NFL Playoff Predictions: Updated Look at the Top Teams Contending for Spots
As we get deeper into the NFL season, the legitimate contenders have begun to separate from the rest. This trend is reflected in the newest installment of NFL playoff predictions.
The NFC is beginning to look like a conference dominated by five elite teams with a handful of lesser ones biting at their ankles. A similar trend exists in the AFC, although its overall caliber is significantly worse.
If you’ve read some of my previous articles like this one or this one, you know that I occasionally like to use simple math formulas to answer otherwise difficult questions. While predicting playoff teams can be done well and objectively based on watching the games and digging up some elementary statistics (i.e. strength of schedule, QBR), it’s nice to look at a common topic through a new lens.
In the coming slides, you will find my newly coined statistic, Performance Score (P-Score). A team’s P-Score was calculated as follows: (Strength of Schedule) x [(Rushing and Passing Offense and Defense) + 4 x (Turnover Differential)].
“Rushing and Passing Offense and Defense” is based on how each team compares to the rest of the NFL.
For example: Seattle’s number for this part of the equation is 72 because it has the No. 31 Pass Offense (32-31), the No. 7 rushing offense (32-7), the No. 7 pass defense (32-7) and the No. 11 run D (32-11). When you sum that all up, you get 72 (1 + 25 + 25 + 21).
The main advantage of the P-Score is that it looks at teams solely in terms of their production across 60 minutes. There is no direct measure of total points, fourth-quarter comebacks or time of possession. Whether a team is able to capitalize on its chances is irrelevant.
P-Score will be mentioned on occasion throughout this slideshow and you might be surprised at just how well P-Score reflects the potential of many NFL squads.
AFC Wildcards: Baltimore Ravens (6-2), Indianapolis Colts (5-3)
Baltimore P-Score: 29.55 (No. 6 in AFC)
Indianapolis P-Score: 12.31 (No. 12 in AFC)
Baltimore and Indianapolis are two AFC teams heading in drastically different directions.
The Ravens, who appeared to be one of the conference’s best, have suffered a brutal stretch of injuries. They were embarrassed by Houston and narrowly defeated the Cleveland Browns last weekend.
What’s more? The injury bug arrived at seemingly the worst possible time. Pittsburgh is closing fast. The Ravens aren't even fortunate enough to face their rivals while healthy—they face the Steelers in Weeks 11 and 13.
The Colts, meanwhile, appear to be hitting their stride—although the low P-Score indicates that there is still much to be desired in Indianapolis, especially in the turnover battle where they are minus-10. That being said, Andrew Luck has accelerated the rebuilding process faster than even the most optimistic of Colts fans could have anticipated.
If Indy snags the final playoff spot, though, it will truly be by default. There’s really no other team that I like right now in the weak AFC. In fact, the only other team I’d consider for the second wild-card position is the Dolphins, who Indianapolis just defeated.
AFC No. 4 Seed: Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3)
P-Score: 38.54 (No. 4 in AFC)
The Steelers have unleashed a balanced, consistent offense over the last five games, four of which they won. Since Week 4, Ben Roethlisberger has averaged 260 yards through the air while the running game has been good for 129 per game.
More importantly, the Pittsburgh offense has avoided making big mistakes (thank you, Todd Haley). Only four AFC teams have fewer giveaways.
The Steelers have ranked in the bottom 10 in sacks allowed every year since 2006. They should avoid such an unfortunate distinction this year (18 allowed so far).
Did I mention they have the league’s No. 1 defense?
AFC No. 3 Seed: Denver Broncos (5-3)
P-Score: 41.00 (No. 3 in AFC)
The Denver Broncos are hot right now and there’s no reason to believe they will stop moving in the right direction. Peyton Manning and his receivers appear to be more in sync with each game.
Denver should win more games through the second half of the year than its five from the first half. The average P-Score of its remaining opponents is 21.25. Twenty-one other teams have a more difficult schedule in terms of P-Score.
The Broncos’ Week 15 game with Baltimore may be their last true remaining test. Even if they lose it, Manning and Co. should breeze through their final two games. They’ll play Cleveland and Kansas City in the even more aptly named Mile High.
AFC No. 2 Seed: New England Patriots (5-3)
P-Score: 64.53 (No. 1 in NFL)
As the lofty P-Score indicates, the Patriots are substantially better than their 5-3 record. Don’t be surprised if New England takes all of its remaining contests—the Pats won their final eight games in both 2010 and 2011.
But recent history is not the most compelling reason to think New England will finish strong. The Patriots' biggest weakness, the secondary, will see an abrupt reprieve. Six of New England’s remaining games are against teams that pass for less than 222 yards per game.
AFC No. 1 Seed: Houston Texans (7-1)
P-Score: 61.1 (No. 2 in NFL)
According to the P-Score, Houston is the league’s second-best team, and it’s hard to make much of an argument against that.
Health issues have decimated the Baltimore defense. Green Bay may see a similar injury fallout. However, Houston would need a horrific series of injuries to suffer from this plight. There are few teams with more depth than the Texans.
They’re also ridiculously careful with the football, registering just six giveaways in 2012.
Houston has a bunch of challenging games left on the schedule (Chicago, New England, Minnesota and Indianapolis twice), but I don’t see the team giving up its control of the conference.
NFC Wildcards: Green Bay Packers (6-3), ???
Green Bay P-Score: 43.77 (No. 5 in NFC)
The Packers might be better than Chicago, but they’re going to have a tough time catching them—more on this in a few slides.
What about the second wild-card spot? Here’s where the P-Score really comes into play.
There are five NFC teams with four or five wins (Seattle, Minnesota, Detroit, Tampa Bay and Arizona) and only one playoff spot for them. Dallas, Philadelphia and New Orleans will make late-season pushes, but there’s no way they can be expected to beat out the five teams ahead of them—or at least not yet.
To determine which one gets the final NFC spot, I took each team’s P-Score and divided it by the average P-Score of their remaining opponents.
Here are the numbers:
Seattle: 36.50/32.26 = 1.13
Minnesota: 19.36/45.54 = 0.43
Detroit: 36.98/37.46 = 0.99
Tampa Bay: 42.29/27.72 = 1.53
Arizona: 30.38/39.06 = 0.78
I can eliminate the Minnesota Vikings. Christian Ponder is in the midst of a meltdown and the average P-Score of their remaining opponents is actually higher than Green Bay’s individual score.
Many have already dismissed the Arizona Cardinals, and the logic for such an outlook is pretty sound, starting with the fact that they have given up 41 sacks on the year. Being under .500 doesn’t help either.
I’ll go with the Seattle Seahawks, because they do not seem to have enormous weaknesses like the other two (Tampa Bay’s secondary, Detroit’s inability to do anything before the fourth quarter).
The P-Score demonstrates, though, just how close this race is.
NFC No. 4 Seed: New York Giants (6-3)
P-Score: 48.19 (No. 3 in NFC)
Even with the Pittsburgh loss, the New York Giants are still the favorite to win the NFC East. The Giants are the only team in the division that has scored more points than they have allowed.
Things will look even more favorable for the defending champs if Hakeem Nicks can return to full strength. Eli Manning has missed him dearly over the last three weeks.
The G-Men have a tough schedule ahead of them, but divisional victories over Philadelphia and Washington as well as any other win may be all that is needed to take the NFC East.
NFC No. 3 Seed: Chicago Bears (7-1)
P-Score: 53.17 (No. 2 in NFC)
The NFC North race will likely not be settled until Week 17. Chicago’s defense has been the single-most entertaining and impressive unit of the 2012 NFL season. The loss to Green Bay is the only thing working against the Bears midway through the season.
For some, it is a foregone conclusion that Green Bay will be able to close the gap and retake the North, but Chicago’s trademark this year—aggressively pursuing turnovers on every play—is not ending anytime soon. Chicago is generating takeaways against teams that are consistently careful with the football.
The eight teams that have felt the wrath of Charles Tillman and his posse of bandits average 1.3 turnovers per game, excluding their respective affairs with Chicago. That number is actually below the league average of 1.6 giveaways.
Look for Chicago to put in three incredible performances, even by its standards, when it takes on Minnesota then Seattle then Minnesota again (teams that average a combined 1.7 turnovers a game).
NFC 2-Seed: San Francisco (6-2)
P-Score: 54.29 (No. 1 in NFC)
The NFC West seems to have taken a few steps back after the early-season hoopla, and San Francisco remains in complete control.
A year ago I would have scoffed at any suggestion that Alex Smith was anything more than an average quarterback, and the numbers agreed with me. Smith completed 61 percent of his passes and threw just over one touchdown per game. He finished the 2011 season as the No. 22 quarterback in Total QBR.
The 2012 Alex Smith, however, actually makes game-changing plays and leads, rather than “manages,” his offense. His 70.7 QBR is seventh best in the league.
And he’s still the least good part of this team, which is precisely why San Francisco has the highest P-Score in the conference. The 49ers have the league’s best running game and a truly perfect front seven.
NFC No. 1 Seed: Atlanta Falcons (8-0)
P-Score: 35.79 (No. 9 in NFC)
So, what does it mean that the Atlanta Falcons are, according to the P-Score, a mediocre NFL team?
Based on the league average, every 7.17 points in a P-Score are equal to one win. By that logic, Atlanta has won three more games than it “should have.”
Does this mean Atlanta is overrated? Absolutely not. The very purpose of the P-Score is to ignore things like comebacks, time of possession and, essentially, points scored. In other words, teams that win despite average P-Scores do so because they are maximizing opportunities.
Case and point: Look at the teams at the other end of the spectrum (averaging more than 7.17 points per win). Washington, Carolina, Tampa Bay, the New York Jets and Cleveland are five of the top six teams.
The Falcons’ ability to make their P-Score irrelevant is a testament to what makes them so good.