passing game has been perfectly fine on a per-play basis.  Since Carson Palmer went down with a torn ACL, Arizona ranks sixth in the NFL in net yards per pass attempt (NY/A), the metric this GWP model uses to measure passing efficiency.

That's partially a byproduct of Bruce Arians' big-play passing system, however, as Stanton also has five turnovers in the last three games, leading to a meager 6.0 adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A) mark in that span.  For reference, that would have him tied for 31st with Josh McCown if extrapolated to the entire season.  Using EPA, we can see that Stanton has been decidedly below average the past two weeks, both Arizona losses:



However, it would also be folly to suggest that the quarterback change is the only reason for Arizona's post-Palmer struggles.  It's quite possibly the result of a small sample size, but over the past two games, the Cardinals' pass defense has put up its worst stretch since early in the season:



There are a few ways we can read this.  Besides the small sample size caveat, the one truly heinous performance was essentially the result of Patrick Peterson getting toasted by Julio Jones.  While one would expect better from Peterson, losing a one-on-one against Jones is hardly reason for long-term concern.

On the other hand, Seattle is not even in the top half of the league in terms of pass EPA/P, and both games were on the road, continuing a troubling trend for the Cards.  Arizona is conceding 7.2 yards per attempt on the road, compared to just 6.3 at home.  The former mark would rank 23rd in the league, while the latter would rank tied for ninth.

Every team has splits of some sort, but with Tyrann Mathieu likely to miss most of the regular season with a broken thumb, Arizona is also missing its most versatile playmaker on the back end.  In addition, the likes of Andre Ellington, Larry Fitzgerald and Jared Veldheer are all playing through nagging injuries, potentially robbing the offense of arguably its three best players. 

Regardless of how their season finishes, it will always be curious why Arizona didn't rank higher over the first three months of the season.  However, with the fifth-toughest remaining schedule, according to Football Outsiders, the Cards' record may soon bear a closer resemblance to their middling ranking.


- At a casual glance, the Pittsburgh Steelers look like the most inscrutable team of the 2014 season.  The Steelers have struggled and/or lost to also-rans like the Bucs, Jaguars and Jets, while also demolishing ostensible contenders like the Colts and Ravens.  Fittingly, Pittsburgh sits in the six-team 7-5 mosh pit in the AFC.

After a historic 12-touchdown run over two games, Ben Roethlisberger has sunk back to more mortal levels.  However, Big Ben has regressed beyond the mean, as his 6.32 AY/A average over the past three games is well below his career average of 7.7, or the 7.6 mark he posted through the first seven weeks, before the whole touchdown madness began.

Moving forward, it seems reasonable to expect Roethlisberger to return back to the happy medium he enjoyed the first two months of the year.  Pittsburgh faces a slightly difficult schedule for pass defense, with three games against the fourth-ranked KC pass D (based on EPA/P) and the 11th-ranked Cincy D (twice) remaining in the final month.  However, the Chiefs game is at Heinz Field, while Roethlisberger will also get to feast on Atlanta's 29th-ranked pass defense.

The real issue is the defense, where legendary coordinator Dick LeBeau has been hamstrung by a combination of age and poor depth and overall athleticism.  The quartet of Brett Keisel, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and James Harrison have occupied or currently hold crucial roles on the Pittsburgh defense this year.  That's a combined age of 139 on the field (#advancedstats).  This has all manifested itself into some inconsistent (and increasingly poor) results:



Keisel is now out for the year, while Taylor just returned last week from a broken forearm that sidelined him since Week 3.  The problem is that the youth brigade has forced those veterans into outsized roles.  Uber-athletic linebackers Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones have been plagued by injuries.  Free-agent signings Mike Mitchell and Cam Thomas have been disappointments.  Worst of all, Cortez Allen has played his way into the deepest depths of Mike Tomlin's doghouse, as the once-promising corner hasn't played a snap since Week 8.

It's really quite difficult for a defense to shackle an offense gifted with Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown as a core trio.  Bell and Brown have arguably been the best running back and wide receiver in the league this year, as both lead their respective positions in EPA.  The Steelers average 6.0 yards per play, fifth-best in the league.  Recent NFL history suggests that less than one team per year misses the postseason averaging that many yards per play:



I put the cut-off point at 2000, but in actuality, no team between 1987-2001 missed the postseason with that Y/P average.  The Steelers are in serious jeopardy of joining that list, however, based on their inability to string together a consistent month the entire season.


Pooch Punts

Checking out a couple of imbalanced teams.


- Despite losing nearly every high-profile game this season, the Indianapolis Colts remain the second-highest ranked AFC team, and fourth overall in the rankings.  There's a big drop-off in GWP from the top three, but the Colts sit tied with the Seahawks with a 0.61 GWP.

The Colts arguably possess the most imbalanced offense in the league, as Indy ranks third in passing EPA/P and 20th in rushing EPA/P.  However, that ranking is buoyed by Ahmad Bradshaw's per-touch explosiveness.  With Bradshaw out for the season with a broken ankle, Trent Richardson and Daniel "Boom" Herron have combined for -15.2 total EPA, a number that would easily be the worst in the league if combined into a single defective running back.

Fortunately for the Colts, Andrew Luck's 7.6 net yards per pass attempt gives them the second-ranked passing game by AFA's efficiency standards.  It's virtually impossible to be bad with that much of a boost, as just two teams in the last 30 seasons have missed the playoffs with that NY/A:



Still, this looks like a familiar formula for the Colts, who have struggled to provide Luck with sufficient help in any other unit.  If Vontae Davis' concussion lingers, it is very possible that every Indy unit besides quarterback, wide receiver and tight end is significantly below average.  Against all-around juggernauts like the Patriots and Broncos, that simply won't cut it.


- Quietly, the Buffalo Bills have entered AFA's top 10 after consecutive wins over the Jets and Browns.  That's biased by their stingy defense, which the model ranks as the league's second-best, as the 26th-ranked offense places a pretty firm ceiling on the Bills' potential.

If Buffalo misses the playoffs, it will most likely be due to their deathly schedule, which includes a terrifying troika of games against Denver, New England and Green Bay.  It's hard to envision the Bills finishing with more than eight wins by season's end, but that would still be their first non-losing season since 2004.

However, it's interesting to see the upper-third rankings populated by teams with poor offenses but excellent defenses.  The Bills, Niners, and Chiefs all have defenses ranked eighth or better carrying offenses ranked 18th or worse.  It might seem strange that all three of those teams are in the top 10, but other metrics seem to agree with AFA.  FO has the entire trio at 12th or better in DVOA, while PFR has them all 14th are better in SRS.  Conversely, more conventional power rankings like ESPN and CBS have all three outside the top 10.

Obviously the goal of these metrics is not to blindly agree with the mainstream public.  However, I wonder if advanced stats should weigh defense less in their models.  This is simply spitballing, and there's the obvious question of where one would draw the line.  Still, while offense already has more to do with winning than any other unit, it's fair to wonder if the additional rule changes have tilted the scales even further.


Here are the updated team efficiency rankings after 11 weeks.  As always, observations, questions and snide remarks are welcome in the comments section.


RANK TEAM LAST WK GWP Opp GWP O RANK D RANK
1 DEN 1 0.73 0.52 4 1
2 MIA 2 0.68 0.51 11 3
3 GB 3 0.66 0.50 2 13
4 IND 4 0.61 0.50 1 23
5 SEA 5 0.61 0.50 8 6
6 NE 6 0.58 0.53 7 16
7 DET 14 0.57 0.50 18 5
8 KC 8 0.57 0.54 23 8
9 BUF 11 0.56 0.51 26 2
10 SF 7 0.56 0.51 25 4
11 CLE 10 0.55 0.45 12 7
12 PHI 16 0.55 0.49 13 11
13 NO 12 0.55 0.49 3 31
14 DAL 9 0.54 0.48 6 25
15 BAL 13 0.53 0.48 9 17
16 CIN 15 0.51 0.48 17 9
17 PIT 17 0.51 0.48 5 29
18 HOU 21 0.49 0.49 14 24
19 ARI 19 0.47 0.49 21 14
20 WAS 18 0.46 0.48 10 26
21 CAR 24 0.46 0.50 24 15
22 SD 22 0.46 0.49 16 19
23 TEN 20 0.45 0.51 20 21
24 NYG 25 0.44 0.51 22 27
25 CHI 23 0.43 0.51 15 30
26 STL 29 0.41 0.50 27 12
27 MIN 26 0.39 0.50 30 10
28 NYJ 27 0.38 0.55 29 18
29 JAC 28 0.35 0.53 31 22
30 ATL 30 0.34 0.46 19 32
31 TB 32 0.32 0.46 28 20
32 OAK 31 0.27 0.53 32 28

TEAM OPASS ORUNSR% OINT% OFUM% DPASS DRUNSR% DINT% PENRATE
ATL 6.7 35 2.3 1.4 7.6 58 3.2 0.45
ARI 6.7 33 1.9 1.5 6.7 64 3.6 0.39
BAL 6.8 42 2.0 1.3 6.8 65 1.8 0.43
BUF 5.9 38 1.9 1.8 5.4 63 3.5 0.49
CHI 6.1 46 3.1 1.8 7.2 59 2.6 0.48
CAR 5.9 42 2.6 1.9 6.6 61 2.2 0.38
CIN 6.6 39 3.4 1.4 5.9 52 2.6 0.39
CLE 7.1 38 2.5 1.8 5.8 55 3.8 0.41
DAL 7.2 44 2.7 2.4 7.0 61 2.8 0.37
DEN 7.4 41 1.9 1.2 5.3 67 2.5 0.53
DET 6.3 41 2.2 1.5 5.9 64 3.3 0.47
GB 7.7 42 1.0 1.7 6.1 51 3.5 0.38
HOU 6.9 38 2.8 1.9 6.7 55 3.2 0.36
IND 7.6 45 2.2 2.3 6.6 55 2.1 0.43
JAC 5.2 35 3.8 1.5 6.6 60 1.2 0.27
KC 5.8 42 1.4 2.5 5.5 53 1.0 0.29
MIA 5.7 52 2.1 2.1 5.3 61 2.6 0.31
MIN 5.1 41 3.3 0.7 6.1 56 2.8 0.43
NE 6.7 45 1.3 1.1 6.4 55 2.7 0.54
NO 7.2 46 2.2 1.5 7.3 59 1.9 0.36
NYG 6.3 39 2.7 2.1 7.1 60 3.4 0.33
NYJ 4.6 48 3.4 2.3 6.6 62 1.0 0.52
OAK 5.1 34 3.2 2.2 6.9 57 1.3 0.44
PHI 6.8 42 3.3 1.9 6.3 61 2.2 0.41
PIT 7.1 43 1.7 1.4 7.1 60 2.1 0.48
SD 7.1 33 2.4 1.4 6.3 53 1.5 0.50
SF 6.0 40 2.1 2.0 5.8 63 3.9 0.43
SEA 6.3 49 1.5 2.4 5.9 62 2.3 0.54
STL 5.9 38 3.1 2.2 6.6 64 2.4 0.57
TB 6.2 33 3.6 2.5 6.7 60 2.7 0.54
TEN 6.6 38 3.7 1.9 6.6 56 2.7 0.52
WAS 6.9 42 3.1 2.3 7.1 64 1.3 0.56
Avg 6.4 41 2.5 1.8 6.4 59 2.5 0.44