NFL Post-Midseason Review

We are ten weeks into the NFL season, so time to look back on the year so far and ahead to what is to come.

Super Bowl Picks Revisited

In my season preview, I picked Denver and the Giants to reach the Super Bowl and make it a Manning Bowl.  I am going to stick with this pick.  Denver has looked like a legitimate contender, with Peyton Manning playing at an elite level.  Even with some newfound reservations about the Giants, I am going to stick with them as well.  Despite two consecutive bad games for Eli Manning, I fully expect him to bounce back going forward.

Serious questions do persist about a shaky Giants pass defense, that is ranked 26th in the league in net passing yards allowed per attempt.  The New York secondary has been able to mitigate some of its short comings by posting the second best interception percentage in the league (5%, with 17 total INTs—second to Chicago on both marks), but a banged up corps of defensive backs remain a liability.

The success of my prediction ultimately hinges on Eli, but it will be aided if the Giants pass rush can live up to its reputation, something it has not done.  Granted, New York is tenth in the league with a defensive sack percentage of 6.8%, which would seem to indicate this has not been much of a problem.  However, according to Pro Football Focus’s Pass Rush Productivity stat for defensive ends (subscription required), the highest ranked Giants (Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul) are only 19th and 20th in the league respectively (PRP is measured by adding a pass rusher’s total sacks, QB hits, and QB hurries and dividing this number by their total number of snaps rushing the passer, giving added weight to sacks).  Still, if the Giants defensive line can play to its potential, this will give needed aid to its embattled secondary, and will help New York make a push in December and January.

Conference Championship Picks Revisited

For the NFL’s final four, I picked Houston and Denver to reach the AFC Championship and New York and Green Bay to reach the NFC Championship.  Again, I will stick to my picks.  The AFC needs little explanation, as Houston has been one of the NFL’s best teams, and I don’t foresee them slowing down.

That leaves the question of the NFC.  Chicago has gotten a lot of love, and much of it deserved.  The defense is playing at an unbelievably high level, even by the Windy City’s lofty standards.  That said, I’m not convinced they are even the best team in their division, much less their conference.

So, yes, I believe Green Bay will reach the NFC Championship.  They have not gotten a lot of attention by the media thus far, but they could very well be a snake in the grass, ready to pounce and make a deep playoff run.

Let’s look at the numbers, starting with W-L record.  The Packers currently sit in second place in the NFC North at 6-3, a game behind the Bears, with a head-to-head win over their rivals (and let’s not forget, although Green Bay played a generally poor game in their infamous week three loss to Seattle, competent officiating on the play’s final game would have the Packers in first place in the division).

While Chicago’s defense has deservedly gotten so much praise, Green Bay’s defensive unit has quietly been solid as well.  The Packers are ninth best in the league in points allowed, eighth best in defensive pass efficiency, and ninth best in yards per carry allowed.  They also rank seventh in the league in weighted defensive efficiency, according to Football Outsiders.

With a defense that has been above average, Green Bay’s offense gives it an overall edge in comparison to the Bears. It is hard to feel confident in Jay Cutler beating the league’s elite in January, considering his brutal numbers.  Cutler is 22nd in the league in YPA, 28th in net yards per attempt, and 24th in completion percentage, while also posting the third worst interception percentage in the league.  As Chase Stewart writes, poor quarterback play derailing great defensive teams in Chicago is nothing new, and with numbers like Cutler has put up, it is not hard to see this happening again.

Biggest Surprise #1: Ryan Tannehill

If his solid play through the first half of this season is any indication, I got this one very wrong. I was highly critical of Miami taking the quarterback-turned wide receiver-turned quarterback eighth overall, but Tannehill has shown he can be a solid NFL starter.

Miami is in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt thanks in part to a solid defense, but it can also thank its rookie signal caller.  While a completion percentage under 59% and 7.1 YPA are not going to blow anyone away, Tannehill has nevertheless posted some impressive numbers if we look a little deeper.

According to Pro Football Focus (sub. required), Tannehill has excelled under pressure.  He leads all NFL quarterbacks with 84.6% accuracy percentage when under pressure and is third in the league with a 59.7% traditional completion percentage on pressured dropbacks.

And according to Advanced NFL Stats, Tannehill averages 4.3 air yards per attempt, the 14th best total in the league, putting him ahead of Tom Brady, Matt Stafford, and Aaron Rodgers in this regard (Air yards are a quarterback’s total passing yards minus their receivers’ yards after catch).

Biggest Surprise #2: The Indianapolis Colts

As much as I would like to say I knew my beloved Colts would be in playoff contention from the start, I cannot say that.  My prediction for the Colts set their floor at 5 wins and their ceiling at 9, believing between 6 and 8 wins to be more accurate.  As it turns out, they are actually in the driver’s seat for a wild card berth, and even have a two-game cushion, something I could not have dreamed would happen at the start of the year.

The apparent weakness of the AFC means the Colts could actually even sneak into January by playing sub-.500 football (3-4 the rest of the way would put them at 9-7; with games against Buffalo, Tennessee, Kansas City and a week 17 meeting against a Houston team that could be resting its starters, there’s a strong chance this happens).

To be fair, the impressive 6-3 record betrays the fact that the Colts have numerous deficiencies, including a suspect defense, erratic offensive line play, and an inconsistent receiving corps outside of Reggie Wayne.  That said, Colts fans are familiar with the concept of outstanding quarterback play compensating for the team’s flaws, and Andrew Luck has been nothing short of outstanding.  With a playoff berth in sight, no matter what happens the rest of the way, the future of this team is bright.

(Post) Midseason Awards

MVP: Peyton Manning

In my preview, I picked a Manning to take home this award, but it wasn’t Peyton.  But after ten weeks of football, many quarterbacks have played outstanding, and Peyton is back to stand with them.

Whatever measurable you’d like to use, Manning is likely on top.  He is the leader in conventional QB rating, ESPN’s Total QBR, Pro Football Focus’s quarterback rating, Advanced NFL Stats’s Adjusted Yards Per Attempt, and Football Outsider’s DYAR for quarterbacks (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement).

He is also second in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and Expect Points Added Per Play, according to Advanced NFL Stats.

Manning has been fantastic, but you could also make compelling arguments for a number of others, including Tom Brady (league best INT% of 0.8), and Matt Ryan (who leads all quarterbacks in Win-Probability Added, Expected Points Added, and Success Rate according to ANS).

Defensive Player of the Year: JJ Watt

While players like Von Miller, Cameron Wake, and Charles Tillman have been excellent, this award cannot go to anyone but JJ Watt.  Watt leads the league in sacks, and according to Pro Football Focus, he also leads all defensive linemen in run stop percentage.  The former Wisconsin player also leads all 3-4 defensive ends in QB pressures with 37 (according to PFF).

Rookie of the Year: Andrew Luck

Robert Griffin III has been great, but Luck has been asked to do more and has delivered.  RGIII’s 65.6% completion percentage is impressive, but Luck has been asked to throw the ball exactly 100 more times than Griffin (Luck is 5th in the league in attempts; RGIII is 26th).

Luck is also consistently and successfully throwing deep, something RGIII has not been asked to do with any frequency.  15.2% of Luck’s throws have been 20 yards or more, the fourth highest percentage in the NFL (he is also tied for the league lead with 55 deep attempts). Griffin, by contrast, has thrown 20 yards or more on just under 7% of his throws (31st in the league) (statistics via PFF).

Despite this tremendous difference in volume, Luck has still been slightly more accurate deep, and has been accurate on 47.3% of his deep throws compared to 44.4% for Griffin (13th and 14th in the NFL respectively; Luck has 21 completions of 20 yards of more; Griffin has 7).

Also, while Griffin has a gaudy 7.6 yards per attempt compared to Luck’s 7.3, this is somewhat misleading. If we take yards after the catch out of the equation, the numbers tell a vastly different story.  Factoring out YAC, Griffin is 24th in the league with 3.7 air yards per attempt.  Luck, by contrast, is 6th, with 4.7 AYPA.

More than half of Griffin’s total passing yards have come after the catch, making him one of five quarterbacks with YAC accounting for more than 50% of their yards passing.  Just under 65% of Luck’s total passing yards have come before the catch, putting him in the top five of the league in this regard (stats via ANS).

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