Back in July, NFL training camps were just getting started, fewer players were injured, and the 2015 season brought nothing but hope for most NFL teams. But then the brutal grind of training camps and preseason games began to separate teams a bit and give us a clearer glimpse into what we really might find during this 2015 season. To understand that process, there's no better resource than NFLproject.com, a machine learning algorithm which forecasts the season before it happens (and which was very accurate in 2015).
When you compare where we are now to where we were in July, a few things stand out from teams with a weaker outlook, primarily from teams in the NFC, and primarily due to injury:
The Green Bay Packers shifted from 26% to win the Super Bowl down to 21%, and from 84% to win the NFC North down to 80%. Most importantly, however, they shifted from the likely #1 seed in the NFC, and thus hosting the NFC Championship game, to #2 and having to travel back to Seattle (the projected #1 seed). The loss of WR Jordy Nelson was a big deal for the Packers. Few teams can overcome the loss of their #1 WR easily.
But if any team is built to overcome it, it is the Packers. GM Ted Thompson is one of the best in the NFL at spotting & acquiring talent at wide receiver. And they have arguably the best QB in the NFL right now in Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers led the Packers offense to a #1 overall efficiency ranking in 2014. They averaged 19 ppg in the first half, the most of any team in the last 15 years. They scored TDs on 40% of their first half drives, the 2nd best output of the last 15 yrs (only the 18-1 Patriots of 2007 were better). No team led at halftime more than the Packers, which ends up being very reflective of winning games, as teams who lead at halftime win 77% of their games and cover 75% of their spreads.
The Dallas Cowboys saw the largest overall drop in odds to make the playoffs or win their division. In early July, Dallas was projected to make the playoffs 75% of the time, winning the NFC East 52% of the time. But the loss of their best CB, Orlando Scandrick, along with the potential realization that not all RBs in the NFL are equally able to efficiently run behind a given offensive line, has seen the Cowboys tumble down from their lofty NFC East perch. Current simulations show the Cowboys making the playoffs 46% of the time (down from 75%), and winning the division only 16% of the time (down from 52%). The problem for Dallas is that these positional struggles, while on totally different units, compound each other from a game theory perspective:
The 2014 Cowboys shifted from a pass first offense (in one-score games in 2013, Dallas passed on 66% of play calls, 2nd most) to a run first offense (in one-score games in 2014, Dallas passed on only 50% of play calls, 4th fewest). They did so because their defense in 2013 was 30th in efficiency. The improved running game in 2014 really helped the defense. The offense saw the 2nd best time of possession, and that kept their defense fresh. The offense gained the 4th most yds/drive, scoring points, and allowed their defense to play with an average per-drive lead of over 5 pts (4th best in the NFL). Opponents were forced to play from behind, in compressed time-of-possession, and that led to riskier play and allowed the poor Dallas defense to steal the most turnovers/drive of any team in the NFL. But now, the Cowboys are struggling for an identity at the running back position. They lost bell cow RB DeMarco Murray to the Eagles, and their lead back, Joseph Randle, did not have an impressive preseason, nor has he ever carried the ball with any volume before. So the Cowboys, just days ago, acquired another RB in a trade with the Seahawks. If Dallas cannot run effectively, they won't have the time of possession, forcing their defense to stay on the field longer, without their #1 CB. Scandrick gave up an 83 passer rating to opposing QBs. His likely replacements gave up ratings of 117 and 123. The trickle-down effect of these two positional struggles will ultimately be felt on the scoreboard, and that translates to wins and losses.
The Carolina Panthers shifted from 30% to make the playoffs and 23% to win the NFC South down to 22% to make the playoffs and 16% to win their division. This is partially attributed to the loss of their #1 WR, Kelvin Benjamin, who was one of just 20 WRs in NFL history to post 1,000 receiving yards in his rookie season, even if most came in garbage time. The NFC South is a difficult division to predict, as there don't appear to be any great teams in the division any longer, all with various warts. But with a weaker offensive line and a dismal cast of receiving options aside from TE Greg Olsen, the Panthers will need to rely even more on Cam Newton's arm, legs and play making. In quarters 1-3 last year, Newton posted passer ratings of 79, 72 and 73. And that was against defenses whose average rating was 30th in the NFL. The bulk of Newton's production and performance was isolated to the 4th quarter, where he recorded a 110 rating, most often with big gains and TDs to Kelvin Benjamin. Without Benjamin, and versus a stronger slate of defenses in 2015, can Newton and his new contract bring enough production to keep the Panthers relevant in playoff contention?
When some teams go down, others must go up, as 256 wins each season (barring ties) are a certainty in the NFL. In part due to the Cowboys struggles, the Giants similar rash of injuries to their secondary (and pass rush given Jason Pierre Paul's fireworks accident), and in part due to the fact that Chip Kelly's aggressive personnel moves seemed to show early returns, the Philadelphia Eagles 2015 outlook skyrocketed since July projections. I'm optimistic Sam Bradford will look a lot better in Philadelphia if for no other reason than Chip Kelly's use of play action.
The NFL average is calling play action 21% of pass plays, and passer rating improving by 10.5 points on those play action pass plays. The Eagles call it on 32% of pass plays (2nd most in NFL) and his quarterbacks see a 25.8 point passer rating improvement on play action passes, by far the best in the NFL. Bradford's last season in the NFL with the Rams, he used play action only 19% of the time. He's going to find that in Kelly's offense, things open up a ton with play action, and that alone should help Bradford immensely. Of course, having a solid offensive line and skill position players are both upgrades over Bradford's days in St. Louis, not to mention the aide of tempo and other Kelly staples. As a result of their outlook coupled with the Cowboys and Giants perceived struggles, the Eagles saw a whopping 50% boost in their forecast to win the NFC East, and a 43% boost in making the playoffs.
In terms of overall odds to make the playoffs presently, below is where NFLproject.com forecasts things as of 9/11, and we'll revisit this frequently throughout the season to see where things have changed. Each color represents a different seed, with the green shading indicating first round byes (seeds 1 or 2), and the red shading indicating teams who did not win their division and advance to the postseason as wild card road teams (seeds 5 or 6).
Three Underrated Games/Matchups to Watch in Week 1
- The Titans and the Buccaneers square off with the top 2 quarterbacks of the draft in week 1, something clearly designed by the Roger Goodell ratings machine. Both offenses ranked bottom-4 in total efficiency in 2014, so there is clear room for improvement, and both quarterbacks should deliver in 2015. The question is which is better prepared for week 1? Interesting tidbit on the Titans: as mentioned above, teams who lead at halftime win 77% of their games historically. The Titans led in 7 games at halftime, yet won only 2 (going 2-14 overall). Watch the rookie quarterback matchup.
- I've gone on record sharing how Doug Marrone and his play calling in Buffalo really put that offense at a disadvantage the last 2 years. Now, they get new OC Greg Roman, formerly of San Fransisco, to direct their offense. The Bills boasted the 2nd most efficient defense in 2014 and won 9 games. They are a consistent offense away from making noise in 2015. The defense will be tested vs the Colts offense, but my eyes will be focused on Tyrod Taylor and the Roman-directed offense. Watch the Bills play calling.
- The Bears and Packers saw poor performances from their defenses in 2014. Both defenses ranked 25th or worse in my custom analytic EDSR (Early Down Success Rate) which measures ability to avoid 3rd downs (on offense) or force opponents into 3rd down (on defense). The Packers, while almost earning a trip to the Super Bowl, allowed 20+ points in every one of their last 9 games of the season, but for a trip to Tampa Bay. They will need to improve in 2015, and week 1 could be the perfect recipe, as the Bears must face life without Brandon Marshall, a banged up Alshon Jeffrey, and John Fox as their head coach. Watch the Packers defense.
Top Five Games for Playoff Chances
The NFL drives fans to their premier matchups each week, and try their best to make most of those games in prime time or in the late Sunday slot. But often, while exciting, those aren't the most important games of the weekend. It's never too early to start looking at the ultimate prize -- the postseason--and that's a key we will always incorporate into these articles that you won't find anywhere else this early in the year.
Per NFLproject.com, here are the 5 teams who could see the largest boost toward making the playoffs with a win, or whose playoff chances are hurt the worst with a loss (now=current playoff odds, W=if win, L=if loss):