The Last to Lose
Keith Goldner, numberFire.com
In order for the Cincinnati Bengals, Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals to be the final remaining undefeated teams exiting Week 3, seven different games had to end the way they did. Entering the week, there was just a 1.16% chance of that happening. But this is the NFL, where we’ve come to expect the unexpected.
The three remaining undefeated teams clearly are heading in the right direction, but they by no means are a lock to make a deep playoff run. Let’s not forget that, just a season ago, the Kansas City Chiefs were the last remaining undefeated squad, and they failed to get out of the wild-card round in the AFC.
So of the Eagles, Bengals and Cardinals, which team is the most deserving of the 3-0 title? Which team is most likely to win the Super Bowl? And which team has the highest chance of missing the playoffs?
To evaluate each team, we used our internal metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). A quick refresher on NEP: It compares every single play over a season to how a league-average team should perform on that play. Every situation on a 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 playing the Steelers, facing a third-and-two on the 50. That’s a ton of variables, but 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 an entire game and season, we can pinpoint the most efficient players and teams in the league. Then, we use these efficiency numbers to simulate the NFL season, which results in projections for every team.
PROJECTED 2014 RECORD
Cincinnati Bengals: 11.0 – 5.0
Winning Division: 70.4%
Making Playoffs: 88.1%
Winning Super Bowl: 13.1%
Earning 1st-Round Bye: 56.0%
Andy Dalton leads the NFL’s No. 6 passing attack with a +20.64 passing NEP. What has been more impressive, though, is the Bengals pass defense, which has registered a league-leading -24.89 NEP—meaning they have prevented (or scored defensively) almost 25 points that a league average defense would allow. If Cincy can improve its run defense, which ranks third-to-last on a per play basis, it would be above average in every major efficiency category.
A difficult matchup in New England after their Week 4 bye, a Week 11 matchup in New Orleans, and a home game against Peyton Manning in Week 16 highlight the toughest games remaining for the Bengals.
Philadelphia Eagles, projected 10.3 – 5.7
Winning Division: 64.2%
Making Playoffs: 74.6%
Winning Super Bowl: 7.9%
Earning 1st-Round Bye: 33.6%
Like Cincinnati, the Eagles have a dominant aerial attack. Nick Foles owns a +25.22 NEP (including +3.08 NEP on his devastating read options). Jeremy Maclin has the No. 7 receiving NEP in the NFL at +23.44. And Zach Ertz is the ninth-most efficient tight end with +16.40 NEP.
The Eagles defense has been tough against the run, posting a -10.71 NEP, No. 5 in the NFC, but they have room to improve in the secondary.
The Eagles have one of their biggest challenges this week in San Francisco. They also travel to Arizona in Week 8 and Green Bay Week 11, then host Seattle in Week 14.
Arizona Cardinals, projected 9.6 – 6.4
Winning Division: 32.8%
Making Playoffs: 66.4%
Winning Super Bowl: 4.6%
Earning 1st-Round Bye: 23.9%
While the Cardinals have been pretty average offensively, their run defense is No. 3 in the NFL—posting a -14.51 NEP. Like the Eagles, their pass defense leaves room for improvement, and they are hoping cornerback Antonio Cromartie will be healthy following their Week 4 bye. Michael Floyd has been a bright spot in the offense, putting up +19.55 NEP on 11 catches.
After their bye, the Cardinals have one of their most difficult games of the season in Week 5 at Denver. The end of the year is brutal for Arizona, too: Week 12 at Seattle, Week 16 vs. Seattle, Week 17 at San Francisco. Bruce Arians’ crew is projected to win just 1.4 of those games.
The Last of The Unbeatens
Heading into the season, there was roughly a 0.06% chance that these would be the only remaining undefeated teams after Week 3 (the chances that any three specific teams are the last remaining undefeated in Week 3 always will be very small). The most likely team to be the last unbeaten? Cincinnati at 44.2% (Arizona at 30.0% and Philadelphia at 25.8%).
Cincinnati and Arizona have a huge advantage here with the Week 4 bye. Cincinnati also has the best chance to go undefeated at 0.176%. The Eagles have only a 0.08% chance at the perfect season, and the Cardinals went undefeated only one time in over 10,000 simulations (< 0.01%). To compare, if you had perfect parity in the NFL and every team had a 50% chance to win each game, a 3-0 team would have a 0.01% chance to finish 16-0.
There’s still a long way to go for each of these teams. Just ask Ryan Fitzpatrick and the 2011 Buffalo Bills. After all, they started 3-0 before finishing 6-10 and watching the playoffs from the comfort of their couches.