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Week 10 Preview and Midseason Report: NFL’s Best Teams According to Math

Also, the 49ers D’s recent ownership of the Rams, Tony Corrente starts a fire and the NFL dumps kerosene on it, Cam and the Panthers in the comically bad NFC playoff race, it's Taysom Hill’s time now (right?), and more. Plus, musical guest: Queens of the Stone Age!

1. I think we can all agree that if there we had to choose one person in the history of the world with whom we’d like to sit down for an afternoon of NFL action, it would be 17th-century Dutch mathematician and pioneer in the field of probability theory Christiaan Huygens.* And while he would almost surely suffer a series of cardiac episodes if subjected to the relentless, unending stimuli of the modern world, I like to think that he could also weigh in on the statistical probabilities of what’s unfolding on football fields across the nation every Sunday.

With that in mind, I assembled my annual midseason “luck report”—which, this year, came at the exact midpoint of the season (136 games into the 272-game season when you exclude the Ravens-Dolphins TNF game). As I touched on a couple weeks ago when I couldn’t really come up with anything better to write, small-sample-size stats rule the NFL. Plays like fumble recoveries, red-zone stops, fourth-down conversions, missed field goals… they have huge impacts on games, but they also happen so rarely that they can’t really be viewed as anything a team controls in any significant way (and, in the case of fumble-recovery rate or opponent field-goal accuracy, they’re as close to dumb luck as you get in professional sports).

NFL Week 10 Preview and Midseason Report

So, in order to get a better grasp on who performed well in the first half of the season, I built out a crude statistical model to try to remove luck from the equation as much as possible. Admittedly, this is less predictive than I’d like considering teams will improve, players will get injured, etc. It also doesn’t take into account injuries or strength of schedule—the latter I’m less bothered by since NFL teams are much more evenly matched than the typical observer realizes, but indeed, if you already got your shot at Jacksonville and Houston, you got a bit of an edge in this model.

A quick look at the factors I tried to mitigate:

• Fumble recoveries: The expected fumble recovery rate for every team in the NFL is 50%. A quick refresher on probabilities: A team that recovered 8 of 10 fumbles to start the year isn’t expected to recover 2 of their next 10, but 5 of their next 10. Which means that team is stealing three fewer possessions over those next 10 fumbles. I moved every team to a league average conversion rate and adjusted by net points-per-possession.
• Fourth-down conversions made/allowed: No one builds a fourth-down defense. I split fourth-down offense and defense into short (fourth-and-3 or less) and long (fourth-and-4-or-more), then moved each team to a league-average conversion rate (58.3% on short, 36.7% on long) for made and allowed. And, again, I adjusted by adding or subtracting net points-per-possession based on possessions gained or lost. 
• Red Zone efficiency: It’s a far more volatile stat than most realize, probably because of the importance of that area of the field and the fact that it’s often discussed (in the vaguest of terms) on broadcasts. It seems offenses with a strong run game tend to fare better in the red zone (the Titans and Ravens usually rank toward the top of the league), but this year alone you have outliers in the Cowboys (24th in expected red zone points per possession) and the Colts (28th), both of whom have outstanding rushing attacks. I moved every team to the league-average (4.99 points per red-zone trip) on both sides of the ball.
• Opponent points per kick: Across the league, kickers are making 87.3% from inside 50, 66.7% from 50-plus, and 93.7% on PATs. I moved every team to those league averages on opponents’ attempted kicks.

I then took point differential per game and used the above factors to come up with a luck-adjusted point differential per game. And at the halfway point of the season, here’s what we have for adjusted point differential per game based on the season’s first half (thus, through the Steelers-Bears Monday nighter):

1. Cowboys, +8.9
2. Bills, +7.6
3. Bucs, +6.5
4. Browns, +5.8
5. Chiefs, +5.4
6. Colts, +5.22
7. Raiders, +5.21
8. Cardinals, +4.7
9. Patriots, +3.59
10. Packers, +3.56
11. Rams, +3.1
12. Bengals, +2.0
13. Broncos, +1.4
14. Panthers, +1.3
15. Titans, +0.9
16. Vikings, +0.4
17. Chargers, +0.3
18. Saints, +0.1
19. 49ers, -0.5
20. Eagles, -0.8
21. Steelers, -1.2
22. Ravens, -2.0
23. Seahawks, -3.1
24. Giants, -3.5
25. Football Team, -3.7
26. Jaguars, -4.0
27. Falcons, -5.2
28. Lions, -5.3
29. Bears, -7.5
30. Dolphins, -8.3
31. Jets, -9.3
32. Texans, -11.6

So what did we learn? First, I hate your favorite team and so does math. Second, the Browns, Chiefs, Colts and Patriots are teams that stood out as having better first halves than their win-loss records suggest. Conversely, the Rams, Chargers, Steelers, Saints, Falcons and Ravens were probably not quite as good as their first-half records suggest. The Raiders and Cardinals were for real, and to a lesser extent so were the Bengals and Broncos.

I'm not going to state a defense of this model—it's math, you're arguing with math. But I will point out: The Ravens, 22nd here despite a 6–2 record, went out and lost to the hapless Dolphins in the first game of the season’s second half. So, certainly, based on that one-game sample size, we can conclude that the above model is absolutely foolproof.

*—I know some of you saying, C’mon, what about Blaise Pascal? Or I’d rather watch the game and eat nachos with Pierre de Fermat! But those guys are frickin’ nerds.

2a. As you likely know, the Rams were the winners of the Odell Beckham Jr. sweepstakes. Being able to recruit like that is another benefit of having a GM whose primary objective is to win games rather than prolong his stay by appealing to a cheapskate owner and the draft-pick fetishists in his fanbase. (Though playing in Los Angeles—where the autumn weather is nice, people are aesthetically pleasing and your chances of spotting the entire cast of NCIS on the street is greater than it is in any other city—is also a draw.)

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The Beckham addition leaned a little more toward luxury than necessity—though you won’t find a defensive coordinator in the league who’s not aware of Beckham’s location on every snap—until the Robert Woods injury. How much of an impact Beckham will have about 100 hours after signing is up in the air though, and that’s unfortunate considering the struggles L.A. has had against Monday night’s opponent, the 49ers.

It’s a different team with Matthew Stafford under center, but the Rams have lost four in a row to the Niners and in three of those their offense was completely overwhelmed, falling short of 200 net passing yards. Last November, they failed to score on their last two drives to put the game away and ended up losing to a Nick Mullens–led Niners team. This matchup, more than any other, should lay bare the stark difference between Goff and Stafford, though it comes one week after Stafford had a mini-meltdown to cost them against a shorthanded Titans team. They need their MVP-caliber quarterback to play at an MVP level again on Monday.

2b. While Woods isn’t as talented as a receiver as Beckham, his value in formationing (he’s taken a couple handoffs as a traditional running back this season) and as a blocker add up to value well beyond his statistical output. L.A. will likely be fine in the long run either way, but in some weird timeline where they were forced to choose between a healthy Robert Woods or adding Odell Beckham Jr., they’d be better off with the former.


3a. We don’t need to spill anymore digital pixels opining about the NFL’s crackdown on what seemingly a few powerful but very strange people on the competition committee consider “taunting.” It’s dumb. The NFL has a dearth of qualified officials—Monday's Corrente Incident overshadowed the absolute meltdown of Land Clark’s crew in Jacksonville on Sunday—and they continue to pile more unnecessary rules and points of emphasis on those unqualified officials then furrow their brows when we get the kind of farce that unfolded before a national audience on Monday night. (And, again, if you’re going to penalize something that has nothing to do with the actual competition at hand, find a different way to punish it. Move forward 10 yards but move the down and distance marker with it. A 15-yard penalty and automatic first down is the kind of punitive measure you hand out if a player burns down an orphanage after the play.)

I get what the NFL is doing by fining Cassius Marsh—they get to stand by their guy and their stupid, stupid rule. But the problem is two-fold: (1) Any observer can understand an overzealous official getting emotional and making a mistake on the field—Corrente makes more good calls than bad—but now the NFL is tacitly approving overzealous officials losing control of their emotions and throwing game-changing flags. The league could have just chalked this up as an isolated mistake and taken an appropriate action against Corrente instead. And (2) Corrente initiated physical contact with a player, which is a line that can’t be crossed. Had Marsh—or any other player—done the same thing Corrente did to an official, they’d be serving three consecutive life sentences.

A sensible organization would have taken Corrente off the field this week (call it a week off, call it a suspension, just acknowledge that you saw what everyone saw: by the end of Monday night he was not fit to officiate a professional football game). He is now a part of the story in Indianapolis today. And the NFL, an organization that consistently gets it wrong then pledges to “get it right” in things far more important than football, ends up doubling down on "wrong" in the one area they should be able to handle: staging and officiating professional football games.

3b. Also, why is sky judge—which is wonderful and also a decade overdue—utilized on some plays, but not to correct a blatant mistake at a crucial part of the game like Corrente’s?


4a. It’s not too late for the Panthers to make a run with Cam Newton under center. There’s little doubt—especially after watching him look as healthy as he has in years this preseason—that he’ll be a massive upgrade over Sam Darnold (not to mention P.J. Walker). And even if Carolina is basically waving a white flag against the Cardinals on Saturday by putting Walker under center, if the Falcons lose in Dallas Carolina would finish the week no worse than a half-game behind Atlanta for the last playoff spot, with a road win over the Falcons in hand.

I’ve grown far too cynical to root for or against anyone—every time I watch a game I cheer to minimal head trauma and that no one hurts the referee’s feelings. But Newton was a marvel to watch in his prime, a one-of-a-kind talent whose playing style made that prime too short. (And at this point we’ve been spoiled by Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, etc.) But a roster cut at the end of a solid summer seemed too unceremonious an end for Newton’s career. What I'm saying is, I think it’s neat that he’s back.

4b. Yes, the race for the last NFC Wild-Card spot is going to be that bad, which is why there’s plenty of hope still for slow starters (49ers, Seahawks, Vikings, Giants—yes, Giants—I’m looking in your direction).


5. Hear me out: I know Sean Payton is saying Trevor Siemian is the starter on Sunday—and I have no doubt he’ll take the first snap. But New Orleans is now not only incredibly thin at receiver (one of the issues with playing Siemian, who needs to be lifted up by a strong supporting cast) but with Alvin Kamara out, Mark Ingram becomes the feature back. The same Mark Ingram who, a few seasons ago, thrived in a unique read-option-and-play-action-heavy offense with Lamar Jackson.


6. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Queens of the Stone Age!

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