The NFL playoffs are not as random as you might think. They are also not entirely predictable by any stretch of the imagination, as a sport that involves humans and relies on a ball that can take weird bounces never is.
It may be tempting to think that it is wide open, because we have seen recent examples that show that any team can win. Recency dictates that is very much a powerful factor, as Baltimore was on no one’s radar entering the postseason last year. They had none of that mythical momentum (losing most of their games in December), and their underlying numbers in the regular season were pretty average on both sides of the ball. Then, they got “hot”, which is to say that the offense played better, and then they got a deep bomb against Denver in a desperate situation to get new life.
Baltimore is not the only recent team to get certain breaks on the way to a title, and they have seemed to overwhelmingly fallen to the underdog, often of the David variety, at key moments. How would the perception of playoff randomness be if just three moments in time–not full games, just singular moments–were changed?
- David Tyree catches a ball while pinning it against a helmet;
- The Tuck Rule;
- Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones for 70 yard touchdown.
Those plays happened, but that’s how close we are to champions entirely among those considered the best in the league in the regular season. The other wildcards and lower seeds can be explained by close game performance in the regular season, scheduling quirks, and injuries. Green Bay in 2010 (lots of close losses) and Pittsburgh in 2005 (tiebreaker resulting in wildcard, Roethlisberger missed 4 games) were among the best teams, even coming out of the 6 seed.
To compare teams to past teams that have had success (or failure) in the playoffs, I calculated a league adjusted pass offense and defense based on adjusted net yards per attempt, and also used the simple rating system and team record. One thing that stands out–no team that has won a Super Bowl since 1990 had a league average or worse pass defense in the regular season. We’ve seen teams that were only slightly above average in the regular season have success and get hot. None of those teams, though, were bad defensively against the pass. The two worst defenses in the regular season against the pass (both with ANYA+ scores of 103) were the 2011 Giants and the 1998 Broncos. The Giants had a lot of injuries in the regular season and got healthy at the end of the year. The Broncos had a lot of veterans and relied on a strong offense. The 2013 version of Denver’s team hopes to displace that one, because if Denver wins the title, they will have the worst pass defense to do so (same would be true of Green Bay, Philadelphia, and San Diego).
Here are the ten most similar teams to each playoff team, organized by playoff win percentage of the comparable teams.
It should be no surprise that Seattle fares the best. Dominant pass defense, lots of wins, and a good offense. Four teams on the list won the Super Bowl, easily the most of all playoff teams. Seattle is your favorite and I’m not sure I can add to that.
The next on the list, though, probably does. The Saints cannot win on the road. They will have to win three on the road just to get to an outdoor game in New York. They struggled down the stretch and could not close out big games against New England and Carolina.
So what does it see? They are a very good passing team that is also pretty good defensively against the pass. The Saints have a really good point differential, and a healthy number of wins. Now, this team has secondary injuries, and has to go on the road. I don’t necessarily like the Saints’ chances as a dome team having to win four outdoor games, but I do like their chances more than the general thought about what the Saints can do.
An even bigger surprise for the Chiefs. That’s what happens when you bear some resemblance to the 2001 Patriots and the 2010 Jets, who surprised a division rival that had handled them in the regular season. Kansas City wasn’t as good as their 9-0 start. The AFC, though, looks to be wide open.
San Francisco may be the best team in the first round to bank on a deep run. They are well coached. The offense has gotten Michael Crabtree back, and they have made deep runs each of the last two years, only to barely come up short. Of course, they have to start that run in sub-zero conditions in Green Bay.
New England was not dominant this year, and found their way as the season went on. They share some similarities to the first New England Super Bowl team. They do get a home game and then will either get Brady/Manning, or get to host an AFC Championship Game for the third year in a row if Denver is upset.
Carolina has the worst passing offense, by the numbers, among the teams in the playoffs. While it is still better than what the 2000 Ravens, it makes some sense that Baltimore, a team also lead by a dominant middle linebacker and a deep front seven, shows up as the biggest success. If Carolina is going to win the title, it will be the defense (and timely offense in the red zone) that is the reason.
If you want to play the narrative “Is QB X Elite?” angle after consecutive years when Eli and Flacco were the Super Bowl winners, then bank on the Bengals. Is there any other quarterback that sits more in the crosshairs of that debate if his team finally experiences playoff success. Oh, and by the way, Dalton is at the splitting point of getting a contract extension (after year 3 of the rookie deal) and the Bengals have to make a decision. This team has a very good pass defense, and a run where Dalton actually plays well, a la Flacco last year, would lead to some interesting discussions.
The top two teams on the Colts’ list went to the Super Bowl from the AFC (though both were 2 seeds that got a bye). After that, it is not pretty. Indianapolis, though, has a decent path. They get the Chiefs at home, then likely draw the rematch against a Denver team they beat this year, and has a vulnerable defense.
A dominant MVP caliber performance at quarterback, and a high powered offense. Lots of wins. And a suspect defense (now without Von Miller again). That has not been a formula for post-season success, as we have seen teams quarterbacked by Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Steve Young, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers come up short.
Peyton Manning will catch a lot of grief if Denver does not get to the Super Bowl. It would be an unprecedented run, though, based on recent history. Only the 2011 Patriots got to the Super Bowl with a team like this year’s Broncos.
Green Bay is a special case. Aaron Rodgers missed nearly half the season, and now they are being talked up as a Super Bowl threat now that they snuck into the playoffs at 8-7-1. These numbers are generated based on Rodgers being on offense (and the accompanying win totals and SRS). One thing that people are forgetting is that Green Bay’s defense is a nightmare. If we assume that Green Bay is more like an 11-12 win team with a MVP caliber quarterback and a terrible defense, they don’t resemble any team that made a run deep in the playoffs (the Patriots in 2011 utilized the #1 seed to get there).
San Diego is not all that dissimilar from a Packers team with a healthy Rodgers. Both are dragged down by dreadful pass defenses. The only similar team like San Diego to make a run was the 2008 Cardinals. Of course, that team got the benefit of two home games on the way to the Super Bowl. San Diego will have to win all three on the road, starting in cold conditions in Cincinnati.
Chip Kelly’s team is unique. How much do these other teams apply to them? Eagles fans better hope not much. Very good passing offense, mediocre SRS and 10 wins, and a below average pass defense. None of the similar teams even reached a conference championship game.