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Unpacking The Stats That Identify NFL Playoff Teams

A few weeks ago, NFL Radio analyst Pat Kirwan--whose "Moving the Chains" show gets QC home from work just about every evening--took a look at the statistics that identified NFL playoff teams in 2015. Given that as presently structured the NFL playoffs offer 12 spots, Kirwan examined the top 12 teams in several statistical categories and found the best statistical identifiers of playoff teams in 2015 was points allowed (11 of the top 12 teams in points allowed in 2015 qualified for the playoffs) and sacks (9 of the top 12 teams in sacks in 2015 qualified for the playoffs).

Kirwan's effort motivated QC to look a little deeper and "unpack" the statistics that have identified NFL playoff teams over the past 8 years, which is the same period (not coincidentally) that QC has been tracking coaching statistics.

QC looks at not only points allowed and sacks as Kirwan did, but also turnovers and the "foundational stat" of (1) QC's coaching statistics (play design differential or "Ha +/-"), (2) Kerry Byrne's "Cold Hard Football Facts" (passer rating differential or "PR +/-") and (3) Aaron Schatz's "Football Outsiders" (DVOA).

"Unpacking" these statistics demonstrates that as a statistic becomes more "packed" with information, the statistic identifies NFL playoff teams better. To better understand this concept, let us "unpack" four NFL statistics: (1) sacks, (2) QC's Ha +/-, (3) CHFF's PR +/- and (4) FO's DVOA:

1. Sacks. A sack is an attempt to an attempt a pass. In other words, a sack is a pass play in the playbook, but not on the field because a sack prevents a pass from actually being thrown.

2. QC's Ha +/-. QC's foundational play design differential stat is a pass play both in the playbook and on the field because the statistic includes pass attempt information. The stat also includes sack information, passing yards information, and touchdown pass information. But play design does not include any turnover information because QC believes that turnovers are byproducts, not products, of NFL design and therefore should be analyzed separately just a chemical manufacturer analyzes the chemical product it sells to its customers (a revenue stream asset) separately from the waste byproduct that it must dispose of in compliance with environmental laws (a liablity expense).

3. PR +/-. CHFF's "mother of all stats," passer rating differential includes pass attempt information, passing yards information, touchdown pass information and some, but not all turnover information as PR +/- includes interceptions, but not lost fumbles. Passer rating differential also does not include any sack information.

4. DVOA. According to FO, DVOA breaks down every single NFL play. Thus, DVOA includes not only passing information and turnover information, but also rushing information and special teams information.

TABLE 1 below shows that, as expected, in isolation, the statistic that contains the most information (DVOA) also is the best identifier of NFL playoff teams. Over the past eight years, 76 teams or 9.5 teams per year that have ranked in the top 12 in DVOA have made the playoffs, a nose better than passer rating differential (75 teams or 9.375 teams per year) and not quite a length better than play design differential (69 teams or 8.625 teams per year).

However, if you look at each of these statistics in combination with turnover differential, then play design differential plus turnover differential produces more playoff teams than either DVOA plus turnover differential or passer rating differential plus turnover differential. When combined, play design and turnover differentials have identifed 83 playoff teams since 2008 or 10.375 playoff teams per year, which is better than both DVOA and passer rating differential. (See TABLE 2).

TABLE 3 below shows all playoff teams since 2008 and all teams who have ranked in the top 12 in turnover differential, play design differiential, passer rating differential and DOVA. Playoff teams are highlighted that are ranked in both the top 12 in Ha +/-, PR +/- or DVOA and in turnover differential are highlighted in green. Playoff eams that ranked in the top 12 only in either Ha +/-, PR +/- or DVOA are highlighted in blue. Playoff eams that ranked in the top 12 in turnover differential are highlighted in yellow. (TABLE 3 is consistent with the color wheel, where blue + yellow=green.) The Super Bowl champion is in bold and the playoff teams are arranged from the Super Bowl champion down to the first teams eliminated from the playoffs. Where teams were eliminated in the same round, regular season record determines which team is listed on top. The "Rank" column indicates where teams in the columns to the right finished during the regulat season in play design differential (Ha +/-), passer rating differential (PR +/-), DVOA and turnover differential (TO +/-).

Over the past eight years, only 13 teams have ever made the playoffs that did not rank in the top 12 in play design differential and/or turnover differential. These 13 teams have the following characteristics:

1. Only 4 of the 13 teams made the playoffs as a wild-card. Thus, an NFL team that does not rank in the top 12 in either play design differential or turnover differential and does not win its division has only a 1-in-8 chance (12.5%) to make the playoffs.

2. Two of the 9 division champions to make the playoffs without ranking in the top 12 in either play design differential or turnover differential ranked No. 13 in play design differential, the 2008 Vikings and the 2009 Cardinals. The 2008 Vikings play design +/- figure would have ranked in the top 12 in any year since 2008 and the 2009 Cardinals play design +/- figure would have ranked in the top 12 in any year since 2009.

3. Of the remaining 7 division champions to make the playoffs without ranking in the top 12 in either play design differential or turnover differential, 6 did not have any other (none--0--zip) team in its division that was even .500. In other words, these teams reached the playoffs largely on the strength of the occasionally geographic randomness of the NFL's divisional structure, not their on-field performance over 16 games. (2008 Cardinals 9-7; 2010 Seahawks 7-9, 2011 Broncos 8-8, 2013 Packers 8-7-1, 2014 Panthers 7-8-1, and 2015 Redskins 9-7). Only the 2009 Bengals (10-6) were located in a tough division (Baltimore made the playoffs and Pittsburgh ranked in the Top 10 in Ha +/-, PR +/- and DVOA).

4. Of the 13 teams that made the playoffs that did not rank in the top 12 in play design differential and/or turnover differential, only 2015 Washington (PR +/-), 2014 Baltimore (DVOA) and 2009 Arizona (PR +/-) were identified by the foundational stats of either FO or CHFF. In other words, a team that makes the NFL playoffs that does not rank in the top 12 in play design differential and/or turnover differential is usually a surprise no matter what statistic you use.

TABLE 1

Year

Playoff
Teams (PT)

PT in Top 12
Sacks

PT in Top 12
TO +/-

PT in Top 12
Points Allowed

PT in Top 12
Ha +/-

PT in Top 12
PR +/-

PT in Top 12
DVOA

2015

12

9

9

11

9

9

10

2014

12

5

7

6

7

8

8

2013

12

8

7

9

8

10

10

2012

12

6

9

10

9

10

10

2011

12

7

9

5

8

10

10

2010

12

5

9

9

9

9

8

2009

12

5

7

8

10

10

10

2008

12

9

7

9

9

9

10

Total

96

54

64

67

69

75

76

PT/YR

12

6.75

8.00

8.375

8.625

9.375

9.50

TABLE 2

Year

PT in Top 12
Ha +/- and TO +/-

PT in Top 12
PR +/- and TO +/-

PT in Top 12
DVOA and TO +/-

2015

11

10

11

2014

10

10

10

2013

11

11

11

2012

10

10

10

2011

10

10

10

2010

11

10

9

2009

10

10

10

2008

10

10

10

Total

83

81

81

PT/YR

10.375

10.125

10.125


TABLE 3
2015

Playoff Teams (PT)

Rank

PT in Top 12
Ha +/- (9)

PT in Top 12
PR +/- (9)

PT in Top 12
DVOA (10)

PT in Top 12
TO +/- (9)

Denver (12-4) (Ha +/-, DVOA)

1.

Seattle

Seattle

Seattle

Carolina

Carolina (15-1)

2.

Arizona

Carolina

Cincinnati

Kansas City

Arizona (13-3)

3.

Cincinnati

Cincinnati

Arizona

Cincinnati

New England (12-4)

4.

Carolina

Arizona

Carolina

Arizona

Kansas City (11-5)

5.

New England

Kansas City

Kansas City

New England

Pittsburgh (10-6) (Ha +/-, DVOA)

6.

Denver

New England

New England

Seattle

Green Bay (10-6) (PR +/-, DVOA)

7.

Pittsburgh

Green Bay

Pittsburgh

Buffalo

Seattle (10-6)

8.

Kansas City

Buffalo

Denver

NY Jets

Cincinnati (12-4)

9.

NY Jets

NY Jets

NY Jets

NY Giants

Minnesota (11-5) (DVOA)

10.

Buffalo

Washington

Green Bay

Green Bay

Houston (9-7) (Ha +/-, PR +/-)

11.

Houston

Oakland

Minnesota

Minnesota

Washington (9-7) (PR +/-)

12.

Atlanta

Houston

Buffalo

Houston

2014

Playoff Teams (PT)

Rank

PT in Top 12
Ha +/- (7)

PT in Top 12
PR +/- (8)

PT in Top 12
DVOA (8)

PT in Top 12
TO +/- (7)

New England (12-4) (PR +/-, DVOA)

1.

Denver

Green Bay

Seattle

Green Bay

Seattle (12-4)

2.

Green Bay

Dallas

Denver

New England

Green Bay (12-4)

3.

Seattle

Denver

Green Bay

Houston

Indianapolis (11-5)

4.

Dallas

Seattle

New England

Seattle

Denver (12-4)

5.

Indianapolis

New England

Baltimore

Arizona

Dallas (12-4)

6.

San Diego

Buffalo

Dallas

San Francisco

Baltimore (10-6) (DVOA)

7.

Cleveland

Cincinnati

Philadelphia

Buffalo

Carolina (7-8-1)

8.

Houston

Indianapolis

Pittsburgh

Detroit

Pittsburgh (11-5)

9.

Cincinnati

Kansas City

Buffalo

Dallas

Arizona (11-5)

10.

Kansas City

Houston

Kansas City

Cleveland

Detroit (11-5)

11.

Buffalo

San Francisco

San Francisco

Denver

Cincinnati (10-5-1) (Ha +/-, PR +/-)

12.

Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh

Indianapolis

Atlanta

2013

Playoff Teams (PT)

Rank

PT in Top 12
Ha +/- (8)

PT in Top 12
PR +/- (10)

PT in Top 12
DVOA (10)

PT in Top 12
TO +/- (7)

Seattle (13-3)

1.

Seattle

Seattle

Seattle

Seattle

Denver (13-3)

2.

Cincinnati

Denver

Denver

Kansas City

San Francisco (12-4)

3.

Denver

New Orleans

Carolina

Indianapolis

New England (12-4) (PR +/-, DVOA)

4.

New Orleans

Philadelphia

New Orleans

San Francisco

Carolina (12-4)

5.

Philadelphia

San Francisco

New England

Philadelphia

New Orleans (12-4)

6.

San Francisco

Cincinnati

San Francisco

Carolina

Indianapolis (11-5)

7.

Arizona

Kansas City

Kansas City

Tampa Bay

San Diego (9-7)

8.

Pittsburgh

Chicago

Philadelphia

New England

Cincinnati (11-5)

9.

San Diego

Pittsburgh

Cincinnati

St. Louis

Kansas City (11-5) (PR +/-, DVOA)

10.

Carolina

San Diego

Arizona

Dallas

Philadelphia (10-6)

11.

NY Giants

Carolina

Chicago

Chicago

Green Bay (8-7-1)

12.

Detroit

New England

San Diego

Buffalo

2012

Playoff Teams (PT)

Rank

PT in Top 12
Ha +/- (9)

PT in Top 12
PR +/- (10)

PT in Top 12
DVOA (10)

PT in Top 12
TO +/- (9)

Baltimore (10-6)

1.

Denver

Green Bay

Seattle

New England

San Francisco (11-4-1)

2.

Seattle

Seattle

Denver

Chicago

Atlanta (13-3)

3.

San Francisco

Denver

New England

Washington

New England (12-4) (PR +/-, DVOA)

4.

Green Bay

San Francisco

San Francisco

NY Giants

Denver (12-4)

5.

Carolina

Atlanta

Green Bay

Atlanta

Houston (12-4)

6.

Pittsburgh

Washington

Chicago

Seattle

Green Bay (11-5)

7.

Cincinnati

New England

NY Giants

Houston

Seattle (11-5)

8.

Washington

Houston

Baltimore

Baltimore

Indianapolis (11-5)

9.

Houston

Chicago

Washington

San Francisco

Washington

10.

Atlanta

Pittsburgh

Atlanta

Green Bay

Cincinnati (10-6)

11.

Chicago

Cincinnati

Houston

Tampa Bay

Minnesota (10-6)

12.

Baltimore

Baltimore

Cincinnati

Cincinnati

2011

Playoff Teams (PT)

Rank

PT in Top 12
Ha +/- (8)

PT in Top 12
PR +/- (10)

PT in Top 12
DVOA (10)

PT in Top 12
TO +/- (8)

NY Giants (9-7)

1.

Pittsburgh

Green Bay

Green Bay

San Francisco

New England (13-3)

2.

Houston

New Orleans

Pittsburgh

Green Bay

San Francisco (13-3) (PR +/-, DVOA)

3.

Green Bay

Houston

New Orleans

New England

Baltimore (12-4)

4.

New Orleans

New England

New England

Detroit

Green Bay (15-1)

5.

NY Giants

Pittsburgh

Houston

Seattle

New Orleans (13-3)

6.

Detroit

San Francisco

San Francisco

Atlanta

Houston (10-6)

7.

New England

Detroit

Baltimore

NY Giants

Denver (8-8)

8.

Oakland

Baltimore

Atlanta

Houston

Pittsburgh (12-4)

9.

Philadelphia

Dallas

NY Jets

Jacksonville

Atlanta (10-6) (PR +/-, DVOA)

10.

Baltimore

NY Jets

Philadelphia

Dallas

Detroit (10-6)

11.

Tennessee

Atlanta

Detroit

Chicago

Cincinnati (9-7)

12.

Dallas

NY Giants

NY Giants

Baltimore

2010

Playoff Teams (PT)

Rank

PT in Top 12
Ha +/- (9)

PT in Top 12
PR +/- (9)

PT in Top 12
DVOA (8)

PT in Top 12
TO +/- (9)

Green Bay (10-6)

1.

San Diego

Green Bay

New England

New England

Pittsburgh (12-4)

2.

Green Bay

New England

Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh

Chicago (11-5) (Ha +/-, PR +/-)

3.

Pittsburgh

San Diego

Green Bay

Atlanta

NY Jets (11-5) (DVOA)

4.

New England

Pittsburgh

Baltimore

Green Bay

New England (14-2)

5.

NY Giants

Tampa Bay

Philadelphia

NY Jets

Atlanta (13-3) (PR +/-, DVOA)

6.

Baltimore

Baltimore

NY Jets

Philadelphia

Baltimore (12-4)

7.

Tampa Bay

Kansas City

San Diego

Tampa Bay

Seattle (7-9)

8.

New Orleans

Philadelphia

Atlanta

Kansas City

New Orleans (11-5)

9.

Chicago

Atlanta

NY Giants

Baltimore

Indianapolis (10-6) (Ha +/-)

10.

Indianapolis

New Orleans

New Orleans

St. Louis

Philadelphia (10-6)

11.

Philadelphia

Chicago

Tennessee

Chicago

Kansas City (10-6) (Ha +/-, PR +/-)

12.

Kansas City

NY Giants

Tampa Bay

Detroit

2009

Playoff Teams (PT)

Rank

PT in Top 12
Ha +/- (10)

PT in Top 12
PR +/- (10)

PT in Top 12
DVOA (10)

PT in Top 12
TO +/- (7)

New Orleans (13-3)

1.

San Diego

New Orleans

Baltimore

Green Bay

Indianapolis (13-3)

2.

Indianapolis

Green Bay

Green Bay

Philadelphia

Minnesota (12-4)

3.

New Orleans

San Diego

Philadelphia

New Orleans

NY Jets (9-7) (Ha +/-, DVOA)

4.

Dallas

Baltimore

New England

Baltimore

San Diego (13-3)

5.

Houston

Indianapolis

Dallas

San Francisco

Dallas (11-5)

6.

Green Bay

Minnesota

New Orleans

San Diego

Arizona (10-6) (PR +/-)

7.

Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh

Minnesota

Denver

Baltimore (9-7) (PR +/-, DVOA)

8.

Philadelphia

Philadelphia

Indianapolis

Minnesota

Green Bay (11-5)

9.

NY Jets

Dallas

Pittsburgh

Carolina

Philadelphia (11-5)

10.

Minnesota

New England

NY Jets

New England

New England (10-6)

11.

New England

Arizona

San Diego

Buffalo

Cincinnati (10-6)

12.

Denver

Houston

Denver

Atlanta

2008

Playoff Teams (PT)

Rank

PT in Top 12
Ha +/- (9)

PT in Top 12
PR +/- (9)

PT in Top 12
DVOA (10)

PT in Top 12
TO +/- (7)

Pittsburgh (12-4)

1.

Pittsburgh

Baltimore

Philadelphia

Miami

Arizona (9-7)

2.

Dallas

Green Bay

Baltimore

Tennessee

Baltimore (11-5)

3.

San Diego

Miami

NY Giants

Baltimore

Philadelphia (9-6-1)

4.

Atlanta

Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh

Indianapolis

Tennessee (13-3) (PR +/-, DVOA)

5.

Carolina

Indianapolis

Tennessee

NY Giants

NY Giants (12-4)

6.

Philadelphia

San Diego

Carolina

Green Bay

Carolina (12-4) (Ha +/-, DVOA)

7.

New Orleans

New Orleans

Indianapolis

Carolina

San Diego (8-8)

8.

Green Bay

NY Giants

San Diego

Chicago

Indianapolis (12-4)

9.

Baltimore

Tennessee

New Orleans

Cleveland

Atlanta (11-5) (Ha +/-)

10.

Indianapolis

Washington

Miami

Kansas City

Miami (11-5)

11.

NY Giants

Tampa Bay

New England

Tampa Bay

Minnesota (10-6)

12.

Miami

Philadelphia

Atlanta

Pittsburgh

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