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In their debut piece for The MMQB, numberFire uses efficiency analytics to figure out which teams are most likely to rise or fall in 2014

By ggramling
September 04, 2014

By Keith Goldner, numberFire.com

The NFL is the most fickle of all pro sports leagues. With thorough parity and only 16 games, “any given Sunday” becomes “any given season.”

Above all, efficiency reigns supreme. Teams that move the ball consistently will beat the more variable teams time and time again. Entering last year, we had the Carolina Panthers as a team to watch, having vastly underperformed the previous season when they finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs. They proceeded to finish 12-4. With the NFL season about to begin, what teams are most likely to regress, in either direction? To predict this, we compared last year’s record to our projected record for the upcoming season. Four primary factors determine the direction in which a team is headed:

1. Changes in personnel (injuries, trades, acquisitions, etc.)

2. Strength of schedule

3. Whether they overperformed or underperformed in 2013

4. Standard regression to the mean—teams that performed extraordinarily well simply aren’t likely to do quite that well again, and others that were horrendous will tend to see their fortunes improve. Everyone, that is, tends to move toward the average, and the draft and strength of schedule amplifies that trend.

One of our key prediction metrics in determining our power rankings is Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP compares every single play over a season to how a league-average team should perform on that play. From our glossary:

Every single situation on the football field has an expected point value; that is, how many points an average team would be expected to score in that situation (given down, distance-to-go, and yard line). For example, the Chiefs may be facing the Pittsburgh Steelers, with a third-and-two on the 50-yard line. That's a ton of variables, but luckily, numberFire has data from the past dozen years of every single play, so most situations have come up at least once. According to our data, an average team may be "expected" to score 1.23 (estimated number) points on that drive. However, Jamaal Charles reels off a 32-yard run to bring the Chiefs into the red zone, increasing the "expected" point value of the next play to 4.23 (still an estimated number) points. Jamaal Charles then gets credit for the difference, in this case 2.96 points, as his NEP total. That's Net Expected Points.

By calculating every player and team’s NEP over the entire 2013 season, we can pinpoint the most efficient players and teams in the league and therefore spot the teams that are most likely to have their fortunes reversed in 2014.

Risers

Atlanta Falcons

2013 Record: 4-12 (No. 26 in NFL)

Projected 2014 Record: 8.2-7.8 (No. 14 in NFL)

Playoff Probability: 33.8%

Primary Reason: Injuries

In 2013 the Falcons had a slew of injuries on both sides of the ball. While their offense still managed to score more than 350 points without Julio Jones, it was the defense that suffered the most. Atlanta had the worst defense in the league after adjusting for strength of schedule. Their passing defense was particularly dismal, posting an NEP of +110—meaning they allowed 110 more points than a league-average defense would have in the same situations. Still, with the talent they have and given that they were disproportionately affected by injuries (Julio Jones and Roddy White played only 18 games combined), Matt Ryan and company could easily return to the playoffs this season.

Washington

2013 Record: 3-13 (No. 31)

Projected 2014 Record: 7.6-8.4 (No. 20)

Playoff Probability: 26.2%

Primary Reason: Mildly Underperformed/Regression To Mean

The biggest question surrounding Washington is whether they will get the Robert Griffin III of 2013, who added just +28 NEP (20th among QBs with at least 150 pass attempts) or the RGIII of 2012, who posted a +155 NEP, seventh-best among quarterbacks (including +65 on the ground, best among QBs). In all likelihood, it will be somewhere in the middle. With a shiny new toy in DeSean Jackson—who has consistently been one of the league’s top-20 receivers in terms of NEP—Washington should at least be back in contention in the NFC East.

Tennessee Titans

2013 Record: 7-9 (No. 20)

Projected 2014 Record: 8.1-7.9 (No. 13)

Playoff Probability: 43.5%

Primary Reason: Mildly Underperformed/Regression To Mean

The Titans were an under-the-radar squad on both sides of the ball in 2013. Jake Locker earned +11 NEP (21st among quarterbacks with 150 or more pass attempts), but can he stay healthy for a full season? Tennessee added a point above expectation for every 20 plays run on offense; the +0.05 NEP per play ranked fifth in the AFC after adjusting for strength of opponents. They particularly excelled in the short-to-intermediate passing game with the emergence of Kendall Wright. Considering the weak division—and perhaps the emergence of a running game they so desperately need—don’t sleep on the Titans.

Houston Texans

2013 Record: 2-14 (No. 32)

Projected 2014 Record: 7.2-8.8 (No. 26)

Playoff Probability: 26.7%

Primary Reason: Wildly Underperformed/Regression To Mean

The Texans had the worst record in the NFL last season. There has been a lot of turmoil at the quarterback position, but Ryan Fitzpatrick will have the good fortune of watching the monstrous Texans front seven, featuring the tag-team/easy-listening duo of Watt & Clowney, put him in good position all year. In addition, the Texans start the season with a healthy and motivated Arian Foster in the backfield as support. Houston’s offense should improve dramatically from its -82 NEP, second-worst in the AFC. Keep in mind: Houston was the No. 3 offense in the AFC just two years ago. All signs point to 2013 as an outlier year, a miserable one to be sure, but a campaign that is unlikely to be repeated.

Green Bay Packers

2013 Record: 8-7-1 (No. 13)

Projected 2014 Record: 8.7-7.3 (No. 9)

Playoff Probability: 51.3%

Primary Reason: Injuries

The Packers managed to squeak into the playoffs last year and are a few short years removed from a Super Bowl title. With a healthy Aaron Rodgers, the Pack will contend once again. Despite missing a significant chunk of last season, Rodgers was the second-most efficient quarterback in the NFL on a per play basis among those who threw at least 300 passes—only Peyton Manning and his +0.41 NEP per play (Rodgers scored +0.32) was better. Rodgers added a point for every three times he threw a pass, and a point every two times he tucked it and ran. Not too shabby.

Fallers

New York Jets

2013 Record: 8-8 (No. 14)

Projected 2014 Record: 7.2-8.8 (No. 27)

Playoff Probability: 21.3%

Primary Reason: Overperformed

The Jets are an absolute mess at quarterback: Geno Smith was the least-efficient passer in the NFL last year, posting a dismal -69 NEP (despite only 485 pass attempts). Rex Ryan prides himself on his defense, but last year his pass defense ranked in the bottom half of the league after adjusting for strength of schedule. Did you notice it’s a passing league these days?

Kansas City Chiefs

2013 Record: 11-5 (No. 6)

Projected 2014 Record: 7.8-8.2 (No. 18)

Playoff Probability: 35.5%

Primary Reason: Overperformed/Regression To Mean/Relied On A Flaky Stat

The Chiefs were the surprise team of 2013, and while they have improved dramatically under Andy Reid they certainly overperformed given their talent. Kansas City was bolstered by incredible defensive play. That included several defensive touchdowns, one of the most difficult statistics to maintain. Turnovers tend to be random on a year-to-year and week-to-week basis, and that’s a big reason why the Chiefs were so strong defensively a season ago. The No. 3 opponent-adjusted passing defense should regress back toward the middle of the league in 2014.

Baltimore Ravens

2013 Record: 8-8 (No. 14)

Projected 2014 Record: 7.4-8.6 (No. 23)

Playoff Probability: 25.8%

Primary Reason: Overperformed

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. After winning the Super Bowl two years ago, the Ravens will be hard-pressed to secure a playoff spot in 2014. Baltimore sacrificed the most NEP in the NFL by running the ball poorly and too frequently. According to NEP, the Ravens would have scored an estimated 52 more points last year if their running game had been league-average. Instead, they ran themselves right out of the playoffs. After posting the 27th-best NEP total among quarterbacks last season, the less said about Joe Flacco’s monster contract the better.

Dallas Cowboys

2013 Record: 8-8 (No. 14)

Projected 2014 Record: 7.5-8.5 (No. 22)

Playoff Probability: 25.7%

Primary Reason: Injuries

While Tony Romo continues to lead a strong offensive attack, the Cowboys’ defense continues to suffer. Going by 2013 NEP, the Dallas defense gave up nearly five points per game last season that a league-average defense would have prevented—fifth-worst in the NFC. That will need to improve dramatically for the Cowboys to contend in 2014. And considering top linebacker Sean Lee is already out for the season…

Indianapolis Colts

2013 Record: 11-5 (No. 6)

Projected 2014 Record: 8.0-8.0 (No. 14)

Playoff Probability: 43.6%

Primary Reason: Overperformed/Regression To Mean

Andrew Luck keeps leading an efficient offense while the defense has been lackluster. According to NEP, the Colts’ passing defense allowed an additional point above league-average for every 10 passing plays against them in 2013—that translates to about 3-4 additional points against per game allowed. Luck will take part in a lot of shootouts in the coming year (in particular Week 1 at Denver). With the cakewalk that is the AFC South though, the Colts are roughly a coin-flip to make the playoffs again in 2014.

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