Metric analysis

Unmasking NFL contenders heading into playoffs: measure shows who’s real amid confusing landscape

In football, you want seven and not three (or zero). Touchdowns are the goal. Goals on the field are the consolation prize. And, yes, that old adage should probably be updated to want eight, not three, because two point conversions are more in fashion than ever.

But you get the idea.

One would assume that the teams that score the most touchdowns and give the fewest touchdowns would have the best chance of winning it all, or at least deserve high consideration. Admittedly, there are other metrics – like turnover rate, or the differential between passer scores or the number of starters for the season – that one could look to as a predictor of success. But net touchdowns seem like a pretty good place to start.

We are always looking for ways to quantify teams or assess the part of luck, luck or defying the odds in a team’s overall record. Are there any teams that probably deserve a better or worse record? I’m not smart enough or math prone enough to claim to have an answer to this question, but I have spent some time studying touchdown differentials to create some interesting fodder, as you reflect on the long run of season trying to sort through a jumble of teams jumbled up in each conference at a time when the results seem more unpredictable than ever.

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For example, if the playoffs started now, the Ravens would be the AFC seed. However, they only rank 10th in this conference for net touchdowns. Baltimore (8-3) actually scored two more touchdowns than they scored, while Miami (5-7), who looked left for dead on a seven-game losing streak, didn’t. in fact just behind the Ravens at -3. Oh, and the Dolphins beat the Ravens just a few weeks ago and have a four-game winning streak.

A little shows you how narrow the margins are and how wacky this game can be.

But I also think it’s revealing. The Ravens aren’t an elite team on offense or defense (the team’s ground totals look garish, but they’re powered by off-script runs by the quarterback; the running backs themselves have been largely below the league average). It took a refereeing error and the longest field goal in NFL history for the Ravens to beat the Lions without a win, they escaped the Browns last week despite four turnovers, and they give up as many big plays than any NFL team. It looks like they are significantly outperforming the Pythagorean landscape, with their current seed being nine places above their position in AFC’s net touchdowns.

Here is the top 10 of the AFC TD differential:

1. Ox +18
2. New England +13
3. Cincinnati +12
4. Indianapolis +5
5. Kansas City, Tennessee +4
7. Denver +2
8. LA +1 chargers
9. Baltimore -2
10. Miami, Cleveland -3

If you’re bullish on the Colts – and I am – and think they’re better than their record, that might provide some evidence. Also consider that Indianapolis are 5-3 in the conference, with some weak AFC South enemies still to play, and you can build a playoff record for them.

In NFC, there is also little of interest to be learned from this metric. The Eagles should have won on Sunday – they outscored the Giants but succumbed to crashes, turnovers and weird red zone play calls – and it looked like they might have a run with their dominant running play as well and improving their defense. They have a +2 TD differential over the season, and I think they’re probably better than their 5-7 record.

Despite being ravaged by injuries in so many key positions, the Saints occupy a surprising fourth place in the NFC with a +7 rating. If they can be a bit healthier and get something more out of the quarterback, can they have a run despite being 5-6? I wouldn’t rule them out. And the fact that two teams from the same division – Atlanta and New Orleans – have the same record (5-6), while one is +7 and the other is -14, strikes me as weird.

The only NFC teams with a higher net touchdown score than the Saints are the Cardinals and Bucs (+15) and the Cowboys (+12). I also find it interesting that while it looks like the Packers (9-3) will run away with NFC North, the Vikings (5-6) are at +2 and Green Bay is only +3. Minnesota beat them a few weeks ago, and the Vikings are a team that repeatedly finds ways to lose games, as evidenced here.

The overall depth within the AFC seems quite staggering. How about 12 teams with a record of .500 or better at the end of the season, and four that are a 12-34 combined? And very soon Miami could reach the .500 level as well.

All AFC North teams are above .500; these teams are a 10-4-1 combined against the NFC. AFC West also doesn’t have an under-.500 team; this division is 11-5 against the NFC. And the last three AFC teams – with a total of seven wins – have a total of four wins over winning teams (the Titans are responsible for two of those losses – against the Jets and the Texans).

With the extra week of games, the playoff chase could be crazier than ever. A New England victory on Monday against Buffalo would put the Pats 7-1 in the AFC, by far the best score in this conference. The Bengals are then the best at 5-2, and a win over the Chargers would put them in a prime position to clinch one of the playoff spots as well.

And with so many division games to play, we’re definitely heading for more twists and turns. The Ravens and Chiefs, for example, have only played two games in their division each, and each AFC team still has at least two division games to play.

Buckle up. It should be crazy.