Not all bad teams are created equal. Here at numberFire, we know that better than most, as we spend lots of time running analyses to adjust for opponent and game situation. While win-loss record is the only statistic that truly matters in the end, it can be a superficial measure that belies how good (or bad) a team really was.
Losses in close games, “fluke” or unlikely major-impact plays and plain old bad luck can all factor into making a decent team look “bad.” But those things tend not to repeat themselves year after year, so looking at last year’s good “bad” teams, can help to forecast next year’s actually good teams. All of this is basically just a long-winded way of saying the NFC South will be a division to watch in 2013.
The Panthers finished 7-9 in Cam Newton's second season as the star quarterback faced criticism for everything from his on-field decision making to the way he handled his postgame press conferences. It’s a safe bet that all that noise would have been a whole lot quieter if the Panthers had gone, say, 10-6 and been in contention for a playoff spot.
The Panthers put up a total nERD score of 31.50, which means they were roughly four touchdowns and a field goal better than the average team over the course of the 2012 season. As a point of reference, playoff teams Cincinnati and Indianapolis put up nERD scores of 31.40 and -51.70, respectively. (The story of how Indianapolis managed to put up an 11-5 record with such terrible numbers has been covered before, notably by Grantland's Bill Barnwell).
The Panthers’ positive nERD score indicates at least a winning team, if not a very good one. The Panthers’ score was also significantly than the league’s two 8-8 teams, Dallas (-2.03) and Pittsburgh (8.00).
Why was Carolina’s nERD so high? The Panthers were bolstered by the league’s fourth-best ground attack, which boasted an adjusted net expected points (NEP) of 38.77. Only Washington (71.35), San Francisco (47.51) and Minnesota (43.92) put up better rushing numbers. Remember, that rushing metric adjusts for opponent and situation, which is why it looks so much better than the raw data. Carolina ranked just ninth in team rushing yards with 2088.
Carolina also lost a bunch of close games, some of which they clearly should have won. All told, the Panthers finished 1-7 in games decided by seven points or less. Those losses included games like the Week 4 debacle in which Ron Rivera opted to punt on fourth and inches, only to watch Matt Ryan drive the Falcons from the 1 into game-winning field goal range in under 59 seconds. Or the Week 5 loss to Seattle when the Panthers had four chances to score the game-winning TD from the five yard line but came up empty. Or the Week 6 loss to Dallas, in which the Panthers allowed Tony Romo to drive 44 yards to set up the game-winning field goal with 3:25 left. Or the Week 8 loss the Chicago after Carolina blew a 19-7 fourth quarter lead, and allowed the game winning field goal as time expired. Or the week 11 loss to Tampa Bay in which the Panthers blew an 11 point lead with 4:34 to go.
See a pattern?
If Carolina had held on for even two of those seven losses, they would have been a 9-7 team. Three, and they would’ve been a playoff contender. Instead, they got lumped in with the other “bad” teams of 2012.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints also posted an excellent nERD last year: 57.12 to be exact. In addition to having a higher score than lower-rung playoff teams Cincinnati and Indianapolis, the Saints had a better expected point differential than Super Bowl champ Baltimore (52.27).
New Orleans was powered by an excellent passing attack, whose NEP (149.70) trailed only New England (184.46). Basically, that means Drew Brees and Co. were worth a little more than 25 touchdowns more than the average team, after adjusting for competition and situation.
The Saints actually fared reasonably well in close games, going 4-3 in contests decided by seven points or less. They did have a whole different set of problems to deal with, after Roger Goodell handed down the strict bounty-related penalties. Coach Sean Payton was suspended for the whole season, and even interim coach Joe Vitt missed the first six games, resulting in the rare interim-interim coach.
The Saints and Panthers both put up numbers that indicate they were much better than their records last year. The Buccaneers added two All-Pro players to their secondary. The Falcons, at 13-3, had the NFC’s best record. Between those four teams, the NFC South should give the NFC West a run for the best division in football.