Which 2014 NFL Playoff Teams Are Most Likely to Miss the Playoffs in 2015?
Football fans usually have this urge to go down a team's schedule before the season starts in order to pick out wins and losses. It's a mostly worthless exercise in predictability, but it doesn't stop most fans from doing it the second the NFL schedule is released.
We don't do things manually here at numberFire, though. Instead, we've produced season-long NFL win projections through algorithms, giving an objective, mathematical approach to seeing which teams are best and worst entering the upcoming season.
It's easy to assume playoff teams from one year will automatically be postseason favorites during their next campaign. But, according our numbers, that's not the case. Take a look at three playoff teams from 2014 that may struggle to dance in 2015.
This might finally be the year the Bengals snap their streak of four straight seasons with a loss in the first round of the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Bengals, it might be because they’re not playing that game in January.
By our Net Expected Points metrics (NEP), the Bengals were a mediocre team in 2014. For those unfamiliar, NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average player would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data.
While Cincinnati ranked 12th in Adjusted Defensive NEP, they were just 17th on offense. There’s a case to be made that a full year with Jeremy Hill as the lead back and health from A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert could help the offense take a step forward, but this is an offense still led by Andy Dalton at quarterback. Dalton was the 24th best quarterback by Passing NEP per drop back last season, and only one quarterback on a playoff team ranked worse (Cam Newton) -- two if you’d like to count Drew Stanton.
We'll get to Stanton's team in a bit.
The Bengals also outperformed their point differential last season, one of the better indicators of future performance. Despite winning 10 games, Cincinnati had a point differential of a team expected to win just 8.6. That would already make us expect the Bengals would see a decrease in wins during 2015, but the team was also undefeated in games decided by one score or less, another regression indicator. Teams generally win half of their one-score games over a lengthy sample of games, with outliers typically coming from teams with either great quarterbacks or head coaches.
I’m not sure anyone is suggesting the Dalton-Marvin Lewis combination fits into that category, which does't bode well for the Bengals' chances of continuing that trend this season. Cincinnati was 4-0-1 in one-score games last season, a record would indicate at least some regression is on the way this season. Even one loss in a one-score game last season could have potentially bumped the Bengals from the playoffs, depending on who that loss came against.
Cincinnati also plays in a division that includes the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, two teams that outperformed the Bengals last season. According to our projections, we have Cincinnati as the 15th best team in the league, behind Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Because of the competition in the division, the Bengals’ 34.6 percent chance of making the playoffs is the 19th highest in the league, 10th in the AFC.
The Cardinals are a curious case in trying to predict regression one way or the other. While there are plenty of signs to suggest Arizona won’t match its success from 2014, there are more factors than usual to hint this could be a team that won’t decline as much as some numbers would indicate.
Arizona’s offense for the majority of the season was dreadful. The Cardinals had to rely on Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley at quarterback along with an ineffective run game, which finished 26th in Adjusted Rushing NEP per attempt. Arizona, in turn, was worse offensively than every other 2014 playoff team.
However, the Cardinals aren’t just carrying over the same offense into 2015. The team signed guard Mike Iupati as a free agent to help in the run game, added David Johnson to what should be a healthy Andre Ellington in the backfield, and the Cardinals will get back a quarterback who was doing pretty well while he was on the field last season. During the six games Carson Palmer played, he ranked seventh among quarterbacks in Passing NEP per drop back. If you’re looking for upgrades, it’s hard to find one better than Lindley to Palmer, even if the latter only has one working knee.
One of the biggest losses for the team, though, could be defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Bowles was the mastermind behind the pressure-heavy Cardinals defense that ranked seventh in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. New defensive coordinator James Bettcher was on the defensive staff last season as the outside linebackers coach, so it’s possible he adapts some of the intricacies of Bowles’ defense, but there could be a significant difference in a Bowles-like defense and a defense run by Bowles.
In terms of point differential, no team overperformed more than the Cardinals in 2014, who, during an 11-win season, had the point differential of an 8.3-win team. Again, there are factors in play to suggest the Cardinals won’t decline as much as a typical team with a 2.7 win difference, but to believe everything to cancel out and expect the team to win 11 games again would be just as fruitless.
We have the Cardinals as the 10th best team in the league according to nERD, but with just the 18th highest odds to make the playoffs at 34.9 percent.
Throughout much of 2014, the Lions found a lot of success on defense. Detroit had the fourth best defense in the league by Adjusted NEP, and the top run defense unit by a wide margin. Last season, the Lions had a -0.19 Defensive Rushing NEP per attempt (for defensive numbers, the lower the better) and the next best team, the Ravens, were at -0.11. The gap between Detroit and Baltimore at number two was the same gap between Baltimore and San Francisco at number 12.
Part of that loss was countered by the acquisition of Haloti Ngata from Baltimore. Having Ngata certainly beats not having a player of his caliber on the defensive line, but looking as a whole, Ngata and Tyrunn Walker don’t add up to Suh and Fairley, regardless of how much Walker has impressed in camp so far.
The defense, understandably so, helped the Lions not give up a lot of points during the season. In only two games last year did Detroit give up more than 24 points to an opponent, yet the Lions only put up a point differential of a 9.2-win team. A 9-7 record wouldn't be a bad thing, and it’s better than the two other teams listed here that overperformed, but the Pythagorean expectation for the Lions was nearly two wins fewer than their 11-5 record in 2014. With a possibility of an improving Minnesota Vikings team, and the Packers being the Packers, the Lions also could find themselves in one of the league's most competitive divisions.
Our numbers tend to agree with the potential step back, as the Lions currently project to be the 20th best team in the league by nERD. We currently have them with a 33.0 percent chance of making the playoffs, the 10th highest percentage in the NFC.