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THE ARCHIVES (2016-Part 6)

Who Really Faced A Tough Schedule in 2016?

Imagine a Las Vegas sports book offered the following bet: -110 on every game played by every NFL team playing a schedule ranked in the bottom 50% of the NFL and -110 on on every game played by the opponents of every NFL team playing a schedule ranked in the top 50% of the NFL. You bet $110 on every game.

The sports book provides you with three choices to measure schedule strength: QC's strength of schedule rankings based on coaching statistics, Prediction Machine's (PM) strength of schedule rankings, and Football Outsiders' (FO) strength of schedule rankings.

If you chose QC's coaching stats as your measure of schedule strength, at the end of the 2016 season, you would have netted a small profit of $400.

If you chose PM's rankings to measure strength of schedule, at the end of the 2016 season, you would have lost $5,480.

If you chose FO's rankings to measure strength of schedule, at the end of hte 2016 season, you would have lost $5,060.

As Tables 1-3 below show, the reason you would have held your own if you chose your strength of schedule based on QC's coaching statistics but sustained a significant loss if you chose PM or FO as your measure of schedule strength is strength as ranked by QC's coaching statistics is a perfect mirror image of strength as ranked by PM and just 1 game off a perfect mirror image of strength as ranked by FO.

QC is unaware of any other attempt to compare or verify different measures of strength of schedule.

That coaching statistics produced results that are the photo negative of the results produced by both PM and FO is intriguing.

Logically, all else being equal, one would expect that NFL teams playing easier schedules would tend to win more games than NFL teams playing more difficult schedules. Logic prevails when schedule strength is measured by coaching statistics.

But logic does not prevail when strength is measured PM's and FO's rankings. Instead, NFL teams playing more difficult schedules win more games than NFL teams playing easier schedules.

Well, you say, the NFL has long claimed that it makes its schedule so that stronger teams play stronger schedules. Perhaps the teams playing stronger schedules per PM's and FO's rankings are mostly the stronger teams and they are strong enough to make up the difference by their own independent superiority.

It does not look like it. First, all of the strength of schedule rankings agree that New England, which faced an NFL high 6 teams with design of -2% or worse, played the easiest schedule in the NFL.

Second, per coaching statistics only 3 teams had an outstanding season facing a top 50% schedule (winning percentage > .667) and 2 of those teams (Oakland, Kansas City) tied for the NFL's best turnover differential (+18). [The other team (Pittsburgh) just barely finished in the top 50% of schedule strength.] Likewise, all of the teams who suffered a terrible season (winning percentage < .333) facing bottom 50% schedules finished in the top 4 in the NFL in giveaways (Chargers, Bears, Jets, and Jaguars). If an NFL team beats itself with turnovers, then strength of schedule is turned "inside out" because the strength of the opposition is irrelevant when a team beats itself.

A few teams merit more detailed discussion:

Atlanta (Schedule Strength: PM: 9th FO: 16th QC: 30th)
The Falcons faced an NFL low 1 team who's play design +/- exceeded +2% (Denver) and an NFL low 5 teams who were positively designed. Also, more often than not, Atlanta faced bad pass defense. In 9 games, the Falcons faced a pass defense who's QCYPA was greater than 7.4. The Falcons play design +/- improved 2.22% in the first year of the Dan Quinn/Kyle Shannahan design partnership. Then, in 2016, it jumped a whopping 7.1%. This looks a lot more like a team that faced the NFL's 30th schedule than the NFL's 9th schedule.

Green Bay (Schedule Strength: QC: 1st PM: 10th FO: 19th)
The Packers faced 11 teams that finished the season positively designed, which tied Houston and Cleveland for the second most in the NFL behind only Philadelphia (12). Moreover, Green Bay faced an NFL low 1 team who's play design +/- was less than -2% (Philadelphia). In other words, there were no breathers on the Pack's schedule.

Arizona (Schedule Strength: QC: 9th FO: 30th PM: 31st)
Washington (Schedule Strength: FO: 3rd PM: 8th QC: 25th)

The records of these teams were closely matched as both won a division in 2015 and, as a result, both faced Minnesota and Carolina. Washington finished 8-7-1 while Arizona's 7-8-1 included a win over the Redskins. At first glance, it looks like Washington must have played the tougher schedule because its division opponents rang up 31 wins while the Cardinals division foes managed only 16 wins. But if you compare the team's non-division non-common opponents, every one of Arizona's 8 opponents was better designed than Washington's corresponding opponent. In division, Seattle was a little better designed than the NY Giants and Los Angeles was a little worse designed than Philadelphia so those 4 divisional games essentially were a wash. The Redskins 2 games with Dallas were much tougher than the Cardinals 2 games with San Francisco, but Arizona's schedule was the equivalent or better in almost every other game.

Dallas (Schedule Strength: FO: 8th PM 25th QC: 31st
Dallas rebounded from a 4-12 finish in 2015 to a 13-3 finish in 2016. Rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott got most of the credit for the massive improvement, but the schedule also contributed to the turnaround. The Cowboys played just 2 games against teams who's play design +/- exceeded +2% (Washington 2x). In addition, Dallas was the only team in the NFC who faced the two worst designed teams in the NFL (Cleveland, San Francisco).

NY Giants (Schedule Strength: FO: 5 PM: 16 QC: 28)
New York played 8 games against positively designed teams, but 7 of its 8 opponents who were negatively designed ranked No. 21 or worse in play design +/-. The Giants played 4 games against 3 of the 5 worst designed teams in the NFL (Cleveland, Los Angeles, Philadelphia 2x).

Los Angeles (Schedule Strength: QC: 10: PM: 20 FO: 24)
The Rams faced the 2 best designed teams in the NFL (Atlanta and New England) and played 5 games against teams in the Top 10 in play design. Other than 2 games with the 49ers and 1 game with the Jets, LA did not face any teams in the Bottom 10 in play design differential. Also, as measured by coaching statistics, the difference between the 10th toughest schedule and the 24th toughest schedule is a miniscule .50%.

San Francisco (Schedule Strength: QC: 4th PM: 22nd FO: 23rd)
San Francisco faced 3 of the 4 best designed teams in the NFL (Atlanta, New England, Dallas) and played 6 games against teams ranked in the Top 10 in the NFL in play design. In addition, because the 49ers (No. 31 in play design +/-) could not play themselves, SF did not play either of the worst designed teams in the NFL. San Francisco was 0-14 against teams ranking No. 29 or better in play design +/-. With new coach Kyle Shannahan bringing in QB Brian Hoyer, who was a 7.5 QCYPA passer using Shannhan's designs in Cleveland in 2014, and WRs Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin and FB Kyle Juszczyk to play the roles Mohammed Sanu, Tyler Gabriel, and Pat DiMarco played last year in Atlanta, the 49ers should be improved in 2017.

New York Jets (Schedule Strength: FO: 12th PM: 19th QC: 22)
New York was the only team to play all three of the worst designed teams in the NFL (Cleveland, San Francisco, Los Angeles). The Jets played 3 more games against teams in the Bottom 10 in the NFL in play design (Buffalo 2x, Baltimore). In those 6 games, New York was 5-1. In their other 10 games, the Jets faced positively designed teams and were 0-10. Because the bottom of its schedule was so dreadfully bad, New York's schedule probably was a little stronger than coaching stats suggest it was.

TABLE 1: QC STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE RANKINGS

DIFFCULT SCHEDULES

EASY SCHEDULES

Rank

Team

W

L

Sum L

Sum W

W

L

Team

Rank

1

Green Bay

10

6

6

14

14

2

N. England

32

2

Cleveland

1

15

21

27

13

3

Dallas

31

3

Philadelphia

7

9

30

38

11

5

Atlanta

30

4

S. Francisco

2

14

44

45

7

9

Buffalo

29

5

Houston

9

7

51

56

11

5

NY Giants

28

6

Denver

9

7

58

59

3

13

Chicago

27

7

Carolina

6

10

68

69

10

6

Mami

26

8

Tampa Bay

9

7

75

77

8

7

Washington

25

9

Arizona

7

8

83

86

9

7

Tennessee

24

10

Los Angeles

4

12

95

96

10

5

Seattle

23

11

Oakland

12

4

99

101

5

11

NY Jets

22

12

Kansas City

12

4

103

104

3

13

Jacksonville

21

13

N. Orleans

7

9

112

112

8

8

Minnesota

20

14

Cincinnati

6

9

121

121

9

7

Detroit

19

15

Baltimore

8

8

129

129

8

8

Indianapolis

18

16

Pittsburgh

11

5

134

134

5

11

San Diego

17

 

TOTAL

120

134

.472

.528

134

120

TOTAL

 

TABLE 2: Prediction Machine's Strength of Schedule Rankings

DIFFICULT SCHEDULES

EASY SCHEDULES

Rank

Team

W

L

Sum L

Sum W

W

L

Team

Rank

1

Cleveland

1

15

15

14

14

2

N. England

32

2

Denver

9

7

22

21

7

8

Arizona

31

3

Philadelphia

7

9

31

28

7

9

Buffalo

30

4

Oakland

12

4

35

37

9

7

Tennessee

29

5

Carolina

6

10

45

45

8

8

Indianapolis

28

6

Pittsburgh

11

5

50

55

10

5

Seattle

27

7

Tampa Bay

9

7

57

63

8

8

Minnesota

26

8

Washington

8

7

64

76

13

3

Dallas

25

9

Atlanta

11

5

69

86

10

6

Miami

24

10

Green Bay

10

6

75

95

9

7

Detroit

23

11

N. Orleans

7

9

84

97

2

14

S. Francisco

22

12

San Diego

5

11

95

105

8

8

Baltimore

21

13

Kansas City

12

4

99

109

4

12

Los Angeles

20

14

Houston

9

7

106

114

5

11

NY Jets

19

15

Cincinnati

6

9

115

117

3

13

Chicago

18

16

NY Giants

11

5

120

120

3

13

Jacksonville

17

 

TOTAL

134

120

.528

.472

120

134

TOTAL

 

TABLE 3: Football Outsiders Strength of Schedule Rankings

DIFFICULT SCHEDULES

EASY SCHEDULES

Rank

Team

W

L

Sum L

Sum W

W

L

Team

Rank

1

Cleveland

1

15

15

14

14

2

N. England

32

2

Philadelphia

7

9

24

23

9

7

Tennessee

31

3

Washington

8

7

31

30

7

8

Arizona

30

4

Denver

9

7

38

38

8

8

Indianapolis

29

5

NY Giants

11

5

43

45

7

9

Buffalo

28

6

Carolina

6

10

53

55

10

5

Seattle

27

7

Tampa Bay

9

7

60

65

10

6

Miami

26

8

Dallas

13

3

63

68

3

13

Jacksonville

25

9

Baltimore

8

8

71

72

4

12

Los Angeles

24

10

Oakland

12

4

75

74

2

14

San Francisco

23

11

Houston

9

7

82

86

12

4

Kansas City

22

12

NY Jets

5

11

93

89

3

13

Chicago

21

13

Pittsburgh

11

5

98

97

8

8

Minnesota

20

14

Cincinnati

6

9

107

107

10

6

Green Bay

19

15

N. Orleans

7

9

116

116

9

7

Detroit

18

16

Atlanta

11

5

121

121

5

11

San Diego

17

 

TOTAL

133

121

.524

.476

121

133

TOTAL

 
 

Who Really Faced A Tough Schedule in 2016?

For the first time, QC tracked the strength of each NFL team's schedule using coaching statistics. The results are set forth below in Table 1. While no conclusions can be reached based on a single year of data, the initial results include a few interesting bits:

* The difference between the most difficult schedule and the easiest schedule was less than 2%.

* The difference between the average schedule (0) and the most difficult and easiest schedules was less than 1%.

* The teams with the best regular season records (New England and Dallas) played the easiest schedules.

* Green Bay played the toughest schedule even though the win/loss record of its opponents in 2015 suggested the Packers would face the NFL's easiest schedule in 2016.

* Super Bowl runner-up Atlanta's strength of schedule (No. 30) was far easier than the strength of schedules of the other members of its division (Carolina No. 7, Tampa Bay No. 8, New Orleans No. 13)

* Coaching stats and Prediction Machine agree New England played the easiest schedule and that Cleveland played the AFC's toughest schedule. The strength of the schedules that we differ most on: San Francisco, Arizona, Washington, and Atlanta.

TABLE 1: STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE

Team

SU Record

Opponents
Play Design +/-

Rank Per
Play Design +/-

Rank Per
Prediction Machine

Rank Per
2016 Record

Rank Per
2015 Record

Green Bay

10-6

+.0083

1

10

18

32

Cleveland

1-15

+.0076

2

1

21-T

21

Philadelphia

7-9

+.00679

3

3

10-T

26

S. Francisco

2-14

+.00678

4

22

20

1-T

Houston

9-7

+.0062

5

14

25-T

19-T

Denver

9-7

+.0061

6

2

1

14

Carolina

6-10

+.00577

7

5

16

12

Tampa Bay

9-7

+.00576

8

7

14

5-T

Arizona

7-8-1

+.0035

9

31

23

7-T

Los Angeles

4-12

+.00346

10

20

17

3

Oakland

12-4

+.0025

11

4

4

15

Kansas City

12-4

+.0023

12

13

2

16

N. Orleans

7-9

+.0016

13

11

15

4

Cincinnati

6-9-1

+.00014

14

15

29

27-T

Baltimore

8-8

+.00007

15

21

24

19-T

Pittsburgh

11-5

-.0002

16

6

27-T

23-T

San Diego

5-11

-.0004

17

12

3

13

Indianapolis

8-8

-.00211

18

28

32

22

Detroit

9-7

-.00217

19

23

21-T

27-T

Minnesota

8-8

-.00218

20

26

27-T

18

Jacksonville

3-13

-.0027

21

17

30-T

23-T

NY Jets

5-11

-.0028

22

19

8

7-T

Seattle

10-5-1

-.0040

23

27

25-T

5-T

Tennessee

9-7

-.0041

24

29

30-T

23-T

Washington

8-7-1

-.0048

25

8

7

17

Miami

10-6

-.0052

26

24

6

11

Chicago

3-13

-.0053

27

18

19

30-T

NY Giants

11-5

-.0058

28

16

9

30-T

Buffalo

7-9

-.0071

29

30

5

10

Atlanta

11-5

-.0076

30

9

13

1-T

Dallas

13-3

-.0083

31

25

10-T

27-T

N. England

14-2

-.0087

32

32

12

9

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Cover Like A Rock Star

Like Dr. Alan Grant who inspected Jurrasic Park for John Hammond, @fbgchase is a digger. Nobody excavates in cyberspace excavates better NFL stats than he does. After Atlanta (28-3) and New England (31-0) combined two blowouts into one scintillating overtime game in Super Bowl 51, @fbgchase posted a table showing the Patriots to be the best ATS team in the NFL (16-3) since the 1989 49ers demolished Denver 55-10 in Super Bowl 24. Here is a look at the best 11 ATS teams per @fbgchase through the prism of coaching statistics. The head coach of all of the teams on this list that also won the Super Bowl in a year of covering plentifully either is or will be in the Hall of Fame except perhaps the Rams Dick Vermeil and the Bears Mike Ditka (who was inducted as a player). Going into 2017, there is no shortage of teams that look like most of these teams did the year before they covered like a rock star. (BOLD indicates Super Bowl winner.)

Year

Team

Prior YR
Record

Prior YR
Playoff Performance

Prior YR
Play Design +/-

Prior YR TO +/-

What Changed?

1982

Redskins
11-2 ATS

8-8

Did Not Qualify (DNQ)

-0.71%

-2

Replaced both CBs; NFL MVP K Mosely made 20/21 FGs afte making only 19/30 FGs in 1981

2016

Patriots
16-3 ATS

12-4

Lost AFCC to Broncos, 20-18

+2.94%

+7

Played first 4 games without starting QB Tom Brady; D faced an embarrasing queue of awful opposing QBs.

1989

49ers
16-3 ATS

10-6

Won Super Bowl over Bengals, 20-16

+3.05%

+12

George Seifert replaced Bill Walsh as HC; TE Brent Jones & WR John Taylor cracked starting lineup; D replaced both CBs.

2015

Vikings
13-3 ATS

7-9

DNQ

-1.69%

-1

RB Adrian Peterson returned from injury; WRs Stafon Diggs and Mike Wallace and LB Eric Kendricks arrived.

1985

Bears
15-3-1 ATS

10-6

Lost NFCC to 49ers, 23-0

+1.87%

+3

LB Wilber Marshall made Buddy Ryan's 46 D too much too handle.

2004

Chargers
13-3-1 ATS

4-12

DNQ

-2.87%

-11

With 5 new O-line starters, QB Drew Brees TD/INT ratio improved from 11/15 to 27/7.

2003

Patriots
15-4 ATS

9-7

DNQ

-0.13%

+5

3 new starters at DB included Rodney Harrison.

1981

49ers
15-4 ATS

6-10

DNQ

-5.06%

-6

QB Joe Montana took over the offense and 3 new DBs led by Ronnie Lott took over the D.

2015

Bengals
12-3-2 ATS

10-5-1

Lost AFC-WC to Colts, 26-10

+1.46%

0

TE Tyler Eifert returned from injury and emerged as deadly red zone target.

1999

Rams
14-4-1 ATS

4-12

DNQ

-2.30%

-10

New OC Mike Martz opened offense for new HOF QB Kurt Warner, new HOF RB Marshall Faulk & new WR Torry Holt and WR Isaac Bruce returned from injury.

1991

Redskins
14-4-1 ATS

10-6

Lost Divisional Round to 49ers, 28-10

+1.11%

+5

Replaced both starting safeties on D; T Joe Jacoby returned from injury and addition of G Mark Schlereth made O-line dominant.

2017

?????

?????

?????

?????

???

?????

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QC's Thoughts on Super Bowl 51

Bill Belichick survived.

Again.

Barely.

34-28 in OT.

Until well into Q3 of Super Bowl 51, QC's handicap of the game was dead on balls perfect. Read it. There is no point in deflating that boast. It is the foundation for understanding just what in the heck happened in Super Bowl 51.

A lot happened. You already know that. What happened first was Atlanta was far better designed, hungrier, faster and nastier on both sides of the ball than a New England team that had fattened its regular season record by winning 5 times against 4 of the worst designed teams in the NFL (Jets 2x, Rams, 49ers and Browns).

As the midpoint of Q3 approached, the Falcons led 28-3 and were humiliating not only the Patriots' players, but its vaunted head coach. As QC correctly predicted in his preview, Belichick and his players had failed miserably to identify Kyle Shanahan's offensive "regulator." Deprived of the ability to disrupt the timing of Shanahan's designs by disrupting the regulator, Belichick's defense was as naked and vulnerable as a newborn baby.

Falcons' QB Matt Ryan took full advantage of Shanahan's designs. At 28-3, Ryan had completed 12 of 14 passes for 192 yards and 2 TDs. He had lost .857 yards per pass attempt to sacks, which is a pretty big number. But Atlanta had easily absorbed the cost of that waste. Ryan's 14.286 QCYPA was better than any Super Bowl passer ever except Terry Bradshaw against the LA Rams in Super Bowl 14 and Bradshaw (15.667 QCYPA) threw 3 picks in that 31-19 win while Ryan was playing to TO-free perfection.

Quite simply, Shanahan and Ryan stood at the cusp of the greatest play design and passing performance in Super Bowl history.

All Atlanta had to do was follow the advice of University of Minnesota physicist Brian Skinner and sacrifice the quest to add to its already swollen point total in exchange for reducing the variance that remained in the game.

And Shanahan and Ryan could not do it.

Instead, what followed was the most stunning chain of events anyone in sports has seen since Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. That chain began with the New York Mets trailing Boston by 2 runs, down to their last out, and nobody on base. New York began its rally with catcher Gary Carter lining a single into left field and concluded it when Mookie Wilson's roller found its way under the glove and between the legs of Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner.

In a similarly desperate position, Belichick did something he almost never does on defense: He cranked up variance to full power by dialing up blitz after blitz.

Belichick's defenses rarely blitz because his teams are usually the favorite and a favorite almost always should seek to reduce variance, not increase it. If a quality QB can avoid the blitz, he usually finds inviting matchups in the secondary and an already lopsided game can get even more out of hand. By switching to desperation mode, Belichick risked complete humilation, but at 28-3 he already was most of the way there so in reality he really had little more to lose by risking it.

Since Belichick's defenders could not stop Shanahan's and Ryan's passes, Belichick only had one single, solitary chip left to bet: He placed his last chip on the square marked "PASS ATTEMPT PREVENTION."

And boy did Belichick's chip pay off.

Ryan dropped back to pass 12 more times after Belichick switched to desperation pass attempt prevention mode. The Patriots sacked Ryan 3 times, drew two devastating holding penalties on Falcons' tackle Jake Matthews, and forced and recovered a Ryan fumble that led to a TD and 2-point PAT.

Incredibly, Ryan lost a staggering 3.556 yards per pass attempt to the sacks and the combination of the sacks and the holding penalties twice pushed Atlanta back from inside strong-legged K Matt Bryant's field goal range to outside his range.

After Tom Brady stopped looking like Tony Eason and started looking like Tom Brady ... and after the Patriots converted a second 2-point PAT to force OT ... and after RB James White scored his third TD of the game on the first drive of OT ... New England had run off 31 straight points and Belichick had claimed his fifth NFL title as the HC of the NE, which matched the number of NFL championships won by the namesake of the Lombardi Trophy.

Still, it was the sacks and the holding penalties, more than Brady's persistence, that determined the outcome.

Years ago, QC calculated that the value of a first down is 1 point. A first down is 10 yards. In the end, the Patriots accumlated 62 fewer yards of waste in the form of yards lost to sacks and penalties than the Falcons accumulated. Sixty-two yards divided by 10 yards is the equivalent of 6.2 points. New England won by 6 points. The math is neat and tidy.

When it was all over, Atlanta's -1.913 yards lost to sacks per pass attempt set a new Super Bowl record. How is that for a complete reversal of fortune? Such a reversal could only happen if both sides were seeking to increase variance at a breakneck rate. That is something for all NFL franchises to contemplate deeply before the 2017 season kicks off this fall in Foxborough.

The Falcons' lack of pass protection broke the Kansas City Chiefs record of -1.906 yards lost to sacks per pass attempt that had been set way back in Super Bowl 1 against Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers.

Kansas City set that record in an era when it was the rule, not the exception, for play designers to draw up deep passes and deep QB drops and were willing to eat the sack waste that was a byproduct of such designs. Lombardi was an offense-oriented coach. His Packers won the design battle in 4 of the 5 NFL championship games that he won. (See Table 1 below).

Lombardi was a thriver.

The game is different now.

Belichick's Patriots have lost the design battle in 4 of the 5 championship games that he has won. (See Table 1 below).

Belichick is a survivor.

TABLE 1

Year

Team

TO +/-

Play Design +/-

Opponent

Score

 

Year

Team

TO +/-

Play Design +/-

Opponent

Score

1961

Packers

+5

+19.87%

Giants

37-0

 

2001

Patriots

+3

-7.52%

Rams

20-17

1962

Packers

+3

-0.13%

Giants

16-7

 

2003

Patriots

-0-

-8.30%

Panthers

32-29

1965

Packers

+1

+3.88%

Browns

23-12

 

2004

Patriots

+3

+0.88%

Eagles

24-21

1966

Packers

-0-

+14.13%

Chiefs

35-10

 

2014

Patriots

-1

-14.41%

Seahawks

28-24

1967

Packers

+3

+3.26%

Raiders

33-14

 

2016

Patriots

-1

-11.69%

Falcons

34-28

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Super Bowl Preview

New England (-3) vs. Atlanta

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Atlanta 1st; New England 2nd
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Atlanta 1st; New England 2nd
TURNOVER MARGIN RANKINGS: Atlanta T4th (+11); New England 3rd (+12)
QCYPA RANKINGS: Atlanta 1st; New England 2nd
PASS PROTECTION RANKINGS: Atlanta 22nd; New England 4th
D-QCYPA RANKINGS: Atlanta 11th; New England 7th
PASS PRESSURE RANKINGS: Atlanta 15th; New England 12th
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE: Atlanta 30th; New England 32nd

Atlanta should beat New England in Super Bowl 51 because the Falcons are better coached than the Patriots. It might not even be that close.

Whoa--ho--whoa, easy QC, you are probably thinking. New England is still coached by Bill Belichick, right? Yes, the Patriots are still coached by the greatest coach of all-time, Bill Belichick. He will still be the greatest NFL coach of all-time no matter the outcome of this game.

The danger in simply assuming that a coach as tested and accomplished as Belichick is superior and destined to prevail because he has prevailed so often in the past is known as "survivorship bias." This is a sneaky bias that cloaks itself in what is generally perceived to be uncontroversial or even obvious. Survivorship bias is the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that "survived" some process and inadvertently overlooking those that did not because of their lack of "visibility."

If you are on guard against survivorship bias and evaluate coaching as design that can be measured objectively and not just as subjective reputation (even if well earned), then Atlanta is the better designed team in Super Bowl 51 and it is New England who has more work to do to get ready for this matchup.

Let's look at a textbook example of survivorship bias from MMQB writer, Greg Bedard, who wrote a column just before Halloween entitled, "NFL head coaching on a sharp downward trajectory." Bedard's basis for his major premise--NFL coaching today is worse than it was in 1985--was pretty simple. He wrote:

[I]f I were to pinpoint one reason why the game just doesn't seem to be as good and compelling as it used to be, I would point to the headsets. We are in the midst of a brain drain, if you will, among NFL head coaches and it's difficult to see that improving.

Consider this: In 1985, you had six future Hall of Fame coaches roaming the sidelines and doing battle (Don Shula, Tom Landry, Chuck Noll, Bill Walsh, Joe Gibbs, Bill Parcells). Thirty-one years later, you have one: Bill Belichick. Maybe you could make the argument for Pete Carroll but how many others?

Table 1 below compares the coaching statistics of all of the 1985 teams to all of the 2016 teams and shows that Bedard's premise contains a large amount of survivorship bias. Enshrinement in Canton is a sure sign of surviving the coaching profession. But in 1985, Shula, Landry and Gibbs were not HOF coaches. They combined to win one playoff game when Miami rallied at home to beat a slightly better designed 8-8 Cleveland team. Shula's +.11% play design differential and Landry's -0.49% differential would rank Nos. 17 and 19, respectively, in 2016. That's Chuck Pagano territory. Gibbs' -1.69% differential would have been 24th in 2016 right behind Buffalo's Rex Ryan, who was fired. Chuck Noll's Steelers finished 7-9 in 1985 and did not make the playoffs, but he did post a respectable +1.54% play design differential. That would have been 11th best in 2016, just 1/10,000th of a point behind Pete Carroll's 2016 Seahawks (+1.55%).

That leaves just Bill Parcells (+4.92%) and Bill Walsh (+4.08%). In 2016, the 1985 Giants and the 1985 49ers would rank third and fourth in play design differential, respectively. But don't forget, Belichick was the invisible assistant coach providing most of Parcells' design in 1985. The following years proved that, without Belichick's design, The Tuna was a .500 coach who never won a playoff game, not a bronze bust in Canton. So in the end, what we are really left with in 1985 and 2016 is Belichick and one other coach (Walsh and Carroll, respectively). Also, just like this year, in 1985 the best designed team in the NFC--the Super Bowl Shufflin' Chicago Bears (+5.34%)--met the best designed team in the AFC--Raymond Berry's Patriots (+3.76%)--in the Super Bowl.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Actually, that's wrong too.

NFL design and coaching has never been better than it is today. It has to be just as it has to be in all economies that are driven primarily by knowledge. Knowledge grows. Those who follow--like Belichick, Carroll and Kyle Shanahan (more about him later)--can build on the knowledge of those who came before--like Walsh, Noll, Landry and even Vince Lombardi. Knowledge does not move in the opposite direction. Walsh, Noll, Lombardi, et al. could not build on the knowledge that had yet to come into existence, e.g., Belichick's, Carroll's and Shanahan's knowledge.

To suggest that 31 years later the NFL is suffereing from a head coaching "brain drain" stands science on its head. The commodity nature (it's easy to copy another coach's plays) of play design knowledge (like any other body of knowledge) definitely will tend to make coaches appear more homogenous as knowledge diffuses through copying. This diffusion of knowledge will, in turn, probably reduce the number of head coaches enshrined in the Hall of Fame in the future. But that does not mean the NFL is suffering from a "brain drain." In fact, just the opposite is happening. NFL head coaches are growing the knowledge base. Thus, NFL coaching is constantly improving even when folks like Greg Bedard can't see it improving.

The numbers back this up.

Take look back at Table 1. What stands out is how NFL coaches have reduced turnovers and sacks since 1985. In 1985, the Bengals and the Jets turned the ball over the fewest times: 29. In 2016, a team that turned the ball over 29 times would have tied for 27th with Jacksonville (3-13), Los Angeles (4-12) and Carolina (6-10). The only teams worse were Chicago (3-13), the New York Jets (5-11) and San Diego (5-11). Blech. Also, in 1985, only 4 teams lost less than 0.5 yards per pass attempt to sacks and only Miami was below 0.4 yards per pass attempt. In 2016, only 4 teams lost more than 0.5 yards per pass attempt to sacks: Cleveland (1-15), San Francisco (2-14), Los Angeles (4-12) ... blech ... and Seattle (10-5-1).

By using design to eliminate hundreds of turnovers and thousands of yards lost to sacks since 1985, NFL coaches have excelled in waste reduction just as most other business sectors in the USA have excelled in waste reduction during this time period. NFL coaches have been so successful in waste reduction that QC doesn't debit coaches for turnovers. (See QC's 9th Commandment). And nobody has been better at waste reduction than Belichick. Indeed, relentlessly consistent waste reduction--not vastly superior production--has been the secret sauce in Belichick's amazingly consistent recipe for success.

But Atlanta can match New England's waste reduction. Both teams committed just 11 turnovers during the regular season. That is an NFL record for waste reduction. The Falcons are not a team like the 2001 St. Louis Rams--the "Greatest Show on Turf"--that committed a whopping 44 turnovers during the regular season and thus might be expected on any given Sunday to contaminate itself.

Because Atlanta is the equal of his team in waste reduction, it is likely Belichick and the Patriots will have to out-design the Falcons in order to win. That will be tough. Strange as it sounds, New England has lost the design battle in 5 of 6 Super Bowl games under Belichick. The Falcons' play design differential (+7.50%) is significantly better than the Patriots's excellent differential (+4.81%) and better than any team New England has faced in the Super Bowl except those 2001 Rams (+9.16%).

Atlanta OC Shanahan's designs also present a problem to Belichick that not even Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, and the rest of the Greatest Show on Turf presented. Shanahan--the heretofore invisible assistant coach--has hidden his offense's regulator.

The two key components of any seaworthy timepiece is the escapement and the regulator. The escapement is the component that "ticks" and keeps time. In every NFL offense, the escapement is the QB such as Atlanta's Matt Ryan. Everybody knows this.

The regulator is just as important but less obvious. The regulator protects the escapment from getting knocked out of kilter by changes in pressure and temperature. In other words, it is the regulator's function to insure the escapement's timing is accurate.

Belichick has become the greatest coach in NFL history by designing defense like the sea. His designs are mysterious like the sea. His designs are unpredictable like the sea. His designs are, occasioinally, violent like the sea. But in the depths of the sea what the Poseidon of Foxsborough wants to do is simple: beat the hell out of the offense's regulator on every play. On the 2001 Rams, the regulator was Faulk. On Walsh's great San Francisco teams, the regulator was tight end Brent Jones. Belichick had his roughest defenders--Willie McGinest and Carl Banks--wear out those regulators with physical play on every down. And that tactic disrupted the escapement QBs (Warner and Joe Montana) and the timing of the entire offense.

But who is Shanahan's regulator? More precisely, who is not? Wide receiver Julio Jones is the Falcons' most dangerous offensive weapon. But Shanahan's offense does not run through Jones. Rather, depending on the play design, it runs through a deep and mostly anonymous cast of tight ends, fullback Pat DiMarco, and running backs Davonte Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Belichick will not have the luxury of simply identiying a single choke point for his defenders as he did against Faulk in 2001. Rather, his defenders will have to identify the choke point from scratch on every play.

Until this year, Shanahan has been the invisible assistant coach. (Well, as invisible as an assistant can be when his father is a two-time Super Bowl winning head coach.) In 2009, in just his second year as an offensive coordinator, Houston ranked fourth in the NFL in play design differential. In 2012, Washington ranked eighth with rookie Rober Griffin III using his designs. In 2014, Cleveland--yes, Cleveland--ranked seventh even after starting the ill-fated Johnny Manziel experiment at the end of the year.

Shanahan is no longer invisible. After the Super Bowl, he will become San Francisco's head coach. In his second year in Atlanta, his designs have been lethal. Ryan averaged 9.5 QCYPA during the regular season, which is almost 0.4 yard per attempt better than St. Louis averaged in 2001. When you consider that Shanahan designed an offense that is more productive than the Greatest Show on Turf and at the same time generates as little turnover waste as any NFL team in history, it is quite arguable that Shanahan has designed plays better than Walsh or Don Coryell or Sid Gillman or any other NFL offensive "genius" ever designed plays.

In contrast Atlanta's monster 9.5 QCYPA, New England's opponents posted 6.7 QCYPA across all their games, which was by far the most impotent in NFL. That's 2.8 yards per attempt less than what Atlanta averages on a normal Sunday. Staring at these numbers, you can be sure that Belichick is far more concerned about stopping or even slowing the Falcons than Bedard and the public are.

If Belichick does not think he can school his defenders to identify Atlanta's regulator on a play-by-play basis, he probably will assume he will not be able to control the game with his defense. This will put him and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to the same hard choice that Belchick forced on Rams' head coach Mike Martz in 2001: (1) Stick with what the Patriots have become most comfortable with and put the game in Tom Brady's hands or (2) intentionally limit Brady's role and keep the ball on the ground to shorten the game and keep it away from Shanahan and Ryan.

The latter design has more merit than most people would think and not just because it is the design Belichick's (and Parcells') Giants used to defeat Buffalo, 20-19, in Super Bowl 25. In Week 10 this year, Philadelphia pummeled Atlanta on the ground in a 24-15 win. Running backs Ryan Matthews and Wendell Smallwood combined for 32 carries and the Eagles possessed the ball for more than 38 minutes. Moreover, since Dion Lewis joined the team in 2015, the Patriots are 16-0 in games in which he has played. In addition, New England is 18-1 in games in which LeGarrett Blount has carried the ball 15 or more times. The Falcons yielded 4.5 yards per carry and 15 rushing TDs during the regular season so don't be surprised if Belichick and McDaniels choose to run the ball a lot more than would be necessary to merely distract the Falcons.

Still, it is hard to imagine that even a coach as disciplined as Belichick can resist the urge to return fire when he has Brady as his passer. If TE Rob Gronkowski was in the lineup, the odds that Brady could serve-and-volley with Ryan would be good indeed. But without the hellish mismatches that Gronkowski creates, its unlikely that even Brady will be able to answer every Ryan winner.

And that puts the ball back in Belichick's court.

Belichick is nothing if he is not a survivor. The NFL sea would have swallowed him up long ago and before he became the greatest coach in NFL history if he were not. But because he is a survivor, we focus on his monumental triumphs like the Super Bowl wins over the Rams and Bills.

And we tend to overlook his failures.

In particular, we tend to overlook that the single best passing day any QB in the NFL has ever enjoyed came against a Belichick defense. On November 30, 2009, Drew Brees threw for 5 TDs and 371 yards without an interception on just 23 pass attempts as the Saints ambushed the Patriots, 38-17. Brees' astronomical 18.130 QCYPA is the best mark in NFL history by a QB who also did not commit a turnover.

Another hurricane of that magnitude is highly unlikely.

But a storm conjured up by an NFL Prospero has been gathering strength in Atlanta and the latest forecast has it arriving in Houston on Sunday.

QC's Guess: Atlanta Falcons SU and ATS

TABLE 1

KEY:

Super Bowl Champion

Conference Champion

Playoff Team

1985

 

2016

Rank

Team

Record

Head Coach

Play Design +/-

TOs

Pass Protection

 

Rank

Team

Record

Head Coach

Play Design +/-

TOs

Pass Protection

1

Chi

15-1

Ditka

+5.34%

31

(.525)

 

1

Atl

11-5

Quinn

+7.50%

11

(.438)

2

NYG

10-6

Parcells

+4.92%

38

(.797)

 

2

NE

14-2

Belichick

+4.81%

11

(.269)

3

SF

10-6

Walsh

+4.08%

34

(.544)

 

3

Den

9-7

Kubiak

+3.47%

25

(.402)

4

NE

11-5

Berry

+3.76%

42

(.689)

 

4

Dal

13-3

Garrett

+2.87%

15

(.348)

5

NYJ

11-5

Walton

+2.81%

29

(.803)

 

5

Mia

10-6

Gase

+2.65%

23

(.436)

6

KC

6-10

Mackovic

+1.90%

34

(.656)

 

6

Wash

8-7-1

Gruden

+2.51%

21

(.313)

7

SD

8-8

Coryell

+1.82%

49

(.483)

 

7

Pitt

11-5

Tomlin

+1.91%

18

(.302)

8

LA Rams

11-5

Robinson

+1.69%

35

(1.015)

 

8

SD

5-11

McCoy

+1.80%

35

(.325)

9

Pitt

7-9

Noll

+1.54%

36

(.438)

 

9

Cin

6-9-1

Lewis

+1.67%

17

(.469)

10

Det

7-9

Rogers

+1.05%

41

(.818)

 

10

Sea

10-5-1

Carroll

+1.55%

18

(.526)

11

Clev

8-8

Schottenheimer

+0.94%

36

(.601)

 

11

Minn

8-8

Zimmer

+1.16%

16

(.481)

12

LA Raiders

12-4

Flores

+0.93%

38

(.662)

 

12

Tenn

9-7

Mularkey

+1.15%

18

(.371)

13

Cin

7-9

Wyche

+0.58%

29

(.705)

 

13

NYG

11-5

McAdoo

+1.09%

27

(.251)

14

Phil

7-9

Campbell/
Bruney

+0.45%

40

(.794)

 

14

Ariz

6-9-1

Arians

+0.97%

28

(.447)

15

Mia

12-4

Shula

+0.11%

41

(.285)

 

15

Chi

3-13

Fox

+0.50%

31

(.295)

16

Den

11-5

Reeves

+0.05%

31

(.498)

 

16

KC

12-4

Reid

+0.49%

17

(.319)

17

GB

8-8

Gregg

0%

45

(.758)

 

17

Indy

8-8

Pagano

+0.02%

22

(.495)

18

Dal

10-6

Landry

-0.49%

41

(.639)

 

18

NO

7-9

Payton

-0.53%

24

(.261)

19

Minn

7-9

Grant

-0.97%

47

(.514)

 

19

Jax

3-13

Bradley/
Marrone

-0.83%

29

(.315)

20

Wash

10-6

Gibbs

-1.65%

40

(.836)

 

20

TB

9-7

Koetter

-1.44%

28

(.418)

21

Sea

8-8

Knox

-2.38%

41

(.795)

 

21

Det

9-7

Caldwell

-1.55%

15

(.364)

22

Buff

2-14

Stephenson/
Bullough

-2.97%

52

(.671)

 

22

Car

6-10

Rivera

-1.64%

29

(.493)

23

TB

2-14

Bennett

-3.12%

48

(.593)

 

23

Buff

7-9

Ryan/Lynn

-1.66%

12

(.453)

24

St. L

5-11

Hanifan

-3.14%

34

(.878)

 

24

GB

10-6

McCarthy

-1.78%

17

(.397)

25

Hou

5-11

Campbell/
Glanville

-4.38%

37

(.861)

 

25

Balt

8-8

Harbaugh

-1.92%

23

(.336)

26

NO

5-11

Bum/Wade
Phillips

-4.41%

36

(.907)

 

26

Hou

9-7

O'Brien

-2.21%

24

(.400)

27

Indy

5-11

Dowhower

-4.48%

34

(.521)

 

27

Oak

12-4

Del Rio

-2.47%

14

(.145)

28

Atl

4-12

Henning

-5.93%

30

(1.149)

 

28

Phil

7-9

Pederson

-3.02%

20

(.351)

               

29

NYJ

5-11

Bowles

-3.31%

34

(.321)

               

30

LA

4-12

Fisher/
Fassel

-3.55%

29

(.675)

               

31

SF

2-14

Kelly

-4.69%

25

(.518)

               

32

Clev

1-15

Jackson

-6.01%

25

(.757)

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2016 Year End Awards

GAME PLAN OF THE YEAR: Kansas City 29 Atlanta 28. Andy Reid's team crawled into Atlanta to face the NFL's best designed team off a 5-quarter Sunday night win over division rival at Denver and had another monster division game against Oakland coming up on Thursday. But Reid and his staff had a great plan. On offense, QB Alex Smith was infinitely productive and out-gunned the Falcons Matt Ryan. Safety Eric Berry returned an interception and a 2-point attempt for scores. But it still would not have been enough without a brilliantly designed fake punt that upback Albert Wilson took 55 yards for a TD. QC's 8th Commandment states special teams involve virtually no play design. But on this occasion KC special teams coach Dave Toub designed up a doozy and in doing so stole the win that ultimately provided the Chiefs the division title.

PAST WINNERS:
2009: New Orleans 38 New England 17
2010: Cleveland 30 New Orleans 17
2011: Denver 38 Oakland 24
2012: Atlanta 30 Seattle 28 (NFC Divisional Playoff)
2013: Philadelphia 33 Washington 27
2014: Arizona 14 Detroit 6
2015: Carolina 33 Dallas 14

COACH OF THE YEAR: Kyle Shannahan (Atlanta). Followers of the QuantCoach know that all play designers, including assistant coaches and QBs, are eligible for QC's COY award. Shannahan is the second assistant to garner the honor. (Houston DC Wade Phillips won in 2011.) This was a no brainer. Using Shannahan's eclectic mix of tight ends, wide receivers, and running backs, Matt Ryan averaged more than 9.5 QCYPA and was unstoppable at almost all times all year. Shannahan did not do it with volume, but rather diversity and consistency. The Falcons have attempted between 33 and 38 passes in 12 of their 18 games. On only 2 occasions has Ryan been under 8.000 QCYPA and he has never been under 7.765.

PAST WINNERS:
2009: Norv Turner (San Diego)
2010: Bill Belichick (New England)
2011: Wade Phillips (Houston Defensive Coordinator)
2012: Jim Harbaugh (San Francisco)
2013: Pete Carroll (Seattle)
2014: Jason Garrett (Dallas)
2015: Bruce Arians (Arizona)

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: Matt Ryan (Atlanta). Dallas RB Ezekiel Elliott and New England QB Tom Brady had great years and Oakland's dynamic duo of QB Derek Carr and DE Khalil Mack lifted Oakland to it best season in decades. But when a QB averges better than 9.500 QCYPA it is an easy call. While Ryan's efficiency may be attributed largely to Shannhan's design, his 38 TD passes against only 7 interceptions is almost all-playmaking.

PAST WINNERS:
2009: Dallas Clark (Indianapolis)
2010: Tom Brady (New England)
2011: Aaron Rogers (Green Bay)
2012: P-rex Manning (Denver)
2013: P-rex Manning (Denver)
2014: J.J. Watt (Houston)
2015: Cam Newton (Carolina)

ROOKIES OF THE YEAR: Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott (Dallas). By averaging 5.1 yards per carry, Elliott was a devastating first down option that opened up the Dallas offense. Prescott came out of nowhere in preseason to seize the job and never gave it up. From the first pre-season game of the year in Los Angeles to the frustrating conclusion in a playoff loss to Green Bay, Prescott operated the offense with a deftness that has not been seen since Matt Ryan broke into the league.

PAST WINNERS:
2009: Brian Cushing (Houston)
2010: RobAaron Gronkowski-Hernandez (New England)
2011: Patrick Peterson (Arizona)
2012: Robert Griffin, III (Washington)
2013: Kenny Vaccarro (New Orleans)
2014: Teddy Bridgewater (Minnesota)
2015: Marcus Peters (Kansas City)

SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tyreek Hill (Kansas City). Kickers Justin Tucker (Baltimore) and Matt Prater (Detroit) and the 2015 winner, Los Angeles punter Johnny Hekker, all had great years. But Hill essentially won two crucial division games against Denver and Oakland with return TDs and clinched the division with another in the finale against San Diego. He gave the Chiefs an electricity that had not been present in Kansas City since Dante Hall exploded on the NFL in 2003.

PAST WINNERS:
2009: Josh Cribbs (Cleveland)
2010: Devin Hester (Chicago)
2011: David Akers (San Francisco)
2012: Matt Bryant (Atlanta)
2013: Justin Tucker (Baltimore)
2014: Adam Vinatieri & Pat McAfee (Indianapolis)
2015: Johnny Hekker (St. Louis)

JERRY JONES PATIENT OWNER OF THE YEAR AWARD. Amy Adams Strunk (Tennessee). Many rolled their eyes and groaned when Strunk decided to make interim coach Mike Mularkey the permanent HC after he finished a disastrous 2-14 2015 year that had been started by Ken Whisenhunt. Holding onto an interim coach rarely works and Mularkey had lasted just a single year in both Buffalo and Jacksonville. But the Titans improved to 9-7 in 2016 as the offensive line jelled into one of the best in the NFL and QB Marcus Mariota emerged as one of the NFL's most dangerous performers in the red zone.

PAST WINNERS:
2009: Jerry Jones (Dallas)
2010: Arthur Blank (Atlanta)
2011: Bob McNair (Houston)
2012: Jerry Richardson (Carolina)
2013: Jerry Richardson (Carolina)
2014: Jerry Jones (Dallas)
2015: Mike Brown (Cincinnati)

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Conference Championship Preview

AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

New England (-5.5) vs. Pittsburgh

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: New England 2nd; Pittsburgh 7th
PLAYER PRODUCTIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: New England 2nd; Pittsburgh 6th
TURNOVER MARGIN: New England 3rd (+12); Pittsburgh T9th (+5)

Teams that have reached a conference championship game after finishing in the top 3 in play design during the regular season have prevailed and advanced to the Super Bowl 9 out of 11 times since 2008. They are a perfect 7-0 when the conference championship game is played at home. That bodes well for New England (and Atlanta as discussed below). This is Bill Belichick's best designed team since the 16-0 2007 juggernaut. Yeah, they played the softest schedule in the NFL per coaching statistics. But even after adjusting for the weak opponents, this is still Belichick's best designed team since 2007. The loss of superstar TE Rob Gronkowski has hurt. Back when these teams met in the regular season and the Patriots won 28-16, Gronkowski was a downfield mismatch for the Steelers secondary. But New England didn't have WR Michael Floyd and he and WR Chris Hogan should cause DC Keith Floyd plenty of anxiety. The difference between this year's Patriots and past years is Tom Brady is throwing the ball downfield a lot more. That will be trouble for a Pittsburgh secondary that starts 2 rookies and does not have the man-to-man skills to just matchup with Brady's receivers. Look for Floyd to have a big game if Butler designs man coverage and Brady to pick the coverage apart if Butler designs zone. On offense, DLs Trey Flowers, Malcom Brown and Vince Valentine have developed into supreme run stuffers. They yielded more than 65 yards rushing in a game just twice in their last 7 games. So it will be difficult assignment for Le'Veon Bell. If New England's front seven slows down Bell, the game will be left in the hands of Ben Roethlisberger. Belichick and DC Matt Patricia will double Antonio Brown all over field and force Big Ben to be patient and work with other options. But Roethlisberger almost always loses his patience at least once per game. Look for this to be a physical grudge match for 3 quarters and Brady to put Pittsburgh away in the Q4.

QC's Guess: New England SU & ATS

NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

Atlanta (-5) vs. Green Bay

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Atlanta 1st; Green Bay 24th
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Atlanta 1st; Green Bay 28th
TURNOVER MARGIN: Atlanta T4th (+11); Seattle 6th (+8)

These teams met at mid-season when Atlanta rallied to win, 33-32. It should be another shootout. In that first game, the Packers played without Clay Matthews on defense and Randall Cobb, Ty Montgomery and Jared Cook on offense. In fact, HC Mike McCarthy really didn't have any RB other than FB Aaron Ripowski. QB Aaron Rodgers' playmakers had names like Don Jackson and Trevor Davis. Rookie WR Geronimo Allison had just been promotoed from the practice squad. So Rodgers played like a single-wing tailback and bedeviled the Falcons with 60 yards rushing and 4 TD passes. If that happens again, Green Bay should advance to Super Bowl 51. Atlanta finished the regular season with the third-highest play design differential since QC invented the coaching stat in 2008. Only the 2013 Seahawks (Super Bowl champs) and the 2010 Chargers (a cautionary tale of special teams) consistently won the design battle more decisively. With supercharger RBs Davonte Freeman and Tevin Coleman running behind a top-shelf offensive line in formations that frequently featured 3 TE, OC Kyle Shannahan designed more play-action passes for QB Matt Ryan than any other designer in the NFL (27.6% of dropbacks). As a result, Ryan threw TD passes to 13 different receivers, including 5--5!!--TEs (Austin Hooper (3), Jacob Tamme (3), Levine Toilolo (2), Joshua Perkins (1) and D.J. Tialavea (1)). The Falcons run the ball well, but they make opponents pay for overplaying the run even more. The Atlanta D is another matter. It has given up 29 or more points in 6 of 9 home games. The D's stats improved during the last month of the season, but the opponents it faced had poor (Carolina) or awful (Los Angeles and San Francisco) offenses. QC gave Green Bay up for dead after it fell to 4-6 with a loss to Washington. QC won't make that mistake again. We've already seen Rodgers wreck Atlanta's defense all by himsef this year. In addition, the Packers are first team since 2007 NY Giants to win 2 or more playoff games after finishing the season with a negative play design differential. Those Giants went on to stun the unbeaten Patriots in the Super Bowl. That makes this a tough pick. QC won't pick against a home team in this spot that is designed as well as Atlanta is designed. But he won't give Rodgers 5 points either. This should be close (a FG either way).

QC's Guess: Atlanta Falcons SU; Green Bay Packers ATS

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Divisional Round Thoughts: Penalties Beat the Cowboys

On this QC and his friend, Edward Egros of Fox4 News in Dallas agree: Aaron Rodgers and his teammates played splendidly, but the Packers did not beat the Cowboys. The Cowboys beat the Cowboys. (The final score: Green Bay 34 Dallas 31).

Where we disagree is which Cowboys beat the Cowboys. On his always thoughful "Inside Sports Analytics" podcast, Egros fingers coaching as the culprit for the defeat, particularly two in-game decisions. QC blames the players and two big penalties.

According to coaching stats, Dallas was about 1% better designed than Green Bay and its players were 2.93 points more productive. With turnovers even and both teams solid in the kicking game, QC would expect such numbers to yield a 3-point Cowboys win, not a 3-point loss. So where did those missing 6 points go?

Egros thinks the missing points can be found in Dallas' decision to settle for a field goal on its very first drive of the game rather than going for a first down on 4th-and-2 at the Green Bay 32-yard line. However, this does not take into account that the Cowboys were the favorite coming into the game and they looked like it on the first drive. Physicist Brian Skinner's "Scoring Strategies for the Underdog" directs that "a favored team should be willing to sacrifice from its expected final score in order to reduce the variance." That is exactly what HC Jason Garrett did when he sent out kicker Dan-"omatic" Bailey to collect 3 points.

If the missing points are not found in the first drive of the game, then Egros says they can be found in Dallas' last drive of the game. Specifically, he finds that Dak Prescott's 1st down spike at the Green Bay 40 reduced the Cowboys' chance to win by 2.5%. Garrett still had a timeout to use so the Cowboys did waste one down by spiking the ball. But there is no guarantee that Dallas would have gotten into any better position or collected any more points than the 3 it collected from Bailey's 50-yard field goal.

To QC, the spike seems like a trivial matter compared to the opportunites that were wasted by two critical Cowboys' penalties.

Before we look at those penalties, QC notes that far more losses are attributed to penalties than actually result from penalties. Typcially, a team the complains that penalties cost it the game also lost the design battle and the turnover battle. When a team loses the design battle and the turnover battle, it should expect to lose. QC is looking at your Kansas City Chiefs, Travis Kelce. Teams that dominate the design and turnover battles can absorb almost all penalties. The 2013 Seattle Seahawks led the NFL in penalty yardage. They also were No. 1 in play design differential, No. 1 in turnover differential, and smashed the most productive team in the NFL--Denver--in the Super Bowl.

On Sunday, Seattle incurred an untimely holding penalty while leading Atlanta 10-7 that wiped out an electric Devin Hester punt return. The penalty resulted in 84-yard change in field position. A Seahawks OL followed up that error by stepping on QB Russell Wilson's foot, which caused Wilson to fall and the Falcons to score a safety. Atlanta then rolled and, in the end, the Falcons were more than 76 points more productive than Seattle. The penalty marked the point in the game when Atalanta started to assert its vast superiority, but the Seahawks did not lose because of the penalty.

Dallas lost because of its penalties.

The Cowboys first killer penalty occurred on their second drive and wasted a 22-yard completion to the Green Bay 15-yard line. Wide receiver Brice Butler was flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct for entering the Dallas huddle and then leaving without participating in a play. Butler clearly was on the field. But had the Cowoys really formed a "huddle?" It was more "huddle-ish." Would any of the Packers or their coaches have even noticed Butler if he had not been flagged? It seems unlikely. Neverthless, the penalty pushed the Cowboys back to their own 48. It wasn't a 15-yard penatly, it was a 37-yard penalty when the nullified 22-yard gain is counted. More importantly, it surely cost Dallas at least 3 points as Bailey is virtually automatic from that distance.

The second killer penalty came in the fourth quarter after the Cowboys rallied to tie the game, 28-28. On the first play after the 2-minute warning, Rodgers was intercepted by Jeff Heath at the Dallas 15-yard line. If the play had stood, the Cowboys would have had the ball and 3 timeouts to work with against a tired defense. But rookie Anthony Brown was flagged for pass interference and the Packers retained possession at the Dallas 33.

Several years ago, authors Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim documented in "Scorecasting" how game situation and game noise impact officiating. With Dallas at home in tie game late in the fourth quarter, it is unusual to see the officials do anything, but "let the players, play."

However, a few weeks ago, Noah Davis and Michael Lopez published findings on fivethirtyeight.com that pass intereference is called 50% more often on the offensive team's sideline where the offensive team's coaches are ususally yelling at the officials to call pass interference. Where was Brown indicted? It was in front of the Packers' bench.

Two plays after Brown was convicted of PI, Mason Crosby coaxed a 56-yard field goal through the uprights to put Green Bay back on top, 31-28. If Brown had not been flagged, it is likely Green Bay never would have tallied those 3-points. Add that total to the 3 points (minimum) that likely disappeared with the Butler penalty and the 6 missing points have been found.

Egros accounts for these penalties differently. He simply subtracts the total penalty yardage incurred by the Packers from the total penalty yardage incurred by Dallas and calculates that the Cowboys net 28 yards in penalties cost Dallas a mere .5% of win probability.

His math is right.

But the "economics of waste" are not governed by neat and tidy probability equations.

The "economics of waste" are "black swans," as stated in QC's 10th Commandment--"All statistics sometimes lie." As explained under the 10th Commandment, NFL black swans include: "(1) kickoff, punt, interception, and fumble returns for touchdowns; (2) blocked and missed field goals and PATs; (3) blocked punts; (4) exceptionally long successful field goals; (5) extraordinary punting; (6) a single trick play; (7) on-side kick recoveries; (8) critical penalties (or incorrect officals calls); (9) unusually long TD runs; (10) weather; (11) overtime coin flips; and (12) other atypical acts or events that a coach cannot replicate through his play design."

The Cowboys loss appears to be in fact one of the rare occasions in which penalties actually caused a defeat.

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Divisional Round Playoff Preview

AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

New England (-15) vs. Houston

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: New England 2nd; Houston 26th
PLAYER PRODUCTIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: New England 2nd; Houston 19th
TURNOVER MARGIN: New England 3rd (+12); Houston T27th (-7)

The last 3 playoff games that have started after 6 PM EST in Foxboro, MA ended with the Patriots winning 45-7 (2014 AFC Championship vs. Indianapolis), 43-22 (2013 Divisional Round vs. Indianapolis), and 45-10 (2010 Divisional Round vs. Denver). Yikes. This is a huge number so New England can afford few if any slip ups if it is to cover. But Tom Brady has thrown just 2 interceptions all year so the Texans should not expect any help from the Patriots. On the road against better-than-average pass defenses, Houston QB Brock Osweiler has yet to produce north of the JaMarcus Cable. Unless the Texans D delivers a monster game, New England should start fast and then turn it on late to win by 3 scores.

QC's Guess: New England SU & ATS

Kansas City (-1.5) v. Pittsburgh

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Kansas City 16th; Pittsburgh 7th
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL: Kansas City 16th; Pittsburgh 6th
TURNOVER MARGIN: Kansas City T1st (+16); Pittsburgh T9th (+5)

This is a classic matchup of a team that wins by dominating the turnover battle and special teams versus a team that wins by dominating play design. When the Steelers crushed the Chiefs, 43-14, in Week 5 in Pittsburgh, KC's Tyreke Hill had yet to emerge as the most dangerous big-play maker in the AFC. (Odell Beckham holds that title in the NFC.) Hill is a force now and the shaky Steelers secondary cannot let him or TE Travis Kelce ignite the crowd with long TDs. QB Alex Smith has been here before. In 2011, he took a similarly constructed San Francisco team to the playoffs and bested Drew Brees and the high-powered Saints in a divisional round shootout. That 49ers team also had a deep threat at TE (Vernon Davis), but nobody as versatile or dangerous as Hill, so it could happen again. The Steelers have been operating like a well-oiled machined for over a month. Pittsburgh as won the design battle decisively in 5 of their last 6 games. In the one game they did not, Le'Veon Bell gashed Buffalo for over 200 yards on the ground. KC has struggled against the run without injured LB Derrick Johnson and has not recorded a sack since Week 14 against Oakland. The perception is the Chiefs' pass rush has been missing only since Justin Houston started resting the last 2 weeks of the season, but the reality is that since mid-season KC has only gotten after the opposing QB against Denver's sieve-like line. The biggest worry in backing Pittsburgh--particularly on the road--is that you have to factor in at least one WTF interception from Ben Roethlisberger. As long as Ben can limit himself to one head-scratcher (and it's not a pick-6), the Steelers should be able to pull this one out. But it probably will be an all day job.

QC's Guess: Pittsburgh Steelers SU and ATS

NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

Atlanta (-5) vs. Seattle

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Atlanta 1st; Seattle 10th
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Atlanta 1st; Seattle 7th
TURNOVER MARGIN: Atlanta T4th (+11); Seattle 16th (+1)

Atlanta is just 3-5 ATS at home and, more troubling, has given up 30 or more points in 5 of those games. In another game (Kansas City) the Falcons yielded 29 points (although 9 of those points came against the Atlanta offense). Seattle's Thomas Rawls got rollling in the wild-card round against Detroit, but for the Seahawks to have a chance to win, Russell Wilson needs to get hot and bomb the Atlanta secondary like Jameis Winston, Cam Newton, Phil Rivers, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees did in the Georgia Dome. When the Seahawks have fallen behind, their below average pass protection has collapsed and Wilson has been both unproductive and turnover-prone. The Falcons have plenty of firepower to start quickly and make Seattle play from the rear. As @fbgchase has pointed out, Matt Ryan has finished almost as many drives with a TD (58) as he has with a turnover or punt (59). In the teams' first meeting in Seattle, Ryan directed 3 straight Q3 TD drives of at least 75 yards. But a Ryan fumble gave the Seahawks a TD and a ghastly Q4 interception set up a field goal. If Ryan avoids those mistakes this time around, the Falcons should fly to the win and the cover. If not, Matty Ice will be left out it the post-season cold in the last NFL game in the Georgia Dome.

QC's Guess: Atlanta Falcons SU and ATS

Dallas Cowboys (-4.5) vs. Green Bay

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Dallas 4th; Green Bay 24th
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Dallas 4th; Green Bay 28th
TURNOVER MARGIN: Dallas T9th (+5); Green Bay 6th (+8)

QC concedes that coaching stats underrate Dallas. The Cowboys are underrated because they run the football with Ezekiel Elliott so consistently. In 11 of their 16 regular season games, the Cowboys ran the ball at least 30 times (and 29 times in one other game). In contrast, the team that led the NFL in rushing, Buffalo, ran the ball at least 30 times in only 8 games. The ever-present threat of a 5-yard or 6-yard gain by Elliott makes life for Dak Prescott so much easier, particularly on 1DN. As a result, Prescott averaged just a tick under 8.0 QCYPA, which is not what the Packers' fragile and thin secondary wants to see. To make matters worse, Prescott ran for an NFL-best 6 TDs making him a deadly dual threat in the red zone. Green Bay counterpart Aaron Rogers also is lethal in the red zone because he can use his legs to either buy time or dash for the pylon. Still, in the wild-card round, Giants' DC Steve Spagnuolo kept Rodgers well under control and sacked him 5 times by bringing a very late rusher from the secondary to chase Rodgers down. QC bets Dallas DC Rod Marinelli paid attention and with a fully healthy secondary he might incorporate some of those same tactics into the defensive game play. For the first 11 games of the season, Marinelli's pass rush was non-existent. But since Week 13, opposing passers have lost more than .5 yard per attempted pass against the Cowboys. That figure would rank in the top 5 of the NFL over the entire season. Including their wild-card win over New York, Rodgers has lifted Green Bay to a cover in 7 of its last 8 games. But the Packers have seen no more than 27 rushing attempts in any of those games. Look for Dom Capers' units to see at least 8 to 10 more rushing attempts than that on Sunday and Zeke, Dak and company to pull away in Q4 to win comfortably.

QC's Guess: Dallas Cowboys SU and ATS

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Wild-Card Round Playoff Preview

AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

Houston (-3.5) vs. Oakland

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Houston 26th; Oakland 27th
PLAYER PRODUCTIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Houston 19th; Oakland 30th
TURNOVER MARGIN: Houston T27th (-7); Oakland T1st (+16)

If this was a regular season game, QC would just pass on by without stopping to make a thorough inspection. But it is a playoff game. The Raiders (12-4) had a tremendous season despite terrible coaching statistics because they averaged +1 TO per game and QB Derek Carr threw a lot of TD passes. Carr is out with an injury and rookie third-team QB Connor Cook will make his first NFL start against a salty defense on the road. Cook will have the luxury of the best pass protection in the NFL and deep cast of playmakers. And Houston (9-7) will have to go with Brock Osweiler under center. The Texans 5.72 QCYPA is the worst in the NFL and, still, the offense has put up fewer points than its coaching statistics expected it to score. Because Houston's passing game is so bad, Oakland's biggest liabilty--pass coverage (8.115 D-QCYPA)--may not be as big a problem as usual. It will help if Khalil Mack and the Raiders' pass rush can wake up--Oakland is without a sack in its last 2 games--and get to Osweiler. The Raiders 30 takeaways tied for second best in the NFL while Osweiler's 16 interceptions tied for fourth worst. It should be a close game that is decided by a few high leverage plays. That is exactly the kind of game Jack Del Rio's team has been winning all year.

QC's Guess: Oakland Raiders SU & ATS

Pittsburgh (-10) vs. Miami

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Pittsburgh 7th; Miami 5th
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL: Pittsburgh 6th; Miami 4th
TURNOVER MARGIN: Pittsburgh T9th (+11); Miami T13th (+2)

There is as much line value here on Miami as QC can ever recall in a playoff game (or a regular season game for that matter). These teams are very closely matched. The Steelers have won their last 7 games. The Dolphins have won 9 of their last 11 games. Pittsburgh is the public team with the future HOF QB and the WR who competed on "Dancing With the Stars." But when the teams met in Miami earlier in the year, the "No Name" Dolphins dominated. That is unlikely to happen again and don't expect Miami RB Jay Ajayi to run for another 200 as he did in the first meeting. But don't expect Ajayi and QB Matt Moore to be silent. The Dolpins D probably will have some trouble stopping Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. And that should be enough to lift Pittsburgh to a hard fought, close win.

QC's Guess: Pittsburgh Steelers SU; Miami Dolphins ATS

NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

Seattle (-8) vs. Detroit

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Seattle 10th; Detroit 21st
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Seattle 7th; Detroit 27th
TURNOVER MARGIN: Seattle 16th (+1); Detroit 20th (-1)

Coaching stats are pretty tightly bunched in the mediocre middle this year and both of these teams are part of that middle. The Seahawks lurched to the finish line covering only one game in the final month of the season and it was against the hapless Rams. The once feared pass coverage--sans centerfielder Earl Thomas--is yielding 7.1 QCPYA and has generated only 19 takeaways. Detroit QB Matt Stafford should be able hang in there even with an injured finger. The Lions run defense has been pretty soft of late, but the Seahawks have not done much on the ground lately. The pass D has given up 8 TD passes the past 2 weeks to Dak Prescott and Aaron Rogers. But it has had its moments, such as Week 12 in New Orleans against Drew Brees. The bottom line is that the number is way too big to trust this Seattle team to cover.

QC's Guess: Seattle Seahawks SU; Detroit Lions ATS

Green Bay (-5) vs. NY Giants

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Green Bay 24th; NY Giants 13th
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Green Bay 28th; NY Giants 12th
TURNOVER MARGIN: Green Bay 6th (+8); NY Giants T22nd (-2)

This game will be decided in the red zone. The Giants have the best red zone defense in the NFL and Packers' QB Aaron Rodgers has thrown 40 TD passes. When the two teams met earliler in the year, it was field goal fest. Green Bay managed a pair of TDs while New York could only post one. This should be a similar game, but do not be surprised if the touchdown production is reversed. Only Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Kirk Cousins have thrown more than 1 TD pass in a game this year against the Giants. New York QB Eli Manning has had a bad year, but the Giants running game has been competent the last month of the season. Odell Beckham is the most dangerous playmaker in the NFL and the Packers' secondary is being held together by duct tape. Pass coverage is probably the most undervalued asset in handicapping and the Giants advantage in this area is enormous. If Manning can avoid turn overs, New York will be in good position to pull a SU playoff upset in Lambeau Field for the third time in the last 10 years.

QC's Guess: New York Giants SU and ATS

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