Are the Right Teams in the NFL Playoffs?

Did the 12 teams who made the playoffs deserve to get in?

Sunday proved to be one of the most exciting season finishes in recent memory for NFL fans, regardless of which team you root for. Almost every game had fantasy implications, and the large majority of them were filled with drama throughout the entire 60 minutes.

Now that the dust has settled and the sun has set on the 2013 regular season, we can take a second to breathe and try to figure out what just happened.

The Week in Review

The Arizona Cardinals found out during their game that New Orleans was blowing out Tampa Bay. The Bucs were putting up little resistance, and it helped the Saints clinch a payoff spot while simultaneously eliminating the Cardinals, regardless of the outcome of their game. The Cardinals ended up losing anyway, so it is a moot point.

The Steelers had quite the roller coaster ride after the Dolphins and Ravens both lost. With those two teams losing, the Steelers would get in with a win of their own and a loss for the Chargers, who were facing off against Kansas City second-stringers. And that nearly happened. The Chiefs lined up to kick a 41-yard field goal at the end of regulation, when their kicker, Ryan Succop, missed wide right to send the game into overtime. The Chargers would go on to win and capture the six seed in the AFC with a 9-7 record.

And who could forget the return of Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb? The Pack battled back and stole the NFC North from the Bears in the last 60 seconds of the game, as the once unhealthy duo of Rodgers and Cobb hooked up for a deep touchdown.

The week then came to a heart-racing conclusion with the "NFC East Championship", which of course went down to the wire to fit right in with the theme of the week. The Eagles survived a Romo-less Cowboys team who had a chance to win the game on the very last possession only down by two.

With the games decided and the playoff brackets set, only the best 12 teams remain to vie for the Lombardi Trophy.

Or do they?

numberFire's Porwer Rankings and nERD

To begin an analysis, it's important to explain the metrics that will be used. In this case, we will be looking at numberFire's NFL Power Rankings. There are three statistical categories that are relevant for this exercise: Offense, Defense, and the most important, nERD:

Offense - total points scored above expectation; the higher the better. If a team's offensive score is 100, they scored 100 points more than a league-average offense would score if put in similar situations
Defense - refers to total points prevented above expectation; the lower the better. If a team's defensive score is -100, they have prevented 100 points that a league-average defense would have allowed.
nERD - numberFire's calculation of how good a team is based on expected point differential against a league average team. If the team's nERD rating is 10, they would be expected to win by 10 points against a league-average opponent.

To really hammer this home, we can use the top power-ranked team as an example:

TeamOffenseOFF RankDefenseDEF RanknERD
Denver Broncos248.901st25.4413th12.48

You will notice a couple of extra columns on our table: Offensive Rank and Defensive Rank. These represent where the team ranks in these categories relative to the rest of the NFL. The Broncos had a nERD of 12.48, which means that against an average opponent, they would be expected to win by about 12.5 points.

Their offensive score of 248.90 represents the fact that they score approximately 250 points over the course of the season that an average team would not have had they been put in similar situations. This obviously takes first place in the NFL, as all kinds of points and yardage records fell to the 2013 Bronco's team on Sunday.

The defensive score of 25.44 is middle of the pack (13th). Remember, the smaller the number, the better. These are points prevented that an average team would not have prevented over the course of the season assuming they were put into similar situations. For some perspective, Seattle had the best defensive score (not surprisingly) of -98.49.

First Five Out, According to nERD

Let's take a look at the top-five teams who didn't make the playoffs, in terms of nERD, and see how they fared in terms of these metrics. Was a team or two left out that should have made it to the dance?

5. St. Louis Rams

TeamOffenseOFF RankDefenseDEF RanknERD
St. Louis Rams39.8617th43.4220th-0.32

Faced with the tough task of playing each member of the NFC West twice a year, it's hard to argue that the Rams belonged in the playoffs. They finished tied for 15th in the NFL in the nERD department, making them a very average NFL squad. With the second overall pick in the draft, it would be shocking if they don't improve on their nERD ranking next season.

4. Tennessee Titans

TeamOffenseOFF RankDefenseDEF RanknERD
Tennessee Titans57.9612th60.6021st-0.32

The Titans could not have made the playoffs even with a win this past week against the Texans, so they don't really have any reason to be upset for missing the playoffs. But they did finish the year tied for 15th with the Rams in nERD, surprisingly putting together the 12th-best offense in the league.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers

TeamOffenseOFF RankDefenseDEF RanknERD
Pittsburgh Steelers41.6016th34.7417th0.29

Pittsburgh fans had the most heart-breaking Sunday of anyone. Just a 41-yard field goal by Ryan Succop was all that separated the Steelers from the six seed in the AFC playoffs.

But in the end, Succop missed and the Chargers won in overtime, eliminating the Steelers. Looking at their 14th-best nERD, they are a team that was on the cusp of the top 12, but not quite good enough to be overly angry about missing the playoffs.

They ended the season with offensive and defensive scores in the middle of the pack. They actually had a better defensive score than the vaunted Denver Broncos, but obviously their offense was not effective enough to claim a top nERD rating, nor was it efficient enough to close out crucial games in the beginning of the season when they started 0-4.

2. Detroit Lions

TeamOffenseOFF RankDefenseDEF RanknERD
Detroit Lions37.5718th26.7714th0.53

The Lions had the NFC North on a silver platter, starting 6-3 and seeing injuries to divisional rival quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler. But they couldn't get it done.

This wasn't just frustrating for Detroit fans, but it bothered Lions' management enough to the point that head coach Jim Schwartz finally had to go. Lions fans can sulk over their late-season collapse all they want, but because of their play down the stretch, this team finished just outside the top 12 in terms of the nERD power rankings in 13th place.

1. Arizona Cardinals

TeamOffenseOFF RankDefenseDEF RanknERD
Arizona Cardinals17.1221st-49.415th3.88

To reiterate, even if the Cardinals would have won their matchup versus the 49ers and moved to 11-5, they would have still been on the outside looking in. Do Cardinal fans have reason to feel slighted at their exclusion from the playoffs?

Even if we ignore the fact it's brutal to go 11-5 and not get into the playoffs, our metrics say they absolutely have a reason to be upset. Their offense was slightly below average, but they boasted a top-five defensive rating of -49.41 (again, this means they prevented an extra 50 points over the course of the season that an average team would not have).

The Cardinals nERD of 3.88 ranks 10th in the NFL. They were the only team not to be included in the playoffs with a top-12 nERD score.

The Top-12 Teams in Terms of nERD

Curious which teams make up the top 12 and how they rank? Each of them are detailed below in order of nERD. There are some surprises, with the major one being the fact that the Green Bay Packers made the playoffs with the 20th-ranked nERD, finishing behind Buffalo and Miami. The Aaron Rodgers injury obviously had a huge impact on this low ranking, but the defense was just the 27th-best one according to the metrics. The offense ranked 10th, but that would have been higher if Rodgers played the entire season.

Another surprise is Kansas City's 22nd-ranked offensive score even though they rank sixth in the NFL in terms of points per game. San Diego's 29th-ranked defensive score also sticks out like a sore thumb. This alone is a testament to how efficient Phillip Rivers has been with the football, with help from Keenan Allen's historic rookie season.

TeamOffenseOFF RankDefenseDEF RanknERD
Denver Broncos248.901st25.4413th12.48
Seattle Seahawks86.868th-98.491st10.69
New Orleans Saints177.202nd9.8410th9.37
Carolina Panthers63.8811th-55.783rd6.88
Cincinnati Bengals46.7114th-61.292nd6.24
Philadelphia Eagles112.345th22.2111th5.00
New England Patriots112.474th25.1512th4.83
Kansas City Chiefs15.9122nd-54.564th4.12
San Francisco 49ers49.1313th-21.807th4.05
Arizona Cardinals17.1221st-49.415th3.88
San Diego Chargers166.343rd108.2329th2.95
Indianapolis Colts99.037th67.6023rd1.57

In all, 11 of the top-12 teams in terms of nERD made the playoffs this season, with the Cardinals being the one squad on the outside looking in. Though some feel the playoff system in the NFL is flawed, at least we know that, this year, nearly all the "right" teams ended up getting a chance to lift the Lombardi.