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Saints hurt their chances at a first round bye with that loss Thursday Night.  They probably needed to win out and go 13-3 to have a decent shot at one of the top 2 seeds.  How important is it to have home games in the playoffs?  Does it matter more in the playoffs than in the regular season?

Post merger (since 1970) records home win percentage
regular season .576
playoffs overall .679
wildcard round .630
division round .713
conference round .681

It’s interesting that home records (from pfref.com) are better in the playoffs than in the regular season.   I would not have guessed this because the competition is much stiffer in the playoffs.  How to explain it?  The home team is always the higher-seeded team, and thus *almost* always the better team.  That has to be the answer.

Note: playoffs records never include the Superbowl (since that’s always a neutral field game), but regular season home records *do* include some neutral field games (e.g. London, Mexico City games).  For example, the London game this year was considered a home game for the Dolphins and an away game for the Saints even though in actuality it was a neutral site game.

Notice how the wildcard round (at .630) is the weakest (relatively speaking) for home teams in the playoffs.  This is the round where it’s possible for a 7-9 (or worse) division winner to host a superior wildcard team.  Theoretically, a team could go 15-1 and still not win its division.  In 2010, a Saints team that went 11-5 had to play at a 7-9 Seattle team in the wildcard round, for example.  Seattle won that game, but it still illustrates the difficulty a division winner of a weak division can have in the wildcard round.  Another factor, the top 2 seeds (and thus probably the 2 best teams) never play in this round.

Best round for home playoff teams is the division round.  Why?  For one thing they’re often coming off a bye, which is a huge advantage in football where health and rest are key components to success.  For another, the 2 teams coming off byes are also the top 2 seeds, and in some cases they even were able to rest players the previous week before the bye.

Home records in the conference championship round fall in between the wildcard and division round records.  Here is where the competition is the stiffest of all.  Both teams have earned the right to be in that game, but the home team is almost never the inferior team, record wise.

Is it a big deal that the Saints (absent some divine intervention) won’t be getting a first round bye?  Yes.  It’s a big deal.  Let’s assume they win the division, but end up the #4 seed.  That will mean they get 1 home game in the wildcard round, and then probably travel in the division round, and then travel again (assuming they make it this far) in the conference round.  The probability of getting to the Superbowl would be .630 * (1  – .713) * (1 – .681) = .058 or about 5.8%.  Compare this to getting a #1 seed: .713 * .681 = 48.6%.  That’s like 9 x more probable.

The table below shows the various probabilities of making it to the Superbowl based on the above records and based on the assumption the 5 and 6 seeds travel in every round, the 3 and 4 seeds host in the first round and travel the rest, the 2 seed hosts in all but the conference round, and the 1 seed hosts every round.  1 and 2 also don’t have to play in the wildcard round.

seed probability of getting to the Superbowl
1 0.485553
2 0.227447
3 0.05767839
4 0.05767839
5 0.03387461
6 0.03387461

Sometimes there is an upset, in which case the lower seeds might not have to travel in some of the later rounds.  For example, if 5 plays 6 in the conference round, then 5 will host that game.  The only team we know for sure has to travel every round is the 6 seed, and the only team we know for sure gets to host every round is the 1 seed.  I could probably work out all the conditional probabilities, but I won’t.  Suffice it to say, losing out on one of those top 2 seeds is a huge blow to the Saints’ chances of getting to the Superbowl.  You never know what might happen, but with 3 teams ahead of them (Rams, Vikings, and Eagles) and with tie-breakers already lost to 2 of those 3, the odds are very slim at this point.

The thing for the Saints to do now is focus on winning the division and hope to get the #3 seed.  Get that, win the wildcard home game, win the division road game against the #2 seed, and hope the #1 seed gets upset in the other division game.  If that happens, they’ll be hosting the conference championship game.

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The Saints are still in the hunt for a 1st round bye, but it’s gonna be very tough.  They need to run the table (I think) and go 13-3 to have a realistic chance, and even then it’s not a done deal by any means.

Here are the current NFC playoff standings:

Minnesota Vikings (1) 10 2 0 North Champion strength of victory
Philadelphia Eagles (2) 10 2 0 East Champion
Los Angeles Rams (3) 9 3 0 West Champion head-to-head record
New Orleans Saints (4) 9 3 0 South Champion
Seattle Seahawks (5) 8 4 0 Wild Card #1 conference win percentage
Carolina Panthers (6) 8 4 0 Wild Card #2

Saints have @ATL, NYJ, ATL, and @TB left on the schedule.  Can the Saints run the table and go 13-3?  It’s very possible.  The most likely scenario is 3-1 (splitting with ATL) and finishing 12-4.  I think a lot will depend on whether Lattimore, M. Williams, and Armstead can play Thursday in Atlanta, the toughest remaining game, IMO.  Lattimore is the biggest key.

Minnesota Vikings remaining schedule:

@ Carolina Panthers
Cincinnati Bengals
@ Green Bay Packers
Chicago Bears

That’s a tough schedule to have to try to run the table with.  The Bears is probably a win, but @CAR is tough, CIN is not easy, and GB will almost certainly have Aaron Rodgers back.

Philadelphia Eagles remaining schedule:

@ Los Angeles Rams
@ New York Giants
Oakland Raiders
Dallas Cowboys

The first game @ LA is tough (as the Saints can attest to).  Wouldn’t be a shocker if the Eagles lose that one.  But even if they don’t it could help the Saints because the Rams are also one of the teams the Saints are chasing.  @NYG should be a win.  Raiders could be tough because they’re still alive for their division.  Cowboys game will be Zeke Elliot’s 2nd game back after his suspension.  I could see the Eagles going 2-2 in those 4 games to finish 12-4.

Los Angeles Rams remaining schedule:

Philadelphia Eagles
@ Seattle Seahawks
@ Tennessee Titans
San Francisco 49ers

Those first 3 games are brutal.  We’re going to find out a lot about the Rams in the next 3 weeks.  I could see them going 2-2 or even 1-3.  It’s good news / bad news the Rams and Eagles are playing because one is going to lose, but one is going to win, too.  We should probably pull for the Rams in this game because they have a rough go of it against Seattle and Tennessee, both on the road coming up after that one.  There’s a fair chance the Rams will drop one of those 2 road games, if not both.

Conclusion

If the Saints can manage to run the table they have a decent shot at a first round bye, but by no means is it a given.  Biggest problem is 2 of their 3 losses came against the Vikings and Rams, 2 of the very teams in contention for a first round bye.  It won’t be good enough to go 13-3 if either or both of those teams also go 13-3.  But there is a chance (a *chance*) the Saints could beat out the Vikings/Rams in a 3-way tie if the Eagles are the other team also in the mix.  I’ll examine that scenario in a later week if it looks like it’s going to happen.

Overall the Saints have a 13-ranking total advantage.  Saints have solid advantages in offense versus defense across the board, but Falcons have advantages on special teams, rushing yards per attempt offense versus defense (mainly because the Saints run defense is giving up big chunk plays), and in scoring %.  But take note even though the Falcons have better scoring % numbers (percentage of drives ending in a score of some type, whether FG or TD) the Saints have the advantage in points per drive and a big advantage in turnover %.

  • EXP = pfref.com‘s Expected Points stat.
  • Scoring % = percentage of drives ending in a score of any type (FG or TD)
  • Turnover % = percentage of drives that end in a turnover of any type (INT or lost fumble)
  • sack % = sacks / (sacks + pass attempts)

These are the rankings for each stat.  For example, the Saints offense is ranked #2 in points / drive, Falcons defense #15, a 13-ranking advantage for the Saints.  Then we add the Falcons offense ranking of #5 and the Saints defense ranking of #12 (-7 ranking advantage for Saints) to it and we get 13 + (-7) = +6 New Orleans Net Advantage.

ATL Off NO Def NO Off ATL Def NO NET ADV.
EXP 5 14 2 23 12
Scoring % 5 21 3 8 -11
Turn over % 9 16 6 30 17
points / drive 5 12 2 15 6
passer rating 10 12 3 19 14
Sack % 5 7 4 10 4
rush yds/att 8 29 1 19 -3
rush yds/gm 11 17 3 18 9
punt yds/ret 18 30 25 12 -25
kick yds/ret 19 31 28 30 -10
Total net adv: 13

On the graph below, the yellow bars extend either to the left or to the right from center.  The longer the bar, the bigger the advantage.  To the left means advantage Falcons, to the right means advantage Saints.  Biggest advantage for the Saints is turnover %, biggest for Falcons: punt yards per return.  (I figured out how to change the bar color from default blue to yellow, which makes it much easier to see the text.)

nfl no vs atl graph1

In the graph below, the longer the bar the worse the team is in that stat, the shorter the bar the better it is.  For example, the New Orleans Offense is ranked #1 in rushing yards per attempt, and thus gets a really short yellow bar for that stat.

nfl no vs atl graph2

Based on this analysis I am going to say the Saints are the better team and should win the game, but obviously it’s a road game on a short week and injuries could play a part in this.

I was watching the NBC pregame show Sunday night, they were interviewing Drew Brees.  The reporter asked him questions and used the phrase “at this stage of your career” twice.  I thought Drew should have slapped him up side the head, and then asked him how his arm strength felt “at this stage of my career”.  But I guess that would have been an even bigger over-reaction than my own here.  It got me thinking, is Drew in decline?  and can we look at the stats to see if they bear this out or disprove the notion?

Are Brees’ numbers down?

Yes, they are.  Saints have 266 yards/game passing this year, good enough for 3rd highest in the league.  That’s high production, nothing to complain about, but last year the Saints had 317.1 yards/game passing, and in 2015, 310 yards/game passing, so clearly his numbers are down in terms of passing yards/game, even though they are still in the top 3 in the league.

In passing TD’s is where we see the biggest decline.  Saints have 17 passing TD’s, which is 20th in the league this year.  The Miami Freaking Dolphins have more than that (but don’t freak out over it).  At 17 TD’s in 12 games, Brees is on pace for 22.67 TD’s in 16 games.  The last time Brees had fewer than 30 passing TD’s in a season was back in 2008 (28 that year).  He’s on pace for his lowest passing TD output since 2003 (when he only started 11 games for the Chargers).

Is it because he’s throwing less (because the Saints are running more)?  We’ll get into this below, but let’s look at TD % (percentage of TD’s per 100 pass attempts, including sacks).  His TD % is currently at 4.2% (19th in 2017), which is his lowest since 2003.  In 2016, Brees’ TD % was 5.6% (7th best), and in 2015, 4.8% (14th best), so even in years where he had 32 and 38 TD’s his TD% wasn’t super high (league leaders had 7.1% and 7.0% in those 2 years).

Another area of decline (a good thing this time) is in INT’s.  Brees only has 5 INT’s this year in 12 games, putting him on pace for 6.67 INT’s in 16 games.  The last time he threw less than 7 INT’s in a season?  That would be never (unless you count 2001, when he started only 1 game the whole year).  In 2016, he had 15 INT’s, and in 2015, he had 12 INT’s.  15.18 INT’s per year is his average in the previous 11 seasons with the Saints.  He’s on pace to cut that number in half.

Why the decline?

There are 3 possible answers I will entertain: 1) not as many weapons to throw to; 2) the team is running more and throwing less; 3) he is in decline.

Let’s look at #1, not as many weapons.  He has Michael Thomas, who is outstanding, but the Saints traded their best deep threat receiver in Brandin Cooks, and for various reasons, Willie Snead hasn’t been producing this year.  He doesn’t have Jimmy Graham any more, and free agent Coby Fleener has generally underwhelmed the fanbase (though I personally think he was having a very efficient year before going on IR with the concussion after taking that cheap shot).  But to offset the loss of Cooks, the Saints brought in Ted Ginn, Jr., who is having an excellent season for the Saints.  I’m going to say the not-as-many-weapons hypothesis is, at best, only part of the answer.

#2, team is running more and throwing less.  I think we just might have our winner.  Saints currently have 344 rushing attempts, 9th highest in the league.  In 2016, the Saints were 19th in rushing attempts, in 2015, 20th.  In 2017, the Saints are currently 17th in passing attempts.  In 2016, they were #2, and in 2015, also #2.  See the trend?  Saints are 17th in most passing attempts now, compared to 2nd most in the 2 previous seasons, and they are also in the top 10 in rushing attempts now compared to 19th and 20th the 2 previous seasons.  The run-more, pass-less option seems to have a lot of traction.

Why?  Why would the Saints be running more and passing less?  There are a couple of reasons for this: 1) the running game is working better than it has in the past, and 2) the defense is playing better than in the past.  Obviously, if the run is working it makes a lot of sense to run the ball, but you might be wondering what the defense has to do with it.  Short answer to that is when the defense is playing well you’re not in comeback mode trying to play catchup all the time.  Saints are allowing the 6th fewest points in the NFC this year.  Contrast that #6 NFC ranking to what it was in 2016 (#2 most) and 2015 (#1 most).  So, they’ve gone from allowing most and 2nd most to 11th most.  Not giving up as many points, not falling behind on the scoreboard as much, not as much pressure on the offense to try to win the game, not as many pass attempts, not as many pass yards, not as many pass TD’s, not as many INT’s.

Is he in decline?

I ask this because even if it’s true the running game is better and the defense is better, it could also still be true the quarterback has lost some of his skill.  Obviously, goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, if the pass attempts are down, it follows logically the overall total yardage and TD numbers will also be down, but we can look at other stats to see if the efficiency is also down.

Passer rating is a good number to look at (though it is not without its critics).  Saints’ passer rating (and thus Brees’ passer rating) is 104.2 (3rd best in the league).  Only 2 better: Tom Brady and Alex Smith (though Smith’s numbers are tailing off lately).  The last 2 seasons Brees’ passer rating was 101.7 and 101.0, so if anything, he is *more efficient* now than he was the past 2 years.  Brees’ 3 best passer rating years in New Orleans were: 2011 (110.6), 2009 (109.6), 2013 (104.7), and now 2017 (104.2).  In terms of passer rating, he’s having one of his best years.

Now, let’s look at adjusted net yards per attempt.  This is a stat pfref provides.  It’s basically net yards per attempt (with sacks factored in as attempts), but also adjusted by adding +20 per TD and -45 per INT.  It’s a really good measure of passer efficiency.  Saints are currently at 7.8 in this stat, which is 2nd best (NE at 8.2 is best).  In 2016, Saints were 5th at 7.4, and in 2015, 5th at 7.3, so at 7.8 Brees is most definitely *not* in decline.  Brees’ best years in New Orleans with this stat: 2009 (8.9), 2011 (8.8), 2017 (8.4).  He’s having one of best years as measured by this stat.

So, what about the offense as a whole, rushing and passing combined?  Is this a better offense in 2017 than it has been in the past?  I think the answer to that question provides a glimpse (at least) into an earlier question: are they passing less because the run/defense is better or is it because Brees is in decline?  Saints are averaging 6.4 yards/play, which is #1 in the league in 2017.  Points per drive is 2.5 (2nd best).  Yards/play in 2016: 6.2 (3rd best) and in 2015: 5.9 (4th best).  The 2017 offense is *better* in terms of yards/play than in either of the past 2 seasons.  Points per drive in 2016: 2.59 (2nd best), and in 2015: 2.14 (6th best).  Thus, points/drive is more or less the same (2.50 versus 2.59) compared to 2016, and markedly better (2.50 versus 2.14) than 2015.  One more stat about the offense, the rushing TD’s in 2017 are already at 19 (#1), compared to 17 for all of 2016 (#6) and 16 for all of 2016 (#6).

Conclusion

While Brees’ overall numbers (total passing yards and passing TD’s) are in decline, it’s not because the player is in decline.  It’s because the team is running more and passing less.  He is even more efficient than in the past (in terms of adjust net yards per attempt and passer rating) and is actually having one of his best years as a Saint.  One thing I didn’t mention was completion %, which goes hand-in-hand with efficiency.  He’s just ever so slightly off the pace needed (71.5%) to set a new all-time completion percentage record (71.6%).

Saints were pretty much in control the whole way, win probability graph never falling below 58% in favor of the Saints:


12/3/2017 Carolina Panthers vs. New Orleans Saints box score at Pro-Football-Reference.com

Passing stats

Saints outgained Panthers 400 total net yards to just 279 for the Panthers.  Cam Newton had a very efficient day passing the ball: 17/27 (62.96%) for 183 yards, 2 TD’s, 0 INT’s, passer rating of 107.5, but two keys for the Saints were the low 183 yards of production along with limiting him to 52 yards rushing on 6 attempts.  He got most of that on a 32-yard run when Kikaha rushed too aggressively, allowing him to break contain.

Drew Brees had excellent stats: 25/34 (73.53%) for 269 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT’s, passer rating of 106.1.  He had a couple balls that could have been intercepted, but luckily weren’t.  Same was true for Cam.  Both quarterbacks were sacked 2 times each.

Rushing stats

Saints had 28 carries for 148 yards (5.29 per carry) , 3 TD’s.  Panthers had 23 carries for 112 yards (4.87 per carry), 1 TD.  For the Saints, Ingram had 14 for 85 (6.07 per carry), 1 TD, while Kamara had 9 for 60 (6.67 per carry), 2 TD’s.  Panthers were led by Newton and Stewart with 51 and 45, respectively.

Snap counts

Brees and the starting line took all 64 offensive snaps: Ramczyk, Peat, Kelemete, Unger, and Warford, all 64 each.

RB’s: Kamara 37, Ingram 36, Line 17.

WR’s: Thomas 48, Ginn 39, Coleman 33, Snead 23, Lewis 1.

TE’s: Hill 43, Hoomanawanui 31.

On defense, Bell, Klein, and Vaccaro were the only ones who played all 57 snaps.

DE’s: Jordan 53, Kikaha 20, Hendrickson 20.

DT’s: Rankins 47, Davison 35, Onyemata 33, Hughes 22.

LB’s: Klein 57, Robertson 47, Te’o 16.

CB’s: Crawley 55, PJ Williams 55, Moore 39.

S’s: Bell 57, Vaccaro 57, Bush 13.

ST’s: Players with 10+ ST snaps: Mauti, Banjo, Hardee, Hodges, Maulet, Bush, Line, Edmunds, Lutz, Taysom Hill, Josh Hill, Wood, Morstead, Hoomanawanui, Snead.

Much was made during the telecast of Taysom Hill getting special teams snaps.  Hill, of course, is the Saints 3rd string quarterback.  This is unusual, but I remember Guido Merkens doing this for the Saints many years ago, as a punt returner.  Guido was a jack-of-all trades type player who took snaps as quarterback, receiver, special teamer, at various times during his Saints career.  Came over with Bum Phillips from the Houston Oilers, finished out his career with the Eagles in 1987.

If you play the above-linked youtube video it just might bring back some memories for you.  If you’re old enough and if you’ve been a Saints fan long enough it might.  It just might.  It was the theme music played during the opening credits for the old Bum Phillips tv show back in the day.  This would have been early 80’s, when Bum coached the team.

A sidenote on John Cougar: He was born John Mellencamp, but was told upon trying to get into the music business he needed another name, nobody was gonna buy records from a guy named Mellencamp.  So he started performing under the name of John Cougar.  After becoming suitably famous he decided he wanted to be known by his real name, problem was he couldn’t just go directly from John Cougar to John Mellencamp because common folks might not be able to connect the dots betwixt the two.  The transition was to be John Cougar -> John Cougar Mellencamp -> John Mellencamp.  These were the days before twitter and twitter memes, but that didn’t stop cartoonist Gary Larson from taking a stab at it in his “The Far Side” comic.  I wasn’t able to find a copy of it, but if I’m remembering it right, the cartoon featured a swing set with a watermelon swinging on it in place of a kid and maybe there was a slide with a cantaloupe sliding down it.  The caption read: “John Cougar’s Melon Camp”.

The Saints signed Bum Phillips to coach the team after his very successful stint coaching the then-Houston Oilers.  The Oilers would, of course, years later move to Tennessee and become the Titans.  They were an old AFL franchise that came into the league when the NFL and AFL merged in 1970.  The Oilers had won in the AFL back in the early 60’s, but had not much success in the NFL post merger until they hired Bum Phillips (Wade Phillips’ dad, for what that’s worth.)  Under Bum, the Oilers had won 10+ games 3 years in a row and had made 2 straight AFC Championship Game appearances.

In Bum’s final year there they lost to the eventual champion Raiders in the wildcard round, but that didn’t stop them from having a big pep rally at the Astrodome.  Bum took the mic.  “Last year, we knocked on the door,” said Bum to the raucous crowd.  “This year, we BANGED on the door!  Next year, we’re gonna knock the son-a-bitch down!”  (Or words to that effect, referring presumably to winning the Superbowl.)  Bum suddenly found himself among the ranks of the unemployed because the owner fired his ass, ostensibly for saying that cuss word in public, but I have to think there was more going on behind the scenes than just that.  Who fires a successful coach for something like that?  Bud Adams, that’s who.

The Oilers had been on a big roll prior to the firing, but then their franchise fell apart afterwards.  They went 7-9, 1-8, 2-14, 3-13, 5-11, 5-11 in ensuing years.  But Bum had them riding high while he was there, they even beat their hated in-state rivals, the Dallas Cowboys.  When asked about the upcoming game against the Cowboys and whether the Oilers should be “America’s Team” if they beat Dallas, Bum replied in typical Bum fashion: “I’ll settle for the state of Texas.”

Meanwhile, as the Oilers are riding high, the Saints are looking up into the stands to see some of their fans wearing bags over their heads.  In 1980, the Saints went a rather inglorious 1-15.  This is the same year Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in the election.  Johnny Carson, host of The Tonight Show (predecessor to Jay Leno) mentioned the Saints during his monologue.  “I had a rough week,” goes Johnny.  “I bet on Jimmy Carter and the New Orleans Saints.  The Saints are 0-10 and have a chance to set a new record for the most losses ever.  And they’ll probably blow that, too.”  I paraphrase, Saints might have been some other 0-fer at the time besides 0-10, but that was the gist of Johnny’s joke, and the Saints did “blow it”, winning a game against the Jets that year, ending what would become a 14-game losing streak.

You can imagine how the Saints might jump at the opportunity to hire a coach as successful as Bum Phillips had been and who had just fallen into their laps.  Sure seemed like divine intervention.  Unfortunately, the football gods had determined the long-suffering Saints fans had not yet paid their dues in full.  They were not about to punch our tickets for the exodus out of football purgatory, and so the dues-paying continued for 7 more years (until 1987, but maybe we’ll save that one for another trip down memory lane at another time).  Bum went 4-12 his first year, and it didn’t get a whole lot better after that.  4-5 in the strike year of ’82, then 8-8, 7-9, and finally 4-8, 12 games in, when Bum decided to hang up his six-guns, move back to Houston, and start working for the Oilers radio network.  Wade took over as interim and got them 1-3 the rest of the way that year, 1985, the year Mike Ditka and the Bears were shuffling their way to the Superbowl.  It was also the year Tom Benson bought the team.  It wasn’t long after that, Benson made a couple fantastic hires, two Jims as it were, Jim Finks and Jim Mora.  There were “No Mora Excuses”.  Better days were ahead.  There was a light at the end of the tunnel, and as James Hetfield might say, this time it wasn’t a freight train headed our way.

For the past few weeks here at the MMB I’ve been putting these matchups together using 10 different statistical categories, and comparing the rankings (1 through 32) for each team.

CAR Off NO Def NO Off CAR Def NO NET ADV.
EXP 16 17 2 6 3
Scoring % 10 13 3 6 -0
Turn over % 26 14 6 26 32
points / drive 13 11 3 7 6
passer rating 24 12 3 21 30
Sack % 19 9 3 3 10
rush yds/att 10 29 1 9 -11
rush yds/gm 5 18 3 3 -13
punt yds/ret 17 32 23 4 -34
kick yds/ret 20 30 28 17 -21

The first stat (EXP) is pfref‘s expected points stat, the higher the better.  It gives us a single number to point to in comparing offenses and defenses as a whole.  Notice the Saints offense is ranked #2, Panthers offense #16, Saints defense #17, Panthers defense #6.  So, that means the Saints offense (#2) has a 4-ranking advantage over Panthers defense (#6), and also it means the Panthers offense (#16) has a 1-ranking edge over the Saints defense (#17).  4 – 1 = 3, so that’s where the New Orleans Net Advantage of +3 comes from in the right-most column.

The next 3 stats (scoring %, turnover %, and points/drive) are all per-drive stats.  Scoring % refers to the percentage of drives ending in a score of some kind (TD or FG), turnover % refers to the percentage of drives ending in a turnover (INT or lost fumble), and points/drive is self-explanatory.  In this week’s matchup, the Saints have a big advantage (32-ranking overall advantage) in turnover % and a modest 6-ranking advantage in points/drive, while scoring % is a wash (0-ranking advantage).

So, offense overall versus defense overall is advantage to the Saints.  Now, let’s breakdown passing off/def and running off/def to see how they stack up.  For passing game comparisons we use passer rating and sack %.  Saints have a huge advantage in passer rating (Saints passer rating versus opposition passer rating compared to Panthers passer rating versus Panthers opposition passer ratings) of 30-rankings and a very sizable advantage in sack %.  But advantage to Carolina in the running game, which is kind of surprising, but it’s mainly due to Carolina being much better in run defense.

For special teams comparisons, we look at punt returns for/against and kick returns for/against.  Saints are abysmal in both of these categories.

Here’s a chart based on the overall advantage/disadvantage for each of those 10 statistical rankings comparisons:

nfl matchup car vs no

The bars overwrite the text, which is not optimal, but you can still see (hopefully) which stats are being covered.  If the bar extends to the left, that’s advantage Carolina, whereas bars extending to the right are advantage New Orleans.  The longer the bar the bigger the advtantage.  Notice how scoring % (0 net advantage) has no bar at all.  Basically, the Saints have big advantages offense versus defense, but Panthers have advantages in the running game and on special teams.  (Add up all the net advantages and you get +2 edge to the Saints, for what that’s worth.)

Next graph breaks down visually all the individual rankings comparisons (shorter bar in this case is better).  I don’t find it personally to be all that useful, but it’s colorful, and the world (especially this blog) can always use more color in it.

matchup car v no colorful graph

Saints fall to the Rams 20-26, but it wasn’t as close as the score might suggest.  Check out the win probability graph from pfref.


11/26/2017 New Orleans Saints vs. Los Angeles Rams box score at Pro-Football-Reference.com

At no point during the game did the Rams’ win probability fall below 60%.  That pretty much sums it up.  Not sure you’d call it a “beatdown”, but the Saints, quite frankly, were really never in it from the start.

So, the win streak ends at 8 games.  This is the 5th 8+ game winning streak (regular season only) in Saints history.  The others came in 1987, 1990, 2009, 2011, and now again in 2017.  Compare this to the other teams in the division: Atlanta has 4 8+ game win streaks in their history, Carolina has 2 (including a 16-game win streak), and poor hapless Tampa Bay has zero, zip, nada (0).  But in Tampa’s defense they do have the only other trophy in the NFC South trophy case (aside from the one the Saints won in 2009).  Franchise with the most 8+ game win streaks (at least since 1950) is the Colts with 10 (6 in Indy, 4 in Baltimore).  I believe (going from memory here) the 49er’s have 9 such streaks, and a few other teams, including Pittsburgh have 8.

The Saints got a few injured players back on defense for the game against the Rams, but unfortunately not the two players who (IMHO) really mattered the most, and that would be the 2 starting corners, Lattimore and Crawley, both of whom have had fantastic seasons to this point.  But the Saints did get back AJ Klein and Kenny Vaccaro.  But Kenny V did pull up on a play, so I’m not sure if he’s all the way back yet.  Could be the groin injury is why he pulled up on that play down the sideline.  Hope not, hope it was some other reason.  Regardless, it was not a great game for Kenny or for the Saints defense as a whole.  The only player who had a good individual game was Cam Jordan, who at times it seemed was single-handedly keeping the Saints in the game.

Jared Goff’s numbers for the day: 28 of 43 (65.12%) 354 yards, 2 TD’s, 1 INT, passer rating: 96.5.  Those are Hall of Fame numbers if you can average them for your career.  He’s been pretty much doing that to everybody this year; those numbers are inline with his season numbers.  But those numbers are way better than what the Saints pass defense had been allowing during the 8-game win streak (not counting what Cousins did to them the week before when Lattimore left the game with the ankle sprain).  I don’t think I’m going out too far on too small a limb when I say the Saints really need Lattimore and Crawley back out there.  The drop off from starters to backups is substantial.

Snap counts:

OL – Peat, Ramczyk, Unger, and Warford played all 57 snaps.  Armstead left with an injury after 34 snaps.  Kelemete came in and played the other 23.  (Brees took all 57, but that’s a given.)

TE – Hill 38, Hooman 26, Fleener 18.  (Fleener’s snap count would probably have been higher had he not taken that vicious blow to the head and had to leave the game with a concussion.)

WR – Thomas 44, Ginn 41, Coleman 27, Snead 19, Lewis 2.  (Snead got on social media to bitch about his lack of snaps, so we’ll see how that works for him.)

RB – Kamara 32, Ingram 29.  (Should we be surprised Kamara only got 5 carries.  Yes, and no.)

DE – Jordan 77, Hendrickson 33, Kikaha 16.

DT – Rankins 58, Davison 47, Onyemata 40, Hughes 36.

LB – Klein 77, Robertson 64, Te’o 3

CB – PJ Williams 77, Harris 52, Moore 25

FS – Bell 74, M Williams 67

SS – Vaccaro 77, Bush 24

ST – (20 or more snaps) Hardee, Mauti, Edmunds, Banjo, Hodges.  McDougle had 13, so that’s probably why he was brought on board, but we’ll see if he gets some defensive snaps at CB going forward.

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).

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

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