Postseason contenders and pretenders

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 05, 2011



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Here's our annual look at the 12 postseason contenders and pretenders, with each team sized up across the board in all of our Quality Stats.
 
We rank the teams below based upon what we believe is their ability to win the Super Bowl.
 
Couple of notes:
 
Pittsburgh, not New England, boasts the lowest across-the-board ranking in our Quality Stats this year. The paper tiger Packers are tops in the NFC - but not the team we think is mostly to emerge from the senior circuit and challenge for the Lombardi Trophy.
 
The Patriots and Packers topped six (three each) of our eight Quality Stats, everything but Defensive Hog Index and Passing Yards Per Attempt.
 
Scoreability was the indicator most likely to indicate a playoff team. The 12 playoff contenders boasted an average rank of 9.9.
 
By the way, our efficiency indicators had an incredibly high correlation to success this year. Teams that won the Scoreability-Bendability battle won 84.1 percent of all NFL games (211-40; five ties).
 
Like we always say, the NFL is all about efficiency, not volume.
 
2010 Playoff Teams Ranked in Each Quality Stat (sorted alphabetically)
 
AVG
Atlanta
2
5
5
25
19
14
9
6
10.6
Baltimore
9
3
22
17
13
5
6
8
10.4
Chicago
5
6
32
6
25
3
11
10
12.3
GB
11
1
16
10
3
1
1
9
6.5
Indy
6
23
7
28
8
27
13
26
17.3
KC
15
12
9
16
23
8
7
12
12.8
NE
1
4
1
22
2
13
2
1
5.8
NO
20
13
4
13
10
15
10
24
13.6
NYJ
16
14
6
4
22
6
14
3
10.6
Philly
7
25
11
9
12
11
8
5
11.0
Pittsburgh
10
2
14
1
5
2
4
2
5.0
Seattle
17
18
28
26
27
25
29
16
23.3
Average
9.9
12.7
12.2
14.5
11.6
11.1
10.2
11.9
-
 
 
THE CONTENDERS
 
New England (14-2; No. 1 AFC seed) 
Record vs. Quality Teams: 7-1 (30.3 – 19.9)
Average rank in our Quality Stats: 5.75
Overall rank among playoff teams: 2nd
Worst indicator: Defensive Hog Index (22nd)
 
Overview – We discussed the importance of air superiority throughout football history earlier today. New England enters the playoffs with the top-rated passer in football, Tom Brady (111.0), who's fresh off one of the great passing season in the history of football.
 
The Patriots are also No. 2 in Passer Rating Differential at +28.5 – about the historic norm for an NFL champion.
 
But those final numbers don't tell the whole story. The Patriots have been absolutely scorching hot over the second half of the year, and especially in the past six weeks.
 
New England's Defensive Passer Rating over the past six weeks is a tremendous 56.2. Tom Brady's passer rating over that period? Try 130.4 on for size.
 
That adds up to a truly unbelievable Passer Rating Differential of +74.2 down the stretch! That's the kind of territory inhabited only by the 1940s Bears in the shock & awe era of the early T-formation. (Cap tip to reader Lyford Beverage for sending us the 411 about the PRD down the stretch).
 
The one big flaw in this finely tuned machine: the Patriots crushed the opposition despite a defense that's still dead
last in third-down defense. Opponents converted 47.1 percent of attempts. A team like New Orleans could really rip open that wound if the two clubs meet in the Super Bowl. The Saints were No. 1 in the NFL in third-down offense, converting 48.9 percent of attempts.
 
2. Pittsburgh (12-4; No. 2 AFC seed)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 3-4 (19.0 – 18.6) 
Average rank in our Quality Stats: 5.0
Overall rank among playoff teams: 1st
Best indicator: Defensive Hog Index (1st)
Worst indicator: Offensive Hog Index (14th)
 
Overview – Pittsburgh, not New England, boasts the highest across the board ranking in our Quality Stats. They're 1 or 2 in four of them in no worse than 14 (Offensive Hog Index) in any one indicator.
 
The signs of potential success are everywhere.
 
Fantasy fans and "pundits" don't realize it, but Ben Roethlisberger is the most prolific passer in football over the past seven years, with a tremendous average of 8.04 YPA. He also led the league in 2010 with an average of 13.3 yards per completion. And, once again, the game's most prolific passer of the past seven years finished among the league leaders in efficiency, with a 97.0 passer rating.
 
The offensive line has been a weak link in recent years, but has improved dramatically this year, to a respectable No. 14 on our Offensive Hog Index.
 
Oh, the Steelers also boast the league's stingiest defense (14.5 PPG) and they are No. 1 again on the Defensive Hog Index – which has been a great gauge of postseason success in recent years. Teams that are better in the DHI are 25-8 in the playoffs since we introduced the indicator in 2007. The Steelers topped the Defensive Hog Index in 2008 and won the Super Bowl.
 
If not for the fact that New England has largely dominated Pittsburgh in recent years, the Steelers would be our clear-cut favorite to win it all this year.
 
3. Atlanta (13-3; No. 1 NFC seed)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 5-3 (21.0 – 21.3) 
Average rank in our Quality Stats: 10.6
Overall rank among playoff teams: 5th (tie, NYJ)
Best indicator: Scoreability (2nd)
Worst indicator: Defensive Hog Index (25th)
 
Overview – At 13-3, the Falcons are the class of the NFC. But they're certainly vulnerable.
 
Atlanta has two basic problems, one of which will be exposed if they are beaten in the playoffs. The D-Hogs are just not very good, especially against the run. The Falcons have been scorched for 4.63 YPA on the ground this year, meaning a good running team could really hammer away that them and make for a long day for the D.
 
Also, Matty Ice gets plenty of pub. He's certainly proven a winner in his three NFL seasons. But the Cold, Hard Football Fact of the matter is that he struggles to get the ball down field. The Falcons ended the year a respectable 19th in Passing YPA (a team-wide indicator), while Ryan's personal average of 6.49 YPA was 27th in the NFL, a shade ahead of Detroit's Shaun Hill.
 
Not the company a Super Bowl quarterback should keep.
 
4. New Orleans (11-5; No. 5 NFC seed) 
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 3-3 (21.5 – 18.3) 
Average rank in our Quality Stats: 13.6
Overall rank among playoff teams: 3rd
Best indicator: Offensive Hog Index (4th)
Worst indicator: Big Play Index (24th)
 
Overview – The Quality Stats say that New Orleans is simply not a Super Bowl contender this year. We chronicled the great decline in key indicators since last year on SI.com this week.
 
Drew Brees posted a league-best 109.6 passer rating in 2009. It dropped nearly 20 points to 90.9 this year. He threw 11 INT last year, a frightening 22 this year.
 
The New Orleans defense in 2009 was third in the league in both INTs (26) and Defensive Passer Rating (68.6). New Orleans has picked off just 9 passes this year, fewest in the NFL, and it's DPR has jumped to 83.2.
 
Did the Saints suddenly start to suck? Or did they do the NBA/NHL thing and kind of put it in cruise control this year, while awaiting the playoffs.
 
We're not sure. But we do know that New Orleans is as threat to beat anybody on the list, and to even do it in Old School ways. Remember, they beat each heavyweights from both conferences this year in defensive battles: Pittsburgh 20-10 and Atlanta 17-14.
 
THE HOPEFULS
 
5. Indianapolis (10-6; No. 3 AFC seed)
Record vs. Quality Teams: 2-3 (24.6 – 23.2)
Average rank in our Quality Stats: 17.3
Overall rank among playoff teams: 11th
Best indicator: Scoreability (6th)
Worst Indicator: Defensive Hog Index (28th)
 
Overview – You know the story among the pigskin "punditry." Peyton Manning is a Warrior-God whose one tragic flaw is to be surrounded by a group of bumbling clowns for teammates who aren't even good enough to play college ball in a second-rate conference – like the Big 10 or something.
 
If only Manning weren't forced to play 1 on 11 every day, he'd win every game and win every Super Bowl with a gazillion touchdowns and a passer rating of 11,145.3
 
Well, the Colts are something close to that this year: they're 10-6 division champs and the No. 3 seed in the AFC, and they've managed to reach this point with a team that really does nothing well but win games.
 
The Colts fail to impress in any single indicator. Hell, even Manning himself had a down year, with a passer rating slightly below the 11,145.3 that Bob Costas had projected at the start of the year.
 
Manning barely cleared the top 10 in passer rating this year (91.9), behind low-wattage passers Josh Freeman, Joe Flacco, Matt Cassel and Matt Schaub. And the Colts averaged just 6.62 Passing Yards Per Attempt despite suffering a league-low 16 sacks.
 
Good numbers. But hardly lights-out.
 
The flaws, meanwhile, are many, including some of the worst Defensive Hogs in football and one of the worst pass defenses (27th in Defensive Passer Rating) in the NFL.
 
With all that said, the Colts finished the season fourth in scoring (27.2 PPG) and clearly have the tools – especially at quarterback – to light up the defense of any team they face.
 
Hell, Manning threw four touchdowns against the juggernaut Patriots this year and nearly won the game despite throwing three picks. He's the one quarterback most likely to walk into New England and walk out with a win – even with what most "pundits" and even Indy fans see as a bumbling collection of clowns all around him.
 
On the down side, Manning's ability to come up small in the playoffs is legendary: his Colts have averaged a dismal 14.0 PPG in nine playoff losses.
 
6. Baltimore (12-4; No. 5 AFC seed) 
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 4-3 (17.9 – 17.0) 
Average rank in our Quality Stats: 10.4
Overall rank among playoff teams: 4th
Best indicator: Bendability (3rd)
Worst Indicator: Offensive Hog Index (22nd)
 
Overview – Will the real Joe Flacco please stand up?
 
Baltimore's success in the playoffs will depend almost entirely on the effort of its quarterback. He posted great numbers this year (7.4 YPA, 93.6 rating). And we love the fact that he's thrown just 34 picks in three seasons and that his INT rate has improved each year (2.0% in 2010).
 
But there's no way to paint a happy face on this pig: Flacco has sucked in the playoffs. He's thrown just 1 TD in five games against six picks, with a 46.5 passer rating.
 
His last three playoff games? Here they are:
  • (Pittsburgh 23, Baltimore 14): 13 of 30, 43.3%, 141 yards, 4.7 YPA, 0 TD, 3 INT, 18.2 rating
  • (Baltimore 33, New England 14): 4 of 10, 40.0%, 34 yards, 3.4 YPA, 0 TD, 1 INT, 10.0 rating
  • (Indianapolis 20, Baltimore 3): 20 of 35, 57.1%, 189 yards, 5.4 YPA, 0 TD, 2 INT, 48.4 rating
Ed Reed is amazing. But the defense is good, not great. And the running game is just plain bad (3.76 YPA, 28th) despite the Ravens' rep as a tough team on the ground.
 
Neither aspect of Baltimore's game is good enough to make a victory omelet if Flacco lays a couple more eggs.  
 
7. Green Bay (10-6; No. 6 NFC seed) 
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 4-3 (21.7 – 15.9) 
Average rank in our Quality Stats: 6.5
Overall rank among playoff teams: 3rd
Worst indicator: Offensive Hog Index (16th)
 
Overview – We've been over this story a number of times, most recently with our look at each playoff team on SportsIllustrated.com this week and with our list of 2010 posers.
 
Bottom line: The Packers have been a statistical powerhouse for two straight years, but have yet to translate those advantages on the stat sheets into advantages on the scoreboard.
 
Hell, they dominated the passing wars, they boast the highest-rated QB in NFL history and they held an incredible six opponents to seven points or less this year – yet somehow lost six games.
 
We love how they look on paper, just not on the field. We'll consider the Packers are paper tiger and a poser until evidence tells us otherwise.
 
8. Philadelphia (10-6; No. 3 NFC seed)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 4-2 (28.0 – 24.5)
Average rank in our Quality Stats: 11.0
Overall rank among playoff teams: 7th
Best indicator: Big Play Index (5th)
Worst Indicator: Bendability (25th)
 
Overview – As we noted on Sports Illustrated this week, the Eagles sure know how to kill a buzz.
 
Three weeks ago everybody – including ColdHardFootballFacts.com – was chirping about Philly's explosive Big Play capabilities.
 
Five Big Plays and 28 points in the final 7:28 of the Giants game. Since then: four Big Plays and 27 losses in 27 points in two punchless losses to the Vikings and Cowboys.
 
It's not the way you want to enter the playoffs. Michael Vick's play, meanwhile, trailed off badly in the stretch run, with six picks in the final five games after throwing exactly zero in his first seven.
 
Meanwhile, lost amid the excitement of the season, is the fact that Philly's once proud defense has fallen on hard times: 19th in scoring D last year, 21st in scoring D this year.
 
The Eagles have one hope here in the playoffs: recapture the Big Play magic that blessed the team for most of the season or go home early.
 
9. Chicago (11-5; No. 2 NFC seed)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 3-3 (17.0 – 23.3)
Average rank in our Quality Stats: 12.25
Overall rank among playoff teams: 8th
Best indicator: Defensive Passer Rating (3rd)
Worst Indicator: Offensive Hog Index (32nd)
 
Overview – It's the same old story in Chicago, one they've been telling for more than a half century: championship-caliber defense, punchless offense.
 
Chicago fields the worst Offensive Hogs in football, they struggle to run the ball (3.89 YPA), they can't protect the passer (dead last in Negative Pass Plays) and they averaged just 5.79 Passing Yards Per Attempt this year – 25th in the NFL and one spot behind, ouch, Cleveland.
 
Does not sound like a winning formula to us. But the defense is good enough to give them a puncher's chance.
 
10. N.Y. Jets (11-5; No. 6 AFC seed)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 2-4 (16.0 – 22.2)
Average rank in our Quality Stats: 10.6
Overall rank among playoff teams: 6th
Best indicator: Big Play Index (3rd)
Worst Indicator: Passing Yards Per Attempt (22nd)
 
Overview – Like you, we were pretty surprised to see the Jets rate so highly on the Big Play Index (+23). It's not from their own production of Big Plays. But rather that Rex Ryan's crew is so effective at preventing them.
 
New York's main advantage here in January is that they're the best all-around team in the trenches in the playoff field: No. 4 on the Defensive Hog Index, No. 6 on the Offensive Hog Index.
 
So the Jets have a very good foundation. But they also have plenty of problems.

Specifically the defense is simply not as stiff as it was last year – declining in every measure of success. Hell, just look at the scoreboard. The Jets led the NFL last year, surrendering 236 points. That total ballooned to 304 points this year – though still good enough for sixth league-wide. But it's hardly a shutdown unit that can carry an offensive the QB goes in the tank.
 
Meanwhile, quarterback Mark Sanchez has improved here in his sophomore season – mostly by limiting mistakes (20 INT last year; 13 this year). He's shown flashes of playmaking excellence. But he has not shown the ability to carry a team: 54.8 completion percentage, 17 TDs, humble 75.3 passer rating.
 
The NFL is all about the quarterbacks – and Sanchez is way down the list behind champions Brady, Roethlisberger, Manning and Brees among quarterbacks who have proven they can carry teams when times get tough.
 
The Jets may get by Indianapolis Saturday night – but if they do, they run smack dab into a wall in Foxboro, where they were humiliated 45-3 just a few weeks ago.
 
THE PRETENDERS
 
11. Kansas City (10-6; No. 4 AFC seed)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 1-2 (10.0 – 21.3)
Average rank in our Quality Stats: 12.8
Overall rank among playoff teams: 9th
Best indicator: Defensive Passer Rating (8th)
Worst Indicator: Passing Yards Per Attempt (23rd)
 
Overview – Kansas City, we really like ya, we really do. Nice season. Great turnaround with 10 wins, matching the combined win total of the past three seasons.
 
Even a lot of great storylines: Matt Cassel proved himself a legit No. 1 NFL quarterback, with his second great season in three years, with two different teams. Jamaal Charles proved to be the NFL's homerun hitter du anneé with a season that would have made Jim Brown proud. (Yes, that's right mo-fos. We just threw some f'in French at ya ...)
 
But the fact of the matter is that the Chiefs did it all against a schedule so easy we wish we had taken it to the senior prom. They went just 1-2 in their three games against Quality Opponents. Oh, and two of those games were against the paper tiger 9-7 Chargers. Kansas City does not have a single win over a Quality Team since beating San Diego way back in Week 1.
 
But that's not even the ugly part. The ugly part is that the Chiefs averaged just 10.0 PPG in those three outings – tied with dismal Carolina for the lowest average output against Quality Opponents.
 
The nice news about the Chiefs is that they have no true weaknesses. It's quite possible they could even eke out a win at home against Baltimore. But it's hard to envision a scenario in which they walk into Pittsburgh or New England and walk out with a win.
 
But, hey, the future looks bright, KC.
 
12. Seattle (7-9; No. 4 NFC seed)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 2-5 (19.0 – 32.7)
Average rank in our Quality Stats: 23.3
Overall rank among playoff teams: 12th
Best indicator: Big Play Index (16th)
Worst Indicator: Passer Rating Differential (29th)
 
Overview – Been over this territory a number of times already. Seattle is not a playoff-worthy team. One and done. See you in September.
 

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