Seeding the NFL Playoffs, NCAA-Style

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I have to admit I’m a little jealous of college football right now. While the NFL still has three weeks to go before we can finally figure out who will suit up in January, the various deliberations and tribulations surrounding the announcement of who would be in college football’s four-team playoff had me hooked. Mostly qualitative rankings of teams from wildly different contexts in wildly different situations? Old people sitting in a hotel ballroom debating things? You can sign me up for that any day of the week.

So, naturally, I wanted to steal that idea for pro football. The NFL is interesting enough as is, but if we had to decide on a four-team playoff today, who would make it and why? After last night’s strangely entertaining Falcons-Packers tilt, we now have 13 games in the books for each NFL team, just as the NCAA committee had in evaluating the four teams that eventually made it into the first College Football Playoff.

As a one-man committee, I’ll use my own criteria — easily accessible official NFL data and that wonderfully dumb arbiter, the eye test — to pick and seed our four contenders.1 I won’t be concerning myself with conferences; if I pick three AFC teams and one NFC team, so be it. The goal here is to pick the best teams, not the teams with the most wins or the teams most likely to make the playoffs.

Let’s start with the teams that narrowly missed the cut. I didn’t really consider any teams with five or more losses, leaving us with nine teams competing for four spots. The Colts, Cowboys, and Lions were teams seven through nine. I’ll break down the top six and why they’re in their respective spots.

The Honorable Mentions

6. Philadelphia Eagles (9-4)
Point Differential: plus-80
Pythagorean Wins: 8.2
Strength of Schedule:2 .488 (18th-toughest)
Key Wins: Indianapolis (30-27), Dallas (33-10)
Losses: San Francisco (26-21), Arizona (24-20), Green Bay (53-20), Seattle (24-14)

Despite a decidedly lackluster performance on offense during Sunday’s loss to the Seahawks, the Eagles manage to make it into the top six. They’ve overcome a host of injuries to their offensive linemen and the broken collarbone suffered by Nick Foles to keep their head afloat in the NFC playoff picture, getting some help along the way from an easy schedule. Philly is 4-0 against the AFC South, 3-0 inside the divisional confines of the NFC East, and 2-4 elsewhere, including a 1-3 record against the toughest division, the NFC West.

The Eagles have kept things close in most of their contests. They have only one blowout loss (by a margin of more than 14 points), the 53-20 loss to the Packers that looks like an extreme example of how badly their defense can play. They have five blowout wins, but only one — the 33-10 win over the Cowboys on Thanksgiving — came against a quality opponent. Their other four comfortable victories came against the Jaguars, Titans, Giants, and Panthers, none of whom exactly strike fear into the hearts of men.

Part of the problem with any evaluative process like this is figuring out how to weight what a team has done with what you might expect it to do. The obvious issue with this Eagles team is how much of its performance comes down to return touchdowns. Philadelphia has 10 touchdowns on various returns and special teams plays, and the only other team with more than five is Minnesota, which somehow has six. That’s almost incomprehensible. There’s no way it’s sustainable, but at the same time, it’s also evidence the Eagles have an excellent return man and a turnover-intensive defense, traits that are far more sustainable and meaningful.

I think you have to discount some of what the Eagles have done, just because 18 percent of their points have come from returns. (The average team has 2.4 return touchdowns this year and derives 5.7 percent of its points from returns.) They deserve credit for what they’ve done, but it’s also silly to expect them to keep that up.

5. Arizona Cardinals (10-3)
Point Differential: plus-37
Pythagorean Wins: 7.6
Strength of Schedule: .521 (14th-toughest)
Key Wins: San Diego (18-17), Philadelphia (24-20), Dallas (28-17), Detroit (14-6), Kansas City (17-14)
Losses: Denver (41-20), Seattle (19-3), Atlanta (29-18)

The first surprise! Arizona is the lone 10-3 team to slip out of the four-team playoff, with its place taken by Seattle. It’s natural to think about Seattle’s comfortable victory over Arizona several weeks ago and use that as proof to push the Seahawks ahead of the Cardinals, but it’s not quite that simple.

Although the Cardinals have posted an impressive record against quality opposition, virtually all subtle indicators suggest they’re a decent team riding an impressive wave of luck. They’ve now won all three of their games decided by a touchdown or less, including a pair of games (San Diego and Kansas City) in which the other team fumbled at a crucial moment to drop its win expectancy. The Eagles game required a 75-yard touchdown on a colossal mistake in coverage and three stops inside the red zone in the final 1:33 to win it, the final stop coming on a catch that Jordan Matthews couldn’t keep in bounds. Those plays all count, but it takes only slightly worse luck at the end of games for Arizona’s record in tight contests to drop.

They’re a huge outlier given that point differential. Since 1990, there have been 93 teams that finished their first 13 games with a point differential between plus-25 and plus-50. The Cardinals sit almost exactly in the middle of that range at plus-37. Of those 93 teams, just two — these Cardinals and the 2006 Colts — started 10-3. The average team from that bunch won just 7.6 games, which is identical to Arizona’s Pythagorean Win figure.

Of course, Cardinals fans will point out that the 2006 Colts went on to win the Super Bowl, but that was on a team that got a significant body back when Bob Sanders got healthy, returned for the postseason, and totally changed Indianapolis’s defense in the process. Arizona has done an incredible job dealing with injuries, but it also keeps losing players, with Andre Ellington the latest starter to hit injured reserve, while Antonio Cromartie may miss time after being carted off Sunday with an ankle injury.

Those injuries have already begun to bite Arizona. Its offense was basically useless during the two-game losing streak to Seattle and Atlanta with Larry Fitzgerald missing, and while it showed more in the win over the Chiefs, Drew Stanton is a mess. The Chiefs dropped at least two easy interceptions, and there’s little reason to think Stanton will stop making those throws.

Arizona is the closest thing to Florida State in this group, a team whose record grossly outpaces its level of performance as viewed by virtually any point- or play-based metric. Fans will likely and perhaps rightfully point to the standings page as proof that the Cardinals deserve to be in, just as the Noles got in, but it’s hard to imagine anyone picking Arizona to win on a neutral field against any of the four teams ahead of them in this mock playoff. Then again, if they make it to the, um, championship game, the Cardinals won’t be playing on a neutral field.

The Qualifiers

4. Seattle Seahawks (9-4)
Point Differential: plus-87
Pythagorean Wins: 8.8
Strength of Schedule: .530 (eighth-toughest)
Key Wins: Green Bay (36-16), Denver (26-20), Arizona (19-3), Philadelphia (24-14)
Losses: San Diego (30-21), Dallas (30-23), St. Louis (28-26), Kansas City (24-20)

The Seahawks sneak ahead of the Cardinals because of how well they’ve played against the absolute best competition in football. Seattle has played two of the other three teams in this bracket and won both of those games,3 beating the Packers comfortably while overcoming a late comeback to prevail over the Broncos in overtime. Granted, both of those games came at home, but so have all of Arizona’s key wins, and they didn’t beat the Packers by 20, a win we’ve sorta forgotten because it came all the way back on opening day. Seattle has the fourth-highest strength of victory in football.

Even though they’ve beaten the Broncos and Packers, I don’t think you can move the Seahawks ahead of them. The cumulative impact of what a team’s done elsewhere matters. I wouldn’t push the Cowboys ahead of the Seahawks, for example, even though Dallas won comfortably when the two teams played. If all other aspects of a comparison were equal and the two teams had already played, I don’t think there would be anything wrong with choosing the winning team as the better seed. But there’s enough evidence stacked in the favor of those teams that I wouldn’t push the Seahawks into the top three.

Could Seattle get there? Sure. It finishes with three games against the NFC West, including a division-decider against Arizona in Week 16 that would give the Seahawks another victory over top competition. If that win is a blowout and one of the teams ahead of them slips up, the Seahawks could move into the third slot.

3. Green Bay Packers (10-3)
Point Differential: plus-119
Pythagorean Wins: 8.9
Strength of Schedule: .488 (18th-toughest)
Key Wins: Philadelphia (53-20), New England (26-21)
Losses: Seattle (36-16), Detroit (19-7), New Orleans (44-23)

Judging the Packers is a question of how you value teams over the course of a season and the way you form opinions about what a victory means at the time it occurs versus what it means with some perspective.

Take the win over the Patriots, one of just two wins from the Packers against upper-echelon competition. (They have just one other win over a team with a winning record, a three-point victory over the 7-6 Dolphins that essentially came down to the final play.) In the moment, it felt like a monumental victory, a five-point win over a Patriots team that had looked and felt unstoppable for weeks. It was an impressive victory, but is it more impressive than the 27-point shellacking that Kansas City laid on New England? Of course not. We treat the win that stops an opposing winning streak as a big deal, but the team just before that winning streak is probably very good too. The Pats had more problems earlier in the year, but the Packers win hardly profiles as the best victory over New England this season.

More so, the Packers have a couple of ugly losses on their résumé. If the Packers lost by 20 to the Seahawks this Sunday, we’d all be writing about how the Seattle defense is peaking and that it reestablished its credentials as an elite team. Because it happened in Week 1, though, recency bias keeps that game further away from our memory. You can make the claim that Derek Sherrod was who really hurt the Packers in that game and note he’s no longer on the active roster, but if I’m being honest, Sherrod isn’t a 20-point penalty. The Packers would have lost that game with a healthy Bryan Bulaga at right tackle too.

And the 21-point loss in New Orleans seems particularly egregious, especially given that the Saints were blown out by Carolina on Sunday to mark a stunning four-game losing streak in what was once regarded as an impenetrable home fortress. Packers fans remember Aaron Rodgers pulling his hamstring near the goal line and use that as an excuse, but Rodgers wasn’t the one who allowed the Saints offense to score 28 points from that moment forward. We discount that loss because it happened before the bye in Week 8, but it counts. Then, it looked like the Packers had lost to a 3-4 Saints team that played like a much different team at home. Now, we know it’s a 5-8 team with no special abilities in the Superdome. It’s the worst loss by any team in this top four.

I wouldn’t blame you for suggesting that the Packers might have the highest ceiling of these four teams; at their best, with Clay Matthews operating inside to aid against the run before moving outside to rush the passer on third down, with Eddie Lacy looking like the Marshawn Lynch starter kit, with those two receivers catching passes from that quarterback … they might be unstoppable. But they’ve been that team against another upper-echelon organization only once this year, against Philly. Outscoring the Bears and Vikings by 97 points in four games won’t save them here.

2. Denver Broncos (10-3)
Point Differential: plus-92
Pythagorean Wins: 8.5
Strength of Schedule: .538 (third-toughest)
Key Wins: Indianapolis (31-24), Kansas City (24-17), Arizona (41-20), San Diego (35-21), Kansas City (29-16)
Losses: Seattle (26-20), New England (43-21), St. Louis (22-7)

You really have to take a step backward to see just how difficult Denver’s schedule has been. Ten of its 13 games have come against teams with winning records, and that’s considering that the Broncos have dealt most of those teams a loss. The other three teams are the Rams, who have looked like literal rams on a football field over the past month, and the Raiders and Jets, who have looked like lit— no, that doesn’t work.

It would be accurate to say the Broncos slipped a bit from their 6-1 start. Nobody is going to be crying into their team-licensed apparel for a 4-2 stretch, but the Broncos offense has run into a problem: turnovers. After turning the ball over just four times in the first seven games, Peyton Manning & Co. have 11 giveaways in their last six. They had a stretch like this last year, when they gave the ball away 20 times in eight games between Week 5 and Week 13, but that was a team operating on a different orbit, averaging 35.6 points per game over that stretch. This Broncos offense averaged 32 points per game during the turnover-light stretch, but it’s down to 26.8 points per contest during these last seven.

I’m not saying the Broncos offense is broken, because it’s not. It just in a period when it hasn’t been at its best. The offense also managed to shore up its biggest weakness by shifting around its line. The experiment in moving Pro Bowl guard Louis Vasquez to right tackle hasn’t been a flawless victory, but the line has improved enough to the point where it’ll hold. The work the unit did in the recent win over the Chiefs, particularly with center Will Montgomery and right guard Manny Ramirez putting in a shift against Pro Bowl nose tackle Dontari Poe, is the prototype for the Broncos going forward.

1. New England Patriots (10-3)
Point Differential: plus-134
Pythagorean Wins: 9.4
Strength of Schedule: .536 (fourth-toughest)
Key Wins: Cincinnati (43-17), Denver (43-21), Indianapolis (42-20), Detroit (34-9)
Losses: Miami (33-20), Kansas City (41-14), Green Bay (26-21)

Nobody has more impressive wins against top competition than the Patriots, who have four blowout victories against likely playoff teams. Point differential is a better indicator of future success than win-loss record, and it’s not as if the Patriots solely earned that gaudy differential by beating up on the dregs of the league. Nobody in football is within a half-win of their 9.4 Pythagorean wins.

And yet, again, judging the Patriots comes down to a question of how likely you are to fence off the four-game start to the season, a 2-2 stretch when they were blown out by the Chiefs, beaten by the Dolphins, and arguably outplayed by the Raiders in Foxborough. There are more tangible reasons to say the Patriots are a fundamentally different team now than they were during September than there are, say, to write off that sloppy patch in midseason from Seattle, but I can see both sides.

It isn’t entirely an artificial endpoint to say the Patriots became a different team after Week 4. They shifted around their dismal offensive line, inserted rookie Bryan Stork at center, moved Ryan Wendell to guard, and found a combination that has played drastically better, even if Nate Solder still looks to be a shell of his former self at left tackle. Rob Gronkowski, meanwhile, has gotten healthier and seen his role drastically rise. He suited up for almost exactly half of New England’s offensive snaps, 50.1 percent, through the first four weeks. After that Chiefs game, he played 81.0 percent of the offensive snaps in the big win over the Bengals and hasn’t looked back, suiting up for 84.3 percent of New England’s offensive snaps since the Arrowhead fiasco. You don’t need me to tell you how that’s affected the Patriots offense.

And yet, at the same time, it’s not as if the work done by Gronk and Stork should affect how the defense has played. Sure, the Patriots got Brandon Browner back around that time and he’s helped them both in terms of defending against bigger receivers and giving referees important flag-tossing workouts to stay active. They also had Jerod Mayo earlier in the year, and you would figure that Mayo would be more important to this team than Browner. Allowing 33 points to the Dolphins and 41 to the Chiefs still counts on their record, and you should still consider it in judging what the Patriots are going to be like from here on in. The defense allowed 22.5 points per game during that four-game start and is at 19.7 points per game since.

So, split the difference. It’s a new offense from October on, and basically the same defense. That’s a very scary football team. The Patriots aren’t unbeatable by any stretch of the imagination. The Packers got them two weeks ago by staying away from Darrelle Revis, exploiting their absent pass rush, and attacking the weaker points in their secondary to move the chains and keep Tom Brady off the field. The Chiefs beat New England up by getting ahead with a dominant rushing game and keeping the lead with an irresistible pass rush.

Two of the teams in this playoff can beat the Patriots that way. The Packers can obviously emulate their prior performance. The Broncos can do a very good imitation of Kansas City’s pass rush, and nobody targets weak links in the secondary like Manning. Seattle would be the most interesting matchup of the three because it’s the least likely to win with a dominant pass rush or a big passing day. It would squeeze Brady in the intermediate game, dare him to throw downfield, and try to run all over the New England front seven.

Like anything, it will all come down to matchups. With teams this good — and this close — it’s less about who is better than one another and more about who matches up better. I’m not convinced Seattle was a better team than Denver over the entire 2013 season, but it was a terrible matchup for the Broncos in the Super Bowl. Here’s to hoping we get to see this actual four-team playoff4 in January.

Filed Under: NFL, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals, Philadelphia Eagles

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell