Can the Rams Actually Make the Playoffs?
Los Angeles Rams head coach Jeff Fisher has kind of -- no, definitely -- become a running joke for his ability to turn in average seasons consistently.
In fact, since a superb 13-3 campaign with the Tennessee Titans in 2008, Fisher has failed to produce a winning record in six straight years. Prior to 2016, Fisher had coached 20 full seasons, and his teams had produced just six winning records, which account for all six of his postseason appearances.
Fisher has taken his run of mediocrity to a new level with the Rams, entering this year with a 26-36 record through four seasons and winning exactly seven games in three different campaigns. All the almost-winning seasons have enticed the Los Angeles front office enough for them to want to keep Fisher around, with reports coming out this fall that the Rams want to extend their coach.
The Fisher fun reached a pinnacle this fall when the coach himself addressed his propensity for “meh” seasons with an expletive-filled rant on Hard Knocks. “I am not (insert colorful language) going 7-9, 8-8 or 9-7 -- OK?” Fisher said as he grilled his team for not paying attention to details.
It made for great -- and hilarious -- television, but after a 3-1 start, including impressive wins over the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks, Fisher might have been right. Maybe the Rams won’t be average. Maybe they’ll actually -- wait for it -- make the playoffs.
Well, they’re certainly off to a good start. Historically, teams with a 3-1 record make the playoffs roughly 62% of the time. Those are pretty good odds, but our numbers aren’t as high on the Rams.
Our nERD metric, which measures the number of points a team would win or lose by against an average opponent on a neutral field, gives Los Angeles a rating of -3.58. That ranks 23rd in the NFL and puts them behind several 2-2 teams and a pair of 1-3 teams in the New York Jets and San Diego Chargers.
It’s not that the fast start doesn’t matter; it certainly does.
Our models give the Rams a 41% chance of making the playoffs, the 14th-best mark in the league. They also have better odds (22.8%) of winning the NFC West than the Cardinals (15.7%) despite the fact our nERD metric has Arizona as the fourth-best team in the NFL.
The 3-1 start is great.
It’s just that the Rams still aren’t very good.
Los Angeles’ point differential is -13, meaning they’ve been outscored by 13 points this year. If that trend keeps up, their win-loss record will likely begin to mirror that. The Cardinals, for instance, have outscored their opponents by 12 points -- a 25-point difference compared to the Rams -- despite winning two fewer games. Shoot, the woeful San Francisco 49ers have a point differential (-17) very similar to Los Angeles', mostly thanks to a 28-0 beatdown of the Rams in Week 1.
The Rams are pretty much the same kind of team they’ve been in recent years, featuring a menacing defense and one of the league’s worst offenses.
According to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, Los Angeles has the worst offense in football, ranking last in Adjusted NEP per play, which is adjusted for strength of schedule. They are 29th in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play and 31st in Adjusted Passing NEP per drop back. On the other side of the ball, the Rams are 12th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play, led by a pass defense that our metrics rank 9th.
Here is the good news for Rams fans: among the 12 playoff teams a year ago, 11 of them ranked in the top 13 in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. Defense matters. Of course, 9 of the 12 playoff teams also ranked in the top 12 in Adjusted NEP per play on offense, and the Rams are a long way from that.
With that said, a win this week over the Buffalo Bills -- a home game where the Rams are 2.5-point favorites -- would would move them to 4-1. Historically, teams with a 4-1 record make the postseason 74% of the time, and I think we all know how Jeff Fisher feels about those odds.