Ranking the NFL's 5 Luckiest and Unluckiest Teams

Sam QuinnContributor IIIDecember 13, 2012

Ranking the NFL's 5 Luckiest and Unluckiest Teams

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    Luck (and not just the quarterback pictured above) plays a huge part in determining how an NFL season plays out. It's just common sense: Some teams get breaks that others don't.

    What defines luck in the NFL? There are several telling statistics.

    For example, statistically close games are essentially random. When a team wins an inordinate amount of close games in a given year, they generally regress to the mean the following year.

    The same can be said for turnovers, particularly fumble recoveries. Once a fumble hits the ground, recovering it is essentially a 50/50 proposition.

    We also have to look at schedules, opponent injuries, circumstantial wins and point differential, but more on that later.

    For the purposes of objectivity, we are going to ignore injuries to the specific teams, as there are too many circumstances surrounding them to accurately assess their detrimental value.

    With that in mind, here are the five luckiest and unluckiest teams of the 2012 season. 

    By the way, a big thanks to teamrankings.com for providing the fumble stats. Those were very hard to find. 

No. 5 Luckiest Team: Dallas Cowboys

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    Pythagorean winning percentage: .391

    Actual winning percentage: .462

    Strength of schedule: Third

    Percentage of own fumbles recovered: 52.94

    Percentage of opponent fumbles recovered: 61.54

    Turnover differential: -10

    First of all, to those of you who aren't familiar with the concept of Pythagorean expectation, it is a stat that uses point differential to determine what a team's winning percentage should actually be. 

    You could really go either way on this one. Cowboys fans could point to their low turnover differential and brutal schedule as reasons why the Cowboys have been unlucky, but I tend to favor the lucky side of their season.

    Their turnover differential is entirely explainable by the erratic play of Tony Romo. He's the type of quarterback who throws interceptions, so to reap the benefits of his high risk style, they also have to take the hits. 

    On the other hand, they recover a very high percentage of fumbles. That alone has kept their turnover differential manageable, as they have also struggled to intercept opposing quarterbacks.

    They have also played fairly well in close games, with a 6-4 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. 

    Circumstantially, the Cowboys actually have a decent argument to be viewed as unlucky.

    Dez Bryant came one finger length away from scoring the game-winning touchdown against the Giants, and Jason Garrett's clock management cost them the game against Baltimore. 

    Still, their Pythagorean expectation and fumble recovery percentage earned them a spot on this list. 

No. 4 Luckiest Team: Indianapolis Colts

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    Pythagorean winning percentage: .441

    Actual winning percentage: .692

    Strength of schedule: 31st

    Percentage of own fumbles recovered: 57.89

    Percentage of opponent fumbles recovered: 20.00

    Turnover differential: -16

    Indianapolis' turnover differential and opponent fumble recoveries indicate that they are an incredibly unlucky team, but everything else points in the other direction.

    Nothing can explain the fumbles, but their low turnover differential is because of how their roster is built.

    Andrew Luck is a rookie quarterback and therefore was expected to throw plenty of interceptions.

    The defense was built around pass-rushers, not the secondary, so low interception totals on the defense were also to be expected.

    On the other hand, to have a difference of over 25 percent between Pythagorean and actual winning percentage is massive. It is by far the biggest disparity in the NFL, and indicates that the Colts haven't played nearly as well as their record indicates.

    What is more concerning is that this is happening with the league's second easiest schedule so far.

    Indianapolis has played three projected playoff teams so far, but only beat one of them (Green Bay) in what will forever be known as the first "Chuckstrong" game. Without that emotional boost, it's hard to say that the Colts would have beaten the Packers.

    In the other two such games, the Colts were blown out by Chicago and New England by a combined score of 100-45. 

    The ultimate indicator of their luck, though, is their record in close games. The Colts have a nearly flawless 8-1 record in games decided by a single touchdown or less.

    In fact, they have not won a single game by more than 17 points, and that is their only double-digit victory.

    These are the type of red flags we often see with overachieving young teams. The 2010 Tampa Bay Buccaneers had similar numbers, and proceeded to regress dramatically in 2011.

    I wouldn't expect a drop quite that dramatic for the 2013 Colts, but I don't think they'll match their 2012 record for those reasons. 

No. 3 Luckiest Team: Baltimore Ravens

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    Pythagorean winning percentage: .595

    Actual winning percentage: .692

    Strength of schedule: 16th

    Percentage of own fumbles recovered: 57.14

    Percentage of opponent fumbles recovered: 63.64

    Turnover differential: +12

    Baltimore's Pythagorean winning percentage is far lower than their actual winning percentage, indicating that they are not playing as well as their record indicates. Nearly every other stat pertaining to the Ravens points in the same direction.

    They have a 6-3 record in games decided by one score or less, and many of those games were circumstantial wins. 

    Rival Pittsburgh was without star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for both of their meetings. Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III was injured during their game against the Ravens as well. Finally, Jason Garrett's horrendous clock management cost the Cowboys a winnable game in Baltimore, circumstances the Ravens could not have foreseen. 

    Finally, the Ravens have a very strong turnover differential of +12, and have recovered an inordinate amount of fumbles.

    Fumbles are a zero sum game, meaning that for every fumble recovered, the other team has a fumble not recovered, so to recover approximately 60 percent of all fumbles is a remarkable statistic.

    Ironically the Ravens have been among the league's unluckiest teams in terms of injuries. Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Lardarius Webb and others have missed significant time, but statistically speaking they have been large beneficiaries of good luck all season. 

No. 2 Luckiest Team: Houston Texans

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    Pythagorean winning percentage: 658

    Actual winning percentage: .846

    Strength of schedule: 28th

    Percentage of own fumbles recovered: 77.78

    Percentage of opponent fumbles recovered: 57.14

    Turnover differential: +14

    While they may not have had the easiest schedule, the Texans have benefited from more circumstantial wins than anyone else in the league.

    They faced Miami in Ryan Tannehill's first career start, Denver before Peyton Manning was fully healed, the Jets in their first game without Darrelle Revis, Baltimore in their first game without Lardarius Webb and Ray Lewis, and Chicago without Jay Cutler for much of the game.

    They were also the beneficiaries of one of the worst calls of the season to date, the illegal challenge in Week 12 against Detroit. Had that been called correctly, Houston probably would have lost the game.

    Wins like that make it hard to gauge how good the Texans really are.

    In their two games against contenders that weren't stacked in their favor by circumstance, they were blown out by the Patriots and Packers. 

    What is even luckier than those circumstantial wins, though, is the percentage of fumbles they've recovered.

    Not only are they generating extra turnovers on opponent fumbles, but they are retaining their own fumbles over 75 percent of the time. That is worth several free possessions per year and probably at least one win. 

    As lucky as they have been, I have a hard time writing the Texans off as pretenders because of their defense and running game. Still, circumstances have clearly been in their favor this year, so they'll have to elevate their performance to win the Super Bowl. 

No. 1 Luckiest Team: Atlanta Falcons

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    Pythagorean winning percentage: .629

    Actual winning percentage: .846

    Strength of schedule: 32nd

    Percentage of own fumbles recovered: 55.56

    Percentage of opponent fumbles recovered: 61.54

    Turnover differential: +6

    No team has taken advantage of an easy schedule quite like Atlanta.

    They have remarkably only played a single game against a projected playoff team so far, a Week 2 date with Denver, and it was at home while Peyton Manning was still recovering from his neck injury.

    In addition to playing an injured Manning, the Falcons have also benefited from an extraordinary number of personnel issues from their opponents.

    Tamba Hali missed the Week 1 game against Kansas City, Robert Griffin III was injured when the Falcons played Washington and Ryan Lindley got his first major playing time in the Week 11 game for Arizona.

    That weak schedule has helped keep the damage of their own turnovers to a minimum. For example, when Matt Ryan threw five interceptions against Arizona in Week 11, the Cardinals were so inept offensively that they still only scored 19 points. 

    Meanwhile, when the ball hits the ground, the Falcons have recovered it at a very high rate on both sides of the ball. 

    Oh, and one more stroke of good luck: Both the Saints and Buccaneers, their two biggest divisional opponents, appear on the other side of this list as two of the most unlucky teams in the league. If those random forces switched sides, maybe the Falcons would be on the outside looking in, watching the Saints or Buccaneers hosting a playoff game. 

    The Falcons are frauds. I can't say that enough. This is a 7-6 or 8-5 team masquerading as an 11-2 juggernaut. They will be exposed by a true contender in the playoffs. 

No. 5 Unluckiest Team: San Diego Chargers

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    Pythagorean winning percentage: .519

    Actual winning percentage: .385

    Strength of schedule: 27th

    Percentage of own fumbles recovered: 55.00

    Percentage of opponent fumbles recovered: 48.00

    Turnover differential: 0

    I don't want this to be misconstrued, because I am in no way giving Norv Turner any credit, but all I'm saying is that things should be a bit better.

    While they have played an easy schedule, the Chargers have played far better than their schedule indicates. 

    Week 12's loss to Baltimore came down to a ridiculous 4th-and-29 play that, if played 100 times, probably is converted only once.

    They've also had the misfortune of playing New Orleans on the night Drew Brees broke the record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass and playing Peyton Manning on Monday Night Football, where he has a 12-4 career record.

    On the turnover side of things, San Diego has been pretty close to average. They are allowing their opponents to recover over half of their fumbles, but are doing a good job of recovering their own.

    Philip Rivers is throwing plenty of interceptions, but that's because he has the offensive line of a mediocre high school team. 

    San Diego isn't a playoff team, but the Chargers aren't horrible either. 

No. 4 Unluckiest Team: Miami Dolphins

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    Pythagorean winning percentage: .431.

    Actual winning percentage: .385.

    Strength of schedule: 11th.

    Percentage of own fumbles recovered: 47.62

    Percentage of opponent fumbles recovered: 17.65

    Turnover differential: -11

    It's been a tough year for the Dolphins.

    With a 3-5 record in games decided by one touchdown or less and the league's 11th-hardest schedule, the Dolphins easily could be in the playoff hunt if a few things had gone differently.

    Their Pythagorean winning percentage is higher than their actual winning percentage, indicating what many have seen on game film—the Dolphins aren't a terrible team. 

    What has really held them back has been their horrible luck with fumbles. They recover under 48 percent of their own fumbles, a below average number.

    However, they recover only 17.65 percent of opponent's fumbles, the worst mark in the league. If they were even at the league average, they'd have generated several more turnovers and potentially an extra win or two. 

    Assuming that number regresses to the mean next year, the Dolphins should be competitive in 2013. At the very least, they can't possibly be as unlucky as they were this year. 

No. 3 Unluckiest Team: New Orleans Saints

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    Pythagorean winning percentage: .457

    Actual winning percentage: .385

    Strength of schedule: Sixth

    Percentage of own fumbles recovered: 54.55

    Percentage of opponent fumbles recovered: 56.25

    Turnover differential: -4

    Maybe the Saints angered the karma gods. Not only have they been hamstrung by Bountygate, but they have also been unlucky statistically as well.

    Before we get into the bad, the Saints are the rare team that has benefited from good luck with fumbles, yet still has a large negative differential between their actual and Pythagorean winning percentage.

    They might be even further in the hole without that fumble luck.

    The Saints have a 3-4 record in games decided by one touchdown or less, but if we expand that to 10 points, it becomes 3-6. 

    Additionally, the Saints have had some of the worst circumstantial luck in league history.

    The scheduling gods made them the first team to play Robert Griffin III and the second team against which Colin Kaepernick started. Mobile quarterbacks are incredibly dangerous early in their careers because there isn't enough film on them to make an appropriate game plan. 

    They also had the misfortune of playing the Green Bay Packers one week after the Week 3 debacle in Seattle, and had to play the Denver Broncos after a bye week, which to Peyton Manning is an eternity to game-plan. 

    To go through that without their head coach was an impossible proposition. The Saints will be back next year, and hopefully luck will be on their side. 

No. 2 Unluckiest Team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Pythagorean winning percentage: .569

    Actual winning percentage: .462

    Strength of schedule: 30th

    Percentage of own fumbles recovered: 69.23

    Percentage of opponent's fumbles recovered: 46.67

    Turnover differential: +12

    This one may seem somewhat confusing. How can a team with such significant luck in turnovers and scheduling be so high on a list of teams that are unlucky?

    The answer is their luck in close games. Tampa Bay has been historically bad in close games, with an astonishing 2-7 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, including three games decided by two points or less. 

    Think about that for a moment: If a field goal swings the other way in three of Tampa's games, they'd be 9-4 with a legitimate shot at the NFC South crown.

    If just one of those games ends in a Tampa Bay victory they'd be 7-6 and fighting for a playoff spot.

    There is no way that Tampa Bay will be this unlucky twice in a row. If Tampa Bay maintains this level of performance in 2013, they should win at least nine games. 

No. 1 Unluckiest Team: Detroit Lions

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    Pythagorean winning percentage: .467

    Actual winning percentage: .308

    Strength of schedule: Fifth

    Percentage of own fumbles recovered: 44.44

    Percentage of opponent's fumbles recovered: 37.50

    Turnover differential: -6

    Poor Detroit. Somehow this seems appropriate: You can essentially pick your poison here and the Lions have been unlucky in it. 

    Even with Matthew Stafford's high interception totals, Detroit could still be close to neutral in turnover differential if they occasionally recovered a fumble. They are near the bottom of the league in recovering both their own fumbles and their opponent's, costing them valuable possessions.

    They have also played very well against a tough schedule, as indicated by both their high Pythagorean winning percentage and their record in close games. Their 3-8 mark in games decided by one score is topped (or bottomed depending on how you look at it) by Tampa Bay's 2-7 record. 

    Ironically, last year Detroit was among the luckiest teams in the league. Just look at their numbers from 2011:

    Pythagorean winning percentage: .600

    Actual winning percentage: .625

    Strength of schedule: Third (tied with six other teams)

    Percentage of own fumbles recovered: 65.00

    Percentage of opponent's fumbles recovered: 55.56

    Turnover differential: +11

    Maybe the Lions are just an 8-8 team that has swung on both sides of the luck pendulum.

    Last year's 5-3 mark in close games has moved in the opposite direction this year, and they are really struggling with turnovers.

    Without significant roster changes, the Lions will need some good luck to make the playoffs in 2013.