[Edit (12/4/2016) Correction to the following blog post.  After pondering this a bit more I’ve come to the conclusion that the Saints would win any tie-breaker against the Falcons where both teams end the season 10-6, no matter which teams the Falcons lose to in order to achieve a 10-6 record.  Reason for this is the Falcons already have 2 wins against the AFC and they have also already played the 2 non-common opponents (GB and PHI) and went 1-1 against them.  If the Saints win out (implying they beat Atlanta in the last game and further implying they also go 1-1 against their non-common opponents (NYG and DET) ) then the Saints would have the tie-breaker at either the division level (#2) in the event Atlanta loses to Carolina week 16 or at the conference record level (#4).  The tie-breaker will never get past #4 by virtue of Atlanta having the better record against the AFC and it will never get be anything other than a tie at the common opponents level (#3) by virtue of the tie at non-common opponents records (1-1 each).  To summarize, doesn’t matter if the Falcons lose to CAR, LA, SF, or KC in addition to losing to the Saints in week 17, as long as they lose to at least one of those 4 teams (along with the Saints winning out to finish 10-6), the Saints will hold all tie-breakers against them.  Note also, this is only about both teams finishing 10-6.  If they go 9-7, other tie-breakers might come into it, and other teams might come into it.]

[Original post follows]

The Vikings losing Thursday might potentially help the Saints to a wildcard berth, but I’m only going to focus here on how the Saints might win the division. I’ve worked out the scenarios and figured out the tie-breakers as follows below. (Remember, the following is only about winning the division. Even if that fails, the Saints could still get a wildcard spot.)

The following scenarios are predicated on the Saints winning out.  The Saints *could* still lose a game and finish 9-7 and still win the division, but I won’t be considering any of those scenarios here.  This is only for the case where the Saints win out and finish 10-6.

To set it up: ATL (7-4) plays KC, LA, SF, CAR, and NO (5-6) in its last 5 games. Saints need to both win out and hope ATL loses to either KC, CAR, LA, or SF in order to pick up the 2 games by which ATL leads them in the division. Got that? Good. Here’s what happens, depending on which of those games ATL loses (besides losing to the Saints in the finale, since that’s a given in this scenario with the Saints winning out).

First, let’s look at the tie-breaker priority for inside the division:
1) head-to-head
2) division record
3) common games record (basically all games EXCEPT those against the NFC NORTH and NFC EAST this year, INCLUDE games against the AFC WEST, NFC WEST, and NFC SOUTH)
4) conference record (at this point, the games against the NFC NORTH and NFC EAST count, but NOT those against the AFC WEST)
*5) strength of victory (I *believe* this is the combined records of the teams you defeated.)
*6) strength of schedule (I *believe* this is the combined records of all opponents, whether you beat them or lost to them is irrelevant.)

*I’m just going by memory from year’s past on #5 and #6, and could be wrong on those.

Let’s say ATL loses to KC:

1) head-to-head (tie 1-1 each, go to #2)
2) division record (tie 4-2 each, go to #3)
3) common games (I believe this would also be a tie because the Saints loss to NYG = the ATL loss to PHI and the ATL win over GB = NO win over DET. By commutative math and logical inference, if the record against non-common opponents is equal, and the overall record is equal, then the record against common opponents is also equal. Go to #4)
4) conference record (Saints win! Here’s why: the Saints are 1-3 against the AFC, which games don’t count for this tie-breaker, while the Falcons would be 2-2 against the AFC, and by applying the same logic as for #3, we get ATL having a better AFC record implying the Saints have the better NFC record since both teams have the same overall record. Falcons would be 8-4 versus the Saints 9-3 NFC records.)

If ATL loses to CAR (instead of losing to KC) the Saints win the tie-breaker at step #2 (better division record) instead of step #4 (better conference record). Either way, the Saints take the tie-breaker. (Note also, though probably not relevant, regardless of whether ATL beats KC or not, they already have 2 AFC wins against the Saints’ 1-3 AFC record, so the Saints will have the better conference record either way.

If ATL beats KC and CAR, but loses to either LA or SF, what then? I *believe* (and it’s kind of complicated, so I could be mistaken) it would then go to tie-breaker #5 (strength of victory). There’s no way to figure out who would win that tie-breaker because all of the games are not settled yet.

Head spinning? Keep in mind, I’m half asleep as I work on this, and I could have erred somewhere, and none of this is official, but I’ll summarize next.

Basically, no matter how it plays out, if the Saints win out *and* ATL loses to either KC or CAR, the Saints would take the division. If the Saints win out *and* ATL loses to either LA or SF, then it goes to a tie-breaker based on the records of the various opponents, which is yet to be determined.

Following table is based on data from PFREF.COM.  SRS = Simple Ratings System, based on strength of schedule and margins of victory.  Follow them on twitter @pfref.  You can follow me @mean__mark to get notified each time I update this blog.

Rank Team SRS OFFENSE DEFENSE STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
1 Dallas Cowboys 7.6 5 2.5 -1.8
2 New England Patriots 7.5 3.5 3.9 -1.3
3 Atlanta Falcons 7.4 10.2 -2.8 2.3
4 Denver Broncos 5.4 -0 5.5 1.2
5 Philadelphia Eagles 4.5 0.6 3.9 0.8
6 Pittsburgh Steelers 4.4 1.8 2.6 0.4
7 Seattle Seahawks 4 -3.1 7.1 0.7
8 Oakland Raiders 3.6 4.7 -1.1 0.7
9 Kansas City Chiefs 3.6 -0.9 4.5 0.1
10 New Orleans Saints 3.5 7.8 -4.3 1
11 Buffalo Bills 3.3 3.7 -0.3 -0.8
12 San Diego Chargers 3.3 5.4 -2.1 1.3
13 Washington Redskins 2.2 3.7 -1.5 0.8
14 Minnesota Vikings 1.8 -3.1 4.9 -0.6
15 Arizona Cardinals 0.8 -1.3 2.1 -0.8
16 New York Giants 0.6 -1.9 2.5 -1
17 Carolina Panthers 0.6 1.8 -1.3 1
18 Baltimore Ravens -0.2 -4.5 4.3 -1.7
19 Miami Dolphins -0.6 -0.9 0.3 -1.4
20 Tampa Bay Buccaneers -0.7 -0.1 -0.6 0.7
21 Green Bay Packers -1 1.7 -2.7 0.4
22 Detroit Lions -1.4 -0.6 -0.8 -2.2
23 Cincinnati Bengals -1.5 -2.5 1 1.4
24 Tennessee Titans -1.7 0.9 -2.6 -2.7
25 Houston Texans -3.8 -5.2 1.4 0
26 Indianapolis Colts -3.8 1.3 -5.1 -1
27 New York Jets -5.8 -3.1 -2.7 0.6
28 Los Angeles Rams -6.2 -7.9 1.7 -0.2
29 Jacksonville Jaguars -7.5 -3.9 -3.6 -0.3
30 Chicago Bears -8.1 -6.7 -1.4 -0.3
31 San Francisco 49ers -8.9 -1.1 -7.8 1.6
32 Cleveland Browns -11.5 -5 -6.6 1.4

SRS can be thought of as a point spread, just add 2 points for home advantage.

Let’s begin with some per-drive stats.

Offense
Points per drive: NO = 2.64 (3rd), DET = 2.11 (11th) ->Adv: NO (8)
Scoring percentage: NO = 44.9% (4th), DET = 41.5% (7th) ->Adv: NO (3)
Plays per drive: NO = 6.4 (4th), DET = 6.6 (3rd) ->Adv: DET (1)
Yards per drive: NO = 37.8 (3rd), DET = 34.2 (6th) ->Adv: NO (3)
Turnover percentage: NO = 11.8% (19th), DET = 6.6% (5th) ->Adv: DET (14)

Defense
Points per drive: NO = 2.23 (26th), DET = 2.20 (25th) ->Adv: DET (1)
Scoring percentage: NO = 41.9% (28th), DET = 40.4% (24th) ->Adv: DET (4)
Plays per drive: NO = 6.1 (12th), DET = 6.7 (30th) ->Adv: NO (18)
Yards per drive: NO = 32.8 (21st), DET = 35.7 (29th) ->Adv: NO (8)
Turnover percentage: NO = 13.7% (6th), DET = 10.1% (18th) ->Adv: NO (12)

On a per-drive basis, offensively, Saints have an 8 ranking advantage in points per drive and a 3 ranking advantage in scoring percentage and yards per drive, but Detroit has a 14 ranking advantage in avoiding offensive turnovers where Detroit is 5th best and the Saints are only 19th best.  Defensively, Detroit is only very slightly better in points allowed per drive (2.20 versus 2.23) and marginally better at percentage of opponents’ drives ending in a score of some type (41.9% versus 40.4%), 28th and 24th rankings, respectively.  Where the Saints have a marked advantage is in creating turnovers.  Saints are turning over opposing offenses at a rate of 13.7% (6th best) whereas Detroit is at 10.1% (18th best).  Hard to say who has the statistical advantage here because Detroit is better at protecting the ball on offense while the Saints are better at forcing turnovers on defense.

Passing Offense
Passer rating: NO = 110.2 (3rd), DET = 99.3 (8th) ->Adv: NO (5)
Adjusted net yards per att: NO = 7.9 (4th), DET = 6.9 (8th) ->Adv: NO (4)
Sack percentage: NO = 3.8% (5th), DET = 6.0% (17th) ->Adv: NO (12)
TD:INT ratio: NO = 31:8, DET = 19:5
EXP: NO = 143.47 (4th), DET = 88.39 (10th) ->Adv: NO (6)

Passing Defense
Opponent Passer rating: NO = 93.9 (21st), DET = 106.4 (32nd) ->Adv: NO (11)
Adjusted net yards per att: NO = 7.1 (25th), DET  = 7.1 (25th) ->Adv: EVEN
Sack percentage: NO = 5.2% (19th), DET = 4.9% (25th) ->Adv: NO (6)
TD:INT ratio: NO = 17:7 , DET = 22:7
EXP: NO = -98.55 (26th), DET = -111.70 (30th), Adv: NO (4)

Both of these quarterbacks are lighting it up this year, Saints top 5, Lions top 10.  One advantage the Saints have  on offense is the sack percentage is a lot better for Brees (5th best) than Stafford (17th best).  Another advantage: Saints have 31 passing TD’s versus only 19 for Detroit.  Defensively, both pass defenses are bad, but the Saints are better than the Lions across the board (at least in the stats I looked at in this comparison).  One stat that really stands out is the Lions are 32nd in opponent passer rating with a rating of 106.4.  Drew Brees playing at home is going to have a big day, and that’s an understatement.  Expect Matt Stafford to have a big day of his own, though.  Overall, I would say the Saints have a distinctive advantage in the passing game matchup, offense versus defense, distinctive, but not huge.  Could be the highest total score of the year in this one.

Rushing Offense
Yards per game: NO = 114.6 (9th), DET = 80.8 (30th) -> Adv: NO (21)
Yards per carry: NO = 4.3 (10th), DET = 3.7 (25th) -> Adv: NO (15)
Rushing TD’s: NO = 10 (12th), DET = 4 (29th) -> Adv: NO (17)
EXP: NO = 4.94 (5th), DET = -15.78 (15th) -> Adv: NO (10)

Rushing Defense
Yards per game: NO = 99.1 (12th), DET = 102.5 (16th) -> Adv: NO (4)
Yards per carry: NO = 3.9 (9th), DET = 4.2 (17th) -> Adv: NO (8)
Rushing TD’s: NO = 13 (25th), DET = 5 (3rd) -> Adv: DET (22)
EXP: NO = 32.4 (4th), DET = 19.13 (14th) -> Adv: NO (10)

Big advantage here in the running game goes to the Saints.  Only advantage to the Lions here is a big one though: They’re not giving up many rushing TD’s, only 5 on the year (3rd), compared to 13 for the Saints (25th).  Aside from that, the Saints are way better in yards per game, yards per attempt, and EXP, and this is both offensively and defensively.

Conclusion
Per-drive numbers are fairly close, but the Saints have fairly substantial advantages in rushing and passing games on both sides of the ball, particularly in the running game.  Both teams are very, very good offensively, and very, very not-so-good defensively, so it should be a high-scoring affair.  Wouldn’t be a shocker at all if the winner scores in the 40’s and the loser hits the 30’s.

One more thing to note on these numbers is they are for the entire season, which can be a bit misleading because the Saints have improved on defense significantly over the past several games.  They’ve gotten some key players back on defense, namely Delvin Breaux, Dannel Ellerbe, and last but certainly not least, Sheldon Rankins, who had a big sack fumble against the Rams in the last game.   Saints have been particularly good on defense in the 2nd halves in recent weeks: Rams (0 points in 2nd half), Panthers (3 points in 2nd half), Broncos (15 points in 2nd half, but that was 1 TD, 2 FG’s, and a 2-point blocked PAT return), 49er’s (3 points in 2nd half), Seahawks (6 points in 2nd half on 2 FG’s), and Chiefs (6 points on 2 FG’s in 2nd half).  That’s 1 *total* TD allowed in the 2nd halves of the last 6 games, folks.

Rank Team SRS OFFENSE DEFENSE
1 New England Patriots 8.8 4.2 4.6
2 Dallas Cowboys 7.7 4.9 2.9
3 Philadelphia Eagles 6.7 1.9 4.8
4 Atlanta Falcons 6 9.1 -3.2
5 Seattle Seahawks 5.8 -1 6.8
6 Denver Broncos 5.6 -1.5 7.1
7 Buffalo Bills 4.9 4.5 0.4
8 Pittsburgh Steelers 3.3 2.2 1
9 Oakland Raiders 3 4 -0.9
10 San Diego Chargers 2.5 6.3 -3.8
11 Arizona Cardinals 2.3 -0.8 3.1
12 Kansas City Chiefs 2.2 -3.2 5.4
13 Minnesota Vikings 2.1 -2.5 4.7
14 Washington Redskins 1.8 3.1 -1.2
15 New Orleans Saints 1.5 5.8 -4.3
16 Miami Dolphins 0.3 -0.9 1.2
17 New York Giants 0.1 -1.7 1.8
18 Carolina Panthers -0.1 1.4 -1.5
19 Baltimore Ravens -0.3 -4.6 4.3
20 Cincinnati Bengals -1.1 -2.2 1.1
21 Detroit Lions -1.6 -0.3 -1.4
22 Tampa Bay Buccaneers -2 0.8 -2.8
23 Tennessee Titans -2.1 0.1 -2.2
24 Indianapolis Colts -2.9 2.8 -5.7
25 Green Bay Packers -3.4 0.8 -4.3
26 Houston Texans -3.5 -4.2 0.6
27 Los Angeles Rams -4.3 -8.4 4.1
28 New York Jets -5.8 -2.7 -3.1
29 Chicago Bears -8 -7.3 -0.7
30 Jacksonville Jaguars -8.6 -4.5 -4.1
31 San Francisco 49ers -8.7 -1.2 -7.5
32 Cleveland Browns -10.8 -4.5 -6.4

Based on stats provided by PFREF.COM.

NFL power rankings based on simple ratings system, using margin of victory and strength of schedule.

RANKING TEAM SRS OFFENSE DEFENSE
1 New England Patriots 8.8 4 4.8
2 Dallas Cowboys 7.9 4.4 3.6
3 Philadelphia Eagles 7.7 1.9 5.7
4 Atlanta Falcons 5.8 8.9 -3.1
5 Denver Broncos 5.4 -2 7.4
6 Buffalo Bills 4.6 5.6 -1
7 Seattle Seahawks 4.6 -2.2 6.7
8 Oakland Raiders 3.3 3.9 -0.6
9 Kansas City Chiefs 3.1 -3 6.1
10 Pittsburgh Steelers 2.9 3 -0.1
11 San Diego Chargers 2.6 6.1 -3.5
12 Arizona Cardinals 2.2 -2.3 4.5
13 Minnesota Vikings 2 -3.8 5.8
14 New Orleans Saints 1.7 6.7 -5
15 Washington Redskins 1 1.8 -0.9
16 New York Giants 0.8 -1.4 2.2
17 Miami Dolphins -0 -1.2 1.2
18 Baltimore Ravens -0.4 -5.4 5.1
19 Carolina Panthers -0.5 2.2 -2.6
20 Cincinnati Bengals -1.1 -1.3 0.2
21 Detroit Lions -1.2 0 -1.3
22 Tennessee Titans -1.4 1.2 -2.6
23 Green Bay Packers -2.2 0.7 -2.9
24 Indianapolis Colts -3.2 3.5 -6.7
25 Tampa Bay Buccaneers -3.2 0.5 -3.6
26 Houston Texans -3.7 -4.4 0.7
27 Los Angeles Rams -4.4 -8.2 3.8
28 New York Jets -5.9 -3 -2.8
29 Chicago Bears -8.4 -7.6 -0.8
30 Jacksonville Jaguars -8.7 -4.5 -4.1
31 San Francisco 49ers -9.3 -1.3 -8
32 Cleveland Browns -10.5 -3.4 -7

Rankings based on Simple Ratings System (SRS) as per pro-football-reference.com, *the* source for NFL stats.  SRS takes into account strength of schedule and margin of victory.  Does not take into account win/loss records, injuries, or any other touchy feely stuff — purely stats-based rankings.  Can be thought of as a point spread, just add 2 points for home field advantage.

Per Drive Stats

Offense
Points per drive: Saints = 2.61 (3rd), Panthers = 1.90 (15th), Adv: Saints (12)
Scoring percentage: Saints = 45.1% (3rd), Panthers = 35.2% (17th), Adv: Saints (14)
Turnover percentage: Saints = 11.8% (19th), Panthers = 16.2% (30th), Adv: Saints (11)

Defense
Points per drive: Saints = 2.32 (26th), Panthers = 1.84 (12th), Adv: Panthers (14)
Scoring percentage: Saints = 44% (28th), Panthers = 34.5% (11th), Adv: Panthers (17)
Turnover percentage: Saints = 15% (3rd), Panthers = 10.9% (16th), Adv: Saints (13)

Only surprising stat here is the Saints defense is 3rd in the league in forcing turnovers with 15% of all drives against them ending in a turnover. Couple this with the fact the Panthers are 30th in giveaway percentage, and you have the strong possibility for the Saints to win the turnover margin in this game.

Overall stats

Passing offense
Passer rating: Saints = 107.0 (3rd), Panthers = 81.2 (25th), Adv: Saints (22)
EXP: Saints = 82.15 (5th), Panthers = 9.72 (19th), Adv: Saints (14)
Adj. net yards/att: Saints = 7.4 (4th), Panthers = 5.7 (24th), Adv: Saints (20)

Passing defense
Passer rating: Saints = 95.5 (24th), Panthers = 94.8 (20th), Adv: Panthers (4)
EXP: Saints = -66.75 (28th), Panthers = -6.53 (13th), Adv: Panthers (15)
Adj. net yards/att: Saints = 7.4 (27th), Panthers = 6.6 (19th), Adv: Panthers (8)

Big advantage here for the Saints passing offense versus the Panthers passing offense, but this is partially offset by the Panthers pass defense being better than the Saints pass defense.

Rushing offense
rush yards/game: Saints = 105.1 (16th), Panthers = 113.9 (11th), Adv: Panthers (5)
rush yards/carry: Saints = 4.1 (16th), Panthers = 4.0 (22nd), Adv: Saints (6)
EXP: Saints = -21.61 (15th), Panthers = -16.52 (11th), Adv: Panthers (4)

Rushing defense
rush yards/game: Saints = 107.9 (19th), Panthers = 79.0 (2nd), Adv: Panthers (17)
rush yards/carry: Saints = 4.1 (12th), Panthers = 3.4 (2nd), Adv: Panthers (10)
EXP: Saints = 35.53 (27th), Panthers = 26.57 (18th), Adv: Panthers (9)

Big advantage here for the Panthers both in rushing offense and in rushing defense. Only advantage for the Saints is they are slightly more efficient per carry (4.1 versus 4.0 yards per carry). Panthers rushing defense is very, very stout.

Conclusion
It’s going to difficult for the Saints to run the ball against Carolina’s run defense, which is 2nd in both yards/game and yards/carry allowed. But the Saints should be able to pass the ball against a very suspect Panthers pass defense. The game plan should be flipped from what it should have been against Denver. Saints need to run enough to keep the Panthers honest, but the passing game is where they can make some hay.

Panthers should be able to have some success on offense against the Saints defense. They should have some marginal success running the ball against the Saints, but the Panthers are only 22nd in yards/carry versus the Saints D at 12th in yards/carry allowed. If the Saints can get up early on the scoreboard it might take the Panthers running game out of the equation for them. Panthers passing offense has not been very good, but it’s up against a very weak Saints pass defense, so we’ll see.

Difference in the game could be turnovers. Saints are 3rd best at forcing turnovers (in terms of % of opponents’ drives ending in a turnover) while the Panthers have had issues protecting the ball (30th in giveaways as a percentage of drives).

A statistical look at the Saints’ next opponent, Denver.

Per drive stats
Offense
Points per drive: 1.80 (17th)
Yards per drive: 26.9 (29th)
Turnover percentage: 12.0% (21st)
Scoring percentage: 35.2% (17th)

Defense
Points per drive: 1.51 (6th)
Yards per drive: 26.5 (5th)
Turnover percentage: 12.4% (10th)
Scoring percentage: 31.4% (9th)

It’s not surprising at all to find them top 10 in all of the defensive stats above. The offensive stats are a bit surprising though. I wouldn’t have expected them to be 29th in yards per drive, but the scoring percentage and points per drive numbers are about as expected, which is pretty average at 17th. They’re turning the ball over and forcing turnovers at about the same rate (12% ish).

Overall stats
Passing offense
Passer rating: 86.3 (23rd)
Yards per game: 226.6 (25th)
Sack percentage: 6.1% (18th)
Adjusted net yards/attempt: 6.1 (19th)
TD:INT ratio: 12:6
EXP: 7.26 (25th)

Passing defense
Passer rating: 67.2 (1st)
Yards per game: 183.3 (1st)
Sack percentage: 8.2% (3rd)
Adjusted net yards/attempt: 4.1 (1st)
TD:INT ratio: 6:8
EXP: 43.43 (2nd)

Yikes! This is a great pass defense, folks. We’ll look at the run defense numbers below, but just looking at that pass defense, it’s a really, really good thing the Saints have recently discovered a running game. Passing offense doesn’t scare me, as it is very pedestrian, below average across the board. It’s gonna be a great matchup with the Saints passing offense versus this passing defense.

Rushing offense
Yards per game: 96.8 (23rd)
Yards per attempt: 3.8 (27th)
Rushing TD’s: 8 (13th)
EXP: -25.52 (21st)

Rushing defense
Yards per game: 128.6 (29th)
Yards per attempt: 4.4 (21st)
Rushing TD’s: 9 (24th)
EXP: 18.28 (15th)

While their pass defense is excellent, the rush defense is very sub par. The 29th ranking in yards/game is a real eye-opener. Saints should be able to run the ball against this team. Note also, the Broncos are likely to be without one of their defensive linemen, Wolfe, which probably won’t help their run defense any.

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