Biggest NFL Playoff Odds Movers: End-of-Season Edition
It’s the final playoff odds report of the season, so we’ll do things a little bit differently this time.
Usually, we would look at the three teams that saw their playoff odds increase the most over the weekend, and the three that saw the biggest decline. In this case though, we probably don’t need to tell you Buffalo, Tennessee and Atlanta had the biggest gains in Week 17 and Seattle, Baltimore and the Rams saw the biggest decline.
Instead, we’ll look at the teams that improved and declined the most since the start of the season.
Not surprisingly, the Rams and Jaguars were among the biggest gainers, as they won their divisions after struggling badly in 2016. Los Angeles came into the year with only an 8.0% chance of making the playoffs per our numbers, lower than every team except Cleveland.
Tennessee had the next biggest gain over the course of the season, after starting with a 28.2% chance to make the postseason, followed by Jacksonville (29.2% before the year).
The team with the highest preseason playoff odds to miss the postseason is Seattle, which had a 57.0% chance of making it prior to Week 1.
Los Angeles Rams (11-5)
Preseason Playoff Odds: 8.0%
The Rams' run at the NFC West title was surprising in its own right, and even more unexpected given how they did it.
In August, if you had to envision the Rams making a playoff push, it probably involved the Rams playing excellent defense with passable offense. In reality, the Rams were one of the most well-rounded teams in the league, supplementing a strong defense with an offense that took a massive leap forward, plus elite special teams play.
The Eagles, who top our power rankings, are the only other team in the league to rank in the top ten in opponent-adjusted Net Expected Points per play on both offense and defense, and also rank in the top 10 in special teams NEP.
Jared Goff improved immensely from a historically bad rookie season, ranking sixth in passing NEP after finishing dead last last year. His partner in the backfield, Todd Gurley, also seemed to benefit from an offense led by first-year head coach Sean McVay rather than Jeff Fisher, as Gurley was sixth among running backs in rushing NEP. Like Goff, he finished last at his position in 2016.
The end product was an offense that tied for sixth in offensive NEP per play, which went along with a defense that was 10th and a special teams unit that led the league in total NEP.
Tennessee Titans (9-7)
Preseason Playoff Odds: 28.2%
The Titans were not a great team in 2017 -- and probably were not even a good one -- but they took advantage of the breaks they got and will continue their season this weekend in the Wild Card Round.
Tennessee is 22nd in our power ratings, which have them pegged at 3.42 expected points below league average. The Titans faced the third-easiest schedule in the league according to Pro-Football-Reference, but still managed to finish with a negative point differential. Against the league’s bottom feeders, Tennessee needed overtime to beat the Browns and a pair of fourth-quarter comebacks to sweep the Colts (they also lost to the Dolphins, but that was more excusable, with Matt Cassel starting in place of an injured Marcus Mariota).
The Titans' wins were mostly narrow (their +7.9 average scoring margin in victories was just 28th) while their losses tended to be big (-13.3 average margin; eighth-worst).
Tennessee started the year on the right foot with wins over Jacksonville and Seattle in Weeks 2 and 3, but was 4-3 with playoff odds under 30% heading into their Week 8 bye. After the break, they went 4-1, and while things looked dicey again after a three-game losing streak against the NFC West, the swoon had no effect on their 7-4 conference record.
After they beat a Jaguars’ team with nothing to play for in Week 17, that intra-conference mark broke the tie with fellow 9-7 clubs Baltimore and Los Angeles.
Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6)
Preseason Playoff Odds: 29.2%
The Jaguars went from a 3-12 team in 2016 to one that spent eight weeks in the top spot of our power ratings. They finished the year as the number-two team in the NFL by our metrics, on the strength of the league’s top-ranked defense by NEP.
In 2016, Jacksonville prevented opponents from moving the ball (tied for third in yards allowed per play at 5.0) but did not force many turnovers (32nd in takeaways per drive), which helped explain why it was just 25th in points allowed.
This past season, they were even stingier (4.6 yards per play, the best in the league) and regressed past the mean in the turnover department. The Jaguars ranked third in terms of turnovers forced per drive, contributing to a unit that was second in points against.
Jacksonville also improved on offense thanks to a solid running game, while minimizing the role of Blake Bortles by throwing less frequently than any team and keeping his throws comparatively close to the line of scrimmage.
Seattle Seahawks (9-7)
Preseason Playoff Odds: 57.0%
Seattle missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011. The Seahawks were ultimately done in by the surprisingly strong Rams and a late surge from the Falcons (Atlanta finished the season on a 6-2 run to nab the NFC’s final playoff berth), but this was not a vintage Seattle team.
They finished 13th in our nERD ratings, 14th in NEP on offense and 13th on defense. Russell Wilson had the worst season of his career in terms of adjusted net yards per drop back, and protection issues played a big role -- Seattle was 21st in sack rate (7.2%) and 30th in pressure rate, per Sports Info Solutions charting data at Football Outsiders.
Their problems upfront also prevented them from running the ball effectively, as they were 21st in rushing NEP per play. Even this mark was propped up by Wilson, the only Seahawk to yield positive rushing NEP for the season; the team’s running backs averaged -0.18 NEP per carry, which would have been last in the league.
The defense did not hit the heights it had reached earlier in the decade to pick up the slack, with midseason injuries to Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman proving to be particularly harmful; through Week 8, the Seahawks were third in completion percentage against (56.5%) but afterwards, they were tied for 14th (60.4%).
Dallas Cowboys (9-7)
Preseason Playoff Odds: 56.5%
In 2016, Dallas had a dominant offense, which meant its mediocre defense was more than passable. The Cowboys were tied for second in NEP per play on offense and 17th on defense.
In 2017, the offense regressed from great to just good, while the defense totally fell apart, moving to 10th and 25th in the league, respectively.
The Cowboys' odds plummeted after a 2-3 start and never really had a chance to recover, due in part to how many strong teams were in the NFC.
Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
Preseason Playoff Odds: 53.7%
We had Cardinals ranked 10th with the fifth-highest playoff odds heading into the season, but it did not take long for those numbers to go downhill.
After a terrific 2015 season, age and regression hit Carson Palmer hard in 2016 and only continued this season. Arizona's defense was strong again in 2017 (sixth in NEP per play) but could not overcome the bad spots the 29th-ranked offense put it in.