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Halfway through the seasons, the standings should seemingly provide us with at least semi-reliable information.  Sure, a team's record over seven to eight games is still prone to some misleading variance, but with almost half the season gone, we might be tempted to suggest that any corrections going forward will be minor.

Of course, that is not the case, and in some instances, this model suggests some very jarring changes are in store for the second half.  While this model is not perfect in its predictive power, it was ahead of the curve on a few second-half changes that occurred in 2013.  For instance, at this time last season, the model was optimistic on the 3-5 Eagles and pessimistic on the 8-0 Chiefs.  Philly would lose just one game the rest of the regular season, while Kansas City effectively backed into the postseason on the strength of their first half before flaming out in a historic collapse.
In trying to identify a similar trend for 2014, we need to look only to the NFC West, where a team experiencing its worst on- and off-field turmoil in years remains in the top 10, while one of the season's feel-good stories remains mired near the bottom.  This model is not omniscient, so should these unusual rankings hold much weight?


The Wild West

Should we believe what the standings tell us in the NFC West?


- Buying stock in the defending champions is usually a wise idea, but the Seattle Seahawks are currently testing that theory.  Though the Super Bowl hangover is usually associated with the losing team, the 4-3 Seahawks are clearly no longer the same juggernaut that ravaged the league last season.

We can list some obvious reasons for Seattle's regression.  When the bill came due for Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Michael Bennett, valuable starters and role players like Golden Tate, Chris Clemons, Red Bryant, Walter Thurmond and Clinton McDonald no longer fit within their salary cap constraints.  That has manifested itself in deleterious ways—not only is the drop-off larger when injuries force the likes of Ricardo Lockette and O'Brien Schofield into significant roles, but returning starters like Cliff Avril and Bennett have suffered under increased workloads, as the Seahawks can no longer afford to liberally rotate in their substitutes.

The Seahawks have also seen cracks in their locker room foundation, with well-documented off-field issues emerging over the past week.  This site isn't really the forum for that discussion, so we'll leave that alone.  I'll say this, though—these shady rumors only emerge in times of losing.  When Percy Harvin allegedly body slammed Tate before the Super Bowl last year, why didn't the Seahawks collapse in that game amid supposedly incurable internal strife?

Even with these woes, the Seahawks still sit seventh overall in these rankings.  That might be a bit misleading, as wins over the increasingly dominant Broncos and fourth-ranked Packers have boosted an otherwise mediocre season.  Nevertheless, that still leaves Seattle as the top-ranked team in an extremely competitive division.

In examining evidence for support, we can start with the Seahawks' running game, which remains fourth in success rate despite a few quiet weeks from Marshawn Lynch.  Having Russell Wilson at quarterback obviously helps that.  According to Football Outsiders' DYAR metric, Wilson has produced roughly three times more rushing value than any other quarterback this season.  This is nothing new, for Wilson has accrued the most 100-yard rushing games of any quarterback over the past five seasons.

However, everything else indicates that the Seahawks are what their record implies—a slightly above-average team.  Wilson himself has generated more polarizing opinions about his development as a passer, but the numbers suggest that he has essentially been the same player he was in 2013.  The only exceptions are an uptick in Win Probability Added (WPA) and a steep decline in deep-ball attempts:



That would be perfectly fine, except that the Seahawks' defense has regressed significantly.  After finishing first in defensive Expected Points added per play (EPA/P) and total WPA last year, Seattle now ranks 14th and 22nd in those two categories, respectively.  Much of the discourse on this year's team surrounds Wilson, but in reality, it is the defense that has provided him with much less margin for error.

The much-ballyhooed Legion of Boom has particularly taken a big step back.  Injuries have created rotating doors at right and slot cornerback, leading to a 46.9 percent pass defense success rate that ranks fourth-worst in the league, one slot behind Oakland (!).  Seattle's pass defense has played an excellent game against Green Bay, three solid quarters against Denver and one terrific game against a Carolina team with arguably the worst wide receiver corps in the league.  Apart from that, ugliness:



The trio of Byron Maxwell, Jeremy Lane and Tharold Simon will most likely be healthy at the same time later this season, so the Seahawks should stop resembling a pass defense that employs Tarell Brown and Chimdi Chekwa.  The Seahawks may very well be a borderline top-10 pass defense from this week on, but the total pass-rushing dearth likely places a glass ceiling on the defense's overall upside.

The offensive personnel isn't really going to change much, meaning that the Seahawks are likely in the same position as the archrival 49ers.  Both teams possess too much high-end talent to totally collapse, but they have also overloaded their growing young quarterbacks and suffered through defensive depth issues, leaving them vulnerable to missing the playoffs with a few bad breaks.


- With the Seahawks and Niners in flux, the Arizona Cardinals would seemingly be perched in the penthouse this season.  The Cards are already two games up on both teams in the loss column, and with Carson Palmer back at full health, it would seem as though Arizona has already weathered the worst part of their season.

However, these rankings have Arizona at just 25th overall, despite their shiny 6-1 record.  Though no other advanced metric is nearly as pessimistic on the Cardinals as AFA, there seems to be a consensus that the Cardinals' record might be misleading.  Entering Week 8, Football Outsiders had Arizona just 15th overall in DVOA.  FiveThirtyEight's Elo ratings disagreed, ranking the Cardinals eighth, though unlike this model or DVOA, Elo does take last season into account. 

Those ratings were pre-Week 8, so we'll see how they update later this week.  Following their win over the Eagles, the Cardinals' Pythagorean win expectancy still sits at just 4.2, meaning their point differential suggests that their 6-1 record is quite fortunate.  But even that might be misleading, for just two of Arizona's six wins have been by seven points or less, and their point differential is weighed down by a 41-20 loss at Denver.  Considering that the Cardinals played most of that game with extremely raw rookie quarterback Logan Thomas, it almost seems fair to exclude that.

These all-encompassing attempts to rank the Cardinals only serve to confound.  Breaking things down by the table stats below, we see that Arizona possesses a league-average passing offense, the second-worst run offense by success rate, a top 10 run defense and bottom 10 passing defense.  This hardly seems like the formula for a 6-1 team.

There is some evidence to support Arizona.  That low pass defense ranking seems confusing, and in reality, the Cardinals' pass defense has been mostly excellent.  the Cardinals possess the league's most versatile safety corps, while the cornerback trio of Patrick Peterson, Antonio Cromartie and Jerraud Powers has provided reliable coverage behind Arizona's pressure schemes.  In reality, two outliers against San Francisco and Denver are acting as anchors to drag the numbers down:



It is also probably misleading to label Arizona's passing game as league-average.  Left for dead after a 25-game debacle of a stint with the Raiders, Palmer's late-career revival under Bruce Arians has continued into 2014.  The 34-year-old ranks ninth in EPA/P and fourth in adjusted yards per attempt.  Most shockingly, the once turnover-happy Palmer has posted a miniscule 0.6 percent interception rate this season, lowest in the league among quarterbacks with at least four starts.

Of course, that last number might actually be ominous, as Arizona is benefiting from every conceivable turnover advantage.  The Cardinals rank fourth in defensive interception rate and, of course, first in offensive interception rate.  Additionally, the Cardinals have the fifth-highest fumble recovery percentage in the league.  These are all statistically fluky trends prone to variation, and based on success rate, AFA actually sees the Cardinals and Jaguars as similar teams:



Still, no amount of regression is going to take away the six wins the Cards have already banked. Moreover, with wonderfully fearless defensive coordinator Tood Bowles at the helm, Arizona's relentless pressure scheme seems more conducive to maintaining an unusually high turnover rate.  A year after ranking sixth in takeaways per game, the Cardinals now rank third.

It's hard to find much evidence that screams regression for Arizona, even if you want to assume that they won't enjoy such fortuitous turnover luck moving forward.  The overall ranking should improve if the pass defense and Palmer continue to pull the overall numbers up, as the outliers still hold a lot of weight in just a seven-game sample.  At this point, I have to disagree with the model's conception of the NFC West, and I'd be interested to hear your arguments in the comments.

Biggest Movers

A pair of AFC Wild Card contenders were the biggest movers from Week 7.


- The Buffalo Bills rose seven spots in the rankings and have cracked the top half for the first time this season.  At 5-3, the Bills figure to stay in the thick of the playoff race late into the season for the first time since 2004, when a Week 17 loss to the Steelers' backups wrecked their postseason hopes.

Though Buffalo has had issues drafting quarterbacks since Jim Kelly's retirement, the Bills have hit on a steady stream of defensive draft picks in recent seasons.  Coupled with smart value free-agent signings like Jerry Hughes and Corey Graham, Buffalo has constructed one of the league's most well-rounded defenses.  At third overall in the efficiency rankings, the Bills defense ranks third against the run and fifth against the pass, the only team besides the Broncos and Dolphins to crack the top 10 of both categories.

A 4.0 interception rate, second-highest in the league, has certainly aided the defense.  The turnovers might dry up, since not every team employs Geno Smith and Michael Vick at quarterback.  Even so, the Bills have been remarkably consistent in their dominance from week to week, apart from a couple blips against the most elite offenses:



Those woes against San Diego and New England might be instructive, as both teams possess terrific tight ends (Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Gates) and big-bodied outside receivers (Malcolm Floyd, Brandon LaFell) who took advantage of the Bills' lack of size in the secondary.  But the Bills did contain a similarly constructed team in the Bears, so pinpointing that as a clear weakness might be too far a jump.

Buffalo's viability as a playoff contender will come down to its offense, which is hardly a secure proposition.  With both Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller out for the foreseeable future, it is hard to pinpoint what exactly this offense does well.  Sammy Watkins has emerged as the leading candidate for offensive rookie of the year, but that alone is hardly sufficient to keep the Bills offense afloat, as their 27th-ranked overall offensive efficiency mark illustrates.

With offense, particularly passing offense, increasingly emphasized as a crucial ingredient of success, it is becoming more difficult to find teams like the Bills from the recent past who reached the playoffs.  On the season, Kyle Orton has posted a net yards per attempt (NY/A) mark of 6.5, while the running game has averaged 3.8 yards per attempt.  Since 2004, when an increased emphasis on illegal contact led to offensive spikes, here are the teams that have made the postseason with that offensive combination, per Pro-Football-Reference:



This is not exactly a promising lot.  Most of the teams who fit that criteria were concentrated on the early end of the timeline, and, on average, the nine teams outperformed their Pythagorean win expectancy by 1.1 wins.  Every squad besides the 2007 Seahawks overachieved based on Pythagorean metrics.  Essentially, to make the playoffs with this combination, you need luck, either through in-game circumstances (2012 Colts, 2010 Falcons) or through poor division competition (2010 Seahawks).

The Bills might need to fall into the former circumstance.  The Patriots appear likely to win the AFC East—Football Outsiders estimates New England's chances of winning the division at 55.5 percent—and FO also rates Buffalo's remaining schedule as the sixth-hardest in the league.  The Bills were fortunate to escape last Sunday over the Vikings, and Buffalo may need more late-game magic to emerge from a crowded field of AFC wild card contenders, even with their elite defense.


- One of Buffalo's primary competitors could be the San Diego Chargers, who fell six spots after their second loss in four days.  However, though these rankings portray the Chargers as a mediocre team, there are reasons to believe in a turnaround.

Most obviously, these rankings do not account for injuries, or the prospect that a team will eventually get injured starters back.  I'm working on a injury compilation project with FO, and though the Adjusted Games Lost metric is not out yet, I can say with confidence that the Chargers will be near the top of those rankings.  At some point, the likes of Melvin Ingram, Ryan Mathews, Mant'i Teo, Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers will return, restoring much needed stability to the lineup.

You'll notice that most of those players are defenders, and indeed, San Diego has suffered on that side of the ball.  While the Chargers have been consistent on a per-play basis, conceding roughly 5.5 yards per play over the first and second month, they hemorrhaged a rash of big scoring plays.  Touchdowns against the Chargers over the past month have gone for an average of 18.4 yards per play, eighth-highest in the league.  Over the first month, that mark was 11.1 yards, 11th-lowest in the league.

Assuming reasonable defensive health the rest of the season, it seems extremely unlikely that the Chargers will play their way out of the postseason. San Diego is essentially the anti-Buffalo, in that it is extremely difficult to fathom the Chargers missing the postseason with this high a level of quarterback play.  Other than Peyton Manning, one could make a legitimate argument that Philip Rivers has been the best quarterback in the league over the past two seasons:



This year, Rivers ranks second in EPA/P, seventh in success rate, fourth in WPA/G and third in adjusted yards per attempt.  In short, despite the league's worst running game and third-worst run defense by success rate, Rivers' brilliance can keep the Chargers above water during the regular season (perhaps all by itself). 

At the moment, Rivers' ANY/A index is 125, meaning that his adjusted net yards per attempt mark of 8.8 is 25 percent better than league average.  Of quarterbacks to post that ANY/A+ and start all 16 games, none have ever missed the playoffs.  In fact, according to Pro-Football-Reference, just three of those quarterbacks have even led their team to 10 or fewer wins:



The Broncos are probably too far away to catch, as the Chargers are already two games back in the loss column and have a loss in hand against Denver.  But in a relatively mediocre AFC, it would be difficult to envision the Chargers winning anything less than 10 or 11 games, barring a persistence of the injury bug.

Pooch Punts

- Along with the Cardinals, the Philadelphia Eagles are the team that has elicited most confusion from readers over the past two weeks.  The Eagles were on the verge of rising out of the 20s, but a loss to Arizona sent them back down to 23rd (though still ahead of the NFC West leaders).

Quite frankly, the model sees very little that is exciting about the Eagles.  They are essentially league-average in nearly every category so far, though the running game is likely going to speed past that as the offensive line returns to health. 

Still, if nothing else improves, it would be difficult to envision the Eagles winning the NFC East, with a non-playoff season a distinct possibility.  Though the league's best ground game powered Philly last season, they also possessed the fifth-ranked passing game by EPA/P, as well as the sixth-ranked run defense by that metric. 

The Eagles have essentially been kept afloat by special teams and defensive touchdowns, as their seven return TDs equal the rest of the league's combined total.  That's hardly a sustainable formula, of course, and with Philly ranking last in turnovers per drive, the offense is often squandering the solid field position generated by the return game.  Without improved play from Nick Foles or a greater volume of defensive turnovers, the Eagles' record will likely experience an ongoing correction.


- The New Orleans Saints may be a disappointing 3-4, but with the league's second highest rushing offense success rate, there is reason to believe a turnaround is already underway.  No longer solely reliant on Drew Brees, the offense is now capable of controlling games, if utilized correctly.

Unfortunately, the Saints are running the ball on just 46.6 percent of their first down plays.  Most of those teams with that kind of imbalance are ones playing from behind frequently, like Oakland, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, etc.  New Orleans is not in that situation, though, and given that every one of their running backs is producing at or near a career-best level, it is clear the running game is being underutilized:



That number has remained constant in the red zone, where the Saints are running on 46.7 percent of their plays, which is roughly a league-average percentage.  However, as an article I'll post soon will likely show, it is far more profitable to run the ball in that constricted area of the field, particularly near the goal line. 

Ultimately, New Orleans would be wise to take a page out of the Dallas Cowboys' playbook and feed their backs to take pressure of an aging quarterback.  Dallas' commitment to the run game has yielded the fourth-ranked offense by efficiency, and though the Saints do not have a DeMarco Murray in their backfield, the aforementioned quartet would seem capable of helping New Orleans overcome some of the late-game collapses that have plagued them in 2014.


- If this model did not diminish the impact of turnovers, the New York Jets would likely have the worst offense by efficiency.  The Jets rank last in passing efficiency, and rank in the bottom three for EPA/P, WPA and success rate.  With a league-worst minus-1.9 turnover margin per game, the Jets are the epitome of self-mutilation.

However, it is also worth noting that the Jets have faced one of the league's most difficult schedules for their offense.  Over the past five weeks, New York has not faced a pass defense outside of the top 12 in pass defense.  That stretch has included games against three of the top five pass defenses in efficiency—Denver, Detroit and Buffalo.

Make no mistake, the Jets have a horrendous quarterback situation that will likely be rectified in the draft next spring.  However, as the schedule softens, there is reason to believe that New York could pile up a few wins in the season's second half, assuming they don't try to go in the tank for Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston.


Here are the updated team efficiency rankings after eight 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 0.70 0.51 1 1
2 MIA 2 0.62 0.49 14 2
3 IND 3 0.58 0.52 3 21
4 GB 4 0.57 0.51 7 13
5 CIN 12 0.57 0.51 8 12
6 KC 8 0.57 0.54 21 6
7 SEA 5 0.56 0.54 10 16
8 DAL 6 0.56 0.50 4 24
9 WAS 10 0.56 0.49 5 8
10 BAL 9 0.55 0.49 12 10
11 DET 7 0.54 0.47 18 4
12 SF 11 0.54 0.52 17 7
13 CLE 14 0.53 0.48 9 11
14 NO 15 0.53 0.47 2 29
15 NE 16 0.52 0.49 11 9
16 BUF 23 0.51 0.49 27 3
17 CAR 19 0.51 0.51 19 15
18 PIT 22 0.51 0.49 6 25
19 SD 13 0.50 0.49 15 20
20 TEN 20 0.49 0.53 25 17
21 CHI 17 0.48 0.50 13 27
22 HOU 18 0.48 0.50 16 26
23 PHI 21 0.47 0.49 23 14
24 NYG 25 0.46 0.49 24 22
25 ARI 26 0.44 0.51 26 23
26 JAC 27 0.43 0.53 32 18
27 MIN 29 0.41 0.47 31 5
28 NYJ 24 0.41 0.52 29 19
29 STL 28 0.39 0.49 22 30
30 ATL 31 0.37 0.48 20 32
31 OAK 30 0.34 0.50 28 31
32 TB 32 0.32 0.47 30 28

TEAM OPASS ORUNSR% OINT% OFUM% DPASS DRUNSR% DINT% PENRATE
ATL 6.9 36 2.9 1.7 8.0 57 1.8 0.48
ARI 6.4 33 0.4 1.6 7.2 63 3.5 0.43
BAL 6.9 42 2.5 1.2 6.4 64 1.7 0.35
BUF 6.2 36 2.2 2.1 5.7 64 4.0 0.55
CHI 6.3 49 2.7 2.3 7.3 57 3.0 0.42
CAR 6.3 41 1.4 2.2 6.6 59 2.9 0.44
CIN 7.2 40 1.8 1.3 5.9 46 3.0 0.39
CLE 7.1 39 0.9 1.6 6.2 54 3.0 0.42
DAL 7.2 46 2.4 2.9 7.1 60 3.1 0.35
DEN 8.0 41 1.2 1.6 5.4 66 2.4 0.53
DET 6.4 41 2.3 1.6 5.7 62 3.2 0.44
GB 7.1 42 1.6 1.5 6.1 49 3.6 0.38
HOU 7.0 38 3.1 2.3 6.7 52 2.3 0.40
IND 7.4 44 2.6 1.4 6.7 59 2.1 0.45
JAC 5.2 39 4.5 1.3 6.6 63 1.0 0.26
KC 6.2 42 1.9 1.8 5.7 56 1.9 0.35
MIA 5.7 53 2.4 2.0 5.3 63 2.3 0.33
MIN 5.1 41 4.1 0.7 6.0 60 2.7 0.46
NE 6.7 42 0.7 1.5 5.9 50 3.0 0.60
NO 7.2 51 2.4 1.2 7.6 63 2.0 0.36
NYG 6.3 40 2.2 2.3 7.5 69 4.8 0.36
NYJ 4.6 48 3.8 2.8 6.6 64 0.4 0.54
OAK 5.7 36 3.0 1.8 7.6 58 1.4 0.44
PHI 6.5 39 3.0 1.6 6.4 61 1.1 0.45
PIT 7.1 42 1.0 1.6 7.0 60 2.2 0.56
SD 7.5 32 1.8 1.3 6.2 50 1.5 0.47
SF 6.5 40 2.1 0.8 6.0 59 2.8 0.55
SEA 6.3 48 1.4 2.1 6.6 62 1.3 0.51
STL 6.1 43 2.4 2.3 7.6 61 1.5 0.59
TB 5.7 35 3.3 2.6 7.4 61 1.5 0.47
TEN 6.4 39 3.1 1.7 6.4 55 2.9 0.58
WAS 7.6 40 3.5 1.5 6.2 63 1.2 0.58
Avg 6.5 41 2.4 1.7 6.5 59 2.4 0.45