NFL at the Half: Breaking Down the Numbers

Elaine Thompson/AP

We’re halfway home. It seems like it just started, but today marks the halfway point of the NFL regular season. Naturally, this seems like a good point to take account of what has happened so far in the hopes of projecting what will happen over the remaining eight weeks. Well, to make fun of the things we actually thought in August, too. But that whole projecting thing sounds smarter.

Our midseason review starts with a look at the numbers. You already know the basics — the Colts run a lot of plays, DeMarco Murray has run for a lot of yards, the Jets have given up a lot of touchdowns — but it’s the peripheral numbers in discussion here today, the subtle indicators of performance that might tell us whether a team is better or worse than its record in ways that might predict how it performs from here on out. Many of the outliers in these statistical categories aren’t stable from a year-to-year basis, so they’re almost always even more unstable when looking at an even smaller sample.

You can find a primer for many of these numbers here. Note that this data comes from a combination of sources, including ESPN Stats & Information,, and the NFL’s official media website.

Pythagorean Expectation

Let’s start with our old friend. Point differential has proven to be a better indicator of future win-loss record than a team’s actual win-loss record, so gaps between the two are often signs of impending success or failure. Look no further than the 2013 Jets, who went 8-8 with the point differential commonly associated with a 5.4-win team. On the other side, the 2013 Texans went 2-14 with the point differential of a 4.2-win team; they haven’t been phenomenal by any means this season, but they’ve already doubled their win total from a year ago with seven games remaining.

Here are the teams that have fallen the furthest short of their expected win total from their point differential:

Those poor Raiders, man. Oakland is a bad team, but it’s been better than its winless record would indicate. It has played some talented teams tough! The Raiders lost to the Patriots by seven points in Week 3, came up three points short of the Chargers in Week 6, and got a late touchdown to come within one score of the Seahawks on Sunday. Atlanta mostly appears on this list by virtue of its loss to a self-icing Lions team in London two weeks ago.

The most interesting team on that list is Baltimore, which somehow sits in last place in the AFC North despite having the third-best point differential in the AFC. It’s weird to say that a last-place team is a favorite to make the playoffs, and the Ravens are way behind on division and conference tiebreakers, but it would be a surprise if their talent didn’t shine through over the second half.

On the flip side, here are the teams that have overachieved versus their Pythagorean expectation:

There are the Cardinals, and then there’s everybody else. Arizona has looked impressive all season while working its way past all kinds of injuries, but it has yet to win a game by more than 11 points, and its only loss came by 21 in Denver. Pythagoras rose from his grave and said the Cardinals are really a 5-3 team masquerading as a 7-1 juggernaut. He never went up against a coach in a Kangol hat, though, so he might be off here.

I’m counting the Bengals’ tie as a half-win, so they’re the only other team with a gap of more than one win between their expected win total and their actual win figure. They’re an interesting team: They have two big wins against bad opposition (Atlanta and Tennessee), two blowout losses against very good opposition (New England and Indianapolis), and four closer games against teams somewhere in the middle, during which they’ve gone 3-0-1. If Mike Nugent hadn’t shanked his 36-yarder against Carolina in overtime, Cincinnati would be right up there with Arizona in terms of teams with inflated records.

Performance in Close Games

A team that wins a disproportionately high percentage of its games decided by one score or less will almost always wonder what happened the following season. Likewise, a team that doesn’t know how to win one year is unlikely to struggle with the same problem the following campaign. Even the Colts, who feature a quarterback who has been otherworldly good in close games, lost their first two games of the year in one-touchdown contests before winning a pair to get back to 2-2.

If not the Colts, who’s been riding their luck in one-score games this year?

It’s surprising to see the Lions show up as one of the league’s luckiest teams in one-score games, given how bad they were over the previous two seasons. Matthew Stafford is coming off a two-year run during which the Lions were a combined 6-14 in games decided by one touchdown or less. Again, the difference between the “lucky” Lions and an entirely average team in one-score games comes down to Atlanta blowing a nearly sealed game late in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, the Buccaneers simply can’t buy a close win. The Bucs dropped a would-be pick-six that would have given them a late lead in Week 1, blew a one-point lead in the final minutes of regulation in Week 2, and gave away an 11-point lead to the Saints two weeks ago like it was unwanted Halloween candy. With a tiny bit of luck, they would be approaching .500 right about now.

Fumble Recovery Percentage

Forcing fumbles is a skill. Recovering them? Not so much. No team in football recovers a disproportionately high percentage of fumbles over a multiyear stretch. It just doesn’t happen. Those differences are even more stark in an eight-game sample. As for the importance and randomness of fumble recoveries? Just think about the end of that 49ers-Rams game from Sunday. Who’s been luckiest with fumble recoveries this year?

I know. I was thinking the same thing you were thinking: Man, the Titans’ success has come because they’re so lucky! To be fair, there have only been 12 fumbles during the eight Titans games, a stark contrast to the 30 fumbles up for grabs during Carolina contests. (The Panthers have recovered 46.7 percent of them.)

As for the team that has recovered the lowest percentage of fumbles, well, they could have recovered a half-dozen fumbles last night and Andrew Luck still would have stomped them into the swamp. The Giants have had eight drives end in lost fumbles this year, which is tied for the league lead with Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Those drives include two fumbles in the opposing red zone and three fumbles that handed the ball over to the opposition inside the Giants’ red zone, including a pair of fumbles on kickoff returns. Football is fun and edifying!

Red Zone Performance

I wrote about the freakishness of red zone performance a couple of weeks ago, when I noted that the Seahawks had gone from posting the league’s best red zone defense in 2013 to its worst in 2014. The good news is that they’ve gotten better; in their two games against the Panthers and Raiders, the Legion of Boom has allowed just 20 points on five trips to the red zone. That’s akin to the best red zone defense in football and is pretty impressive given that they’d been allowing 5.9 points per trip before that.

The bad news? They’re still the second-worst red zone defense in the league. Expect that to improve as the season goes along. Joining them among the best and worst red zone defenses this year:

Baltimore has been a monster in the red zone, with nine of the opposition’s 30 trips inside their 20-yard line ending without points. The Ravens even held the Panthers to a punt on a red zone possession in Week 4. Nobody else has more than six shutout drives in the red zone this season. That seems to match a great defense to great red zone performance, but did you expect the Jaguars to exhibit a shutdown defense inside their own 20? In 35 red zone possessions, the Jaguars defense has held opposing offenses to more field goals (15) than touchdowns (14).

And here are the league’s best and worst red zone offenses this year:

There’s something in the water in the AFC West! That somehow made its way downstream to … the Raiders? You don’t think of the Raiders as a dominant red zone offense, but they’ve been the second-most successful team on their trips to the red zone. The problem for them and the Falcons alike? They rarely make it into the red zone. The Raiders have a league-low 13 trips inside the opposing 20-yard line, while the Falcons are second-worst, with just 17 red zone possessions.

San Francisco left last week’s game-sealing fumble in the end zone as a monument to its red zone failings. The Niners averaged 5.0 points per red zone trip last year, the eighth-best figure in football. They won’t finish under four points per red zone possession this year, but to be there in November is pretty staggering. The Dolphins have come up with nothing on nine of their 30 red zone possessions, the largest total in football. The Buccaneers (seven) are the only team close. The Chargers are the only team to come away with points from every red zone trip.

Strength of Schedule

Finally, let’s take a look at each team’s strength of schedule through the first nine weeks. We’ll be using the Simple Rating System to estimate schedule strength. Here are the teams with the toughest schedules so far:

Great teams rarely play the toughest schedule in football, if only because they never have to schedule themselves. The Broncos are an exception. During their first eight games, they’ve played the top teams in the AFC (Patriots) and NFC (Cardinals), three other teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today (Colts, Chiefs, and Seahawks), and two teams with legitimate designs on a playoff berth (Chargers and 49ers). Oh, and the Jets. They finally get to play the Raiders next week, which should vault Oakland to the top of the schedule charts.1

Meanwhile, the Browns have faced a dramatically easier slate of opponents than anybody else in football. Of the six teams that are 2-6 or worse, Cleveland has played four: They’re 3-1 against the Raiders, Buccaneers, Jaguars, and Titans.

What stands out as more important right now is figuring out which team faces the toughest schedule from here on out. I’ve run through each team’s remaining slate of games and found the average Simple Rating System figure for each of their opponents. Here are the toughest (and easiest) schedules left over the remainder of the 2014 season:

I was surprised to see the Giants, too, especially given that their remaining schedule was being talked up as brutal during last night’s telecast. It’s fair to say that traveling to Seattle next week will be no picnic, and the Giants still have a home game against the Cowboys. Otherwise, things are relatively easy. The game against the 49ers is seen as one against a below-average team in terms of SRS, and after the Dallas game, the Giants play the Jaguars, Titans, Washington, and the Rams before finishing up with the Eagles in Week 17.

Perhaps the most meaningful easy schedule belongs to the Saints, who seem likely to commandeer a wayward NFC South over the next few weeks. Having broken their road fog with a comprehensive win over the Panthers on Thursday night, the Saints are in first place in the NFC South and only have three more road trips, including games against the Bears and Buccaneers. They still have three games to play against the AFC North, but with three games to go against the dismal NFC South, the Saints control their own destiny.

And while the Patriots claimed the top spot in the AFC with their resounding win over the Broncos on Sunday, things aren’t about to get easier for Tom Brady & Co. After they return from their bye, their next four games are against the Colts, Lions, Packers, and Chargers, with three of those on the road. They finish with three divisional games, so if they can make it through that four-game stretch unscathed, they should be able to lock up a first-round bye, if not the top seed in the AFC.

The numbers aren’t everything, of course. Some team will make a sudden surge that has nothing to do with the numbers and catapults it to a playoff spot out of nowhere. Last year, it was the Panthers, who were 5-3 after Week 9 and went 7-1 the rest of the way. The year before, it was Washington, which hit its bye week at 3-6 and went undefeated afterward. We’ll look back again at the numbers and figure out where that soaring team was hiding in seven weeks.

Filed Under: NFL, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans, Denver Broncos, San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Rams, Arizona Cardinals

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell