The NFC Playoff Picture

THE NFC PLAYOFF PICTURE

Over the next two days we're going to outline the "big picture" fundamentals in this year's NFL Playoffs. We'll start with the NFC today since Green Bay of the NFC is the defending Super Bowl champions. We'll run through the six teams playing in the AFC brackets on Thursday...looking at the traditional indicator stats that have worked so well for us over the years.

This weekend, and on all future game days, we'll provide "matchup" analysis that will focus on how these categories may foreshadow what's going to happen on the field in each head-to-head showdown. So, Saturday, we'll look specifically at Cincinnati at Houston and Detroit at New Orleans. Today, we've zoomed out to see which team in the NFC are best suited to make a championship run. We'll do the same thing Thursday in the AFC.

If you're new to the website, these are the stats we like to focus on here in the NOTEBOOK

STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
We use the numbers from Jeff Sagarin's computer ratings at USA Today (just as we've been doing throughout the college bowls) to see where tweaks may need to be made in the math. A team that looks great in the numbers vs. a very soft schedule may not actually be all that great. A team that looks generic vs. a killer schedule is often the best suited to go deep in the playoffs. We've seen that time and time again in recent seasons. By the way, Green Bay and Pittsburgh both played top 10 schedules last year before rolling through their respective conferences.

DRIVE POINTS
These are points scored and allowed on drives of 60 yards or more. We keep these by hand ourselves, and have done so for years. We believe this is the single best indicator stat in all of sports...because none of the garbage gets counted. No cheap points here. Offenses have to drive the field to score in this stat. Defenses are rewarded for preventing opponents from doing that.

THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS
The coin of the realm in the modern game...as offenses must move the chains to take control of the game and the clock...and defenses must prevent opponents from doing that so their own team can get back on the field with a chance to score. Smart offenses know how to convert third downs in big games...dumb offenses have trouble advancing in the playoffs because they keep punting the ball or committing turnovers out of frustration.

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL
It can be tricky using this stat properly in the playoffs. You want to avoid falling in love with teams who had GREAT turnover differentials because it's very hard to keep that going when you step up in class in the playoffs. What had been an edge disappears because playoff caliber quarterbacks are usually less mistake-prone (though, that may not be as true this year). You definitely want to avoid backing mistake prone offenses. Ideally, you find teams where the porridge is just right...they weren't overly reliant on opponents' mistakes to win...and they avoided miscues themselves.

Okay...the table's been set, let's look at the six NFC playoff-bound teams in these vital categories...

STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
Detroit: 4th
NY Giants: 6th
Atlanta: 21st
Green Bay: 25th
San Francisco: 30th
New Orleans: 31st

Wow...the three top seeds all played very easy schedules! That could make things very interesting. New Orleans may not be quite the juggernaut their recent stats have been suggesting. Green Bay's disappointing defensive numbers have come against a soft schedule. San Francisco has been grinding vs. a horrible schedule...but they won't face any more horrible teams.

Detroit deserves a lot of credit for making the playoffs against that brutal slate. Normally, we'd have them circled as a darkhorse as a result. But, the defense has faded so badly in recent weeks that it's hard to like their chances playing on the road against better teams. They couldn't stop Matt Flynn this past Sunday. They lost and failed to cover in New Orleans not too long ago. They even lost home games to San Francisco and Atlanta. So...Detroit played a tough schedule, but they didn't have great success against the toughest foes on that schedule.

The New York Giants? They might be interesting. Analysts spent the year talking about how tough it would be for the Giants to thrive against a killer schedule. They survived the gauntlet...and they have a few veterans who have tasted postseason success. To us, this stat is alerting us to the potential for the Giants to make some noise.

DRIVE POINTS SCORED AND ALLOWED (ranked by differential)
New Orleans: 22.1 on offense, 14.3 on defense (+7.8 differential)
Detroit: 16.6 on offense, 11.4 on defense (+5.2 differential)
Green Bay: 20.8 on offense, 16.4 on defense (+4.4 differential)
NY Giants: 17.3 on offense, 14.8 on defense (+2.5 differential)
Atlanta: 14.1 on offense, 13.5 on defense (+0.6 differential)
San Francisco: 8.4 on offense, 9.0 on defense (-0.6 differential)

Hey, there's Detroit showing up again. Unfortunately, that stat is loaded with dominant performances vs. bad teams but much shakier performances vs. good teams. New Orleans is the most dominant force in the conference by a good bit in this stat. You'll have to decide how much you want to penalize them for their weak schedule.

Is Green Bay's stat line the mark of a champion? No! Last year's team was +5.4, but with a 13.8 on offense and an 8.4 on defense. You need to play defense to win championships! This year's Green Bay stat line looks alarmingly like last year's New England composite. You'll recall the Patriots were big favorites over the Jets in their playoff opener but lost outright. We'll talk more about this factor down the road. Green Bay has a bye this week.

Tough to like San Francisco's chances, even as a #2 seed with the numbers we've seen so far. They had a negative Drive Point differential while playing an extremely easy schedule. They'll need to grind out coin flip wins...which is at least possible with one home game in the mix, and a shortened schedule with the  bye.

THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS FOR AND AGAINST
New Orleans: 57% on offense, 33% on defense (+24 differential)
Green Bay: 48% on offense, 43% on defense (+5 differential)
Detroit: 36% on offense, 33% on defense (+3 differential)
Atlanta: 44% on offense, 44% on defense (0 differential)
NY Giants: 37% on offense, 38% on defense (-1 differential)
San Francisco: 29% on offense, 35% on defense (-6 differential)

New Orleans is the master of this stat. Drew Brees was just off the charts fantastic in a year where the league as a whole went backwards. Once again, solving the strength of schedule mystery is needed when trying to calculate the Saints Super Bowl chances. Maybe that's going to turn out to be a red herring. It's clear that nobody in the league is in better form right now. What a monster edge for the Saints!

We expected more from Green Bay...but they just took the year off defensively (their edge last year entering the playoffs was +6, on numbers of 42% and 36%). The offense is even better this year because they stayed healthy. They better not assume that's going to be enough.

Detroit keeps teasing us with good numbers against a killer schedule. Had the Super Bowl been in October...we'd have given them more thought. They just don't have any recent results to point to against true contenders. San Francisco seems to be campaigning for "Pretender of the Year" nominations.

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL
San Francisco: +28 (38 takeaways, 10 giveaways)
Green Bay: +24 (38 takeaways, 14 giveaways)
Detroit: +11 (34 takeaways, 23 giveaways)
Atlanta: +8 (29 takeaways, 21 giveaways)
NY Giants: +7 (31 takeaways, 24 giveaways)
New Orleans: -3 (16 takeaways, 19 giveaways)

This is where San Francisco gets back in the mix. They did a great job in the risk-reward ratio...preferring to punt all day rather than risk turnovers. The problem is...that's just not a recipe for success against a high powered opponent. The math today is suggesting that San Francisco MUST win turnovers just to have a chance to compete with the best of the NFC. Their seeding is a result of forcing miscues from a very soft schedule.

We did a study several years back that suggested +8 was about the best you could do "on purpose" in the NFL. Meaning...good teams could control this category to that level...and anything better was the result of good fortune or opponents self-destructing when playing from behind. So, the porridge is just right for Detroit-Atlanta-NYG in terms of representing a meaningful level of quality. Don't assume that SF and GB are WAY ahead of them in this stat in terms of what's going to happen in playoff games. Those five teams are probably about even in terms of head-to-head action in the playoff spotlight.

We would have to consider it a strike against New Orleans that they could only force 16 takeaways in a year where opponents were playing catch up almost every week. That's the big negative against the team at the moment...really the only negative.

Okay, let's add it all up:

#1 SEED GREEN BAY: has a championship offense but an alarmingly soft defense. They have way too much in common with last year's New England team for our taste. But, a great offense and home field still makes them the clear favorite.

#2 SEED SAN FRANCISCO: doesn't have much going for them other than turnover differential. They have a chance to grind...but would probably have to do that against Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers in succession. Not a scary #2 seed in playoff terms.

#3 SEED NEW ORLEANS: has the best shot of the non-bye teams given their amazing recent form.

#4 SEED NY GIANTS: a legitimate darkhorse given their pedigree and schedule strength. Trying to win three straight over Atlanta, Green Bay, and the NO-SF winner is a very tall task though, particularly after they just won three straight over Dallas-NYJ-Dallas to end the season. Decent math after you adjust for schedule strength, but this is a tall mountain staring them in the face.

#5 SEED ATLANTA: we didn't mention them much in the run-through, which means they're pretty generic for a playoff team. They certainly have a chance to take out New York and give Green Bay a scare. They were overseeded last year at #1 by a good bit...but they're still a danger team. And, they're less worn out staring at the same mountain NYG is looking at.

#6 SEED DETROIT: The math says they're a thoroughbred darkhorse...but recent defensive performances suggest that New Orleans will put 38 points or more on the board against them. There just aren't any recent examples that would suggest wins at New Orleans and then Green Bay. In fact, Detroit is 0-3 this year vs. those teams. The Lions needed to catch some breaks in the brackets...and it didn't happen.

We'll be back with you Thursday to do a run-through in this fashion for the AFC. Wild Card releases will be available this Weekend here at the website for credit card purchase. For more details on our football and basketball, call the office at 1-800-323-4453.

Note that we do have a great basketball card for you Wednesday Night. Among the games we're looking at are Duke-Temple, Marquette-Georgetown, and Kansas State-Kansas in the colleges, and Indiana-Miami plus Houston-LA Clippers in the NBA.

Thanks for being with us today in the NOTEBOOK. See you again Thursday!

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