Now that we have nine weeks of action in the books we can start talking about playoff projections with some certainty, along with using any statistics available to analyze team performance because as the old saying goes “they are who we thought they were” – certainly applies at this point. For this analysis I am going to use my SOS data, including looking both back and ahead, as a barometer for measuring potential success or failure over the last two months of the season. For this analysis, any metrics or rankings I mention will be as measured by my performance statistics – I will not include any opponent’s record SOS comments in here because you can find that information elsewhere – here, we are going to analyze the pure performance of each team based on the statistics I track, and how that impacts SOS.
Let’s first examine SOS looking back, analyzing the year to date, and see whose record may be inflated based on playing poor teams, or vice versa. I will include a # in parentheses next to each team – that # will represent the same SOS we are measuring in that section but will be forward looking SOS, while the ranking is the to date ranking.
Here are the toughest schedules to date:
- STL (8)
- NYJ (32)
- TEN (28)
- DAL (14)
- NO (7)
It is not a coincidence that none of these teams are above .500 SU, but it is a coincidence that all five teams have exactly 3 wins on the season. Do any of these teams have a chance at turning their 2012 campaign around and making a playoff run? Right off the bat it seems only NYJ, DAL & NO would have an outside chance at playing football in January. As far as the Jets go, they face the easiest schedule down the stretch – and with the 6th and final AFC playoff spot seemingly up for grabs, we could see them make a move. The two NFC teams will have much more of an uphill battle based on their remaining SOS, and overall strength in the conference. The NFC is extremely deep this season, and it seems unlikely a team worse than 10-6 will reach the playoffs. Even if a 9-7 squad was to make it, both DAL & NO would have to finish the season 6-2 just to reach 9-7. I am not saying it couldn’t happen, but their SOS and play to date would suggest that is an extremely uphill battle.
Here are the weakest schedules to date:
32. MIA (19)
31. SD (15)
30. IND (14)
29. CHI (2)
28. TB (14)
We can certainly see a correlation here between these five teams who have played the weakest schedule to date and their playoff positioning. MIA & IND have perhaps been the biggest surprise teams in the AFC, while SD joins them to form a trio that figures to be deep in the hunt for that 6th and final playoff spot. The two NFC clubs listed are playing well as CHI leads the NFC North at 7-1, while TB sits at 4-4 including going 3-1 since their bye week. The real question for these teams especially the AFC trio is will this weak schedule phenomenon continue during the final two months of the season? Most of these team’s remaining SOS are mid-pack – which won’t necessarily hurt or help – but the one that stands out is CHI. The Bears, after facing the 3rd easiest schedule through the first half of their season will face the 2nd toughest over their final eight games. CHI will need to boost their performance significantly if they are going to hold off the Packers in the NFC North – more on that topic below.
Continuing our discussion on the season to date, let’s examine which teams have played the toughest and easiest slates against opponent’s offenses.
Here are the toughest opponent’s offense schedules to date:
- TEN (31)
- CAR (14)
- NO (11)
- DAL (9)
- DEN (26)
Among these five teams only DEN appears to be a legitimate playoff contender at this point, and they have been able to overcome a schedule packed with top offenses because their own offense is ranked #2 in the NFL. Also of note with the Broncos is the fact their defense is currently ranked #5 in my numbers, and they have accomplished that feat playing the 5th toughest schedule of opponent’s offense – that clearly shows just how well the DEN defense is currently playing. DEN’s remaining schedule is not heavy on strong offense teams, which should bode well for their record since their offense is very strong, and also improving their defense rank some, building confidence in that area for January. What is also interesting here is the two worst defenses to date, NO #32 & TEN #31, both have faced a tough schedule as far as opponents offenses go. That leads to the questions, is their defense really “that bad”, or is it also a function of a tough opponent’s offense schedule; and, more importantly, will this tough schedule extend into the second half of the season? The Titans have been gashed on numerous occasions this season, but they will face the 2nd easiest opponent’s offense schedule to close the season after facing the toughest thru the first half of their season. Look for the Titans defensive numbers to improve over the final eight weeks. Lastly, the Saints should continue getting involved in high scoring shoot-outs as they will face quite a few strong offenses to close the season, and their defense is subpar for sure – potentially target over plays on their games. One thing to remember as far as gambling on these games go if you see a big discrepancy in these rankings to date vs. the rankings to close the season, we can potentially expect a dramatic change in performance by a team, which could be a perfect spot to make some money. For example, looking at TEN – everyone believes the Titans have an awful defense, including the guys setting the wagering lines – but, we now know that part of that reason was because they have faced numerous strong offenses early in the season – when the tables turn, as my numbers suggest they will, they could be a prime target for side plays, and possibly under selections since the totals will be inflated based on performance to date. That is just a side tidbit to think about when you see these offense and defense specific SOS rankings.
Here are the weakest opponent’s offense schedules to date:
- MIA (4)
- IND (7)
- HOU (17)
- NE (29)
- CHI (5)
MIA/IND/CHI are amongst these five teams, and we also saw them show up above in the easiest schedules discussion – we now know a key driver behind their easier first half schedules was their opponent’s weak offenses. Moving ahead, the two teams which really stand out when correlating this information to actual performance are IND & NE. The Colts are currently ranked #27 defensively, which is poor by itself – toss in the fact they have faced the 2nd easiest schedule of opponent’s offense to date, and that defense is a definite sore spot for IND moving forward as they continue their playoff push – add in the fact their opponent’s offense SOS jumps to #7 over the final 2 months of the season and it appears their defense will start yielding additional points – combine that with a rookie QB, and it could mean a missed playoff spot for the Colts in Andrew Luck’s first season. But, one of their main competitors for that last playoff spot is MIA, and they will face an even tougher opponent’s offense schedule to close – however, MIA is ranked #9 in the NFL so far defensively, significantly better than the Colts. As far as NE, the Patriots check in at #22 defensively, but they have faced the 4th easiest opponent’s offense schedule to date. What’s more, to close the season, they also face the 4th easiest opponent’s offense schedule! While this set-up will certainly help the Patriots as far as playoff positioning, it could present a problem once January rolls around and the high-powered AFC offenses like HOU, DEN, and PIT are on the other sideline. Final point on this data, once again CHI shows up as not only having an easy slate to date, but also an extremely tough close to their season.
Last piece of the season to date SOS analysis, let’s examine opponents defenses, and see who the top and bottom five are.
Here are the toughest opponent’s defense schedules to date:
- STL (4)
- SF (9)
- SEA (6)
- ARI (5)
- JAC (32)
How about that, the 4 toughest opponent’s defense schedules are comprised of the NFC West quartet. And it makes perfect sense – here are the rankings of each team’s defense in that division: SEA #1, SF #2, ARI #7, STL #26. Sans STL, the NFC West is STACKED full of tough defenses with 3 of the 7 stingiest units calling that division home – amazing since this division was more times than not the laughing stock of the NFL since realignment in 2002. It seems so long as these team’s defenses continue playing well they will be at or near the top of this ranking because they still have to play each other multiple times. JAC rounds out the top 5, lending additional support to the fact their offense is ranked dead last in the NFL. At least for the Jaguars they will enjoy a complete 180 (as this analysis stands now, it’s obviously fluid and will change some but not drastically week to week) and face the easiest schedule of opponent’s defenses to close the season. If QB Blaine Gabbert cannot get the anemic Jaguar offense going in their final 8 games they may settle into the top pick in the 2013 NFL Draft and select another QB.
Here are the weakest opponent’s defense schedules to date:
- SD (18)
- KC (14)
- CLE (7)
- TB (23)
- CHI (1)
What is most concerning about this group of team’s is none of them has a top 10 offense, yet they have played very easy schedules thus far as measured by strength of their opponent’s defenses. What else really stands out is CHI – they show up in the bottom 5 schedules to date in every breakdown checking in at #29 overall, #28 vs. opponent’s offense and #28 vs. opponent’s defense. Are the Bears really a SB contender, or are they the pretender they always seem to be come January that is just taking advantage of a soft early schedule? I would lean towards the latter, especially considering how bad Jay Cutler has played of late – against some of the weaker defenses in the NFL! Add in the fact the Bears will face the toughest remaining schedule of opponent’s defenses and it could spell big time trouble for Lovie Smith and the Bears. The two other areas worth noting in this section are CLE & TB: the Browns are right in the mix for the top selection in the 2013 NFL Draft, and having to face a relatively tough schedule of opponent’s defenses down the stretch will likely hurt their chances of picking up wins (especially considering they start rookie QB Brandon Weeden), increasing their chances of selecting #1; the Bucs have made a nice push over the last four weeks going 3-1 and scoring 100+ in my grading system in all 3 wins – they have a nice balance rated #10 offensively and #13 defensively thus far – with a weaker schedule of opponent’s defenses coming up they could put themselves right back in the NFC playoff picture if they can maintain this level of play under first year Head Coach Greg Schiano.
Now that we have discussed a few breakdowns of the schedule to date, here is where the information gets even more useful – let’s use those same buckets and look forward to what each team has remaining on their schedule, which can assist us in projecting potential playoff teams. I will again include a # in parentheses next to each team – that # will represent the same SOS we are measuring in that section but is the backward looking SOS (to date), while the ranking is the future remaining SOS.
Here are the toughest remaining schedules:
- MIN (15)
- CHI (29)
- ARI (9)
- CLE (25)
- DET (19)
Four of the five teams are from the NFC; three of those four are from the NFC North. As a point of reference, to see how all the analyses I post tie together, if you check my latest blog entry focusing on the section that shows my division by division strength matrix, the NFC North is far ahead of any other division, and has been amongst the two toughest divisions all season. With these teams having numerous games vs. each other over the second half of the season, they were likely to finish near the top of this analysis that focuses on remaining schedules. The key to the NFC North crown could be the fact GB does not show up on this list – that would contribute to making them my favorite over CHI, along with all the analysis above showing the disparity between the Bears easy schedule to date vs. tough schedule to close, along with overall performance to date which favors the Packers even though they have played the tougher schedule. MIN & ARI were the sweethearts of the NFL for a hot second earlier this season, but both teams have struggled of late, and figure to continue those struggles facing the toughest and 3rd toughest remaining schedules respectively. The Lions are looking to reach the playoffs in back to back seasons for the first time in a long time, but sitting at 4-4 with the 5th toughest closing schedule makes that a tough proposition – especially considering it’s likely a 6-2 finish would be needed to have a realistic chance at reaching the playoffs.
Here are the easiest remaining schedules:
- PIT (24)
- NYJ (2)
- JAC (12)
- OAK (7)
- TEN (3)
First obvious note is all these teams are from the AFC, which has been the inferior conference to date by a relatively wide margin. We can use this information to help project that PIT is likely to win the AFC North considering they are currently performing well ahead of the 2nd place Ravens, BAL will face the 7th toughest second half schedule vs. PIT facing the easiest, and the fact BAL has lost numerous key players to injury in recent weeks. The NYJ could perhaps get back into the race for the last AFC playoff spot considering much of their competition has been discussed above, and all seem to be facing some hurdles – while the Jets will face the 2nd easiest closing schedule after facing the 2nd toughest to start the season. What else is interesting is seeing CLE ranked with the 4th toughest remaining schedule, while JAC has the 3rd easiest – as mentioned above those two teams are probably in the battle for the #1 draft pick next season. Even though the eye test would seem to give the edge for being the worse team to JAC, their remaining schedules cannot be ignored, and may wind up moving CLE to the top of the board.
Next up let’s examine the teams who will face the toughest offenses to close their season:
- CLE (23)
- BAL (21)
- PHI (18)
- MIA (32)
- CHI (28)
Here we see an interesting flip for MIA & CHI, a pair of team fighting to make the playoffs in their respective conferences. To date both teams have faced some of the easiest opponent’s offense schedules, but going forward to close the season that will ratchet up a ton. That could spell trouble for both teams, but probably have more influence on MIA since they are starting a rookie QB, and appear to have worse personnel on defense compared to CHI. BAL could have issues of their own as their defense is currently ranked #24 in the NFL, and they have suffered multiple personnel losses. At this point they seem to be a relative lock to secure a playoff spot in a less deep AFC, but it would most likely be a Wild Card based on the items mentioned here.
On the flip side here are the teams that will face the easiest offenses to close the season:
- SEA (12)
- TEN (1)
- BUF (22)
- NE (29)
- PIT (15)
Immediately what stands out here is PIT showing up amongst these teams – see last point in above paragraph related to BAL. PIT appears to be close to a lock to secure the NFC North crown and at least one home playoff game. SEA has the #1 defense in the entire NFL currently – which is buoying their resurgence this season – and considering they will face the weakest remaining schedule of opponent’s offenses, it’s a good bet they will be right in the mix for a playoff spot come late December, even with a rookie QB leading their offense. The Patriot’s defense will get a break of sorts to close the regular season, but that may not be a good thing once they arrive in the playoffs and have to face some serious AFC firepower like HOU, DEN, PIT.
Lastly, let’s look at remaining schedules as measured by opponent’s defense.
Here are the toughest opponent’s defense schedules remaining:
- CHI (28)
- MIN (20)
- DET (9)
- STL (1)
- ARI (4)
Three NFC North teams lead the way, reason being all four teams in the division have a defense that currently ranks in the top half of the NFL. The Bears are the only team to show up in all 3 buckets of toughest remaining schedule, and in a competitive NFC that will have a razor thin margin of success or failure, we could see the Bears struggle some down the stretch for certain. With the way these schedules are set up I am not sure if any team other than GB will reach the playoffs this season from the NFC North. What is interesting about this group is it’s all NFC teams – the AFC team that will face the toughest schedule as measured by opponent’s defensive strength is CLE, who checks in at #7.
And here are the teams that will face the easiest defenses to close their season:
- JAC (5)
- MIA (18)
- HOU (27)
- NYG (8)
- ATL (19)
At least three, and possibly four of these teams will be involved in the playoff chase; even the other team on this list JAC will be playing for something down the stretch, a high draft position. HOU shows up having faced the 6th easiest schedule to date and the 3rd easiest remaining schedule of opponent’s defenses – which is why they have ascended to #1 in my performance ratings, and will likely secure the #1 seed in the AFC come playoff time. The Giants and Falcons should have offensive success down the stretch, enabling them to secure strong playoff positioning, and lock up their divisions early most likely. Last team of note, MIA – it will bode well for them facing the 2nd easiest defensive schedule to close the year as they try and reach the playoffs behind first year and rookie starting QB Ryan Tannehill.
Hope this information can assist you in your handicapping and projecting efforts as we head into the second half of another exciting NFL season.
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