AFC Stat Notes

DRIVE POINT REVIEW FOR THE AFC

Yesterday we ran some numbers for you in the NFC. As promised, we'reback today to do the same thing for the AFC.

Data you see below are for the 2010 regular season, in the areas of:

DRIVE POINT DIFFERENTIAL: we created a stat many years ago here in the NOTEBOOK that measures points scored and allowed on drives of 60 yards or more. We think it's as close as you an get to a 'pure' stat measuring quality because good offenses can drive the field for a score…and good defenses can prevent opponents from doing so. Teams with the best differential are typically the best teams unless something very interesting was happening in the turnover category, or with their strength of schedule. Therefore, we also include…

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL: There's always been a debate about how much luck is involved in this category. It's true that good teams generally understand the risk/reward challenge and make it work for them. But, sometimes extremes in luck can muck up the picture. We did a study a few years ago that showed the most a team can do 'on purpose' is about half a turnover per game…or +8 for a year (-8 if they'rea bad team). We looked over sequences year-to-year over decades to draw that conclusion. As a result, we'll typically credit teams for an 'ability' with turnovers up to those thresholds, then attribute numbers beyond that to fortune.

STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE: We include Jeff Sagarin's computer ratings of schedule strength from USA today for additional context. That's very important for 2010 evaluations because there were some true extremes. You'll see in a moment that the AFC East played a brutal schedule because of the divisional rotations last year, while the AFC West had it very easy. Yesterday you saw that the NFC West and NFC South didn't have difficult schedule challenges last year (which means the NFC West was even worse than many realized!).

Five teams jumped out last year as having the right stuff to go the distance in this stat trio. And, there are some interesting dynamics in play for that grouping….so let's jump right in.

TOP FIVE
San Diego: +9.1 (-6 turnovers, 30th schedule)
Indianapolis: +3.8 (-4 turnovers, 21st schedule)
New England: +3.5 (+28 turnovers, 6th schedule)
Pittsburgh: +1.8 (+17 turnovers, 10th schedule)
NY Jets: +0.5 (+9 turnovers, 3rd schedule)

The San Diego Chargers had a very peculiar team last year in that they were absolutely HORRIBLE on special teams in a way the league hadn't seen in years. Normally you don't have to worry much about special teams in stat analysis because everyone's so even. Sure, a great punt returner will pop up every few years and have a breakthrough impact. But, in terms of ALLOWING touchdowns all over the place. That's not supposed to happen. It did to the Chargers, which led to them playing from behind much of the season…and led to a big edge in Drive Points just because they were frantically trying to catch up while opponents sat on leads. If the Chargers fix their special teams, and get smarter with turnovers…they're in the mix as a Super Bowl contender because they can drive the field with Philip Rivers at the helm.

New England is another very interesting extreme example from last year. They were seen as a historic juggernaut by some in the media late last year because they had some blowout margins. But, you can see above that they weren't blowing people out with Drive Point Differential. They were doing it with turnovers. New England was a stunning +28 in turnover margin in a league where very few teams even made it to +10. The Jets took away that category in the playoffs, and the Patriots were immediately mortal.

Pittsburgh was similar to the Patriots in that they didn't knock your socks off with Drive Point Differential, but did very well in turnover margin. They were able to sneak through the playoffs to reach the Super Bowl before falling to Green Bay. Like New England, they were mortal when not winning the turnover category.

The strength of schedule differences were so extreme in that group that you have to make some clear mental adjustments because of opposition. Let's just rank the schedules here quickly:

NY Jets: 3rd
New England: 6th
Pittsburgh: 10th
Indianapolis: 21st
San Diego: 30th

Two of the top three played in the AFC Championship, and the other lost to a team that reached the finals. So, we'recomfortable saying the Pats, Steelers, and Jets were top three. The Pats and Chargers might have flip-flopped margin differentials if they flip-flopped schedules. What might that New England offense have done against the 30th ranked schedule?!

Hopefully the schedules will balance out better in 2011, and the Drive Point Differentials will need less mental tinkering. We're comfortable with those as the top five pending free agent moves this week.

THREATS
Miami: -0.7 (-12 turnovers, 2nd schedule)
Baltimore: -1.3 (+7 turnovers, 12th schedule)
Cleveland: -1.4 (-1 turnovers, 9th schedule)
Houston: -1.9 (even turnovers, 17th schedule)

Some of you may be surprised that Baltimore doesn't qualify for the elite group. That's a tough call for us because they're very close to being there. The defense took a big step backward last year in this stat (ranking only in the middle of the AFC), and quarterback Joe Flacco continues to flounder in big game situations vs. good defenses. Baltimore doesn't have a great defense any more, and Flacco can't be discussed in the same breath with Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, and maybe even Ben Roethlisberger (Big Ben has lovers and haters in the analytical field). We're comfortable calling them a 'threat' at this point.

Miami and Cleveland are interesting because they have so much in common. Each had respectable differentials against tough schedules. Each needs to do a better job in the turnover category. Each has a quarterback who might be important in the future, or might not even have a future. Each is in a tough division where they'reseen as third best behind traditional playoff teams. These are definitely teams to keep an eye on this year, particularly if there's a key injury to a star quarterback on any of their divisional rivals.

Houston? Looks like they're destined to frustrate fans every year until they change their head coach. We've said that for many seasons. Last year's team went 6-10 with a bunch of nailbiter losses. Better to think of them as an 8-8 team in a division that might be softening up this year.

DECENT DRIVE STATS/EASY SCHEDULES
Oakland: +2.4 (-2 turnovers, 28th schedule)
Denver: +1.8 (-9 turnovers, 24th schedule)
Tennessee: +0.7 (-4 turnovers, 19th schedule)
Kansas City: -0.2 (+9 turnovers, 29th schedule)

We've done some creative ranking here in the AFC because this group all graded out higher than the 'threats' in Drive Point Differential, but generally had much easier schedules. If you gave everyone the 16th ranked schedule…we think teams would line up more closely with how we have them ordered today in the NOTEBOOK. Kansas City wouldn't be a playoff caliber team against a real schedule. They were badly outclassed on their home field by Baltimore in the first round…and the Ravens weren't anything special last year. We're more impressed with Miami and Cleveland being barely below 0.0 against very tough schedules than we are with these teams being barely above it vs. softer schedules.

Note that Oakland and Denver have new head coaches this year…which means management recognized that problems needed to be fixed.

DOORMATS
Cincinnati: -3.1 (-8 turnovers, 4th schedule)
Buffalo: -3.2 (-17 turnovers, 1st schedule)
Jacksonville: -6.6 (-15 turnovers, 22nd schedule)

It would be interesting to see where Cincinnati and Buffalo would move to if they played a league average schedule. The extremes were really something last year, helping to hide how much parity there really was up and down the league. Sure, there were some obvious winners and some obvious losers. But, Cincinnati and Buffalo were both 4-12 teams who might easily have been 6-10 or even 7-9 vs. more representative schedules. Jacksonville actually managed a miraculous 8-8 with horrible stats and a horrible turnover differential. Catch a few breaks in close games against a softer slate, and all sorts of illusions can be created.

Top to bottom, the AFC is probably a bit more condensed than you were thinking. That will make handicapping a very interesting challenge once September rolls around.

We'll run our annual divisional stat previews once the exhibition season begins…with the eight separate reports tied to national TV games we know you'll be watching. Don't forget that our college conference previews are running every weekend this summer. We'll finish out the major conference rundowns (and the month of July) this weekend with the Big 12 and the Big East. The mid-majors will run through August and take you right up to the start of the college season.

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Back tomorrow to talk some baseball, as we preview the potential NL Championship series with San Francisco at Philadelphia on ESPN's Wednesday Night telecast. There's money to be made EVERY DAY at JIM HURLEY's NETWORK!

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