Sunday, November 17, 2013

NFL Midpoint Review: The Contenders

In Part 1, I broke down where each team was in relation to it's pre-season over/under. Here, I'll discuss what I believe to be the playoff contenders:


Kansas City Chiefs
Why They'll Win It All: A dominant defense anchored by a great DT in Dontari Poe is stout against the run. Edge rushers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali are menaces. Jamaal Charles can win games by himself on offense and Alex Smiths' sack (7.6%) and interception (1.3%) rates are near career-lows. They're staring at home-field advantage throughout the AFC. Andy Reid is an underrated coach, as is Dave Toub (formerly Chicago's special teams coach, and special teams matter in the playoffs).
Why They'll Fall Short: Charles' 2.3% rating is only 17th in Football Outsiders' DVOA chart despite ranking 12th in total yards above replacement (DYAR). That means he is producing via a huge number of carries but is not as explosive as some other backs. Dwayne Bowe (-1.7% DVOA, 50th among WRs) is nonexistent and there isn't a second receiving threat. They have played a soft schedule and need to prove themselves against playoff teams. They've allowed teams with backup QB's to make games close in recent weeks as they've been unable to put together long offensive drives. Andy Reid is weak at clock and situation management and can afford no mistakes in the playoffs (though he did well in tonight's loss to Denver, using his timeouts to stop the clock earlier rather than late).

Denver Broncos
Why They'll Win It All: They have the game's best player playing at a high level. Knowshon Moreno is 5th in RB DVOA (12.9%) and is the 4th best receiving back by the same metric (39.5%). In the playoff loss to Baltimore last year, Moreno was out with injury and the Ravens quickly picked up on when the Broncos wanted to run (Ronnie Hillman in the game) or pass (Jacob Hester). Moreno gives them the ability to do both and fool defenses. Even Montee Ball is showing he is able to pass protect effectively. The 3 receivers (9th, 13th, and 28th in DVOA) have worked together seamlessly and complement each other well. Julius Thomas is making defenses obsolete. Their own defense has gotten a shot in the arm with the return of Von Miller.
Why They'll Fall Short: Their defense is still only ranked 20th in DVOA which keeps other teams in games. And while my eyes see them as stout against the run in the middle, the stats have them at 14.1% for pass DVOA (you want a negative number for defense, as it means you're taking yards away), which is 24th in the league. The O-line has played admirably, part due to Peyton's quick release and part due to the staff's commitment to rushing. But they lost an above-average left tackle and a player at the toughest offensive position to replace besides QB - center (reason being teams can shuffle tackles, guards, backs, and receivers around, but can't generally shuffle a guy in at center). They also may lose home field advantage to the Chief's, which means a wild card game. On the other hand, that may be a bonus as playing at home in the cold Denver air is bad for Peyton. And Peyton is the key. He began showing some athleticism this year before the ankle/knee injuries and they need him to be completely mobile and healthy for the playoffs.

New England Patriots
Why They'll Win It All: They've cobbled together a respectable offense. We still haven't seen the best from this bunch because they haven't gotten their guys back. That translates to: no film for opposing coordinators to game plan for come playoffs. Tom Brady is getting more comfortable with his rookie receivers. Stevan Ridley, with 20.3% DVOA, is the most efficient back in the league, fumble issues aside. They've had some luck (the end of the Saints game), and you need some luck.
Why They'll Fall Short: Defensive injuries. Isaac Sopoaga is decent, but he's no Vince Wilfork. They're still ranked 11th in defense (-5.3% DVOA), but that may not last. And while they are getting guys healthy, almost all of their skill position players are injury risks at this point. They like their other running backs, including Legarette Blount and Shane Vereen, despite having Ridley; Ridley is getting almost 40% fewer carries than workhorse backs Marshawn Lynch and LeSean McCoy (both above 190 rushes on the season).

Indianapolis Colts
Why They'll Win It All: Andrew Luck has been even better than last year. His team has called upon him again and again in impossible situations and they have a 7-3 record to show for it. The defense is physical and Robert Mathis is a beast rushing the outside. They have beaten some of the best teams in the league (Broncos, Seahawks, 49ers) definitively.
Why They'll Fall Short: Luck is still only 16th in DVOA with a rating of 1.0%. He has a habit of overthrowing receivers a few times a game. While this has alleviated my concerns about his arm strength, good quarterbacks can't afford to miss these shots, especially in the playoffs when you may only get a few good shots a game. Flacco missed almost none of them in last season's Super Bowl run. All young quarterbacks with live arms struggle with touch, how to throw over the defense but arc it enough that it drops to your guy. Luck is going to have to figure it out, fast, because the Colts have no running game to speak of. The offensive skill position guys after Reggie Wayne are retreads (Donald Brown), cast-offs (Trent Richardson, Darius Heyward-Bey), and inconsistent (T.Y. Hilton). Special teams are a disaster: forget the Tavon Austin punt return TD. The Rams consistently got good kickoff/punt runbacks and consistently pinned the Colts' kickoff men before the 20.

Cincinnati Bengals
Why They'll Win It All: Andy Dalton has improved. He is posting an ANYPA (adjusted net yards/attempt, which converts all QB metrics into their yardage effect) of above 6.00 for the first time in his career. He still doesn't do any one thing particularly well but is throwing downfield more. AJ Green may not be human.
Why They'll Fall Short: Andy Dalton has regressed. He has had 2 straight games with under 2 net yards/attempt and 3 total this year. Selective endpoints aside, Joe Flacco never had a stretch like that last year, and you can be sure the Manning's and Brady's aren't messing with their attempts like that. His yards/attempt and completion % have generally tailed off as the season progresses. Also, defensive injuries to Leon Hall and especially Geno Atkins are huge. These may be their two best defenders. Finally they keep giving BenJarvus Green-Ellis the ball despite his -13.8% DVOA (27th) and having Giovani Bernard 10.7% (8th among backs with at least 80 touches) on the team. Marvin Lewis has done an admirable job developing talent - he now needs to deploy it.

New York Jets
Why They'll Win It All: The Jets are not going to win it all. Muhammad Wilkerson is good, though, and their -11.2% defensive DVOA (5th) is why Rex Ryan is a good coach. I was shocked to find the Jets currently hold tiebreakers for the last AFC playoff spot.
Why They'll Fall Short: They're the Jets. They're relying on a rookie QB in Geno Smith who sports a -24.8% DVOA, good for 38th in the league. Remember, there are only 32 teams in the NFL, which means there have been 6 backup QB's that have outplayed Geno. He was the most overrated guy in the draft, in college, and is now showing the Jets why. The only signal callers with worse ratings are (in descending order): Freeman, Weeden, Pryor (offset by his running skills), and Gabbert, who has an eye-popping -81.9% rating. Also, RBs Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory both sport negative DVOAs and have murdered a few fantasy seasons for kicks. Also, the Jets will not win it all because the Jets will not win it all.

Miami Dolphins, Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Titans
None of these teams will win it all.

Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens
Why They'll Win It All: The Steelers are finally finding their offensive groove after a bunch of offensive injuries. The Ravens defense has recovered from Peyton's TD-fest
Why They'll Fall Short: They've both dug a big hole against the Bengals though the Wild Card is in play. Nobody on either of these teams scares me, though. Pittsubrgh is 27th in defensive DVOA and Baltimore is 29th in offensive DVOA.


Seattle Seahawks
Why They'll Win It All: They have a good but not great running game (6th in DVOA), a good but not great quarterback (11th), and a fantastic defense (2nd) and special teams (2nd). They have a great head coach. They are getting one of the most dynamic receivers in the NFL back in Percy Harvin. Their current receivers are stretched a bit by starting roles, but getting Percy back should give everyone a better niche. Russell Wilson has proven he is no fluke in the playoffs. Marshawn Lynch has overcome a somewhat slow start and is beasting again. They have played a tough schedule and seem to be toying with the league. They are one of the most physical teams in the league, which translates well to the playoffs (Ravens, Giants, etc.). They have the best home field advantage in the league.
Why They'll Fall Short: The entire team could be suspended for PEDs. Outside of that though, the Seahawks have been stretched the last few years by offenses that can run out multiple receivers and stretch the secondary's depth. Teams like the Saints and Packers (if healthy) are probably not as good as Seattle but could give them trouble with all those receivers. That's about all that stands to me as a weakness. Scary.

New Orleans Saints
Why They'll Win It All: They got one of the best coaches in the NFL back this year and seem to be on a vendetta. Seriously. They have a swagger about them like a champ that was knocked around by the league and knows it needs to take it out and get it back. They have Drew Brees. Pierre Thomas has blossomed into a pass-catching threat and has averaged over 4 yards/carry for the last 4 games. The defense is significantly better year-over-year.
Why They'll Fall Short: The defense still shows weaknesses, especially against the run (rush DVOA of 7.5% is 30th). This point is moot largely because they score so much opposing offense are often pressed to pass, but in the playoffs, they will play a great rushing team. Their special teams ran in the lower third of the league. Brees has quietly posted the second-highest sack rate (5.1%) of his career - while you may think that will regress to the mean, so might is interception rate which is the second lowest of his career (1.9%). Jimmy Graham is lighting the world on fire but is dinged up and needs to be healthy.

Detroit Lions
Why They'll Win It All: They have the best receiver in the game, someone that requires special game planning. They have Reggie Bush performing at an all-pro level. He seems to be a big difference maker running hard (15th in DVOA) as well as catching the ball (22nd). Stafford still has inconsistent feet, throwing motion, and arm slot, but he has improved over last year. You never know when a gunslinger (Flacco, Eli) will get hot, and it's easy to get hot with Megatron on your team. They have a guy nicknamed after a transformer, and a bad*ss one at that.
Why They'll Fall Short: Stafford's value is inflated by Detroit's pass-happy approach. Despite ranking 5th in defense-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR), he is only 9th in DVOA, a rate-adjusted stat (e.g. it measures his value per attempt rather than the total value). Both numbers are valuable but just saying that the big yardage totals need to be placed in context. Reggie Bush is a perennial injury risk - while backup Joique Bell has posted a 9.6% DVOA and is probably better than the backs they trotted last year, it's still not ideal to turn to the backup. Their rush defense is stingy but their pass defense isn't and in a passing league, that means a mediocre defense overall (19th). Their special teams ranks one spot worse the New Orleans. They have Jim Schwartz at the head coach position - he is about as qualified for his job as I am at sports blogging.

Philadelphia Eagles
Why They'll Win It All: 'Cuz they're my sleeper team! Wouldn't a Philly-KC Super Bowl be great (TV networks may shoot themselves)? People have given Chip Kelly so much crap - sorry if the guy is comfortable in his own skin and doesn't care what you think about his offense. Let's look at the numbers: Nick Foles (the nominal starter) has a 45.5% DVOA which ranks 1st. Yup. Above Peyton. Ok, sample size matters and he's played much weaker competition (DVOA adjusts for it somewhat, but you still need to watch the games). The point is, he's closer to an upper-echelon QB than a mediocre one like Andy Dalton (or Mike Vick and his -9.6%). LeSean McCoy's 13.7% DVOA ranks 4th, his 175 DYAR is 1st, he has the most carriers in the league at 193 and doesn't look tired at all. Want him to catch? 19.9% DVOA (14th) and 71 DYAR (7th).
The scary thing about this offense: it can get better. Early in the season, Foles missed some reads for one-on-one shots downfield. Those shots continue to be there and most teams will have to choose between covering receivers one-on-one, or losing the numbers game in the box. I'm not concerned about injuries: Vick is an injury risk no matter what you do and the offense is predicated on quick reads/releases. Even the QB runs are designed to be favorable, giving the QB time to slide. Talent-ise, they are much worse team than say Seattle, but I could see a scenario where a few big plays to fast guys in space leads to a 2- or 3-score lead, and they run the ball from there. I could also see a 20 point blowout. There is no middle ground.
Why They'll Fall Short: The defense is horrible: mediocre against the run (18th) and atrocious against passers (28th). Special teams rank one behind Detriot (what is with the NFC ?). The passing offense, while effective, is simplistic: the drops and route trees just aren't that advanced, and while Foles is executing well, he will see better disguised coverages facing better offenses that have more time to scheme in the playoffs. They're kind of like Peyton's teams in where there's not much that surprises you but they typically out-execute. That gets harder in January. Foles has seen the Giants, Tampa, Dallas, Oakland, and Green Bay. None of those are particularly good defenses.

Carolina Panthers
Why They'll Win It All: Cam Newton is turning into a team leader that guys trust on offense. They also sport the best defense in the league, including an absolute beastly front-7. They rank 6th in adjusted sack rate and 4th in run stuffs. And that may understate the effect: I watched Colin Kaepernick go down, throw away, or check down time after time after time against this front. The running backs look rejuvenated: DeAngelo Williams has posted an 8.9% DVOA, good for 10th.
Why They'll Fall Short: The whole Cam evolution hasn't translated statistically, where his ANYPA of 5.61 is the lowest of his career (6.24 and 6.65 in 2011/2012) and his yards/carry average has dipped from 5.6/5.8 in 2011/2012 to 4.2. His -1.7% DVOA is 17th. Part of it is the receivers: Steve Smith has visibly lost a step and Brandon LaFell is not a high quality starter. They don't really have a tight end passing game in an era where you really need one.

San Francisco 49ers
Why They'll Fall Short: Because I stupidly picked my own team to win it all at the start of the season, let's start with the weaknesses: they are completely one-dimensional. Last year, take away the run game, they pass. Take away the receivers, they pass to backs and tight ends. Take all that away and Colin runs and makes you look silly. I watched team after team try to stop them in various ways and the only real solution was to hit them in the mouth (Seattle, Baltimore). This year? It's worse. If you can stop the run, there's no Plan B. The receivers just can't get open fast enough, which necessitates long drops. Part of it is also that Colin isn't super fast at reading defenses - he avoids mistakes well enough but he looks 0.5 a second slower than an elite QB, which will come in time. So now Colin is 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage, the offensive line isn't built to pass block, and oh, there it is, he's sacked. I won't rattle his stat line here because I have a more in-depth piece on him forthcoming, but 5.5% DVOA is 13th. Meanwhile, Frank Gore has been fantastic but his 6.8% DVOA is "only" 12th. The offensive line is dinged with Iupati perhaps the first to miss time in a while. The defense is still fearsome but they don't have great line depth and injuries are concern for a high-priced veteran team.
Why They'll Win It All: Despite some recent stumbles (including 2 lost challenges today), Jim Harbaugh is one of the best coaches in the business. They're great at developing talent, AJ Jenkins aside. And when they get Michael Crabtree back, it should be a huge boon to an over-stretched receiving core. The whole season I think they've held stuff back so as to not have too much on film. Finally, Gore is still a bell cow: he has consistently proven wrong everyone who thought he was done before last year. He always falls forward, still has burst for big gains, and never puts the ball on the ground. I love how high he holds the ball, pinning it against his chest, using his strong pectoral muscles rather then carrying it loosely at his side like many backs. You can only use your biceps when carrying the rock that low, and your chest is stronger than your arms. At first contact, he brings the off hand up to secure the ball further, all the while constantly churning his legs. He is a joy to watch.

Arizona Cardinals
Why They'll Win It All: They have one of the best defenses in the league (2nd by DVOA).
Why They'll Fall Short: They need Carson Palmer to step up in big moments. The same Carson Palmer that hasn't been relevant in the playoffs since 2005 (2 teams and 1 almost retirement ago). They keep giving the rock to Rashard Mendenhall (-16.2% DVOA) even though they have Andre Ellington (38.5%).

Chicago Bears
Why They'll Win It All: They have a good head coach in Marc Trestman who has turned Josh McCown into a usable NFL player. Brandon Marshall ranks 9th in DYAR and they've found a No. 2 in Alshon Jeffery (25th). Matt Forte is on track and seemingly injury-free (10th in DYAR).
Why They'll Fall Short: Injuries. Not just to Cutler. Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs have missed time, and pass defense has struggled as a result. No amount of wizadry from Trestman can make McCown an above-average playoff QB. Marshall only ranks 25th in DVOA - they pass to him so often that his yardage total is super high.

Dallas Cowboys
Why They'll Win It All: Tony Romo has again proven to be a top-10 quarterback. They finally found a running game in Demarco Murray (17.0% DVOA ranks 2nd, 116 DYAR ranks 7th). They are in an easy division and winning that is worth home field advantage in the wild card round.
Why They'll Fall Short: Like Chicago, injuries. They can't lose Demarcus Ware again with Sean Lee out. They situation is even more precarious given the defense is worse (18th) and they have less depth due to the abominable salary cap situation.

Green Bay Packers
Why They'll Win It All: Aaron Rodgers' magic + 7th ranked DVOA rush (5th ranked by DYAR) > 29th ranked defense (and 26th ranked special teams)
Why They'll Fall Short: Scott Tolzien and the recently-signed Matt Flynn aren't going to send them to the playoffs. Get well, Aaron Rodgers.

For the teams not mentioned: prove me wrong! I would love it for a Rams, Giants, or Browns team that was written off to make it!

Finally, my Super Bowl pick (a homer pick) was 49ers over Broncos. I like the Broncos side of that but will have a tough time seeing anyone knock of Seattle, especially if they have home-field advantage. Remember: as a wild card team last year, they played two straight away games. Scary. 

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