If the season ended today, Saints, Falcons, and Panthers would all be in the playoffs.  Saints would host Falcons, Panthers would travel to Rams in the wildcard round.  Eagles and Vikings would get the first round byes.  Vikings hold tie-breaker over Saints because of the week 1 debacle when the Saints secondary couldn’t figure out whom to cover.  (Grammar note: me, us, and whom are *not* dirty words.)

There are lots of scenarios that could play out, but the only one I’ll be looking at here is if the Saints, Vikings, and Eagles all finish 14-2.

Saints remaining schedule:

@ Los Angeles Rams
Carolina Panthers
@ Atlanta Falcons
New York Jets
Atlanta Falcons
@ Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Saints obviously “control their own destiny” being atop the division.  But there is a scenario where the Saints could win out and still have to play in the wildcard round (Vikings also win out, and Eagles finish 14-2 or better).  The good news here is the Vikings will play both the Falcons and the Panthers, so even if the Vikings win out, at least they’ll be helping the Saints in the division race with those 2 teams.

Vikings remaining schedule:

@ Detroit Lions
@ Atlanta Falcons
@ Carolina Panthers
Cincinnati Bengals
@ Green Bay Packers
Chicago Bears

Vikings are entering a brutal 3-game road stretch, but the last 3 all look very winnable for them (presuming Rodgers is still out for the Packers).  Even though the Vikings hold the head-to-head tie-breaker over the Saints it’s still possible for the Saints to win the tie-breaker *if* a 3rd team comes into it.  In other words, if the Eagles, Saints, and Vikings all finish with the same record (for example, 14-2 or 13-3) it’s still possible the Saints could grab one of those top 2 seeds.

Let’s say the Eagles, Saints, and Vikings all go 14-2.  (We’ll maybe look at 13-3 scenarios in a later week if the Saints are still in it and if it looks like that might happen.)  In that 3-team 14-2 case the Vikings head-to-head tie-breaker over the Saints won’t apply (at least not until the Eagles are eliminated from the tie-breaker either by winning it or losing it).  I believe the tie-breaker in this scenario would be the conference records.  Easiest way to compare conference records is to look for non-conference losses (the more the better even if that’s counter-intuitive).  Saints have 1 AFC loss (Patriots), Vikings have 1 AFC loss (Steelers) and Eagles have 1 AFC loss (Chiefs).

Eagles remaining schedule:

Chicago Bears
@ Seattle Seahawks
@ Los Angeles Rams
@ New York Giants
Oakland Raiders
Dallas Cowboys

At this point the Eagles only have 1 loss, so the Saints would need them to get another loss to get to 14-2 and spoil the Vikings’ head-to-head advantage over the Saints.  If that loss comes against the Raiders, it doesn’t really help the Saints because that means the Eagles would still win the 3-way tie-breaker mentioned above by virtue of the better conference record.  (We need the Eagles to stay in it and knock the Vikings out first or else lose it, leaving the Vikings and Saints with the top 2 seeds.)  This would leave the Saints tied with the Vikings for the 2nd seed, which the Vikings would win by virtue of the head-to-head.  So, Saints need the Eagles to lose to an NFC team.  If that happens, all 3 teams (Saints, Vikings, and Eagles) would be at 14-2 and all with just 1 AFC loss, bringing us to the next tie-breaker.

Next tie-breaker would be the record in common games (minimum 4 required).  When the season is over, the Saints, Rams, and Eagles will all have played the Redskins, Panthers, Rams, and Bears.  So, the tie-breaker would (I think) come down to the teams’ records against those 4 teams.  Since we’re presuming the Saints go 14-2, it means they’ll be 5-0 against those common opponents, and in great shape for this tie-breaker.  But, alas, the Vikings would also be 5-0 against those same teams.  The Eagles, in order to go 14-2 need to lose another game.  Saints need that loss to come to one of those common opponents, 2 of which are still remaining on the Eagles schedule (Bears and Rams).  (Eagles have already swept the Redskins and also already beat the Panthers.)  Saints need to hope for either the Bears or Rams (or both, even better) to beat the Eagles.  If that happens the Eagles would lose out in the 3-team tie-breaker, leaving the Vikings as the #1 seed, Saints as #2 seed, and Eagles as #3 seed.

I’m going to conclude (hopefully correctly, and this is fairly complicated stuff) if the Saints, Eagles, and Vikings all go 14-2, and if the Eagles other loss (aside from the Chiefs loss) comes to either the Rams or the Bears, the Vikings would be the #1 seed, the Saints the #2 seed, and the Eagles the #3 seed.  Eagles will probably spank the Bears, but the game @ Los Angeles could be one they might lose.  If the Eagles 2nd loss comes to the Raiders, they would be the #1 seed, the Vikings #2, and the Saints playing in the wildcard round as the #3 seed at 14-2, which would kinda suck.

I’m not predicting the Saints will win out and go 14-2 or that the Vikings will do the same or that the Eagles will finish 14-2.  I’m just looking at that as a possible scenario and how I think the tie-breaker would play out if that’s the case.

Recap

Vikings own the head-to-head over the Saints.  If both teams go 14-2 the Vikings would have the edge, even if the Eagles also go 14-2.  But if the Eagles join Saints and Vikings at 14-2 (with the other loss coming to the Bears or Rams) the Saints would get the #2 seed and a first-round bye.  It would be Vikings #1, Saints #2, Eagles #3.  If the Eagles other loss comes to the Raiders, they would still be the #1 seed.  If the Eagles’ 2nd loss to comes another NFC team (Giants, Seahawks, or Cowboys), then in that case all 3 teams (Eagles, Vikings, and Saints) would have the same conference records (1 AFC loss each) and the same 5-0 record in games against common opponents, meaning we’d go to the next tie-breaker, which is Strength of Victory.  We’ll examine strength of victory at a later date if it looks like it might come into play.  Basically, this is the records of the teams you beat (as opposed to the records of the teams you played, which would be the next tie-breaker, strength of schedule).

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LAR Off NO Def NO Off LAR Def NO NET ADV.
EXP 5 15 2 8 -4
Scoring % 2 11 3 4 -8
Turn
over %
5 14 8 5 -12
points / drive 4 11 2 8 -1
passer rating 6 13 3 4 -6
Sack % 6 10 2 8 2
rush yds/att 15 30 1 26 10
rush yds/gm 9 21 3 28 13
punt yds/ret 17 29 21 5 -28
kick yds/ret 1 30 28 18 -39

EXP is PFREF‘s expected points metric for both total offense and total defense.  Scoring %, Turnover %, and Points/Drive all are per-drive stats.  Sack % refers to sacks per dropback.  Passer rating is for the team’s passer rating and for the defense’s opponents’ combined passer rating.  The NO NET ADV. column gives the relative ranking advantage the Saints have in that stat (negative means the opponent has the advantage).

Rams have 7 of the 10 advantages, Saints have 3.  (Not a good sign.)  Biggest advantage for the Saints is the running game, both in rushing yards/game and rushing yards/attempt.  If the Saints can get off to a good start they might be able to ride the running game to a victory, but Sean Payton has to commit to sticking to it even when it’s working.  (not a typo, even when it’s working).   The other advantage for the Saints is a small one, in sack %.  Losing Okafor doesn’t help this, but having the Saints offensive line coming off a game where all the starters played all the snaps, that’s a good sign.  Biggest advantage for the Rams is in the kick/punt return game, but the Saints have a new ST coordinator running the show, and there was a marked improvement in the punt return game for the Saints against the Redskins, so hopefully this part of the game is trending upwards.

nfl no vs lar graph 1

Sorry for the way the graph hides some of the text.  I went from a 3d look to a 2d graph because I think the 2d image is much cleaner.  The 0 on the horizontal axis is the center, if the bar leads to the left from there, advantage goes to the Rams, but if it leads to the right, advantage Saints.  The longer the bar, the bigger the advantage.

The next graph is prettier and has more colors, but I don’t think it communicates the net advantage/disadvantage as well as the one above.  (At least the bars don’t overlap the text.)  Shorter bar means higher (closer to 1) rank, so shorter is better here.

nfl lar v no rank comp graph2

Offense

  • OL – Starting offensive line played all 71 offensive snaps: Armstead, Peat, Unger, Warford, and Ramczyk all with 71 snaps each.
  • QB – Brees 71
  • RB – Kamara 46, Ingram 28, Line 10
  • WR – Thomas 56, Ginn 53, Coleman 52, Snead 14, Lewis 3
  • TE – Fleener 36, Hill 31, Hooman 24

Notes: Fleener with the most TE snaps, first time that has happened in a while.  Snead still with only 14 snaps.

Defense

  • DE – Jordan 69, Okafor 50, Hendrickson 28, Kikaha 1.
  • DT – Rankins 55, Davison 48, Onyemata 29, Hughes 5
  • FS – Bell 69, M. Williams 64
  • SS – Bush 21
  • CB – Crawley 67, PJ Williams 63, Harris 36, Lattimore 6
  • LB – Robertson 69, Te’o 49, Mauti 30

Notes: Kikaha with just 1 snap, Hendrickson with 28.  Expect those numbers to both increase with Okafor out for the season (achilles).  I’d like to see Muhammad, who had a great preseason, get his chance, too.

With Lattimore out, PJ and Crawley got the bulk of the snaps at CB.  It’s unclear when Lattimore (low ankle sprain) will return to the lineup, but obviously the Saints desperately need him out there.  Based on a tweet he made, I think Kenny Vaccaro will be back against the Rams, but that’s just a hunch.

Special Teams

Mauti 28, Harris 25, Hardee 22, Edmunds 22, Banjo 22, Bell 18, Bush 18, Hodges 16, Hill 16, Line 14, Lewis 14, Lutz 13, M Williams 12, Hooman 12, those are the ones in double figure snaps.

Snap counts data via PFREF.

The following table was put together based on stats from PFREF.

WAS Off NO Def NO Off WAS Def NO NET ADV.
yards / play 11 18 1 21 13
Scoring % 13 9 4 26 26
Turn
over %
22 9 9 11 15
passer rating 6 7 4 17 12
Sack % 19 9 1 15 24
rush yds / att 24 29 4 17 8
rush yds / gm 23 15 3 13 18
punt yds / ret 31 27 30 22 -4
kick yds / ret 21 28 28 6 -29
points / drive 11 7 3 22 23

The numbers are the offensive, defensive (and special teams, where applicable) rankings (lower the number the higher the ranking).   For example, the top row is for yards / play where the Washington offense is ranked 11th, the Saints defense 18th and so on.  The NO NET ADV. column is found by adding the New Orleans offense and defense ranking, and then subtracting from that the Washington offense and defense ranking, and finally multiplying the result by -1.  Confused yet?  Good.

Here is the NO NET ADV. column in chart form.  Further the bar is to the right, the bigger the advantage to the Saints, further to the left, bigger advantage to the Redskins.  Only advantage favorable to Washington is on special teams kick/punt return/coverage units.

nfl was v no net adv

Sack % refers to percentage of time quarterback gets sacked while attempting to pass.  Turnover % refers to percentage of drives ending in a turnover (whether INT or fumble doesn’t matter).  Scoring % refers to percentage of drives ending in some type of score (whether FG or TD doesn’t matter).  For special teams stats, offense refers to the return team, while defense refers to the coverage team.

Here is another handy dandy chart for benefit of those not yet confuzzled.  These are the rankings, color-coded.  Shorter the bar, the better the ranking.

nfl was v no rank comp 2017

Saints *should* win this game, based on this statistical comparison.  But the Saints can’t afford to overlook Washington, which is a dangerous opponent, and look too far ahead with a big showdown coming up against the no-longer-hapless Rams.  I don’t expect this team to overlook anybody, not coming off 3x 7-9 seasons, and not starting off 0-2, but I’m sure that will be the narrative if the Redskins pull off the upset.

Jason La Confora is reporting the Saints have added special teams coach Mike Westhoff to the coaching staff.

westhoff

This is a good move for the Saints because they’ve been struggling mightily on special teams.  Not so much in the kicking of field goal and extra points (need help there, too), but in the punting and kicking coverage units as well as the punting and kicking return units.

According to PFREF, the Saints are 28th in yards per kick return, 30th in yards per punt return, 28th in yards per kick return allowed, and 27th in yards per punt return allowed.  That’s not getting it done, not for a team with playoff / Superbowl aspirations.  The winning streak has masked some of the deficiencies on special teams, but not from Sean Payton.  Props to Coach Payton for recognizing the weakness and taking a pro-active step to correct it.

We’re 9 games into the season, and Drew Brees has 2398 passing yards, putting him on pace for his lowest output (4263) as a Saint.  This is a good thing, not a bad thing.  Read on to find out why.

We’re accustomed to seeing Brees lead the league in passing yards every year.  Brees led the league in passing yards in 2016, 2015, 2014, 2012, 2011, 2008, and 2006.  That’s 7 out of the last 11 seasons and each of the last 3 (and 5 of the last 6).  In case it got past you, the Saints made the playoffs in 2013, 2010, and 2009, all 3 of the most recent seasons in which Brees did *not* lead the league in passing yards.

This year Brees is at 2398 yards in 9 games, which puts him at about 266 per game.  The Saints are also running the football more effectively and more efficiently.  Saints are now averaging 142 yards per game rushing.  When the Saints pass for between 250 and 300 yards *and* rush for 100+ yards their record is 22-2-0 (.917).  This is winning football.  This is what you want.

You might say, okay, if this is so effective, why not do it every game?  It’s easier said than done.  When you fall behind on the scoreboard you have to try to catch up, and throwing the ball gives you a better chance to catch up than running the ball does at that point.  Yeah, you could be down 21 points and insist on getting 100+ yards rushing and probably get it, but it won’t help you win the game.  It’s no good to get the 100+ yards rushing and still lose by 14.

You need 2 things going for you in order to be able to hit that sweet spot (250-300 yards passing and 100+ yards rushing): 1) you need to play good defense so you don’t fall behind too far on the scoreboard, and 2) you need to be having success when you do run the ball.  There’s no point stubbornly running into a brick wall when it isn’t working (but that’s not to say you should just give up if the first few runs aren’t successful, either).

The difference this year with this team is they’re playing much better on defense.  Let’s face reality, the last few years the defense has been terrible.  Better defense means you’re not finding yourself down big on the scoreboard, which means you can stick to the game plan of maintaining balance on offense.  Saints are also having success running the ball.  The yards per attempt (4.6) is 4th best in the league (last game helped that average, but even before that it was pretty solid).  They’re getting stops, they’re running for a good average, they’re winning games, and the swagger is back in the WhoDat nation.

 

Snap counts courtesy of PFREF.

Offense

For the first time this year Brees didn’t take every offensive snap.  Brees had 72 of the 77 offensive snaps.  Daniel had the other 5 in mop up duty.

Peat, Unger, and Ramczyk had all 77 snaps.  Warford and Armstead, who have missed time with injuries, had 59 each.  The fact both had exactly 59 snaps is a good indication that they came out for rest rather than because of injury setbacks.  LeRibeus had 22 and Kelemete had 18 in relief.

RB’s: Kamara 29, Ingram 37, Edmunds 13, Zach Line 19 at fullback.

WR’s: Thomas 56, Ginn 50, Snead 36 (up from 18 last week, if memory serves), Coleman 29, Lewis 5.

TE’s: Hooman 47, Hill 43, Fleener 17.  I believe Fleener has earned more snaps on offense, and he might have gotten them if the Saints had not gone into running mode in the 2nd half.

Defense

There weren’t many defensive snaps to go around this week, and nobody played all 48 snaps.  Cam Jordan joked about running gassers after the game because he didn’t feel like there were enough defensive snaps in the game.

DT’s:  Rankins 28, Onyemata 26, Davison 20, Hughes 17.

DE’s: Okafor 41, Hendrickson 32, Jordan 31.

LB’s: Te’o 40, Robertson 35, Hodges 11, Klein 9 (Klein left the game with an injury, which is why Te’o got so many snaps, filling in admirably.), Mauti 4.

CB’s: Crawley 47, Lattimore 37, PJ Williams 34, Harris 11.

SS: Bush 21, Banjo 11

FS: Bell 37, Marcus Williams 36.

Special Teams

I won’t go into special teams snaps too deeply.  Morstead joked that he put himself on the inactive list.  (Saints didn’t punt the entire game, not even once.)  But in reality Morstead did have 8 snaps, serving as holder for FG’s and XP’s.

Oh, and 1 ST snap for the naked, drunk guy, but I’m not sure if he should be listed on the Bills or Saints.  Good times.

 

All stats courtesy of PFREF.

Stat Offense Offense Rank Defense Defense Rank
Total yds/play 6.1 3 5.3 18
Passer Rating 105 3 79.2 7
Adj Net Yds/Att 7.9 4 5.1 6
INT % 1.50% 6 3.30% 6
Sack % 2.80% 1 7.90% 24
Rush yds/att 4.3 7 4.7 29
Rush yds/game 122.7 7 116.1 19
Punt yds/return 5.6 27 11.4 27
Kickoff yds/ret 19.4 26 27.1 30
Points/drive 2.27 6 1.66 10
Drive Score % 43.00% 6 32.20% 11
Turnover % 9.30% 8 13.80% 9

nfl halfway point rankings in 2017

Offense and defense generally playing very, very well for the Saints.  Offense is top 10 in every stat covered here and top 5 in 4 of them.  Defense top 10 in 5 of the stats and very close in another (drive score %).  Biggest struggles for offense: none, really, maybe turnover % a bit higher than we’d like, but still top 10 at 8th best.  Defense’s biggest struggles: rushing yards / attempt allowed (29th) and sack % (24th).  Also below average in rushing yards / game allowed (19th) and total yards / play allowed (18th).  (Keep in mind these numbers all include the first 2 games in which the defense was abysmal.)

Special teams have been terrible in both kick and punt returns and coverages.  Also are getting kicks blocked and muffing punts.  On the bright side, Saints did make a huge play on a blocked punt returned for a TD, thanks to Justin Hardee.

Failed to mention in episode 1B that all data courtesy of PFREF.  Go back and read episode 1 and episode 1B, or don’t, it’s up to you, but you probably should if you haven’t already.

The question at hand is whether the myth that we can “throw out the records in division games” because you just never know what’s going to happen in those rivalry games is confirmed, plausible, or the dreaded busted.

In this (probably last) look at this myth, we’ll be looking at win/loss records of the good teams, the bad teams, and the ugly teams (no teams are ugly, but how can you have good and bad without including ugly?)  In particular, we should expect the best teams’ records to be not quite as good in division games as in non-division games.  If the myth is completely accurate, we should expect the best teams to only be .500 inside the division even if they win all the non-division games and the worst teams to be .500 inside the division even if they lose all the non-division games.  In other words, the best teams should be not as good inside the division as outside the division and the worst teams should be better inside the division than outside the division.

 

Best 5 records Non-division division difference
New England Patriots 0.767 0.778 0.011
Indianapolis Colts 0.62 0.744 0.124
Pittsburgh Steelers 0.61 0.689 0.079
Denver Broncos 0.6 0.611 0.011
Green Bay Packers 0.58 0.706 0.126
Worst 5 records Non-division division difference
Jacksonville Jaguars 0.393 0.378 -0.015
Detroit Lions 0.373 0.322 -0.051
Cleveland Browns 0.367 0.233 -0.134
Oakland Raiders 0.367 0.344 -0.023
St. Louis Rams / Los Angeles Rams 0.36 0.372 0.012

The above table contains the winning percentages for the teams with the top 5 best non-division records and the worst non-division records, plus those same teams’ records inside their own divisions for comparison.  We should expect, if the myth is true, all these best teams should have poorer records in division games and all these worst teams should have better records in division games, but we have is the exact opposite.  Only one of these 10 teams has a division record versus non-division record that would tend to support the myth, and it’s only a .012 difference (the formerly hapless Rams).

All the good teams have better division records than non-division records and all the bad teams (except the Rams) have worse division records than non-division records.  This myth is so busted.  Here’s a pretty chart:

nfl best worst comparison division non-division 2002-2016

The blue bars are the non-division winning percentages, the orange bars the division winning percentages, and the yellow bars (the real key part) are the differences.  If the yellow bar is in the positive above 0 that means the division records were better than the non-division records, while below 0 means the opposite.  Yellow bars should all be below 0 for the good teams on the left and all positive for the bad teams on the right if the myth were true.

Conclusion: BUSTED (yet again)

I recently posted episode 1 in this Mythbusting series, and maybe this should be episode 2, but I’m calling it episode 1B because it’s just revisiting the same question, but from another angle.  Go back and read episode 1 if you haven’t already.  No, really, go back now and read if if you haven’t already or else the rest of this won’t make as much sense.

It occurs to me that maybe the oddsmakers factor in the division game bias when setting the odds.  In other words, maybe Vegas realizes division games are always closer, so they adjust the spread accordingly, and thus using betting lines and upsets, maybe that’s not the best way to go as far as testing the myth.  (Or maybe it is.)

I’ve come up with another angle on this, another way to try to put it to the test, and that’s by looking at margins of victory in division versus non-division games.  (Note: in episode 1 I was comparing division games versus all games, whereas here I’ll be using division games versus non-division games, which is what I should have done before.)  The idea here is the superior team is more likely to blowout a non-division opponent if the myth is true.  There should be more close games inside the division than outside, all other things being equal, and presuming the superior team always wins.

The following table compares the margins of victory in division games versus non-division games from 2002-2016, inclusive.  (Note: 2002 is when the Texans came into the league and the divisions were separated into 8 divisions, 4 teams each.)

Victory Margins Non-division Non-division % Division Division %
7 or more 1531 31.90% 892 30.97%
10 or more 1175 24.48% 692 24.03%
14 or more 876 18.25% 494 17.15%
21 or more 457 9.52% 259 8.99%
28 or more 199 4.15% 114 3.96%
6 or less 865 18.02% 545 18.92%
3 or less 542 11.29% 326 11.32%

Victory Margins = the number of points by which the winner of the game won, doesn’t matter if the winner was an upset winner or not.

Non-division % and Division % = percentage of games out of total opportunities for the teams to win by that victory margin.  It’s not the percentage of games that were won by this victory margin out of the number of games played since there’s no way both teams could, for example, win by 21.  In other words, if there was only 1 game played and the winner won by 21 points, then the % would be 50% because 2 teams had a chance to win by 21, but only 1 of them did it.  Multiply the % by 2 if you want to know the percentage of games played that ended with that victory margin.  Have I confused you enough yet?  Good.

Maybe the following chart will make things clear as mud, nothing like a good picture:

nfl victory margins 2002-2016

The orange bars represent the non-division % and the green bars the division %.  The horizontal axis is the margin of victory.  The vertical axis is the %.  One interesting side note is there are more games that end in 7+ point victories than in 6- point victories, and it’s not that close.  In fact, there are roughly as many 14+ point wins as there are wins where the winner won by 6 or fewer points.  But keep in mind 7+ includes all the 10+, 14+, 21+, and 28+ wins, too, whereas the 6 or fewer games include only those games that were won by 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, or 1 point.

The division percentages are based on 32 teams playing 6 division games each for 15 years, so that’s 32 * 6 * 15 = 2880 division game opportunities for all teams combined.  The non-division percentages are based on 32 teams playing 10 non-division games each for 15 years (2002-2016  represents 15 seasons, I counted them on my fingers).  So, there were 32 * 10 * 15 = 4800 non-division game opportunities for all teams combined.   We get the percentages by simply dividing the number of games matching that criteria by the total opportunities (e.g. 7+ point wins in non-division games = 1531 / 4800 = about 31.90%).  Probably should have used 1440 and 2400, but I’m too lazy to back and do it all again, and the relative numbers are still the same either way, just not quite as close to each other.

Notice how the orange bar is always taller for the big wins while the green bar is always taller for the close wins (6 or less and 3 or less).  It’s really, really close in the 3 or less columns, but it is a tiny bit less (11.29% versus 11.32%).  (Note to the grammar police, yeah, I know it should probably be 3 or fewer instead of 3 or less.)

So, what does it mean?  Is the myth that we can throw the records out in division games confirmed?  No, I’m not going that far, but it is interesting that even though the percentages are all very close, they *all* support the conclusion that division games *are* more likely to be closer games than non-division games.  That’s 7 different data points that all agree even though they’re all very close.  Even in the biggest category difference, 14+ point wins, the difference was only 1.1% (18.25% non-division versus 17.15% division).

I’m still going to call this one busted.  The data is there, make of it what you will if you disagree.  The numbers are all still very, very close, all within 1% or 2%.  If the myth that anything can happen in division games was true we should expect really big differences, way more close games and way fewer blowouts, which just isn’t the case.

Conclusion: BUSTED

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