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DVOA Has Patriots Closing in on Bucs

NFL Week 12 – The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hold on to the top spot in our DVOA ratings after Week 12 of the 2021 NFL season, but the gap between the Bucs and the rest of the league got a lot tighter this week. New England and Buffalo both had huge games and the two AFC East rivals leap past Arizona and now rank second and third. New England even passes Tampa Bay to rank No. 1 in weighted DVOA, our metric which drops the weight of games from earlier in the season to get a better idea of how well teams are playing now.

New England coming out of Week 12 with the best single-game rating at 90.7% may be a big surprise if you remember how well the Titans were running all over the Patriots defense. But the Patriots had their second-best offensive game of the season, leading all NFL teams this week with 6.9 yards per play and no turnovers. The Patriots really turned it on in the fourth quarter when the offense needed to run clock to seal the victory while the defense was shutting Tennessee down for good. The Patriots went from 42.7% offensive DVOA and 10.1% defensive DVOA in the first three quarters to 104.1% offensive DVOA and -97.8% defensive DVOA in the fourth quarter! The fourth quarter defense featured an interception and two forced fumbles, although the Titans recovered one of those. Yes, Khari Blasingame’s meaningless fumble in the final minute does count, though with less weight than usual because the Patriots were leading by over three touchdowns.

Buffalo coming out of Week 12 with the second-best single-game rating at 72.3% is less of a surprise if you subjected yourself to their game with New Orleans on Thanksgiving night. The Bills put up their second-best defensive performance of the season at -53.5%, although there’s a small asterisk there because the Saints’ opponent adjustments are based on half a season of Jameis Winston and half a season of Trevor Siemian. The Bills’ big Thanksgiving game now gives them five different games this season with a single-game rating over 60%. The Patriots have three such games and no other team has more than two.

Buffalo’s variance is now 44.5%, which is the highest we have ever tracked going back to 1983. Someone pointed out on Twitter a week ago that it’s not necessarily proper to compare variance after Week 12 to full-season variance; the Week 12 numbers should be a little higher because it’s a smaller sample size. That’s true, but Buffalo’s current DVOA variance is also higher than any DVOA variance ever just through Week 12. Look for an article going further into the most inconsistent teams in DVOA history over at ESPN+ next Monday.

Of course, that article is running Monday because the No. 2 Patriots visit the No. 3 Bills on Monday night in one of the biggest games of the season. We’re going to see some real definition at the top of the DVOA ratings over the next few weeks. The Bills play three of their next four games against either the Patriots or the Buccaneers. The Patriots play two games against the Bills plus one against the No. 8 Indianapolis Colts. The Buccaneers… well, not every game can be this exciting. The Bills are the only top-10 team left on the remaining Tampa Bay schedule, which also includes games against the Saints, Falcons, Jets, and two against the Carolina Panthers.

Speaking of both high variance and the Carolina Panthers, the Panthers were abysmal this week, especially after adjusting for the fact that their 33-10 loss came to the No. 26 Miami Dolphins. Carolina’s single-game rating of -126.8% was the second lowest for any team in any game this season, ahead of only the Houston Texans in their Week 4 abomination against Buffalo. Carolina’s schedule this season combines that game and five others below -35% with two games above 80%, Week 2’s 26-7 victory over New Orleans and Week 10’s 34-10 win over Arizona. So Carolina now has the second-highest variance this year at 38.1%. That would be the third-highest variance ever measured if the season ended today, behind only the Bills and the 2005 San Francisco 49ers.

Returning to the top of the charts, Dallas drops less than you might expect after an overtime loss to Las Vegas where both teams ended up with DVOA above 20%. The Cowboys are now tied with the Cardinals, who fell a little bit on their week off due to changes in opponent adjustments. Next we have the Rams at 6, the 49ers at 7, and the Colts at 8. All three teams had DVOA for this week’s games that was above zero but lower than their season totals, so each team drops a small amount. The Saints fall three spots from ninth to 12th, moving Kansas City up to ninth and Minnesota (despite the loss to San Francisco) up to 10th. The Packers move up to 11th. I keep waiting for the Packers to have that big dominant win that really boosts them in DVOA, but it hasn’t happened yet. They have DVOA between 30% and 40% for each of their last three games; in fact, Green Bay hasn’t had a game with DVOA below zero since that terrible loss to New Orleans way back in Week 1. But four of their games are in single digits: the Jordan Love loss to Kansas City and wins over Detroit, Cincinnati, and Arizona.

Let’s talk a little today about two teams that are right in the middle of our rankings, but may not be where you expect them to be given their win-loss records and recent results. The Seattle Seahawks have looked horrible in recent games and have a 3-8 record but somehow still rank 17th in DVOA. The Cincinnati Bengals have looked awesome in two big victories over fellow AFC contenders and now have a 7-4 record but somehow rank 18th in DVOA. How on earth are the Bengals lower than the Seahawks?

First, let me point out that DVOA is not alone in this assessment of the two teams. For example, ESPN’s FPI has the Seahawks and Bengals in the exact same spots: 17th and 18th, respectively. Pro Football Reference’s SRS is more sangine about the Bengals, who rank ninth, but feels similarly about the Seahawks, who rank 18th.

Let’s take on the Cinncinnati Bengals first. The biggest issue with the Bengals is schedule strength. Only the Buffalo Bills have played an easier schedule so far by average DVOA of opponent, so there’s a very large gap of more than 10 percentage points between Cincinnati’s VOA (without opponent adjustments) and DVOA. Cincinnati’s 7.9% VOA ranks 12th, which fits a lot better with their 7-4 record.

Then, let’s look at a breakdown of Cincinnati’s performance. First on offense: Cincinnati’s 46.2% success rate ranks 14th in the NFL so far. They have 5.88 yards per play with spikes/kneels removed, which ranks 11th. They have 15 turnovers, which ranks 17th. They’ve done all this against the easiest schedule of opposing defenses in the league. That’s not a great offense; it’s an average offense.

The defense looks better. They’ve allowed a 42.6% success rate, which is seventh in the NFL. 5.61 net yards pre play allowed is 19th. Fourteen turnovers ranks 14th. Their schedule strength on defense is 27th. So that’s a good defense, but not a great one.

How do those stats add up to 309 points scored and 226 points allowed, both sixth in the league? I’m not quite sure. Even before adjusting for opponent strength, those stats above don’t point to a team that should be sixth in points scored and allowed. It helps to rank 29th in opposing field goal value over expectation, but the Bengals don’t have an abnormal number of defensive touchdowns (two against them, one for them). They aren’t particularly strong in the red zone, either: the offense gets better, 11th in DVOA, but the defense gets worse, 26th. The offense has been good at turning drives into points in a way that may not be sustainable: they rank 20th in yards per drive but ninth in points per drive.

Things are about to get harder for the Bengals. They have the fifth-toughest schedule remaining. The issue isn’t playing against any of the best teams in the league, but rather that all of their remaining opponents rank in the top 20. There are no easy games remaining. But our odds simulation still puts the Bengals in the playoffs 53% of the time.

Next, let’s look at the Seattle Seahawks. We joke a lot around here about “Team X has broken DVOA” whenever a team is ranked differently than conventional wisdom. But, in all seriousness, the Seattle Seahawks may have broken DVOA and every other advanced metric out there that is based on per-play efficiency.

DVOA always has a problem when a team combines a lot of three-and-outs with a handful of big gains. This happens with a few games every season. We end up with a team that has a low number of plays but a reasonable number of yards, and that computes as good efficiency even though the team often didn’t have the ball enough to win the game. In the long run, this isn’t an issue, because in the long run more efficient teams will tend to convert more first downs and thus have longer drives that eventually score points. But Seattle is not doing that. The Seahawks are running fewer plays than any other team, game after game after game. You’ve probably seen this stat elsewhere, but Seattle has run 595 plays when every other team in the league has run at least 645 plays and the average team has run 713 plays. So even though Seattle’s average of 5.52 yards per play isn’t much below the league average of 5.60 yards per play, the Seahawks are not scoring many points because they just never have the ball.

The Seahawks would end up lower in offensive DVOA if they turned the ball over, but they almost never do that. All those failed plays on first and second and third down generally are worth 0 success points in the DVOA system, while turnovers are worth negative points. The Seahawks are dead last in the league in turnovers per drive, with just 5.8% of drives ending in turnovers, so they have a ton of those zeroes but none of the negative numbers that would really drag their offensive DVOA down.

I would love to say that we’ve never seen anything like this combination of low turnover rate with a high number of three-and-outs, but the fact is there’s another team with the same combination just this year. Seattle right now is 30th in three-and-outs per drive (28.3%) and first in turnovers per drive (5.8%). The Minnesota Vikings are 29th in three-and-outs per drive (25.8%) and second in turnovers per drive (6.5%). Yet, the Vikings run more plays in the average drive when they don’t go three-and-out, and they score more points overall than the Seahawks do.

What’s remarkable about Seattle is the combination of average yards per play with such a low number of plays per drive. But it’s not unique. Right now, Seattle averages 5.04 plays per drive. Other teams have averaged a similar number of plays per drive recently, but look at where those teams come out in yardage compared to this year’s Seahawks:

Recent Teams with Low Plays/Drive
Year Team Plays/Dr Yd/Play TO/Dr
2013 NYG 5.07 5.05 0.206
2018 MIA 5.06 5.37 0.131
2012 ARI 5.04 4.16 0.150
2021 SEA 5.04 5.52 0.058
2018 ARI 5.03 4.33 0.155
2016 MIA 5.03 5.91 0.114
2015 STL 4.97 5.29 0.106

It turns out there was a recent team similar to the Seahawks… and that team had a winning record! The 2016 Miami Dolphins combined running very few plays with an even more efficient offense in terms of yardage, although they also committed more turnovers than this year’s Seahawks. And that Miami team went 10-6 and made the playoffs despite being outscored by opponents over the course of the season. The 2016 Dolphins ranked 20th in DVOA, so DVOA had them ranked lower than their record, not higher. That just makes me even more confused about this year’s Seahawks. Maybe they haven’t broken DVOA at all, and they’re just better than conventional wisdom says they are. As bad as the Seahawks looked this week, they did only lose by a 2-point conversion.

Two other Seahawks notes. First, as you can imagine, a team that keeps going three-and-out has terrible numbers on third downs. Seattle’s offense has 1.3% DVOA on first down, which ranks 14th in the league. The Seahawks improve to 25.4% DVOA on second down, which ranks third. Then they drop to -28.0% DVOA on third or fourth down, which ranks 28th in the league. In particular, they have a dismal -107.2% DVOA on third-and-long. Only Baltimore (!) is worse on third-and-long.

Second, there’s not a clear delineation in Seattle’s offensive DVOA before and after Russell Wilson’s finger injury. Yes, the Seahawks have been worse over the past three weeks, but their decline began in Week 4, not when Geno Smith took over at quarterback (Week 6) or when Wilson returned (Week 10). Here are the splits with where the Seahawks rank during each time period. Offense has been down overall for the past month, which is why Seattle’s DVOA in the last three weeks is a lot lower than in Weeks 4-5 but the rank isn’t much different.

Seattle Offensive DVOA by Week, 2021
Weeks DVOA Rank
Weeks 1-3 37.6% 2
Weeks 4-5 9.8% 17
Weeks 6-8 (Geno) -18.3% 28
Weeks 10-12 -12.0% 19

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Football Outsiders playoff odds, snap counts, and the FO+ database are now all updated through Week 12. A reminder that all our free stats pages, including DVOA and player position stats, require registration to view. This is not a paywall! You only need to register (for free) and then log in to the site to view these pages. While you’re at it, you can get a seven-day trial of FO+ and check out the FO+ features like a deeper DVOA database, weekly fantasy projections, fantasy football research tools, and picks against the spread.

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Here is the Football Outsiders Top 16 through 12 weeks of 2021, measured by our proprietary Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) system that breaks down every single play and compares a team’s performance to the league average based on situation in order to determine value over average. (Explained further here.)

OFFENSE and DEFENSE DVOA are adjusted for opponent and performance indoors and consider all fumbles, kept or lost, as equal value. SPECIAL TEAMS DVOA is adjusted for type of stadium (warm, cold, dome, Denver) and week of season. As always, positive numbers represent more points so DEFENSE is better when it is NEGATIVE.

DAVE is a formula which combines our preseason forecast with weighted DVOA (weighted towards games from the last two months) to get a more accurate projection of how a team will play the rest of the season. DAVE is currently 16% preseason forecast and 84% actual performance for teams with 11 games played, and 7% preseason forecast and 93% actual performance for teams with 12 games played.

To save people some time, please use the following format for all complaints:

<team> is clearly ranked <too high/too low> because <reason unrelated to DVOA>. <subjective ranking system> is way better than this. <unrelated team-supporting or -denigrating comment, preferably with poor spelling and/or chat-acceptable spelling>

Click here for the full table.

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