Every couple of years, a team sneaks into the playoffs that doesn't seem to belong there. A weak schedule, combined with a couple lucky bounces and other intangibles put a team into the postseason...where they're quickly exposed by a team that has the "stuff" that truly elite teams need to ensure they can make that postseason run.
Since we use the divisional format, we're already looking at potential examples of this. *cough*NFC Worst*cough cough.* While the record might not indicate a lousy team since the division itself might be tough, it also might be an example of an entire division being bad, where - well - someone's gotta win this thing.
Logically, this invokes the complementary effect of wondering if you're a better franchise that deserves it, but due to schedule/circumstances/bad juju, you're looking at spending the post-season at home.
Well, after compiling a multitude of stats for all 32 teams and plugging them into a long formula, I've been able to get a glimpse over who really has had the best season so far; and also who's been snake-bitten or living on luck.
32. Carolina Panthers (Last Week: 32)
With the last four games against the likes of the Steelers and Atlanta twice, their game against the Cardinals on Week 15 might be the last chance they have for a win.
This season's been horrible. Nine of their 11 losses have been by double digits. In reviewing the stats for them, I found they've punted 15 times more than they've forced their opponents to kick it away, the largest dichotomy I found in the league.
They have scored 46 less points than any other team in the NFL. A passing rating of 55.1 for a game is bad. but that's the passing rating the Panthers have...for the entire season.
31. Buffalo Bills (Last Week: 28)
Long known as the team that came this close to winning against the likes of Baltimore, the Steelers, Chiefs and Bears, it looked like their come-from-behind demolition of the Bengals might've shown the world that they were just a decent team that feel short week after week.
But after last week's rout by the Vikings, it came to light that the Bills are just a team with a bad defense. While the offense was able to put them on the board, the Bills are five points away from giving up the most points in the NFL. After all, they do have the league's worst run defense.
30. Arizona Cardinals (Last Week: 31)
Offensively, they've outgained the Panther's by 50 yards for the entire 2010 campaign, which makes them 31st in the league for Total Offense. The Bears, which are 30th, have outgained them by 320 yards for the same 12 weeks.
Their 3-9 record seems not-so-pathetic. But consider that seven of their nine losses are by double digits, including their last four. They are also on a seven-game losing streak.
That happens when you score the second-least points and also allow the most in the NFL at the same time.
29. Cincinnati Bengals (Last Week: 29)
Last year, there was a debate whether this team was simply overachieving or if it had finally gotten over the hump to become a solid contender. Funny. We're now debating whether this team should be blown up and sold for parts.
I think they have just underachieved this year like they overachieved last year. They are what we thought the Bills were. Of their 10 losses, only three are by 10 points or more. Ironically, all three of those are to the Patriots, Bills and Jets. Stranger still, their worst single-digit loss was to the Dolphins.
Simply put, they are the same typical 7-9/6-10 team that just got owned by the AFC East.
28. Detroit Lions (Last Week: 30)
In a word...fundamentals.
First, the Lions have been penalized the second-most times in the NFL, and for the third-most yards. Of course, that's not including some of the bad non-calls that have killed this team.
Second, it's in the trenches. When you've got the 28th-best running offense and the 25th-best running defense, something's not going right on the line of scrimmage.
27. Denver Broncos (Last Week: 27)
Hoping to mimic the same success that the Cowboys had with Jason Garrett and the Vikings had with Leslie Frazier, Denver has gone to the Interim Coach Well itself to salvage a losing season.
Josh McDaniels, who earned his stripes calling the plays for Tom Brady's almost-perfect season, was actually doing a good job replicating that success - for the passing game, which currently ranks fourth in the league. But considering that the running game ranks 29th, and the running and passing defenses rank 22nd and 31st, and that basically reveals that McDaniels will be a great coach in the Mountain West Conference.
26. Washington Redskins (Last Week: 23)
While a 5-7 record isn't the 26th-worst record in the league, a deeper look makes one wonder if it hasn't been a miracle it got that good.
When you can't move the ball, you punt. Right? So what does it say about your offense when you've punted the most times in the NFL? And what does it say about your team when you see no other defense has allowed more yards than your defense?
It probably adds up to the NFL's fifth-worst point differential (-71), eclipsed only by teams that were on the previous page.
25. San Fransisco 49ers (Last Week: 24)
With Seattle, Arizona and the Rams left on the schedule (along with a Chargers team that finally forgot how to win in December), there might actually be a chance to make this season half-decent after its 0-5 start.
Losing to Atlanta and New Orleans by two points and to the Eagles by three does make you look like a better team that just didn't catch the breaks. But when you also lose to the Buccaneers by 21 and the Packers by 18, it says that maybe this teams has some parts, but still needs work.
24. Dallas Cowboys (Last Week: 26)
Five weeks ago, this team was catching up to the then-winless Bills on my stat formula. Yes, even worse than the Panthers.
Under Wade Phillips, the Cowboys scored 161 points and allowed 232 in eight games. Since replacing him with Jason Garrett, they've scored 133 and allowed 104.
Phillips' Avg. Final Score: Opponents 29 Cowboys 20
Garrett's Avg. Final Score: Cowboys 31 Opponents 26
23. Seattle Seahawks (Last Week: 25)
Okay, beating up the Panthers (or at least this year's Panthers) will run up your stats and give the season at least some footage to put on NFL Films' Year in Review video.
They are now 6-6. But three of those wins are against the afore-mentioned Cardinals and a sweep of the Cardinals. That, and consider that the closest of their six losses have come by 15 points. With games against the 49ers and Rams, they still have a shot to reach .500, since they also have Atlanta and Tampa Bay on the schedule as well.
Another perspective. This year's Gold Standard for substandard football - the Panthers - have been outgained by 935 yards for the season. The Seahawks? Outgained by 1,009.
But please, Pete Carroll. Please - for your own sake - don't make the playoffs.
22. Houston Texans (Last Week: 18)
If 100 is the standard for an excellent QB rating, then allowing a season-long 104.5 QB rating to your opponents must be a sign your passing defense isn't very good.
In their five wins, they won by an average of 8.8 points against opponents with a combined record of 30-30. But in their seven losses, they've lost by an average of 11 points to teams that are a combined 48-24.
With Arian Foster leading the NFL's 10th-best running game and Schaub-to-Johnson leading the 7th-best passing game, it's just a matter of can the offense keep up with what the defense allows.
After Baltimore, the Texans face the Titans, Broncos and Jaguars.
21. Minnesota Vikings (Last Week: 22)
Consecutive wins over the Redskins and Bills help, especially with the excitement of an interim coach.
With Brett Favre's evil twin playing this year, the Vikings continue to have the NFL's worst turnover ratio (They are tied with Jacksonville right now.). But on defense they have allowed the second-fewest first downs.
But when all five of your wins have come against losing teams and all seven of your losses have come against winning teams, the next three weeks against the Giants, Bears and Eagles don't look good.
20 St. Louis Rams
Currently, the best of the NFC Worst, the Rams have a chance to really prove any potential post-season mettle against the Saints and Chiefs in the next two weeks.
19. Jacksonville Jaguars (Last Week: 20)
Yes, I know. 7-5 and in first place. But four weeks ago, I had the 4-4 Jags ranked 28th.
They still have an overall point differential of -43. The only other division leader is the Rams (-5). The only other team with a winning record that has a negative point differential is the Bucs (-8). If you want to include Seattle, with their differential of -53, be my guest, but you've already heard how much of a paper champ I think they are.)
But if they continue at this pace, they're ranking here might actually reflect similarly with their season record. Of the 1137 yards Maurice Jones-Drew has gained, 667 has been in the last five games.
Two interesting stats: The Jaguars have the worst turnover ratio in the AFC at -11. The Jags have also punted the fewest times in the NFL. So if they don't turn it over, they likely are in position to score.
Take care of the ball, and we could be seeing the return of the 2007 Jags, who beat the Steelers at Heinz Field.
18. Tennessee Titans (Last Week: 16)
Going into their bye week, they led the NFL in scoring. Now, they are in the middle of the pack. Before the bye week, they had only scored less than 20 points once. Since the bye week, they have yet to score 20. After losing five straight, it looks like Randy Moss will not help
Usually, having two games against the Colts would let them help their own cause, but since this is the year Peyton Manning finally becomes human, the best they can do is win out, finish 9-7 and hope the Jags sputter, for 9-7 will probably not get a wild card slot.
17. Oakland Raiders (Last Week: 19)
Looking over my tea leaves I find strange things with the Raiders. While no team has been penalized more than the Raiders, no team has benefited from opponents' penalties more than Oakland either. They've outgained their opponents for the season, but only by 88 yards. Only four games have been within a touchdown or less. They lose by 32 to the Steelers and to Miami by 15, then turn around and end the Chargers' December winning streak that predated President Obama.
With a record of 6-6, I'm just glad my lil' formula put them in the middle of the pack.
16. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last Week: 14)
If the Vikings had the Buccaneers' schedule, they'd be...the Buccaneers, who are also undefeated against losing teams and winless against teams with a losing record. But while the first two losses were each by 25 points to the Steelers and Saints, the last three were by a touchdown or less - twice to the Falcons and also against the Ravens. Maybe they are starting to put something together.
15. Miami Dolphins (Last Week: 15)
Miami's 6-6 record comes with good news and also bad news. The good is that they are 5-1 on the road, which is a stat usually reserved for the NFL's elite. But that logically means that they are also 1-5 at home, which is something you usually see from those who are looking forward to a high draft choice.
Two interesting stats about this team. First is penalties. They have seen the second-fewest flags thrown against them, and those flags have been for the fewest yards in the NFL. Second, seven of their games have been by single digits, They can beat the Vikings and Bills by less than a touchdown, but also keep the Packers and Steelers to within a field goal as well. After watching them play the Browns, I'm convinced this is a team that does a great job of playing to not lose, but with a turnover ratio of -6, they manage to pull it off too many times.
14. Cleveland Browns (Last Week: 17)
One of the stats that really carries weight in my formula is the combined record of a teams' opponents. No team's combined opponents' record is higher than the Browns' opponents, whose combined record is 86-58. And they still have a 5-7 record.
The problem with the Browns is that games are four quarters long. If they were only three, Cleveland would be 8-4.
Another great gem about the Browns? Rob Ryan has created a defense that has the third-most takeaways in the NFL, trailing only the Giants and Steelers.
If they put together four quarters against the Bills and Bengals in the next two weeks, they can be perfect spoilers for either the Ravens and/or Steelers to end the season.
13. Indianapolis Colts (Last Week: 13)
Five weeks ago, I had this team preparing for a first-round bye in the post-season. However, after a gauntlet of Michael Vick, Carson Palmer, Tom Brady, Phillip Rivers and Jason Garrett's now-open playbook, the Colts still have the 4th-best pass defense in the NFL.
And despite counterbalancing it with pick-sixes, Peyton Manning still leads the NFL's most yard-producing passing game.
12. San Diego Chargers (Last Week: 10)
When the Chargers were 3-5, I had the Chargers "over-rated" just as I do now, as their Achilles' Heel was a devastating turnover ratio. Since then, they've won three of four, and after this week's matchup against the Chiefs, they finish the season against 'Niners, Bengals and Broncos.
If I could throw a "Challenge Flag" like they do on ESPN's "NFL Live," I would throw one to the Chargers' defense. While they have the NFL's top passing defense and rank fifth at stopping the run, they only have 15 takeaways - six from the Jaguars in Week 2. In all six losses, the Chargers also lost the turnover battle. This should not be entirely on the shoulders of Phillip Rivers' arm and Darren Sproles' hands.
11. Kansas City Chiefs (Last Week: 12)
In contrast with the Browns, the Chiefs have run over a schedule with a combined record of 56-88, the league's worst. And with the combined record of their remaining schedule being 23-25, this might be a playoff team in name only.
How much have they relied on the Two-Headed Run Monster of Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones. They've passed the ball 354 times and ran it 428. Yard-wise, while most teams have at least two-thirds their yards in the air, the Chiefs have been almost even. (Pass: 2305, Run: 2202)
10. Chicago Bears (Last Week: 11)
The good news is that their three losses have each been by three points. The bad news is that the Bears' opponents' combined record is one game better than the Chiefs, at 57-87.
Unfortunately, the Bears don't have the same cakewalk towards the post season, as the Patriots are followed by the Vikings (rejuvenated under interim coach Leslie Frazier), New York Jets, and Green Bay; combined record: 32-16.
How they do here will define how they do in the postseason. If they get there.
9. New Orleans Saints (Last Week: 9)
If today's NFL is all about the passing game, the Saints are still a dangerous team. They have the third-best passing offense and defense.
Winners of five straight,they finish the season against the 6-6 Rams, then the Ravens, Falcons and Buccaneers. Not only will that stretch give them the momentum they need to get a good seed, it'll give them the playoff atmosphere against teams they can possibly face in January.
8. Baltimore Ravens (Last Week: 8)
Want quality wins? The Raven have beat the one-win Panthers, the two-win Bills, the three-win Broncos, the five-win Browns, the six-win Dolphins, the seven-win Bucs and two nine-win teams - the Jets and Steelers. Pretty varied, eh?
And who've they lost to? Yes, the Bengals...but also the Patriots, Steelers and Atlanta. Talk about "One of These Things Is Not Like the Other."
7. New York Jets (Last Week: 3)
Yes, it was that bad of a loss.
Last week, they were near the top in terms of allowing points. Now, they are in the "pretty good" category.
Just like they are here.
6. New York Giants (Last Week: 5)
They lead the NFL in takeaways with 30. But somehow, they have a -1 turnover ratio. They have the 12th most passing yards, despite allowing the fewest sacks in the NFL.
While the Giants' last 12 opponents have a combined record of 62-82, the final four have a record of 26-22. Not impossible, but not enough to try taking a break either.
5. Philadelphia Eagles (Last Week: 6)
No team has gained more yards on offense than the Eagles, Only twice have they scored less than 20 points. However, only the Raiders have been penalized for more yards than the Eagles.
4. Green Bay Packers (Last Week: 7)
All four of the Packers' losses have been by three points - and two of them were in OT. Also, no team has allowed fewer points than Green Bay.
Another stat is point differential, which the Pack has the largest, at +121. To put that into perspective, New England is second at +110, and in third is Pittsburgh at +76.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (Last Week: 4)
If you want an encapsulation of the Steelers' 2010 season, look at last Sunday's game against the Ravens. Ben Roethlisberger, not at his best, still does enough to win, but only because he's got a defense that skips the punt and takes the ball away to put him into scoring position.
Seven of their wins have been by ten points or less. While they have an overall point differential of +76, that is mainly fueled by their 25-point thrashing of Tampa Bay and their 32-point annihilation of Oakland.
Still, when you have 28 takeovers and the top run defense and are tied for the most sacks in the NFL, then you don't need much of an offense.
2. Atlanta Falcons. (Last Week: 2)
Can Matt Ryan manage a game? Figure this. He's completed the sixth-most passes in the NFL, but his yardage ranks 11th. And he's thrown the second-fewest interceptions of any QB that's started the entire season. That's checking down. Add to that the Falcons have a turnover ratio of +10, and that says they take care of the ball, as they have the fewest giveaways in the NFC.
That, and since they're undefeated at home, and it's likely they could have homefield advantage throughout the NFC Playoffs, the road to Dallas now goes through Georgia, no matter where you're starting from.
1. New England Patriots. (Last Week: 1)
Each week, I assemble all the raw data, and let the computer chug away, giving me a final score. The Panthers final score was -1,064,088. The 6-6 Dolphins wound up with a score of +7,807. The Ravens, a solid contender, got just over 700,000. The Falcons score was just over 1.2 million in the black.
The Patriots final score this week was almost +1.5 million.
They are not as good as the Panthers are bad. They are 50 percent better than that.
Now that is seems like the defense is able to match Tom Brady's offensive output, we might see a juggernaut that's comparable to the 2007 team.