The NFL's Biggest Overachievers And Underachievers In 2012

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jun 18, 2013



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)

 

No matter what Bill Parcells believes, teams with the same record are not created equally in the NFL. There’s more to the game than “you are what your record says you are.”

The Cardinals and Eagles both started 2-0 last season, but they were two of the worst 2-0 teams ever. Sure enough, even based on a two-game sample, the stats won out as Arizona (5-11) and Philadelphia (4-12) finished with terrible records and numbers.

Some teams simply overachieve, winning more games than their performance would have predicted they would win. On the other side of the coin, teams underachieve, unable to turn their gaudy stats into more wins. Results in close games often decide which side a team ends up on.

Instead of focusing on the number of wins, we can dig into the numbers and learn more about what a team has done in the past to predict what they may do in the future.

Parcells told Buffalo News’ Tim Graham that his famous quote "really stemmed from the fact I would always hear people talk about their record and then qualify it by saying, 'Well, we've only lost three games by a total of four points.”

Last season the New England Patriots became the first team since the 1960 Dallas Texans to have their first three losses by a total of four points.

While the entire AFC East was 3-3 to start 2012, we had strong evidence the Patriots would eventually come out on top. Through six games, the Patriots’ scoring differential was well above its rivals:

Team

Start

Scoring Diff.

NFL Rank

Final

Scoring Diff.

NFL Rank

Patriots

3-3

51

6th

12-4

226

1st

Dolphins

3-3

3

17th

7-9

-29

20th

Jets

3-3

-8

20th

6-10

-94

26th

Bills

3-3

-55

28th

6-10

-91

25th

So much for equating these 3-3 teams.

They may have all started 3-3, but the Patriots finished with the league’s best scoring differential while the rest of the AFC East finished 20th or worse. Outside of a swap (determined by one score) between the Jets and Bills, they finished how they started in order of scoring differential too. The Patriots won the division by five games ahead of runner-up Miami.

We can look at more stats beyond just scoring to differentiate between teams with similar records. From there, we will pinpoint which teams overachieved and underachieved the most in 2012, which gives us more realistic expectations for what they will do in 2013.

 

Regression Data for 2012

Two years ago we looked at a linear regression model to predict team winning percentage based on the following five independent variables:

  • Net Points – Points scored minus points allowed.
  • Net Yards – Offensive yards minus defensive yards (sacks included in passing yardage for both).
  • Turnover Differential – Takeaways minus giveaways.
  • Third-Down Differential – Third-down conversion percentage (offense) minus third-down conversion percentage (defense).
  • Passer Rating Differential – Offensive passer rating minus defensive passer rating.

With a sample size going back to the pass-happy beginnings of the 1995 season, 565 teams are included in the data. The following is the correlation coefficient over that time for winning percentage and the five variables:

Correlation Coefficient to Win%

Stat

Correlation coefficient

Net Points

0.917

Passer Rating Differential

0.809

Net Yards

0.691

Third-Down Differential

0.638

Turnover Differential

0.635

We see five strong relationships with the common sense value that nothing correlates to winning more than points. However, we again see the power of Passer Rating Differential (.809). Winning the pass efficiency battle remains the most crucial element of having success in the NFL.

(Ed. Note: CHFF Insider tracks the "Correlation to Victory" of Passer Rating Differential and many other indicators each week and each season. While not correlation in the true statistical sense, it consistently yields very high results. Teams that won the battle of Passer Rating Differential went 209-46 (.820) in 2012, consistent with historic results.)

Here is how every team did in the five key stats last season, sorted by the difference in predicted win percentage (Pred%) and actual winning percentage, expressed in terms of wins (i.e. percentage multiplied by 16):

Rk

Team

W

L

Win%

Pred%

Diff.

Net Pts

Net Yds

TO Diff

3DDiff

PRD

1

IND

11

5

0.688

0.439

3.97

-30

-189

-12

4.7

-13.7

2

TEN

6

10

0.375

0.268

1.71

-141

-989

-4

-1.5

-15.8

3

ATL

13

3

0.813

0.715

1.55

120

57

13

4.6

22.0

4

HOU

12

4

0.750

0.657

1.48

85

781

12

4.5

9.2

5

MIN

10

6

0.625

0.542

1.32

31

-215

-1

-4.2

-11.1

6

RAM

7.5

8.5

0.469

0.415

0.86

-49

-218

-1

-5.5

-1.2

7

DAL

8

8

0.500

0.447

0.84

-24

307

-13

3.8

-3.4

8

PHI

4

12

0.250

0.201

0.79

-164

174

-24

-3.5

-21.0

9

NYJ

6

10

0.375

0.330

0.72

-94

-387

-14

-0.3

-9.9

10

BUF

6

10

0.375

0.332

0.69

-91

-320

-13

-5.1

-2.2

11

WAS

10

6

0.625

0.593

0.52

48

88

17

-8.4

15.1

12

BAL

10

6

0.625

0.600

0.40

54

25

9

1.1

5.8

13

GB

11

5

0.688

0.671

0.27

97

363

7

4.2

31.5

14

CIN

10

6

0.625

0.617

0.13

71

208

4

-2.0

7.4

15

RAI

4

12

0.250

0.242

0.13

-153

-168

-7

-4.2

-15.1

16

KC

2

14

0.125

0.117

0.12

-214

-596

-24

-6.1

-36.1

17

SF

11.5

4.5

0.719

0.714

0.08

124

1079

9

2.0

23.2

18

MIA

7

9

0.438

0.440

-0.05

-29

-724

-10

1.1

-6.7

19

CRD

5

11

0.313

0.320

-0.12

-107

-1196

-1

-7.7

-8.1

20

DEN

13

3

0.813

0.821

-0.13

192

1714

-1

14.5

25.9

21

PIT

8

8

0.500

0.528

-0.46

22

911

-10

6.5

9.1

22

TB

7

9

0.438

0.491

-0.85

-5

-258

3

-4.3

-11.7

23

JAX

2

14

0.125

0.182

-0.92

-189

-1300

-3

-11.8

-15.1

24

CHI

10

6

0.625

0.686

-0.97

98

-81

20

1.1

9.1

25

SD

7

9

0.438

0.498

-0.97

0

-467

2

-4.3

0.6

26

CAR

7

9

0.438

0.499

-0.98

-6

442

1

7.0

-5.2

27

CLE

5

11

0.313

0.391

-1.25

-66

-793

3

-7.4

-13.1

28

NO

7

9

0.438

0.520

-1.32

7

-468

2

5.5

2.6

29

NYG

9

7

0.563

0.652

-1.44

85

-447

14

-1.8

-1.5

30

SEA

11

5

0.688

0.788

-1.60

167

711

13

1.8

28.8

31

DET

4

12

0.250

0.380

-2.08

-65

1082

-16

6.0

-10.2

32

NE

12

4

0.750

0.904

-2.46

226

874

25

8.7

10.8

No team won and lost closer to its statistics than Miami (-0.05 wins) in 2012. The Jets and Bills actually finished as top 10 overachievers, meaning it was hard to believe they won the six games they did.

Before we get into this year, let’s go back a season to see what last year’s results produced.

 

Regression: 2011-to-2012 Results

 

Before the 2012 season, three teams were identified as 2011’s biggest overachievers and three more were identified as the biggest underachievers. Let’s see how they did in 2012.

 

Overachiever No. 1: Denver Broncos (+2.40 wins in 2011, -0.13 wins in 2012)

Peyton Manning took over the worst 8-8 team in NFL history, but that just allowed him to lead the 2012 Broncos to the third-largest scoring differential increase (plus-273) since 1978. The Broncos went from minus-81 in 2011 with Tim Tebow’s improbable comebacks to plus-192 last year.

It was a dominant performance in a MVP-deserving season for Manning. After a shaky start, Denver won its final 11 games by at least seven points each.

Going from Tebow to Manning was guaranteed to shake up the statistics in Denver, but it was a historic result.

 

Overachiever No. 2: Kansas City Chiefs (+2.22 wins in 2011, +0.12 wins in 2012)

Statistics just hated the 2011 AFC West, which housed the worst 8-8 team in history (Broncos) and the worst 7-9 team (Chiefs) in history.

It was not a respected division in 2012 either. The Broncos (13-3) had as many wins as the rest of the division combined.

That includes the 2-14 Chiefs, who did not hold a lead in regulation until Week 10. It was easily the worst season in the 53-year history of the franchise, yet things actually look optimistic with the additions of coach Andy Reid and quarterback Alex Smith.

 

Overachiever No. 3: Oakland Raiders (+2.08 wins in 2011, +0.13 wins in 2012)

Like the Chiefs, the Raiders just barely won more games than expected last season, which is saying a lot given the 4-12 record. The Raiders needed 10-point comebacks in the fourth quarter to beat Pittsburgh and Jacksonville while sweeping the Chiefs.

After 10 consecutive seasons without a winning record and a postseason appearance, the Raiders continue to be stuck in a black hole of losing. Last year was bad, but with so much roster turnover, you wonder if 2013 won’t manage to be worse.

 

Underachiever No. 1: Miami Dolphins (-2.26 wins in 2011, -0.05 wins in 2012)

Miami was excited for rookie seasons from coach Joe Philbin and quarterback Ryan Tannehill, but it was not enough to get back to a winning record. The 7-9 Dolphins only won one more game than they did in 2011.

The 1-5 record in game-winning drive opportunities did the 2012 Dolphins no favors. With other rookie quarterbacks leading their teams to the playoffs, Tannehill’s season was largely overlooked. It was closer to what Sam Bradford did in 2010.

This coming season is the one the Dolphins will be looking at as the year to turn things around.

 

Underachiever No. 2: Minnesota Vikings (-2.02 wins in 2011, +1.32 wins in 2012)

For a 3-13 team, the 2011 Vikings were very competitive. They tied the NFL record with nine losses by seven points or fewer. With Adrian Peterson coming back from his ACL injury and Christian Ponder in his second season, this was a good pick for a team to improve.

However, few would have predicted Peterson would be better than ever or that the Vikings would play with the lead so often. According to Chase Stuart, the Vikings led 58.7 percent of the time in 2012; second only to New England (65.2 percent).

Regardless of having the lead more often than not, the Vikings were hardly a dominant team, but did finish strong, going 10-6 and making the playoffs.

 

Underachiever No. 3: Cleveland Browns (-1.71 wins in 2012, -1.25 wins in 2012)

It seems as if no matter what Cleveland 2.0 does, it still finishes with double-digit losses. A 4-12 season in 2011 led to a 5-11 season in 2012.

This time the Browns added highly-drafted rookies in quarterback Brandon Weeden and running back Trent Richardson, a big-play receiver in Josh Gordon and the AFC North was not as dominant at the top like in past years.

The Browns were a very competitive team last year, but they could not finish off opponents. They were just 1-7 at game-winning drive opportunities, which puts them in company with Carolina (1-7) and San Diego (0-7)

A few more close wins and the Browns could get back to .500, but the last two years have been very disappointing. Cleveland was the fifth-biggest underachiever in 2012.

 

2012’s Biggest Overachievers

Now we turn our attention to the three biggest overachievers from last year.  Will they crash hard back to realty in 2013? Let’s examine each situation.

 

1. Indianapolis Colts (+3.97 wins in 2012)

The Colts’ 11-5 record was compiled by rookie quarterback Andrew Luck tying the regular-season record by leading seven game-winning drives along with four bad losses.

The 2012 Colts are the only 11-win team ever to have a negative scoring differential (minus-30 points). The 387 points allowed by the Colts are the most ever by a 11-win team as well.

Simply put, the 2012 Colts are the biggest overachievers since at least 1995:

NFL’s Top 10 Overachievers (Since 1995)

Rk

Team

Year N

Wins

Pred. Wins

Diff.

Year N+1 Wins

Diff.

1

Indianapolis

2012

11

7.03

3.97

TBD

2

Pittsburgh

2004

15

11.53

3.47

11

-4

3

Indianapolis

2009

14

10.90

3.10

10

-4

4

Atlanta

2004

11

8.11

2.89

8

-3

5

Tennessee

1999

13

10.19

2.81

13

0

6

Indianapolis

1999

13

10.25

2.75

10

-3

7

New England

2003

14

11.26

2.74

14

0

8

Minnesota

2000

11

8.44

2.56

5

-6

9

Carolina

2003

11

8.44

2.56

7

-4

10

Philadelphia

1995

10

7.54

2.46

10

0

Indianapolis now owns three of the top six spots. In the past you could put this on the ability of Peyton Manning to overcome a lot of deficiencies to outdo the team’s expected win total.

Now the Colts are hoping Luck will be the same kind of quarterback. After one season, he’s off to a great start. We know teams with a lot of clutch wins almost always regress, but Luck will continue to give the team a chance to pull out the close ones.

These numbers make the Colts an easy target for regression in 2013. However, they are in a rare position having so many core players going into their second season.

Beyond Luck, sophomore Colts include T.Y. Hilton, Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener and Vick Ballard. The roster has again gone through much turnover from last year, and even if the big-name signings were not made, the Colts should be better at most positions than they were a year ago.

The final results may not be 11 wins again, but the young Colts should play better this season.

 

2. Tennessee Titans (+1.71 wins in 2012)

After two seasons we are still not sure what to make of Mike Munchak’s Titans. The only things clear in 2012 were that the defense was horrible, the Titans allowed a league-worst 471 points, Jake Locker is not an accurate passer and Chris Johnson is still not back to where he was his first two seasons.

The Titans were hanging in there at 3-4 with all close wins, but an overtime loss at home to the Colts followed by a 51-20 rout to the Bears put them out of it at 3-6.

Tennessee was odd in that it had a 3-2 record at comeback opportunities, yet finished 6-10 overall. That is due to having six losses by at least 21 points, which was the highest total in 2012. In fact, only three teams since 1982 have had seven such losses, so the Titans were really poor losers last season.

Tennessee traded up for wide receiver Justin Hunter in the draft, but if the quarterback is still not accurate and the defense continues to struggle, do not be surprised if the Titans lose at least a dozen games in 2013.

 

3. Atlanta Falcons (+1.55 wins in 2012)

The champions of the regular season at 13-3, the Falcons are no strangers to overshooting their projected win total. They have done it in all five seasons of the Matt Ryan/Mike Smith Era:

Atlanta Falcons: Matt Ryan/Mike Smith Era

Year

W

L

Win%

Pred%

Diff.

Net Pts

Net Yds

TO Diff

3DDiff

PRD

2008

11

5

0.688

0.606

1.30

66

207

-3

5.4

3.1

2009

9

7

0.563

0.560

0.04

38

-135

3

-3.2

-9.1

2010

13

3

0.813

0.728

1.35

126

139

14

7.4

8.6

2011

10

6

0.625

0.595

0.49

52

688

8

0.1

7.8

2012

13

3

0.813

0.715

1.55

120

57

13

4.6

22.0

If the pattern continues, Atlanta will only win above its stats by a small margin in 2013, but the Falcons still looked poised as one of the favorites to reach the Super Bowl.

Last season the Falcons had six game-winning drives engineered by Ryan, who maintains the best record in history (min. 30 games) at game-winning drive opportunities (23-14).

The Falcons are no fluke in close games. They continue to perform at a high level in the two-minute offense (especially one-minute drills), four-minute offense, have a decent defense and a very good kicker in Matt Bryant.

What may be troubling for the Falcons in 2013 is the tough NFC South, which has never had repeat winners since its creation in 2002.

Also, if you think repeating as Super Bowl champions is tough, consider that no team has repeated as the regular-season champion since the 1989-90 San Francisco 49ers.

 

2012’s Biggest Underachievers

We close with the three teams who gave us more on the stat sheets than in the win column. However, this year one of these teams may be just a few breaks away from going the distance if they can play as well as they did most of last season.

 

1. New England Patriots (-2.46 wins in 2012)

When you lose three games by four combined points, chances are you should have come out on top in some of those games. That’s even truer when it’s a loss at home to the Cardinals and two 13-point blown leads against the Ravens and Seahawks.

New England’s fourth loss, a 41-34 epic against the 49ers, gave them four losses by a combined 11 points. The only other team to ever do that was the 1987 Washington Redskins (11-4; won the Super Bowl).

This did make the 15-point loss in the AFC Championship against Baltimore a surprising result. New England’s nine previous losses were each by 1-8 points. The previous high streak of one-score losses by the Tom Brady-led Patriots was three games (2009).

The 2012 Patriots were one of the more dominant regular-season teams since 1995, which is why their 12-4 record was simply not good enough for the stats.

However, they did not compile their gaudy numbers by dominating on both sides of the ball:

Stat

2012 Patriots

Rank (1995-12)

Net Points

226

6th

Passer Rating Differential

10.8

134th

Net Yards

874

75th

Third Down Differential

8.7

48th

Turnover Differential

25

3rd (tied)

Win Differential

-2.46

12th

The -2.46 difference in expected wins is the 12th largest decline since 1995.

Where the Patriots did dominate was by winning the turnover battles. They were nothing overly special in yards, on third down or with Passer Rating Differential, but at least the defense came up with 41 takeaways.

It was takeaways, though sometimes unforced like with the “Butt Fumble,” that sparked a 108-43 scoring margin in five days against the Colts and Jets.

Last season was not even the best Patriots team since 2008, but statistically they should have had the best regular-season record again.

 

2. Detroit Lions (-2.08 wins in 2012)

Just two seasons ago we thought Matthew Stafford was blossoming into a comeback king the Lions had not seen since the likes of Bobby Layne in the 1950s. Detroit’s improbable back-to-back road wins after trailing by at least 20 points were one of the highlights of Captain Comeback’s inaugural season.

Then perhaps a bit of reality struck last season. The Lions finished 4-12, but were 3-8 in games with a game-winning drive opportunity.That's the most clutch losses in the league last season.

The games were close just like 2011, but this time we did not see Stafford deliver. We also watched kicker Jason Hanson botch a game-winning field goal against Houston, Andrew Luck lead two touchdown drives in four minutes to stun the defense, along with any other way possible a team can lose a close game.

That’s what bad teams tend to do: lose a lot of close games. The Lions have a long history of this, but hopefully 2011 was a sign of things to come and last year was just a hiccup.

The Lions should do better than 4-12 in 2013, but do not even think about crowning them in the NFC North.

Detroit was one of the most competitive 4-12 teams we have seen, but like with Calvin Johnson’s receiving record, it’s just a lot of hollowness in the end. We want to see numbers turn into wins.

 

3. Seattle Seahawks (-1.60 wins in 2012)

Seattle emerged quickly last season thanks to dominating the passing battles. Rookie Russell Wilson had a 100.0 passer rating and was on fire in the second half of the season. It will be interesting to see how he plays for a full 2013, because his second-half season splits were massive.

Combine that with a defense that already looked very good in 2011, and you have the recipe for a great passer rating differential.

Seattle’s 28.8 passer rating differential was the 17th best since 1995. Only nine teams in the top 30 won fewer than 12 games in the regular season.

Home-field advantage was also big for Seattle last season. The Seahawks were 8-0 with a plus-148 scoring differential at home. Both marks were the best in football.

However, it is the road struggles that dragged down Seattle’s record. The Seahawks lost very winnable games in Arizona, St. Louis, San Francisco, Detroit and Miami. They started very slowly on the East Coast in the playoffs as well.

Seattle is a trendy pick to be a better team this season, but coach Pete Carroll must get better road performances out of his team for that to happen.

For the inquiring minds who may have thought Seattle overachieved in part to a certain touchdown call from last season, well here is the difference in season stats had that 24-yard touchdown been ruled an interception:

2012 Seahawks' Stats - Golden Tate Touchdown vs. Green Bay

Hail Mary

W

L

Win%

Pred%

Diff.

Net Pts

Net Yds

TO Diff

3DD

PR Diff

OPR

TD

11

5

0.688

0.788

-1.60

167

711

13

1.8

28.8

100.6

INT

10

6

0.625

0.775

-2.40

160

687

12

1.8

26.5

98.3

One play in a season goes differently and we are looking at Seattle as just a fraction behind New England on this underachiever list with -2.40 expected wins.

With NFL seasons always taking so many wild swings from week to week, we do not know how anyone can say a team is nothing more than its win total. All the intrigue comes from how they get to that mark.

How you played still has a bigger impact on how you will play in future games.

 

Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at smk_42@yahoo.com, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.


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