Which 2015 NFL Playoff Teams Are Most Likely to Miss the Playoffs in 2016?
Each year in the NFL, there’s a fair amount of turnover for teams that make the playoffs. While the Super Bowl favorites typically remain the same, the teams on the fringes are rarely constant from one year to the next.
The NFC East's division winner was 4-12 the year before, and the Baltimore Ravens went from a 10-6 Wild Card team to a 5-11 squad with the sixth overall pick in the NFL Draft.
Figuring out which teams will miss the playoffs is rarely an easy task -- the Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals were in this space last season -- but there are factors we can use to help pinpoint the teams that are most at risk.
Using our Net Expected Points (NEP) and nERD metrics, as well as measures such as point differential, we can take a look at three 2015 playoffs teams that might have a more difficult path to returning in 2016.
Let’s start with the team that wasn’t all that good last year. Washington finished the 2015 regular season 14th in nERD, the worst of all playoff teams, and won the NFC East with a 9-7 record thanks to paltry performances by the rest of the division. The Redskins were only one spot ahead of the Atlanta Falcons, who were widely viewed as a disappointment.
Washington also only outscored opponents by six points total over the course of the season, which was 14th in the league and also the lowest of all 2015 playoff teams. Using that point differential, their Pythagorean win expectation was closer to that of an 8-8 team with an expected 8.2 wins than their 9-7 record, something that usually indicates there could be a step back in wins the following year.
By Adjusted NEP per play, Washington ranked 28th last season running the ball on offense. The team responded by letting Alfred Morris leave in free agency, which brought Matt Jones into the starter role. It’s rarely a bad idea to make a change in a unit that struggled so much the previous year, but Jones wasn’t considerably better than Morris last season -- he was worse.
Among 43 running backs who had at least 100 carries, Morris ranked 36th in Rushing NEP per attempt. Jones was 43rd. And to bring more questions into the running game, a shoulder injury will cause Jones to miss the rest of the preseason.
Of course, Washington will be a team that relies mostly on their passing game behind Kirk Cousins. Cousins had a stellar second half of the season, but it’s fair to wonder if that performance is sustainable because it’s a far departure from Cousins’ previous career baseline.
Washington also has to deal with an improved division behind them. The Dallas Cowboys will get back a healthy Tony Romo and might have the best running game in the league to help take the load off the quarterback, and the New York Giants spent multiple boatloads of money in an attempt to improve a defense that allowed late leads to slip away last season.
The Redskins also made a move to improve the 22nd-ranked pass defense by Adjusted NEP per play with the signing of Josh Norman. Our numbers still peg Washington as the division favorite with a 36.9 percent chance to win, but those are the lowest odds among the eight division favorites, and they’re the only division favorite to have fewer than a 50 percent chance of making the playoffs when the Wild Card option is added.
It’s not often the reigning Super Bowl champions go into the following season as an underdog in their own division, but that’s how the Denver Broncos will enter 2016. The Broncos hoisted that Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season thanks in most part to the top-ranked defense by Adjusted NEP per play last season. That’s great for the 2015 Broncos, but it doesn’t tell us as much as one would think about the 2016 team.
First, a few key players from that side of the ball did what many opportune players from a great unit do: get a lot more money somewhere else in free agency. Malik Jackson signed a massive six-year, $90 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Danny Trevathan signed for four years and $24.5 million with the Chicago Bears. Denver will still return nine of 11 starters from last year’s defense, but even with those returnees, defensive dominance is not nearly as sustainable from year to year as it is on offense.
Our NEP metric goes back through the 2000 season, and since that time, only one defense has finished first in Adjusted NEP per play for back-to-back seasons: the 2003 and 2004 Baltimore Ravens. In those 15 seasons, there are four instances when the top defense dropped out of the top-10 the following season, two of which fell all the way into the 20s. On the other side, there are six instances when the top defense remained in the top-five the next year.
Denver got to where they did last season because they had a great defense -- even a very good one probably wouldn’t have delivered a Super Bowl. That’s due to an offense that routinely needed to be carried each game. The Broncos had the 28th-ranked offense by Adjusted NEP per play last season, and it’s unknown how much improvement there will be this year. Peyton Manning struggled mightily last year, but there is no guarantee the winner of the Trevor Siemian/Mark Sanchez /Paxton Lynch triple-threat match will be an immediate improvement.
The Broncos were also a team -- thanks to the defense -- that largely outplayed their point differential. Despite winning 12 games, Denver played at a rate that would expect just 9.7 wins. That 2.3-win difference was the second-highest in the league behind the Carolina Panthers because no one ever really plays at a 15-win pace, but the Panthers still had a Pythagorean win expectation of 12.1 wins, which was the best in the league.
We have Denver with the eighth-highest odds of winning a division at 37.9 percent, but in the AFC West, those are the second-highest. We have the Kansas City Chiefs as the sixth-best team in the league at this point in the preseason by our nERD rankings and the slight AFC West favorites with a 39.2 percent of winning the division.
Last year, the Minnesota Vikings were routinely picked to be a breakout team, and they did just that. The Vikings played well, but they also benefited from the struggles of the Green Bay Packers, which helped them win their first division title since 2009. In the playoffs, they were just a chip shot field goal away from defeating the Seattle Seahawks and moving on to the Divisional Round.
The Vikings are a young team that should continue to improve, but the road to the playoffs and a division title might not be as easy in 2016. The Packers, with a little better health, shouldn’t be expected to struggle as much as they did last season. The scary thing for the Vikings is to know that a 10-6 season for the division rival Packers is considered a struggle. We see the Vikings and Packers close again -- with Green Bay ahead. Only four spots separate them in our nERD rankings and we have them 0.3 wins apart, so little details within the season could be the difference between a playoff team and one that misses out.
One of those details could come from the schedule. The NFC North gets to play the NFC East and AFC South this season, probably the two divisions any team would want to play. The difference comes in the two extra games, which include opponents from the NFC West and NFC South. With the division title, the Vikings will play a first-place schedule, which puts the Seahawks and Panthers on the docket, while the Packers will play the Cardinals and Falcons. There’s probably little difference between the two NFC West opponents, but the advantage of playing the Falcons instead of the Panthers may loom large for the Packers in a division that was decided on the last day of the season last year.
Minnesota, like the others on this list, also outperformed their Pythagorean win expectation in 2015. The Vikings won 11 games but had a point differential of a 9.8-win team. That 1.2-win gap was tied for the fourth-highest in the league. By our numbers, Minnesota has a 30.7 percent chance of taking the division with a 46.9 percent chance of making the playoffs overall. Green Bay, meanwhile, has 38.4 percent odds at the division title and a 54 percent chance of making the playoffs this season.