What This Year's NFL Playoff Teams Have in Common
The mantra “defense wins championships” is a cliche in nearly every team sport, but when looking for common themes from this year’s NFL playoff participants, I discovered it may actually be true -- at least in regards to the 2015 NFL season.
I also learned some other interesting things.
For example, the Washington Redskins are an outlier in this year’s field, and four teams -- the Carolina Panthers, Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers -- have separated themselves as true all-around forces.
Using our signature Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, let’s take a look at some correlations among this year’s postseason combatants.
Also, if you’re new to numberFire, welcome! Here, we aim to dig deeper than traditional box score numbers. Why should a 10-yard gain on 3rd and 8 count the same as a 10-yard pickup on 3rd and 15? Answer: It shouldn’t. One moves the chains and keeps the drive alive while another likely leads to a punt or field goal try. So we came up with NEP.
In every situation during a football game, there is an expected number of points a team will score on a drive. A positive play -- such as the aforementioned 10-yard gain on 3rd and 8 -- will increase the expected points. A negative play, a 2-yard rush on 3rd and 3, will decrease it. Add up the changes in expected points throughout the year, and you get an NEP. Team NEP totals, what we’ll deal with primarily in this piece, are adjusted based on strength of schedule.
You can read more about NEP in our glossary.
Onto those similarities.
Defense Is King
In a league where quarterbacks typically reign supreme, defenses ruled the roost in 2015. Eleven of this year’s playoff teams ranked in the top 13 in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. The Denver Broncos, Panthers, Houston Texans, Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs -- in that order -- hold down the top five spots.
Arizona ranked 7th while Pittsburgh (9th), the Cincinnati Bengals (10th), Green Bay Packers (11th), New England Patriots (12th) and Minnesota Vikings (13th) round out the top 13. Washington, winners of the NFC East, was the only exception, and the Redskins finished the regular season a respectable 17th.
The two non-playoff teams to rank among the elites were the New York Jets (sixth), who narrowly missed out on the postseason, and St. Louis Rams (eighth), who did not narrowly miss out on the postseason.
Ranking strongly in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play proved to be the one thread most in common between the 12 playoff teams. It wasn’t the only one, though.
Nine of the 12 teams finished in the top 11 in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. Denver, Carolina, Houston, Kansas City and Seattle (in that order) made it an all-playoff top five, with Arizona (8th), Pittsburgh (9th), Green Bay (10th) and Minnesota (11th) also faring well.
Again, the Redskins were exception, ranking 22nd, worst among the playoff teams. Also again, the Rams and Jets were highest-ranked teams to miss out on postseason football.
While defending the pass proved vital, stuffing the run wasn’t quite as important. Just over half of the 12 teams finished in the top 12 in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play, with the Cardinals and Broncos the only playoff teams in the top five.
Just for the sake of repetitiveness, the Jets ended the year ranked first, and the Rams were third. It shows you how terrible the St. Louis offense was (32nd in Adjusted Offensive NEP per play) and how unlucky the Jets were to miss the postseason. New York ended the regular season ranked eighth in our nERD-based power rankings, ahead of five playoff teams.
With Alex Smith, Brian Hoyer, (a semblance of) Peyton Manning, A.J. McCarron and Teddy Bridgewater starting in the first weekend of the postseason, I guess it’s no surprise defense carried the day for a lot of the playoff teams.
I Take Offense to That
I’ll admit that I was surprised by the defensive trend. Maybe that’s the fantasy football nut in me -- you know, the guy who only cares about skill-position players.
But it’s not like we have a postseason full of Rex Grossman’s 2006 Chicago Bears. There are some great offenses, too, led by the Cardinals.
Arizona ended the regular season ranked first in Adjusted Offensive NEP per play. In fact, 9 of the 12 teams still playing football ranked in the top 12, with the Patriots (third), Steelers (fourth), Bengals (fifth), Seahawks (sixth) and Panthers (seventh) leading the way. Washington (9th), Minnesota (11th) and Green Bay (12th) also found a home in the top 12.
Kansas City ranked 14th, just missing the cutoff. The two glaring anomalies are Denver and Houston, who ranked 28th and 25th, respectively. The New Orleans Saints (2nd), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8th) and New York Giants (10th) were exceptions the other way.
It didn't matter whether teams found offensive success on the ground or through the air. There were seven postseason teams apiece in both Adjusted Offensive Rushing NEP per play and Adjusted Offensive Passing NEP per play.
Each of the top five teams in per-play passing efficiency are still alive, with Arizona, Cincinnati, Seattle, Washington and New England (in order) locking down the first five slots. Pittsburgh (seventh) and Carolina (ninth) were the other two playoff teams inside the top 12.
Houston (27th), Denver (25th), Minnesota (20th), Kansas City (19th) and Green Bay (18th) -- yes, Aaron Rodgers' Packers -- are all still playing football despite ranking in the bottom half of the league.
Two of those teams -- the Vikings and Chiefs -- found major success on the ground. Kansas City ranked second in rushing efficiency while Minnesota was third. That’s especially impressive for Kansas City, considering Jamaal Charles carried the ball only 71 times this season.
Pittsburgh (4th), Carolina (5th), Seattle (6th), Arizona (8th) and New England (10th) also finished in the top 12 in Adjusted Offensive Rushing NEP per play.
Green Bay (15th) and Cincinnati (19th) had around average rushing attacks. On the other end of the spectrum, Houston (24th), Denver (27th) and Washington (28th) were among the league’s worst running teams. More on the Broncos' and Texans' offensive ineptitude in a second.
The Cream of the Crop
The Panthers, Cardinals, Steelers and Seahawks separated themselves as the premier all-around teams.
Each squad ranked in the top 10 in every per-play team metric -- Adjusted Offensive NEP per play, Adjusted Offensive Rushing NEP per play, Adjusted Offensive Passing NEP per play, Adjusted Defensive NEP per play, Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play and Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play. To no one's surprise, those four teams sit atop our nERD power rankings.
Ironically, Seattle and Pittsburgh are both 6 seeds, which could make for some heavyweight clashes in the divisional round, if the Seahawks and Steelers can win on the road this weekend.
The Worst of the Best
Washington owes a lot of their success to Kirk Cousins. It’s not that the Redskins are terrible everywhere else -- they do rank 13th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play -- but Adjusted Offensive Passing NEP per play is the only metric in which Washington falls in the top 10. In fact, the Redskins sit ninth in Adjusted Offensive NEP per play despite having one of the league’s worst rushing attacks (28th).
Denver and Houston are really interesting and similar teams. Each is phenomenal defensively -- the Broncos are first while the Texans are third -- but they’re two of the league’s least effective offenses. Houston checked in 25th while Denver finished 28th.