Team Efficiency Rankings: Week 13

While the rankings are usually fairly in line with the eventual postseason picture, there seems to be one playoff team a year that throws a major curveball.  Last season, the 24th-ranked Colts rode a terrific record in one-possession contests to an 11-5 wild card berth, and in 2010 the 20th-ranked Saints faced off against the 29th-ranked Seahawks in a wildly entertaining first round game.

As you would expect, these types of teams are only fringe contenders, with far too many deficiencies to make a serious Super Bowl run.  Of course, we could easily have said that about last season's champs, who look like the favorites to become this year's postseason party crashers.

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Running Game

The Baltimore Ravens are only the 25th-ranked team this week, though that somehow represents the high-water mark of their season so far.  Indeed, it's been a rough title defense for Charm City.  Baltimore's defense remains a top-half unit against both the run and pass despite significant personnel turnover, but the offense has cratered after similar offseason changes.

It's beyond obvious at this point that the NFL is a passing league.  A couple weeks ago, Bill Barnwell noted that a whopping 69.9 percent of the 2013 season's total yards from scrimmage have come through the air.  And yet, 30 percent is still a huge chunk of yardage—the running game has been marginalized, yes, but it is not quite yet irrelevant.

But all season, the Ravens have been operating at 70 percent capacity.  The struggles of Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce are well documented, and Baltimore has been stuck in the basement of run success rate all season, a putrid number that currently sits at 30 percent.  An offensive line that lost Bryant McKinnie to a trade and Kelechi Osemele to season-ending back surgery has graded out as the fourth-worst run-blocking unit in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.  Baltimore averages a garish minus-0.16 EPA per running play, the worst mark since the 2005 Cardinals put up minus-0.20 EPA per running play.

If there's a silver lining, it's the oft-cited notion that teams with poor regular-season rushing attacks have still won the Super Bowl in recent seasons.  No champion has had a top-10 rushing attack by EPA per play since the 2009 Saints, and when examining bad rushing champs, an interesting trend emerges in their postseason performances:

It makes sense to believe that these teams were able to strike gold and ride a short-term burst of rushing success to victory.  But over the last 10 years, teams with average or worse run games really did not fare much better in their championship runs.  Only the 2004 Corey Dillon-powered Patriots were able to produce a significantly favorable run game in the playoffs.

Of course, most of those average run attacks were supplemented by quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady.  Therein lies the other half of the Ravens woes, as Joe Flacco's spectacular four-game playoff run looks like the clear outlier.  It's certainly not entirely his fault, as Baltimore shipped away Anquan Boldin for pennies on the dollar and have been without Dennis Pitta the whole season.  Flacco has really only found success on deep throws to Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, but the lack of a reliable short and intermediate threat (again, an area where Rice has failed) doesn't give him many options.

Whether or not the Ravens even make the dance is still a question.  Baltimore is tied with Miami at 6-6, though the Ravens owe the tiebreaker because of a head-to-head win.  The Ravens get Minnesota this week, but then have a home game against New England sandwiched around road trips to Detroit and Cincinnati.  The Dolphins also have to play the Pats, but their other three games are Pittsburgh, Buffalo and the Jets.

The likeliest result probably leaves both teams at 8-8, a scenario that would open up a dizzying array of possibilities for the plethora of 5-7 teams behind them.  .500 is not what the Ravens have come to expect, and at least offensively, this season feels like one of those Murphy's Law aberrations.  That may point to a bounce-back next season, but unless Baltimore tracks down the Monstars that stole Rice and Pierce's powers, a repeat is nearly inconceivable. 

The Saints Don't Go Marching Outside

Much brouhaha has arisen about the New Orleans Saints' prolific offense suddenly turning into relative pumpkins on the road, a cry that will only grow louder in the wake of their 34-7 faceplant in Seattle.  Unlike many weather-conceived storylines like Peyton Manning's supposed inability to play in the cold, this belief appears to hold some validity.

The Saints' indoor-outdoor splits are plainly obvious by whatever metric you use.  New Orleans should be a bit worse outdoors, because all those environments constitute road games.  But the drop-off is a bit too stark to ignore:

The games circled in red are outdoors, and it's concerning that both the offense and defense regress into average or worse units.  The Seattle game had not yet been added to that chart at the time of publication, but it should go without saying that the numbers weren't pretty.  If we include this week's loss, that means outdoor games have constituted five of their six worst offensive performances, and four of their five worst defensive ones.

It's a mandatory disclaimer that five games is a tiny sample size.  But it's not as if New Orleans has faced a bunch of world-beaters on the road either.  The Seahawks are obviously tremendous, but the Patriots had a struggling Gronk-less offense (not to mention that top corner Aqib Talib missed the second half with a hip injury), the Bears defense has struggled all year, the Jets offense is a dysfunctional unit, and the Bucs everything has been mediocre.

Moreover, if the Saints are to fulfill their Super Bowl aspirations, they'll most likely have to win in Seattle, and then beat the AFC champion in frigid North Jersey.  Beating the Seahawks and (most likely) Broncos or Patriots would be tough enough in the Superdome, but the Saints will have to overcome their outdoor struggles against the best teams in the league.

Make no mistake, New Orleans is still an excellent squad.  If the Saints can simply split with the Panthers over the last month, they will almost certainly win the division based on a superior conference record.  That would likely grant them a first-round bye, making New Orleans one of the handful of favorites to raise the Lombardi Trophy.  Nevertheless, the possibility of needing to win two outdoor playoff games has to make Who Dat Nation a bit apprehensive.

Quick Hits

- The Detroit Lions have re-entered the top-10 after their Thanksgiving thrashing of the Packers.  Coupled with Chicago's bizarre overtime loss to Minnesota, the Lions will almost certainly win the division if they can split their final four games against the Eagles, Ravens, Giants and Vikings.  Still, the Lions have the seventh-worst turnover margin in the league, and will most likely be playing on Wild Card Weekend.  They'll most likely face the 49ers, Panthers or Saints, making them likely candidates to open as home underdogs.

- I addressed the Ravens' excremental ground game earlier, but their biggest rivals haven't been much better.  The Pittsburgh Steelers possess the third-lowest run success rate, and much like Baltimore, their difficulties stem from offensive line issues.  Losing Maurkice Pouncey on opening day was a backbreaker, and only right guard David DeCastro has a positive run-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus.  Even with certain packages sneaking Mike Tomlin onto the field as a sixth lineman, the Steelers' offensive line woes have persisted.

- The New England Patriots are increasingly resembling the good-offense-bad-defense teams of recent seasons.  The Pats have no replacement for either Vince Wilfork or Jerod Mayo, both of whom are on injured reserve, and persistent injuries to starting corners Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard aren't helping either.  New England's defense is slipping back to league-average levels, while the offenses passes them in the night into nearly top-10 territory.  At this point, they may just be a poor man's Denver, which is a problem considering they'll likely have to face the real Denver.

I've written negative things about five teams now, which is what happens when an upstate New York resident realizes winter has arrived.  I'll be less of a Debby Downer next week (maybe), but in the meantime, these rankings will have to do.

1 SEA20.800.4721
2 NO10.740.5049
3 DEN30.710.43119
4 CIN50.680.5092
5 PHI40.640.47520
6 SF60.630.49144
7 DET110.620.50716
8 ARI80.610.52183
9 CAR100.610.50127
10 NE90.590.511113
11 GB70.570.52629
12 MIA160.540.50218
13 CLE140.530.48246
14 CHI170.520.51827
15 NYG120.520.50285
16 SD130.490.47332
17 PIT150.480.471521
18 IND180.470.501325
19 BUF190.450.502312
20 HOU200.450.471914
21 TEN230.420.451717
22 KC210.410.492910
23 DAL220.410.501624
24 ATL240.400.541031
25 BAL280.390.522715
26 MIN250.380.542523
27 WAS270.360.542028
28 TB290.360.572611
29 STL300.340.512226
30 NYJ260.340.513118
31 OAK310.320.473022
32 JAC320.220.513230


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6 Responses to “Team Efficiency Rankings: Week 13”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I don't know how difficult it would be to implement, but it would be neat to be able to select a team's icon on the "Team Stat Visualization" on the front page and see how their position has changed over the course of the year (like having a line that traces their current position back from week to week until the beginning of the season)

  2. Willy says:

    Sorry if I missed this, but what happened to the Giants? When did they become the 5th most efficient defense in the league? How have they done it? That's incredible

  3. Anonymous says:

    You say Saints will almost certainly win division if they split with Carolina? False. Divisional tiebreaks are different from seeding tiebreaks. If both teams win out, they would both be 1-1 head to head, and they would both be 5-1 in the division. Next tie break is common opponents, and New Orleans will be 7-3 (losing to Seattle, Jets, and Pats), while Carolina would be 8-2 (losing to Seattle and Arizona). Considering New Orleans also has the toughest remaining game (In St. Louis), the Panthers should be favored to win division.

  4. James says:

    Anon, using the GWP estimates and the tool, a NO-Car split has NO winning the divsision ~82% of the simulations.

  5. Colin McFaul says:

    Anon, CAR's other loss is to BUF, which is a common opponent, so they would tie at that tiebreaker. The next tiebreaker after that is Conference record, which NO wins by one game (two of NO's losses are AFC; only one of CAR's losses is AFC).

    If the two teams split their games, and each lose another, there do remain some scenarios in which one team can win at the divisional record tiebreak, or they could go as far as the strength of victory tiebreak.

  6. mitch says:

    Looks like Seattle dropped a big hammer on your previous no.1 rank Saints.

    I had Seattle no.1 way back in the week 5 post and have said they are hands-down the best team.

    In that same span you had, Denver, the Bengals, who ??, Yea the Bengals and the Saints no.1.

    Seattle is, was and always has been the best team.

    You had Carolina no.12 before the 49er game, last year you had them in the top 5 when they clearly were not, this year when they were clearly in the top 5 you had them out of the top 10.

    You may have been right on KC, we'll see going forward as they lost twice to Denver but were right there at the end with a solid chance to tie the game. Just a couple of plays seperating the 2 teams.

    Losing to Denver is no shame for sure.

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