NFC Stat Notes

DRIVE POINT REVIEW FOR THE NFC

Since it looks like the NFL season is now imminent, we're going to gradually work our way back up to speed over the next several weeks so everyone is on the same page. Our expanded division-by-division season stat previews will run through the first three weeks of exhibition play, with the divisions tied to a big TV game that particular night. Between now and the start of the exhibition slate, we'll pop in with occasional reports to help remind everyone of where the teams left off after 2010.

Last Monday, we looked at point differential and strength of schedule. Today and tomorrow, we're going to review a stat we created here in the NOTEBOOK several years ago called 'Drive Points.' Those are simply points scored and allowed on drives of 60 yards or more. We believe it's the single best indicator stat in football…and, in fact, the single best indicator stat in all of sports.

Our eventual divisional previews will break things down offensively and defensively. Today, we're going to look at net differential so you can compare it to the point differential data from last Monday's installment. To provide additional context, we'll include turnover differential (several teams either benefited or were hurt last year by turnover influences that may have been a bit out of line for the team) and strength of schedule (using again the numbers we posted last week from Jeff Sagarin's computer ratings at USA Today).

We've split this up into two reports (NFC today, AFC tomorrow) so we'll have room to comment on as many teams as possible. If we jam 32 teams into one report, we'll have to skip over several. This will give us some air to provide additional guidance.

Let's start at the top, with the four best Drive Point Differentials from last season in the NFC. The data presented today represents regular season games only…

TOP FOUR
Green Bay: +5.4 (+10 turnovers, 7th schedule)
New Orleans: +5.1 (-6 turnovers, 25th schedule)
Atlanta: +4.4 (+14 turnovers, 18th schedule)
NY Giants: +3.3 (-3 turnovers, 20th schedule)

The NFC was very evenly matched last year, so it was hard to be dominant in this stat. Green Bay probably would have been dominant if they had stayed healthy all season. It's a credit to the Packers that they still won this very important stat while dealing with so many injuries. Once they got healthy come playoff time, they ran the table…consistent with what this stat would have suggested.

Note the full stat line for Green Bay. Not only did they win Drive Point Differential. They also had a solid turnover differential that seemed very much a reflection of mastering the risk/reward challenge rather than just catching a lot of breaks. Aaron Rodgers played smart. The defense forced miscues. Some teams had a 'lucky' +10 or so. Green Bay was doing things the right way. And, that was all happening against the 7th toughest schedule in the whole NFL. True champions.

New Orleans had troubles with turnovers, as prior advantages turned into a pumpkin in the post Super Bowl season. Their weak schedule was apparent in the rankings. It was a bad sign for the Saints that they lost turnover differential against a weak schedule. That will give Drew Brees and company something to work on this summer. Interesting isn't it that the last two Super Bowl teams from the NFC register at the top of this great indicator stat.

Atlanta probably caught some breaks to get to +14 in turnover differential given the youth of their quarterback and the inconsistency of their defense. Still, +4.4 in Drive Points is solid against a league average schedule. The Falcons should be a contender again this year, though they'll be dealing with NFC South rival New Orleans in a bounce back year.

The NY Giants missed the playoffs despite a 10-6 record. Eli Manning needs to fix his turnover issues if he's every going to approach the legacy of his brother.

THREATS
Philadelphia: +1.4 (+9 turnovers, 13th schedule)
Tampa Bay: +1.3 (+9 turnovers, 23rd schedule)
Washington: -0.4 (-4 turnovers, 15th schedule)
Minnesota: -0.5 (-11 turnovers, 5th schedule)
Chicago: -1.2 (+4 turnovers, 11th schedule)
Dallas: -1.4 (even turnovers, 16th schedule)
Detroit -2.2 (+4 turnovers, 8th schedule)

We have seven teams in this group because they cluster together pretty solidly once you adjust for strength of schedule, injury issues, and other factors. Detroit's -2.2 differential doesn't look so bad when you consider their very tough schedule. You'll see in a moment that St. Louis and San Francisco had better differentials, but those came against horribly soft schedules. Detroit is a team on the rise, and may have gotten even better in the draft.

The playoff teams in this group from last year are Philadelphia (very respectable stats, and a definite threat to last longer this year if that turnover differential is a sign that Michael Vick has risk/reward figured out). Chicago made it all the way to the conference finals thanks to an easy draw. The negative differential is meaningful to us…but we are aware of the schedule. We may never be fans of Jay Cutler. We're less down on him than we used to be. He needs to drive the field better this year to be sure.

Tampa Bay had the stats of a playoff team, but that came against a soft schedule. We're very interested to see this year if 2010 was a bit of a fluke, or if the young coach/quarterback combo is about to become a force.

Minnesota and Washington both went 6-10, with results that suggest either could have won the NFC West with a 9-7 or 10-6 mark if they played out there (where a woeful 7-9 would ultimately take the division!). Dallas also went 6-10, but they played much of the year without star quarterback Tony Romo. On the whole, this is a very interesting hunk of teams. Any could make the playoffs. Any could fade back to irrelevancy if they suffer some unlucky injuries.

PRETENDERS/DOORMATS
St. Louis: -1.3 (+5 turnovers, 32nd schedule)
San Francisco: -1.7 (-1 turnovers, 27th schedule)
Carolina: -3.8 (-8 turnovers, 14th schedule)
Arizona: -4.8 (-5 turnovers, 31st schedule)
Seattle: -5.3 (-9 turnovers, 26th schedule)

We decided not to just run all the teams in order of differential because the stats last year were so warped by strength of schedule. St. Louis and San Francisco both would have been up with Dallas and Detroit if we had done that. But, they played such awful schedules that we don't believe they're that good. Give them a league average schedule, and we're probably looking at -3.0 or -3.5 (similar to Carolina). Give them a tough schedule, and things could have gotten really ugly. Remember that when you hear pundits talking about Sam Bradford. He didn't have great stats last year and he faced the easiest schedule in the league!

You'll note that all four teams from the NFC West are in the bottom five. Oddly, the very worst team differential in the whole NFC made it to the playoffs! Seattle bamboozled its way to a 7-9 record with a 4-12 or 5-11 type team. Somebody from that horrible quartet will make the playoffs again.

We'll run these same category numbers for the AFC tomorrow. Things are more spread out over there. Brace yourselves for a whopping +9.1 differential for one team, and a stunning +28 turnover differential for another. The teams that played the four toughest schedules in the NFL will appear tomorrow as well.

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Back with you tomorrow to continue this Drive Point discussion. Be sure you're with us EVERY DAY so you know what's REALLY happening in the world of sports!

This article is part of the VSM MASTERS SERIES presented by VegasSportsMasters.com and JimHurley.com. For more information on JIM HURLEY'S handicapping packages, call 1-800-323-4453.

23
Nov

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