NFL Week 12 Predictions: “Soft Division” Edition

There are five games on Sunday with a double-digit point spread, and no spread is larger than the Patriots (-17) at home against Miami, the team I called the worst 4-2 team ever. The Dolphins haven’t won since, but the Patriots are 2-5 against the spread under Bill Belichick when favored by 17+ points.

I’d say this Miami team is no doubt going to trail by 17+ at one point on Sunday, but may do enough damage in garbage time to cover. Last season, Adam Gase’s Dolphins trailed 31-3 in New England, but still pulled to within 31-24 and actually had a 4QC opportunity at the end.

This is the beginning of a six-game slate where the Patriots play five division games and Pittsburgh, so basically five bye weeks and a game that likely determines home-field advantage in the AFC.

Oh, you thought the AFC East was going to be more competitive this year? Sorry. While the Jets started better than anyone imagined, things are back to where we expected them, especially with Buffalo doing its annual tease and denial act. The Patriots should have this thing locked up again very soon.

On Friday, I tweeted a table (with no comment) about how many wins were needed for the top five quarterbacks of this era to win their division in the period of realignment (2002-2016). I removed seasons where the QB missed the majority of time, so no 2011 Colts for Peyton Manning or 2008 Patriots for Tom Brady. The methodology was to look at what these teams needed as a minimum number of wins to win the division free of tie-breakers each year. I didn’t want to run into situations where you’re saying “well they could have finished 9-7 and still won the division thanks to a season sweep of the 2nd place 9-7 team, or by the third tie-breaker.” I also didn’t want to use ties, since who the hell ever wants to predict ties? Sure, technically an 8-7-1 record can win a division when the next-best record is 8-8, but let’s just be reasonable and use whole wins, so 9-7 it is.

So for the 2016 NFC North, you had GB (10-6), DET (9-7), MIN (8-8), and CHI (3-13). Since Detroit had the next-best record at 9-7, Aaron Rodgers’ minimum was 10 wins, or exactly what he got. For the 2015 NFC South, it was CAR (15-1), ATL (8-8), NO (7-9), and TB (6-10). So if we were doing this from Cam Newton’s perspective, the minimum number was 9 wins. But from Drew Brees’ perspective (and Matt Ryan’s), his minimum was 16 to topple Carolina’s 15-1 record. Granted, if he went 16-0, then Carolina at best could go 14-2, so I can see an argument for this outlier that the number should be 15 rather than 16. In fact, since Carolina’s lone loss was to Atlanta, I did change this one number to 15 for Brees, dropping his average from 12.1 wins to 12.0 wins, so still the highest average.

avgdiv

I also included a second column to show what happens with 11+ wins, and that even if the Saints won 11, 12, or probably even 13 games in 2015, they still wouldn’t have been able to win the division over Carolina. 11 is a great breaking point since (post-merger) only the 1985 Broncos and 2008 Patriots (go figure, the one year the AFC East got competitive by adding Brett Favre and a healthy Chad Pennington in Miami) have missed the playoffs with 11+ wins.

Naturally, my mentions, which I left alone for the night, were flooded with angry Patriots fans. I read a lot of it, and I didn’t see any good arguments to refute this table. In fact, I’d like to know how posting a stat table without comment is a “take,” but I guess that’s the world we live in now.

Anyways, there was one repeated argument that has merit in that it’s logical: the Patriots crush their division annually so the wins needed in their division are lower in part because of their success.

That’s a totally sound argument…except the same is true for everyone who dominates their division, and there is no data to support this reality that the Patriots are far ahead of the curve here.

From 2002 to 2016, Brady was 65-17 (.793) against his division in the regular season. That’s great, but did you know Peyton Manning was 62-14 (.816) in his division games in that span? It’s not as obvious since he played for two different teams, but that is the case, as is Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger hovering around 75% division wins despite actually playing some really strong teams like the 2006 Ravens and 2009 Vikings. Those two teams are better than anything the Jets, Dolphins, or Bills have put on the field in the 21st century.

What’s happening here is that Patriots fans love to aggregate division records, but ignore things like Brees and Manning switching teams, or the injuries to Roethlisberger and Rodgers. Sure, the division records don’t look as good when you do a quick search that ignores that the Steelers are 1-7 against Baltimore since 2004 when Roethlisberger didn’t start the game.

One of Brady’s greatest accomplishments that you never hear about is his durability. Aside from one Bernard Pollard hit in Week 1 2008, he’s been an ironman that only a few can compare to in that regard in NFL history. Yet instead of praising him for his steady availability even through old age, they resort to this myth that his play is just so much stronger than any other QB’s when that’s not the case. That’s what I look to point out.

The other problem with aggregating division stats is it hides the distribution of wins. Which division is easier to win? One with three 6-10 teams, or one with teams that are 12-4, 4-12-, and 2-14? Both add up to 18-30, but you have to win at least 12 games in the latter just to have a shot at a division title (13-3 without relying on tie-breakers). If you’re a double-digit win team and a legit Super Bowl contender, there’s not much difference in playing against a 4-12 team versus a 6-10 team. You’re expected to win those games almost every time. But a team that’s capable of going 12-4, or the type of team that the AFC East never presents to NE, is not likely to get swept. We’ve seen Baltimore and Pittsburgh split many times in years where both made the playoffs, for example.

The best thing you can say about MIA/NYJ/BUF is that none of the three have been a consistent bottom-feeder like the Browns (any year but 2002 and 2007) or Raiders (2003-2015) or recent Jaguars (2011-2016) teams. That’s the only reason the aggregate records aren’t so bad for the AFC East in this era. Oh, there have been some major duds like the 1-15 Miami team in 2007, but teams like the Bills and Dolphins have specialized in going 6-10/7-9 without ever being a real threat to anyone. Some of the worst 10-6 teams by DVOA (going back to 1986) are AFC East teams (2006 NYJ, 2015 NYJ, 2016 MIA). The Patriots also allowed two division rivals (2005 MIA and 2014 BUF) to get to 9-7 with Week 17 wins in rare “playoff rest” games for Brady.

Let’s finish with a few more stats that will hopefully slow people from tweeting me that only the Patriots with Brady can beat up on their division.

Average score for a division game, 2002-2016

  • Brady: 27.6-17.0
  • Manning: 27.4-18.7
  • Rodgers: 27.2-18.6
  • Brees: 25.0-22.2
  • Roethlisberger: 23.1-16.1

This is based on the final score, so it’s not adjusted for return scores or anything. Brady, Manning, and Rodgers are all very close with just over 27 points per game, but the Patriots have allowed 17.0 PPG, second to only the Steelers (16.1), who love to feast on the Browns twice a year and play plenty of low-scoring games with Baltimore and Cincinnati. But maybe the biggest number here is the 22.2 points per game allowed by Brees’ teams, which can easily explain why he is only 49-36 (.576) in division games. He started 4-6 with subpar stats in 2002-03 when he wasn’t a good player yet in San Diego, but obviously the defenses in New Orleans (perhaps until 2017) have given him less help than any of the other four quarterbacks. Teams that allow 22.2 PPG in the regular season only win about 48% of their games since 2002, so Brees doesn’t look too bad at 57.6% here.

I already showed that these other quarterbacks (minus Brees) were able to win 75-80% of their division games just like Brady. Now let’s add some passing stats to that as well as an important split that really puts things into perspective. I split up the division games by ones against teams with fewer than 11 wins and games against teams with 11+ wins.

QBDIV.JPG

So Brady, Rodgers, Manning, and Roethlisberger all won at least 80% of their division games against teams with fewer than 11 wins. Imagine that. Brady has the lowest completion percentage and YPA in those games, but they’re all pretty similar statistically.

But when you look at the 11+ win teams on the bottom, Brady’s only faced one since 2002: the pesky 2010 Jets, who split the regular season with Brady, and pulled off that shocking playoff upset a month after the 45-3 demolition. This means that Brady helped create his only 11-5 division foe, and they destroyed one of his best shots at another Super Bowl ring.

So when you try to say that these other QBs have created so many 11+ win teams in their division by losing to them, that’s not really accurate. Brees missed the first game against the 15-1 Panthers in 2015, and played very well against them in the loss that produced a Cam-led 4QC. The 2006 Ravens (13-3) are still 11-5 if the sweep went to Ben’s Steelers. The 2008 Titans are still 12-4 if Manning would have came back to beat them on MNF. Also, Peyton was still a very impressive 10-4 in these games, which includes a loss in the worst game of his career (2015 Chiefs) that almost ended his career. He was 4-0 against those Jacksonville teams that went 12-4 in 2005 and 11-5 in 2007. He probably would have preferred to face those Jaguars again in the playoffs like Brady did instead of the 2005 Steelers and 2007 Chargers (with Philip Rivers’ ACL intact for three quarters). Manning also led sweeps of the 2003 Titans (12-4) and 2013 Chiefs (11-5), who still both won at least 11 games regardless of Manning’s teams.

Sure, you can argue that Roethlisberger should have swept the 2005 Bengals (11-5) or Rodgers should have swept the 2009 Vikings (12-4) to put them both at 10-6, but it’s a shitty argument. Their teams allowed 30-plus points in those losses, and let’s just respect the fact that the Bengals had a breakout year with Carson Palmer and the Vikings were a great team with Favre at 40.

Believe it or not, but the success of one team doesn’t dictate that the other three must be failures for 16+ years.

I started this whole thing not out of interest of the Patriots in the AFC East, but as part of my research on Drew Brees that I hope to use for an article this year. I ran out of time in August to do one on him, but the Saints are doing so well that I’m sure the opportunity will present itself again. His numbers not being overly great here surprised me, but when the time comes for that article, I’ll be fair and acknowledge that along with some interesting breakdowns for context. For example, there were 19 division games for these quarterbacks where their teams allowed 34+ points. Brees has 12 of those games (2-10 record) compared to just one for Brady (a 34-31 loss to Buffalo in 2011 in which he threw a pick-six in the 4Q).

There’s a lot of nuance that 240 characters will never be adequate for, which is why I chose to not argue the point about this original chart on Twitter, but to wait for this post. I hope this clears up what I was looking into, but it’s not like I don’t expect to still get tweets that read “Brews, rogers, payton just not winners like [GOAT emoji].”

What, you think I’m exaggerating? I don’t do fake news.

Game of the Week: Saints at Rams

We do have one standout game in Week 12. It’s another chance for the Rams to show us something against a contender. The tests against Seattle and Minnesota didn’t go well, but this is another home game against a New Orleans team that showed some cracks last week, but still won with a crazy 15-point comeback. Robert Woods is out for the Rams, but that’s more than offset by rookie CB Marshon Lattimore being out for the Saints. I could see a deep-ball success for Sammy Watkins in this game, but it could very well be a lower-scoring game than expected weeks ago. I could also see Brees facing some interior pressure from Aaron Donald, but the running game has been fantastic for New Orleans with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. As much as I’m not used to picking the Saints in road games like this one, I just really like the way they have been playing since Week 3 and think they find a way to grind this one out. I’m not fully sold on the Rams as a legit contender this year until they show more in a game like this, but it’s definitely the one to watch tomorrow.

2017 Week 12 Predictions

So I had my Thanksgiving picks not go too well after nailing the Vikings-Lions game. I really want to pick the Colts for some reason, but just can’t go through with it.

Wk12

Note: my SEA-ATL pick last week went from SEA at -3 to SEA at +1, so I gave myself the spread win, SU loss for that game. 

  • Week 1: 8-7
  • Week 2: 11-5
  • Week 3: 9-7
  • Week 4: 8-8
  • Week 5: 6-8
  • Week 6: 6-8
  • Week 7: 11-4
  • Week 8: 12-1
  • Week 9: 6-7
  • Week 10: 12-2 (Spread: 6-8)
  • Week 11: 8-6 (Spread: 8-5-1)
  • Season: 97-63 (Spread: 14-13-1)

2 thoughts on “NFL Week 12 Predictions: “Soft Division” Edition

  1. I dare you to publish the same analysis on how many minimum wins on average Drew Brees’ opponents would need to win the division over him in his entire career. I’d like to remind you that if they needed less than 12.1 that only means Brees was’t even the best QB in his own division. Like I said, I dare ya!

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