Aug 16, 2019
Aug 16, 2019

NFL: AFC preview

NFL: AFC preview

NFL preseason is now in full swing in preparation for the opening fixture on September 5th, a tasty divisional matchup between the Bears and the Packers. As ever, we’ll look at the underlying statistics from the 2018 campaign to attempt to inform your AFC predictions by looking at which direction each franchise is headed going into the new season. Who will win the AFC? Read on to find out.

AFC East

Blue is above average, Red is below average.

New England Patriots (11-5 in 2018)

Offense Passing Efficiency 110%

Offense Running Efficiency 99%

Defensive Passing Efficiency 99%

Defensive Running Efficiency 114%

Scoring Efficiency 117%

Allowing Efficiency 91%

Having run through the predictive indicators, we start with the one side who has defied regression throughout the Belichick/Brady era.

It is a given that the Patriots win the AFC East and 2019 should follow the pattern. They recognize that the NFL is a passing league, so being well below par defensively against the run in the regular season isn’t a great hardship.

Their turnover differential was +10, which ranked top five in the NFL, but was mainly driven by avoiding and taking away interceptions, so is less prone to regression to the mean.

A record in narrow matches wasn’t extreme, they have a very easy schedule, courtesy of the under achieving AFC East opponents, who they play six times in total and their 11 actual wins was matched by a similar Pythagorean win total of 10.7.

Pythagorean simulations of the 2019 regular season expect Brady to lead his side to 12 or more wins 45% of the time and win the division (again) 92% of the time.

They also host their main AFC championship rivals, KC in Week 14 in a possible number one seed showdown match.

Miami Dolphins (7-9)

Offense Passing Efficiency 95%

Offense Running Efficiency 108%

Defensive Passing Efficiency 118%

Defensive Running Efficiency 113%

Scoring Efficiency 87%

Allowing Efficiency 114%

The Dolphins were the pick to chase home the Patriots in 2018, which they did, but in far from impressive style.

They were below average across the board, with the sole exception of running the ball and everyone responsible for their rock bottom underlying process has now departed.

They were helped along with a small positive turnover differential, a +4 differential in narrow victories and two more actual wins than their Pythagorean expectation.

Everything points to a decline in wins, even without the uncertainty inherent in a rebuild and they are a coin toss to get five or fewer wins in simulations and a 40% likelihood of propping up the division.

Buffalo Bills. (6-10)

Offense Passing Efficiency 83%

Offense Running Efficiency 98%

Defensive Passing Efficiency 87%

Defensive Running Efficiency 96%

Scoring Efficiency 76%

Allowing Efficiency 102%

The defensive side of the Buffalo football was elite and top five in the NFL. They defended the pass as well as anyone, which is a wise choice in a division that also contains Tom Brady, but were also top ten against the run.

It didn’t exactly play out as well on the scoreboard, they allowed slightly more points per game than their opponents on average scored, but they weren’t given any support from a dreadful offense.

They traded three narrow wins for three narrow losses, had a negative turnover differential, mainly down to a generous passing game that was regularly picked off and managed one more win than their Pythagorean.

A benign fixture list, the sixth easiest in the NFL is a plus, but there’s little to suggest a big leap forward from 2018 and it’s again a coin toss that they’ll equal or better their six win season.

New York Jets (4-12)

Offense Passing Efficiency 90%

Offense Running Efficiency 91%

Defensive Passing Efficiency 106%

Defensive Running Efficiency 105%

Scoring Efficiency 94%

Allowing Efficiency 126%

The Jets’ efficiency statistics were universally red across the board, with the offense trailing in the NFL’s bottom ten through the air and on the ground.

The defense fared slightly better, edging just outside the bottom ten in both disciplines, although it barely registered on the scoreboard.

However, they did excel at special teams.

There’s more optimism for natural improvement in their unsustainable extremes. The Jets went just 1-5 in games decided by seven points or fewer, had the 27th worst turnover differential of -10 and a Pythagorean that was a win and a half ahead of their four actual wins.

They’re projected to have a 66% chance of gaining six or more wins and are around a 42% chance to chase home the Patriots from a respectful distance.

AFC West

Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)

Offense Passing Efficiency 124%

Offense Running Efficiency 106%

Defensive Passing Efficiency 101%

Defensive Running Efficiency 111%

Scoring Efficiency 150%

Allowing Efficiency 115%

Daring teams to try to keep up with a high-powered offense, backed up by an inevitably compromised defensive unit has been a chosen route in the pass friendly NFL.

The Chiefs scored nearly 12 points per game more than their opponents habitually conceded in 2018, ranked top of most offensive ratings, but languished towards the foot of the defensive charts by virtually conceding the running game.

There’s an inevitability that a 12 win team will overperform against their Pythagorean scoring metrics. KC did so by 1.5 wins and they were also top six in turnover differential.

They’ll also face a divisional winning schedule that ranks as a top five for difficulty based on the Pythagorean of their opponents.

This all points to wins declining in 2019, and whilst the Chiefs are still most likely winners of the AFC West, they should only be just a shade of odds on at around 54% to lift the crown.

LA Chargers (12-4)

Offense Passing Efficiency 116%

Offense Running Efficiency 103%

Defensive Passing Efficiency 97%

Defensive Running Efficiency 95%

Scoring Efficiency 110%

Allowing Efficiency 88%

The Chargers are still acclimatizing to their move from San Diego and needed a near flawless 7-1 road record to reach the post season.

What did change in 2018 was their rotten luck in close matches. In previous campaigns, they were on the wrong end of tight games, but in 2018 they returned a 5-1 record in matches that were decided by seven or fewer points.

Two point conversions as time expired, fourth down conversions and pass interference calls, suddenly went the way of LA, although more rounded, above average, offensive and defensive efficiencies also kept them competitive enough to benefit from this unaccustomed good fortune.

Despite the breaks wildly gyrating against and towards Rivers’ side recently, a more equitable split is most likely in 2019.

They’re right in the middle of the pack for turnover differential, but as with KC, they overperformed their Pythagorean by a win and a half.

Both the Chargers and the Chiefs are projected to drop to around 10 wins in 2019, so there’s little between the two rivals and LA wins the division in simulations around 40% of the time.

Denver Broncos (6-10)

Offense Passing Efficiency 91%

Offense Running Efficiency 107%

Defensive Passing Efficiency 100%

Defensive Running Efficiency 100%

Scoring Efficiency 84%

Allowing Efficiency 88%

Denver were a top 16 NFL team with a top six defense, desperately in search of an offense that could provide enough points for them to defend.

Six wins were one and a half fewer than their scoring splits merited and two more narrow losses than wins were balanced by a plus seven turnover differential that was at the less likely end of the sustainability scale.

Their schedule projects as being the ninth most difficult, with both KC and LAC likely to regress from their 12 win seasons.

There are upsides, but the Broncos start from a relatively low baseline, are again in flux at quarterback and the bulk of their projected win totals encompass between six and eight victories.

They have a 6% chance of taking the divisional title and few percent below their chances of finishing fourth.

Oakland Raiders (4-12)

Offense Passing Efficiency 98%

Offense Running Efficiency 93%

Defensive Passing Efficiency 113%

Defensive Running Efficiency 102%

Scoring Efficiency 77%

Allowing Efficiency 116%

The Raiders vied for the worst record in 2019, with poor efficiencies across the board and even worse conversion rates on the scoreboard.

Usually the bottom teams can point to poor fortune, but Oakland’s four wins was exactly what their Pythagorean suggested they were worth.

The only slight glimmer of a bounce comes in the 26th best turnover differential of -7, where they were awful/very unlucky to only recover three forced fumbles.

Their schedule does them no favours, as they’re pitched against excellent divisional rivals and poor teams from 2018 who are projected to improve.

Therefore, they host the NFL’s most difficult fixture list.

There’s a 40% chance that Oakland will win fewer matches than they did last term and an 86% chance they will again finish bottom of their division.

AFC South

Houston Texans (11-5)

Offense Passing Efficiency 110%

Offense Running Efficiency 98%

Defensive Passing Efficiency 107%

Defensive Running Efficiency 79%

Scoring Efficiency 113%

Allowing Efficiency 94%

Houston ranked second in the NFL for turnover differential, taking the ball away 29 times, but only returning the gesture on 16 occasions. That is a huge indication that they may well struggle to emulate last season’s win total.

They also won one more actual win than their Pythagorean expectation and endure potentially the league’s second most difficult schedule, facing a trio of playoff sides from 2018 and then hosting the Patriots.

Jacksonville’s fixtures are of comparable difficulty, but other divisional rivals Indianapolis and Tennessee fare much better.

Offensively, the Texans were built on an efficient passing game and an average running output. But it is cause for concern that they shut down the opposing ground game, but not their opponent’s ability to pass the ball efficiently.

They appear vulnerable defending divisional champions in a division that has been won with 10 or fewer wins over half the time since 2010.

Indianapolis Colts (10-6)

Offense Passing Efficiency 101%

Offense Running Efficiency 97%

Defensive Passing Efficiency 107%

Defensive Running Efficiency 91%

Scoring Efficiency 119%

Allowing Efficiency 103%

Indianapolis produced very similar efficiency figures to Houston, in failing a game short of the Texans’ win total following quarterback, Andrew Luck’s return from his injury plagued 2017 non-event.

They had small positive differentials in close games and turnovers and posted a Pythagorean that was consistent with their ten wins.

Luck returned numbers that mirrored his performances from 2012-14 prior to his injury woes, during which the Colts were either divisional winners or wildcard entries.

There’s a 55% chance they equal or better their 10 win season, particularly with only the 13th most difficult schedule and around a 48% chance they win the division.

Tennessee Titans (9-7)

Offense Passing Efficiency 101%

Offense Running Efficiency 106%

Defensive Passing Efficiency 97%

Defensive Running Efficiency 100%

Scoring Efficiency 89%

Allowing Efficiency 85%

Titans games were relatively low scoring and uneventful.

Half their matches had a combined total of fewer than 40 points, there were two shutouts and only two sides had fewer total turnovers in their 16 matches.

They were just above par in passing efficiency, a laudable achievement give quarterback, Mariota’s recurrent injury concerns, ran the ball slightly more efficiently, but failed woefully to convert these numbers into points.

Their defensive efficiencies were similarly clustered around the average, but they remained an unlikely wildcard challenger by restricting scores.

Their turnover takeaways came within one of cancelling out their giveaways and they squeezed one more win from narrow games than they lost.

Pythagorean suggested they were nearer to an 8-8 team than a 9-7 one.

Nine wins has been enough to get to the post season three times from the AFC South since 2010, but there’s only a 42% chance Tennessee get at least that number of wins.

Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)

Offense Passing Efficiency 85%

Offense Running Efficiency 97%

Defensive Passing Efficiency 90%

Defensive Running Efficiency 99%

Scoring Efficiency 68%

Allowing Efficiency 84%

Jacksonville finally gave up on an offensive passing game that couldn’t score points to back up their top six defensive unit.

Seven games where the offense didn’t get into double figures won’t even get you a winning season and it was testament to a defense, that went from great to merely very good, that the Jags still managed to win one of those contests.

Scoring seven fewer points per game than the opposition on average allowed made change at the quarterback position inevitable and in comes Philadelphia’s Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles to muddy the statistical indicators.

2013 was Foles’ most accomplished year, but there have been more downs than highs since then and he’s only started an average of six regular season games per year since he entered the league in 2012.

Foles’ arrival does coincide with a raft of indicators that suggest natural improvement on last season’s five wins.

Only Tampa and SF had worse turnover differentials, a 2-6 record in close games also suggests improvement and Pythagorean expectation awarded Jacksonville an extra half a win.

It’s a coin toss that last year’s Jacksonville better last season’s five wins, but an upgraded QB should stretch this upside, although Indianapolis remain the more evidence based choice for the division.

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens (10-6)

Offense Passing Efficiency 91%

Offense Running Efficiency 99%

Defensive Passing Efficiency 82%

Defensive Running Efficiency 83%

Scoring Efficiency 99%

Allowing Efficiency 74%

Baltimore are that rare beast, a divisional winner, who underperformed against their Pythagorean by around a win, lost two more narrowly decided matches than they won and had a small negative turnover differential.

They didn’t alter their core values, relying on award winning defensive efficiencies and stifling points suppression, although there has been a freshening up of their defensive unit, as players have moved on.

Offensively, they passed the ball poorly, although they did eventually cut ties with a steadily declining Joe Flacco for the mobile runner and adequate passer, Lamar Jackson.

The AFC North was the most competitive in the NFL and Baltimore are around a 40% chance to at least repeat their 10 wins from 2018.

Pittsburgh Steelers (9-6-1)

Offense Passing Efficiency 105%

Offense Running Efficiency 93%

Defensive Passing Efficiency 93%

Defensive Running Efficiency 92%

Scoring Efficiency 112%

Allowing Efficiency 93%

Pittsburgh’s record in narrow games and their Pythagorean aligned neatly with their actual win/loss/tie record, but they’ll be likely to see a less extreme and more helpful turnover differential.

15 takeaways were overshadowed by 26 giveaways and only the 28th best record in the NFL.

Ben Roethlisberger has only dropped out of the top five passing quarterbacks list just once since 2014 and continues to be the driver of the offense, rather than their below par ground game.

Although he has lost his main target for 2019 and age is a perennial factor for Pittsburgh’s most important player.

They project to have a similar chance as Baltimore of equaling or bettering 10 wins, but with fewer doubts are narrowly preferred for the divisional title.

Cleveland Browns (7-8-1)

Offense Passing Efficiency 100%

Offense Running Efficiency 105%

Defensive Passing Efficiency 93%

Defensive Running Efficiency 106%

Scoring Efficiency 93%

Allowing Efficiency 98%

Cleveland loaded up on potential during the close season, but it will need to be improved talent in the passing game gelling, rather than regression that drives more wins.

They benefitted from seven more turnovers gained in 2018 following their eye watering -28 from the previous season, but Pythagorean wins suggested they were a seven win team.

They were a mediocre offense, with a top 10 aspiring defense, who did well against the pass.

The passing game did improve substantially for the introduction as a starter of rookie, Baker Mayfield in Week four and he was edging for a slot inside the top ten of starting QB’s by Week 17.

They project as being a coin toss to avoid a losing season, but that’s without the player additions. Nevertheless, the current price seems too short for the division.

Cincinnati Bengals (6-10)

Offense Passing Efficiency 88%

Offense Running Efficiency 106%

Defensive Passing Efficiency 105%

Defensive Running Efficiency 105%

Scoring Efficiency 97%

Allowing Efficiency 114%

Following post season ever presence from 2011-2015, the Bengals have suffered a losing season slump since and fell to the bottom of the plie in 2018, albeit with six wins.

The joint best fourth spot divisional record in the NFL is scant consolation, particularly given their predominately substandard efficiency ratings that are a huge cause for concern.

Only Cincinnati’s ground offense reached respectability and defensively they were amongst the worst in the NFL.

They lost two more narrow games than they won, but were a near dead average turnover differential team and a six win Pythagorean team and a regression bounce seems unlikely.

Injuries to QB, Andy Dalton coincided with the Bengals second half of the season slump, but his best season remains 2015 and appears to be a career outlier.

Cincinnati has only a 25% chance of eight or more wins and a 4% chance of lifting the division, but a 66% chance of propping it up is a realistic assessment of their chances.

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