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Playoff Darlings

These teams are ranked highly by the playoff odds, but their efficiency rankings don't quite match up.


- Most mainstream models see the New England Patriots as the clear Super Bowl favorite at the moment.  Elo, weighted DVOA and SRS have the Pats first overall, while the oddsmakers at Bovada have made them massive 4/5 favorites to reach Glendale this February.

However, as I've alluded to earlier, the Pats are seen as the third-best AFC team in the efficiency rankings.  Many will point to New England's wretched September as the reason for that, but while the Pats were the third-worst offense by EPA in the first month, they also had an above-average defense propping them up during that stretch.  It's not as if they were overcoming a Jacksonvillian hole.

It seems as though the difference might stem from New England's passing game, which the AFA model sees as much less effective than most people.  The model uses net yards per attempt (NY/A), in which Tom Brady ranks just 15th among qualified QBs.  Brady's downfield passing game has not been his strength ever since Randy Moss' departure, and the plethora of three-step passing concepts the Pats lean on prevent his NY/A from ever matching vertically based quarterbacks like Tony Romo or Andrew Luck.

However, stats that incorporate turnovers, like AY/A and ANY/A, portray Brady as a top 10 quarterback.  EPA does consider turnovers as well, and in part because of that, Brady stands as a top five quarterback in that category this year.  

In the end, New England's overall ranking is a bit depressed by some fluky poor performances in run defense (particularly from the first half of the season).  The formula for beating the Patriots remains the same as it has ever been: fluster Brady with a strong pass rush and trust the corners to cover a suspect wide receiver group, while committing plenty of resources to Rob Gronkowski.  The Vegas-influenced probabilities suggest that this is an unlikely task, but the efficiency rankings seem to suggest a more vulnerable Pats team than many might believe.


- Virtually every model, including AFA, sees the Detroit Lions as a likely wild card entrant.  The Lions need a victory at Lambeau Field, where they have a historic 23-year winless drought.  Otherwise, they will likely head to Arlington to face the Cowboys in the first round.

Nevertheless, the playoff probabilities still see Detroit as the third-likeliest NFC Super Bowl rep, behind Green Bay and Seattle.  In fairness, the latter two teams dominate the odds, with a combined 79 percent chance of reaching Super Bowl.  But expanding the odds to the entire league, the Lions are the only squad outside of the "Big 4" that wins it all in more than two percent of simulations.

The efficiency rankings do like the Lions, moving them back up to ninth after their fourth consecutive win.  Interestingly, this looks like a case where Detroit might be overrated based on both AFA's model and the Vegas probabilities, two measures that are usually on vastly different ends of the spectrum.  DVOA and SRS see the Lions as a middling team, and even the Vegas-incorporating Elo had them 11th last week.

Matthew Stafford's statistical decline has drawn much of the attention, and the questions about Detroit's offensive ceiling are probably legitimate.  The Lions will most likely play every playoff game away from Ford Field.  I'd have to do a more comprehensive study to quantify this, but it would hardly be surprising if Detroit experienced the most disparate offensive location splits of any team this season:



Another significant issue might be the defense's reliance on big plays to defend the pass.  Detroit ranks seventh in pass EPA/P, but just 18th in pass success rate, suggesting that their elite 3.4 percent interception rate probably has a lot to do with the former mark.  Astoundingly, the Lions have had just one game without a takeaway this season, tied with four other teams for the fewest in the league. 

Turnovers are highly variable, so it's probably folly to try and predict how the Lions' takeaway pattern will play out over a tiny postseason sample.  It's interesting to see the probability model favor Detroit, and one wonders if they'll remain the top favorite outside the Power 4 even if they extend their Lambeau losing streak to 24 next week.


- There's usually at least one team from the bottom third of the efficiency rankings that reaches the postseason every year, but the 27th-ranked Atlanta Falcons might set a new low if they hold serve at the Georgia Dome in the NFC South title game.  Obviously a lot of the Falcons' situation is circumstantial, given that the South champ will be just the second division champ with a losing record since the 2002 realignment.

Still, the probabilities see the Falcons as 60 percent favorites to reach the postseason, even though the Panthers have wriggled their way up to 16th in the efficiency rankings.  We shouldn't suggest that the odds like the Falcons too much—for reference, even though the Chargers only have a 38 percent shot at reaching the postseason, they are still given a four percent shot at reaching the conference championship round, compared to five percent for Atlanta.

However, the model strongly disagrees with making the Falcons 60 percent favorites.  I won't spoil the exact odds, since Brian usually reveals them over at Sports on Earth, but the gap between the two teams in the rankings tells you which team the model favors to reach the playoffs. 

The winner of the Atlanta-Carolina matchup may very well face a team starting Logan Thomas or Ryan Lindley at quarterback, which could pit two of the weakest postseason squads ever against each other.  If Arizona drops two more spots in the final rankings, we could have two bottom-10 teams facing each other on Wild Card weekend, something that will likely prompt studies wondering if this is indeed the worst playoff game in league history.



RANK TEAM LAST WK GWP Opp GWP O RANK D RANK
1 DEN 1 0.75 0.50 4 1
2 SEA 3 0.70 0.50 7 3
3 GB 4 0.66 0.48 2 14
4 MIA 2 0.65 0.50 9 6
5 NE 6 0.61 0.51 8 13
6 IND 5 0.60 0.51 5 22
7 DAL 13 0.59 0.48 3 23
8 BAL 7 0.57 0.49 11 9
9 DET 11 0.57 0.47 17 4
10 PIT 15 0.56 0.48 1 29
11 KC 8 0.56 0.51 21 8
12 CIN 14 0.55 0.51 14 12
13 NO 9 0.54 0.50 6 30
14 BUF 10 0.54 0.51 28 2
15 CLE 12 0.54 0.48 18 7
16 CAR 19 0.52 0.50 20 10
17 HOU 18 0.52 0.49 16 11
18 PHI 17 0.52 0.50 13 18
19 SF 16 0.51 0.50 26 5
20 NYG 21 0.47 0.49 15 20
21 ARI 20 0.44 0.51 25 19
22 TEN 24 0.43 0.49 23 16
23 SD 23 0.42 0.51 22 21
24 MIN 25 0.41 0.50 27 17
25 WAS 26 0.41 0.48 12 28
26 STL 22 0.41 0.48 24 15
27 ATL 28 0.39 0.49 10 32
28 CHI 27 0.39 0.52 19 31
29 NYJ 29 0.34 0.53 29 24
30 JAC 30 0.29 0.52 32 26
31 TB 31 0.27 0.50 30 25
32 OAK 32 0.26 0.53 31 27

TEAM OPASS ORUNSR% OINT% OFUM% DPASS DRUNSR% DINT% PENRATE
ATL 7.1 36 2.2 1.3 7.6 58 2.9 0.41
ARI 6.3 33 1.7 1.5 6.8 63 3.3 0.37
BAL 6.6 41 2.3 1.2 6.2 66 1.8 0.42
BUF 5.8 38 2.3 1.7 5.5 62 3.6 0.51
CHI 5.9 46 3.3 1.6 7.2 57 2.5 0.50
CAR 6.0 44 2.3 2.3 6.2 61 2.3 0.37
CIN 6.6 40 3.2 2.0 6.1 54 3.2 0.39
CLE 6.6 37 3.2 1.5 5.7 53 3.8 0.44
DAL 7.4 43 2.3 2.2 6.9 61 3.1 0.42
DEN 7.5 42 2.6 1.2 5.4 65 2.8 0.52
DET 6.3 40 2.1 1.6 5.7 64 3.5 0.49
GB 7.4 42 1.2 1.7 6.1 53 3.4 0.38
HOU 6.6 38 2.7 1.9 6.1 56 3.4 0.39
IND 7.0 46 2.6 2.3 6.6 57 2.3 0.42
JAC 4.9 36 3.4 1.3 6.7 60 1.0 0.28
KC 6.0 41 1.3 2.1 5.5 54 0.8 0.34
MIA 5.9 51 2.2 2.3 5.8 59 2.7 0.31
MIN 5.6 42 3.5 0.9 6.3 56 2.6 0.43
NE 6.6 45 1.6 1.0 6.2 58 2.9 0.51
NO 6.9 45 2.3 1.7 7.1 58 2.1 0.33
NYG 6.6 38 2.3 1.8 6.8 60 3.3 0.41
NYJ 4.9 44 3.2 2.3 6.6 60 1.2 0.47
OAK 5.1 34 2.5 1.9 6.7 58 1.8 0.45
PHI 6.7 42 3.4 2.1 6.5 61 2.0 0.46
PIT 7.4 43 1.4 1.2 7.2 61 1.8 0.44
SD 6.8 33 3.0 1.3 6.3 54 1.4 0.48
SF 5.6 41 2.2 1.9 6.0 62 3.9 0.46
SEA 6.5 49 1.4 2.2 5.5 63 2.3 0.54
STL 6.1 39 2.9 2.5 6.6 66 2.3 0.59
TB 5.7 33 3.7 2.6 6.8 62 2.1 0.49
TEN 6.4 38 3.3 1.9 6.3 57 2.4 0.50
WAS 6.7 42 3.2 2.6 7.0 63 1.2 0.55
Avg 6.4 41 2.5 1.8 6.4 59 2.5 0.44