Crunching the Numbers: Best Team in the NFC?

The AFC has a clear-cut top team in the 10-3 New England Patriots, who own victories over each of the other three division leaders in their conference (Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals). The picture in the NFC, however, is more muddled, with half a dozen teams in the hunt. Can the numbers tell us which is the best team in the NFC?

With the 2014 NFL regular season winding down, one game in the loss column separates the top six clubs in the National Football Conference. Each team has played a slightly different schedule, but all have impressed at various points, and all can lay claim to the NFC’s best-in-show ribbon by virtue of their places in the standings.

Have any of these teams stood out in direct competition with the other contenders? Here’s how they stack up in terms of head-to-head results this season:

 

Team W-L Wins Losses
Arizona Cardinals 11-3 PHI, DAL, DET SEA
Green Bay Packers 10-3 PHI SEA, DET
Philadelphia Eagles 9-4 DAL SEA, GB, ARI
Seattle Seahawks 9-4 GB, PHI, ARI DAL
Dallas Cowboys 9-4 SEA PHI, ARI
Detroit Lions 9-4 TB ARI

 

 

Seattle and Arizona have the best résumés in the group, while Philadelphia lags behind the field. Of course, the battles looming in the final three weeks of the regular season render these comparisons fluid: The Eagles host the Cowboys this Sunday, the Seahawks visit the Cardinals in Week 16, and the Lions travel to Green Bay to face the Packers in Week 17. Last night, Arizona continued to set the pace in the conference with a 12-6 win over the St. Louis Rams ‒ despite losing yet another quarterback as Drew Stanton exited with a knee injury.

Beyond the head-to-head clashes, perhaps the plethora of data can help us sort the NFC hierarchy. So let’s look at these five measures and the methods we will use to subjectively evaluate these teams:

  • Point Differential – Quite simply, the difference between a team’s points scored and points allowed.
  • DVOA (Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average) – This Football Outsiders metric, used frequently in our Reading The Numbers series and Confidence wagering columns, “takes every single play during the NFL season and compares each one to a league-average baseline based on situation. DVOA measures not just yardage, but yardage towards a first down: Five yards on third-and-4 are worth more than five yards on first-and-10 and much more than five yards on third-and-12. Red zone plays are worth more than other plays.”
  • Record vs. +.500 Teams – Another simple measure: How well has a particular team fared against opponents with winning records?
  • Records in Blowouts (17 or more points) – Victories in close games are generally more luck-based as one score or one big play could make a huge difference in the result. When one team blows out another, it’s pretty clear who the better team is. This hypothesis is supported by this article from Football Outsiders way back in 2005. We selected 17 points as the breaking point as that represents the minimum margin for a three-score lead.
  • Turnover Ratio – It’s an age-old tenet: Don’t give the other team the ball. A study by Cold Hard Football Facts found teams that win the turnover battle win the game more than 75% of the time.

We’ve ranked each team in these metrics from 1 to 6, assigning point values accordingly. The first-place team gets 6 points, the second-place team 5 points, and so on down to the sixth-place team getting 1 point. Tallying the points for each team (in parentheses below) provides their relative standing:

 

Team Point Differential DVOA Rank Rec vs Winners Rec in Blowouts T/O Ratio Total Points
Green Bay +119 (6) 4th (5) 3-2 (4) 5-2 (5) +16 (6) 26
Seattle +87 (5) 3rd (6) 5-3 (5) 2-0 (4) +9 (4) 24
Philadelphia +80 (4) 7th (4) 3-4 (3) 5-1 (6) -6 (1) 18
Arizona +37 (1) 20th (1) 6-2 (6) 1-1 (1.5) +10 (5) 14.5
Detroit +41 (2) 9th (3) 2-3 (1.5) 3-2 (3) +6 (3) 12.5
Dallas +42 (3) 13th (2) 2-3 (1.5) 1-1 (1.5) -1 (2) 10

 

 

It’s a close race between your top two teams – the Packers and Seahawks. The Eagles are further back in third place, and then there’s another large gap to the bottom trio of the Cardinals, Lions and Cowboys.

The season-long similarities between Green Bay and Seattle belie the final score of their meeting earlier this season – a 26-6 Seahawks home win. However, an NFC Championship Game between these two teams, should it come to pass, figures to be a much tighter affair as a rematch, as Green Bay has improved since Week 1. The team that hosts this game could have a significant advantage; Seattle with their loud crowd, and Green Bay with their crowd and weather advantages.

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Inside The Pylon covers the NFL and college football, reviewing the film, breaking downmatchups, and looking at the issues, on and off the field.

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