Ranking the NFC Playoff Contenders

Since the playoffs are approaching, I thought it’d be interesting to see how the NFC playoff contenders line up. After the jump, we’ll look at who those playoff contenders are and how they stack up.

NFC South

Division Leader: Atlanta Falcons

Playoff Contenders: New Orleans Saints (in division hunt and current wildcard leader), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (competing for 2nd wildcard spot)

NFC East

Division Leader: Philadelphia Eagles

Playoff Contenders: New York Giants (in division hunt and currently in second wildcard position)

NFC North

Division Leader: Chicago Bears

Playoff Contenders: Green Bay Packers (in division hunt and competing for 2nd wildcard spot)

NFC West

Division Leader: St. Louis Rams

Playoff Contenders: Seattle Seahawks (in division hunt), San Francisco 49ers (in division hunt)

While there are other teams that are mathematically still alive, the 6 NFC playoff positions will likely be filled from the 10 teams listed above.

The question is: how good are these teams? To get a consensus of opinion, I created a quick table ranking the teams relative to each other according to 4 advanced statistical measures*: Football Outsiders’ weighted DVOA (abbreviated wDVOA in the table), Advanced NFL Stats’ Generic Win Probability (GWP), Jeff Sagarin’s Pure Points Ratings (SAG), and Pro Football Reference’s [Simple Rating System (SRS)][4].

*These don’t take Thursday night’s San Francisco game into account

I calculated the average of each rating to arrive at a ranking. Taking an average isn’t perfect, because it assigns equal weight to each of the statistical measures. I don’t think the measures should be equally weighted, because I think some of them are better than others. However, the average at least gives a rough idea of the general consensus.

Team Average rank wDVOA rank GWP rank SAG rank SRS rank
Packers 1.75 3 2 1 1
Giants 2.5 1 1 4 4
Eagles 2.75 2 3 3 3
Falcons 3.75 5 6 2 2
Saints 4.75 4 5 5 5
Bears 5.75 7 4 6 6
Bucs 6.75 6 7 7 7
49ers 8.25 8 8 9 8
Rams 9 9 10 8 9
Seahawks 9.75 10 9 10 10

According to the various advanced statistics, the Packers seem to be the consensus best team in the NFL (the rankings don’t account for potential missed games by the concussed Aaron Rodgers). What’s odd about that is, if the Packers don’t win this week, they might not even make the playoffs!

It’s interesting to compare these advanced statistical rankings to the various power rankings around the web. First, let’s look at how the teams stack up in power rankings by some of the big sports websites:

Team Average ESPN SI-Banks SI-King National Football Post CBSSports.com FoxSports.com
Falcons 1.17 1 1 2 1 1 1
Saints 1.83 2 2 1 2 2 2
Eagles 3.17 3 3 3 3 4 3
Giants 4.17 4 4 4 4 5 4
Bears 5 5 6 6 5 3 5
Packers 5.67 6 5 5 6 6 6
Bucs 7 7 7 7 7 7 7
Rams 8 8 8 . 8 8 8
49ers 9.2 9 9 . 9 10 9
Seahawks 9.8 10 10 . 10 9 10

Now, let’s compare the rankings between the two:

Team Statistical Ranking Human Ranking
Packers 1.75 5.67
Giants 2.5 4.17
Eagles 2.75 3.17
Falcons 3.75 1.17
Saints 4.75 1.83
Bears 5.75 5
Bucs 6.75 7
49ers 8.25 9.2
Rams 9 8
Seahawks 9.75 9.8

The biggest disagreement between the statistical measures and the power rankings were over the Packers, which the statistics liked a lot more than the humans, and the Falcons and Saints, which the humans liked a lot more than the statistics.

The humans seem much more influenced by the absolute number of wins a team has. In fact, the correlation between number of wins and average human power ranking was about 96%, compared to about a 73% correlation between the statistical rankings and win total. This could mean that the humans are unduly influenced by win totals and don’t do a good job of taking strength of schedule into account. It might also mean that the human rankings do a better job of describing how a team is doing right now, because most of the statistical measures use data from throughout the season.

I tend to favor looking at things statistically and overriding with judgment when necessary. To that end, I suspect that the Packers are not the best team in the NFC, especially given Aaron Rodgers’ uncertain situation. I do think my beloved Saints and the hated Falcons are a bit overrated, thanks to the easy schedule they’ve played.

Regardless, it’ll be fascinating to watch these playoffs. Will anyone be able to beat Atlanta in the Georgia Dome? Will the Saints be able to win in cold conditions? I can’t wait to find out.

[4]: http://www.pro-football-reference.com