It doesn't take a long time for the fate of a football team to turn. In Week 6, the Colts traveled to the Meadowlands and lost to the Jets, 35-9. Two weeks later, the Vikings would lose to the Buccaneers in Minnesota, 36-17. The following week, the Redskins lost 21-13 to the 2-6 Panthers at home, dropping Washington to 3-6. After those three losses to teams who finished with a combined record of 20-28, the three surprise teams in this year's postseason surged to the top of the heap, going a combined 21-5 the rest of the way. If we knew so little about what they were going to do then, how can we forecast what they'll do from here on out? There may be two Super Bowl teams in this batch, contenders who are going to ride their hot streak to New Orleans by the end of the month. There may also be three teams who were able to do just enough to squeak into the playoffs and might be at home next weekend. To get the best guess possible as to which path they'll take, all I can do is put what they've done and where they've come from in context.
There is one statistic that almost always comes into play when teams make dramatic improvements in their record from one year to the next: winning percentage in games decided by one touchdown or less. That's no different this year. In 2011, the Colts and Vikings were a combined 3-14 in games decided by one touchdown or less. For Minnesota, that included an 0-4 start, with three consecutive losses in games in which they led by 10 points or more at halftime. This year, amazingly, those same two teams are 14-2 in games decided by the same margin, and one of the losses was by the Vikings to these Colts. History tells us that there's virtually1 nothing sustainable about that statistic, but that's admittedly hard to reconcile with teams that carry themselves like winners and play confident, focused football.
Those wins have also been at the heart of their playoff pushes. The boiling-hot 9-2 stretch that led the Colts into January football saw Indianapolis go 7-0 in games decided by one touchdown or less, with those wins coming against teams who were a combined 36-67 in games that didn't involve Indy. In other words, the Colts went 7-0 against a sub-six-win team every time out. That's the equivalent of beating the 5-11 Cardinals seven times in a row without ever doing so by more than one score.
The Redskins, meanwhile, only improved from 3-5 last year to 5-4 in games decided by one touchdown or less, but the gap between their slow start and hot finish is almost entirely explained by what they did in close games. The 3-6 start that seemed to extinguish Washington's playoff hopes saw the Redskins go 1-4 in one-touchdown games, including the famously unnecessary loss to the Rams driven by that late personal foul on Josh Morgan and blown fourth-quarter leads against the Falcons and Giants. Their remarkable 7-0 finish, as you can probably deduce, has been driven by a 4-0 record in those same close games. That includes comeback victories over the Giants and Ravens, plus a 27-20 win over the Eagles that saw Philadelphia miss a would-be tying touchdown pass in the end zone.
You can poke a hole in the idea that these teams have some sort of pure winning mentality that only allows them to dominate in the clutch pretty easily. Even Vikings fans have probably forgotten about Week 1, when they gave away the lead to the Jaguars by allowing Cecil Shorts to get behind them for what looked to be a game-sealing touchdown (and two-point conversion) with 27 seconds left. Instead, the Vikings managed to pull together a drive to the 37-yard line and got a 55-yard field goal from debuting kicker Blair Walsh to tie up the game before winning it in overtime.
Even if you're with me in believing that these teams have run a little hot in those close games, it's undoubtedly true that they've also genuinely raised their game and played better than they did a year ago or even two months ago. We all know that their records changed, but what about their performance has shifted? That's the more meaningful question, and it gives us the best insight into whether they'll maintain their success in the playoffs.
In a way, Minnesota's ascension as a playoff team is the unlikeliest of the three. The Colts and Redskins upgraded from arguably the two worst quarterback situations in football to the top 10 in the offseason, moves that alone would be enough to push them up out of the cellar and toward contention. The Vikings are doing this with essentially the same core that led them to a 3-13 record a year ago. Just five of the 22 offensive and defensive starters that suited up in Sunday's dramatic win over Green Bay were not in the organization one year ago, and of those five, only first-round picks Matt Kalil (left tackle) and Harrison Smith (safety) have been key contributors this season. Quarterback Christian Ponder has been better than he was a year ago, upping his completion percentage from 54.3 percent to 62.1 percent, but he remains a checkdown artist rarely capable of making throws like the one that sprung Jarius Wright for 65 yards Sunday afternoon.
Minnesota has found other ways to improve. A special teams unit that ranked 27th in DVOA last season has improved to sixth this year, with much of that improvement driven by their rookie kicker, the aforementioned Walsh. If you still believe in kicking stats, it's worth noting that Walsh went 21-for-35 at Georgia during his senior year, for a field goal percentage of just 60 percent. He was 2-for-5 in 2011 and 10-17 over his college career from 50-plus yards; this year, he's 10-for-10.
The more noticeable improvement, of course, doesn't require advanced metrics; eyes will do just fine. It's not just that Adrian Peterson has returned from a devastating knee injury at 100 percent; it's that he's returned from that devastating knee injury and somehow turned into a far better player than he was before the injury even happened. Four weeks ago, Peterson seemed like a dark horse in the MVP race whose best hope would come from the league's quarterbacks splitting the passer vote, but Peterson's final quarter of the season saw him come on strong and all but lock up the MVP award with a heroic performance in what amounted to a playoff game for the Vikings.2
I am normally loath to suggest that a lowly running back has enough of an impact on his team's performance to justify being the league MVP, but this version of Peterson is no mere mortal running back. After four years of averaging between 4.4 and 4.8 yards per carry, Peterson put up one of the most incredible seasons a running back has ever produced, averaging a full 6.0 yards per pop across his 348 carries. Barry Sanders is the only back since 1990 to average more yards per carry in a 300-rush season than Peterson did this past year, and he did so by a mere one-tenth of one yard per carry, a difference of about two extra yards per game.
Even that doesn't truly express how rare Peterson's performance was, though. There are 158 instances of a running back carrying the ball 300 times or more in a season since 1990. Those backs averaged 4.3 yards per carry. Peterson's figure of 6.0 yards per run is 3.1 standard deviations above the mean; it's a true statistical outlier, a stunningly rare occurrence amid players with this sort of workload.
To try to put that into context, consider that there have been 197 instances since 1990 of a quarterback throwing 500 passes in a given season. A player with a workload3 for quarterbacks very similar to that of Peterson for running backs, coincidentally, is this year's edition of Peyton Manning. Manning has thrown 583 passes this year while averaging a robust 8.0 yards per pass attempt. That, however, is just 1.2 standard deviations above the mean yards-per-attempt figure posted by the average quarterback with 500 passes or more. If Manning was producing yards at a similar level to Peterson — 3.1 standard deviations above the mean in terms of yards per attempt — he would be averaging 9.3 yards per pass attempt. And if Peyton Manning was averaging 9.3 yards per pass attempt this year with the same workload, he would have 5,421 passing yards, which would be enough to place him just behind Drew Brees's 2011 season on the all-time leaderboard for passing yards in a season. In short and without math: Adrian Peterson is playing at a level so much better than the average workhorse running back that you simply have to give him the MVP award.
Washington's improvement, meanwhile, owes more to its defense than you might expect. It's a leap I wrote about earlier in this run, but the numbers bear out that the Redskins' defense has had more to do with their big playoff run than has the offense. During their 3-6 start, the Washington offense averaged 25.1 points per game, a figure that improved to an even 30 during the 7-0 finish. That's a 4.9-point difference. Meanwhile, the Washington defense went from allowing 27.6 points per game during the rough seas of September and October to an even 20.0 points per game after Election Day, a difference of 7.6 points. Plenty of those points came in garbage time against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day, too, so that figure even understates the genuine improvement this unit has made over the final seven weeks of the year.
How did they get better? Well, the obvious indicators don't show any notable changes. Washington forced 16 turnovers through nine games, an average of 1.8 per contest and a figure that rose slightly to 2.1 turnovers per game over their final seven contests. That's not it. They've been bad on third down on both sides of the divide, allowing opposing offenses to convert 43.8 percent of the time during the 3-6 run (which was seventh-worst in the league), a figure that's up to 45.6 percent after their bye week. Their dismal first-down pass defense allowed 8.8 yards per pass attempt during the first nine weeks of the year, a figure only topped by the Saints and Chiefs. Their more recent run has seen them allow a more respectable 6.8 yards per throw. Their sack rate has also improved from 3.8 percent to 6.0 percent. The steps above that are positive all help a little bit, but not enough to single-handedly change the Redskins, who seem to be getting better out of sheer will.
One hidden way in which the Redskins have improved on defense is by staying healthy. That seems odd to say for a team that lost starting lineman Adam Carriker and star linebacker Brian Orakpo to season-ending injuries after two weeks, but the Redskins defense has managed to stay remarkably healthy since those two injuries occurred; every other starter has made it through the year without missing a start. For a unit that has been very thin in the past thanks to years of poor drafting and expensive mistakes on veterans, this sort of health has allowed them to stay effective through the second half of the season.
On Sunday, that health gap stood out against a Cowboys team that was riddled with injuries. By the end of the game, Dallas was playing without its two top receivers and with a quarterback that had a broken rib. Washington looked like a defense with chemistry, one that didn't blow many assignments and one that was able to execute intricate blitz packages and coverages behind those rushes. The Dallas offense looked desperate and out-of-sorts, relying on talent and a bit of luck to move the ball. For all that the Washington running game did, Dallas took over the ball down three points with 3:33 to go; it was the Redskins defense that forced Tony Romo into a terrible throw and picked off that pass, virtually ending the game as a contest. It remains to be seen how well the Redskins can match up with Seattle's zone-read rushing attack and the athleticism of Russell Wilson, but they're playing their best football of the season on defense.
The Colts, on the other hand, don't really have a statistical pedigree suggesting that they're even an average NFL team. Before the Colts' comfortable victory on Sunday over the Texans,4 Football Outsiders had them ranked as the league's 28th-best team, just below the lowly Eagles and Cardinals. Unsurprisingly, they were also listed with the league's easiest schedule, an analysis that pro-football-reference.com agrees with. The Colts finished with a point differential of -30, the sixth-lowest figure for a playoff team since 1990.5 Indianapolis better hope that wins are the only metric that counts, because wins are the only measure of the Colts that suggest Indy to be a playoff-caliber team.
Indianapolis's biggest problem has been its run defense, a unit that has allowed a league-high 5.1 yards per attempt this year. Thanks to a 44-carry, 352-yard effort from the thing that vaguely resembles an NFL offense in Kansas City last week, that figure has actually risen to 5.5 yards per pop during the second half. The Colts would do well to get Cory Redding (who sat out Sunday's game with a quad injury) back into steady rotation, but their personnel just otherwise doesn't match up well with opposition running games. Castoffs like Antonio Johnson and Jerrell Freeman get too many reps, while former star defensive end Dwight Freeney was never much for stopping the run as a down lineman, let alone as a linebacker. The Indy rush defense will get better eventually, but this personnel group will struggle to stop the likes of Arian Foster and Stevan Ridley in the playoffs.
The Colts finally got their big win by some sort of margin this week when they handled the Texans at home, eventually prevailing 28-16 in a game that they controlled from start to finish. It's definitely Indianapolis's best performance of the year, but there's reason to wonder whether it's as impressive of a win as it might have seemed a few weeks earlier. The Texans' free fall from seemingly having home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs locked up all the way down to the 3 seed isn't exactly a secret, but the Texans haven't really looked impressive since their 13-6 win over the Bears in Chicago in Week 10. Their 29-17 win over the Colts was even more of a struggle than the final score indicates. In any event, Houston became the first team in the history of the 16-game NFL schedule to start the year 11-1 (or 12-0) before failing to pick up a first-round bye. Great teams have gone on to win the Super Bowl after late-season slides — the 2009 Saints are the most recent example, having started 13-0 before losing their final three and then winning out in the playoffs — but it raises some doubt about whether the Texans team that's about to show up in the playoffs is any great shakes. More on them later in the week.
Of these three, I think Washington is most likely to enjoy some sort of success in the playoffs. Although they've arguably drawn the toughest opposition of the three in Seattle, the Redskins are also the only team of the three that gets to play at home during wild-card weekend. That can go a long way for a marginal team, as the 2011 Broncos and 2010 Seahawks have shown. Another week should also help Robert Griffin get closer to 100 percent, and if RG3 is near full health, the Redskins have an offense that neither of these teams can touch, even with AD. Besides, who doesn't want to see a long playoff run from the league's most exhilarating player?
Since several head coaches will likely be fired as you're reading this Monday morning, let's try to keep this one short and gentle.
Ron Rivera stuck to his guns in short yardage, mostly, by refusing to hand the ball to Cam Newton inside the 5-yard line once with three cracks at the goal line in the first quarter. He eventually kicked a 20-yard field goal. This was despite the drive having been extended solely by a Newton draw for 15 yards on third-and-2, and the ensuing fact that Mike Tolbert would score three times in short yardage without much of a fuss as the game went along.
Mike Shanahan and the Redskins have been one of the league's most aggressive teams on fourth down this season, likely thanks to the presence of RG3, but they settled for a 37-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter on fourth-and-2 that would have put them up 3-0, only for Kai Forbath to push his kick. Even with an injured RG3, their success in the running game suggests that Washington might have been better off just trying to convert for two yards there.
Mike McCarthy challenged a play in the first half that would have turned a second-and-10 into a second-and-16. The challenge worked, but the Vikings erased it off the board quickly with a third-and-12 conversion off a screen pass to Toby Gerhart on a drive that ended up scoring points.
McCarthy's even more bizarre incident was when he threw a challenge flag after a possible James Jones fumble at the 1-yard line, seemingly preventing the referees from reviewing the call (à la the Jim Schwartz ruling from earlier this year). The crew tried to claim that the replay official buzzed down to say that he was reviewing it before McCarthy threw the flag, but it felt like a ready-made excuse from the NFL to regulate the heat that came out of the Schwartz call (and the possible loopholes that were discussed). In either case, McCarthy didn't know that the replay official had buzzed down, so his challenge flag was just as ill-advised as Schwartz's was; he just got luckier treatment. It was a clearly awful decision, and while some would recommend that the mistake get chalked up to coaches living in the heat of the moment, it's also worth noting that Aaron Rodgers immediately realized what McCarthy had done and started screaming at his coach, while Jordy Nelson cheekily tried to pick up the flag and hide it before the referees saw it.
There is evidence that teams with truly elite quarterbacks (e.g. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning) win a higher percentage of their close games than you would expect from year to year. Is Andrew Luck a quarterback of that caliber? He very well might be one day, but he probably isn't yet. Is Christian Ponder a quarterback of that caliber? Of course not.
I'm happy Week 17 turned out the way it did for Peterson's sake, because I think there was a rather unfair situation brewing. I can't prove this, of course, but my suspicion is that Peterson would not have won MVP if the Vikings had lost that nationally televised game on Sunday, even if his contribution to the game was statistically similar to what he did in Minnesota's victory. I don't think that's fair, but I also don't know that the electorate will give the MVP award in 2012 to a running back on a team that doesn't make the playoffs, especially one that crashes out at home in control of its own destiny in Week 17. On the other hand, you can also make the argument that Peterson gained an advantage by being on national television during the final week of the year in a meaningful game while Peyton Manning was playing against the worst team in the league in a few selected markets.
They each came in at the 80th percentile for players in terms of usage totals within their respective groups.
With the loss and their banishment to the 3-seed, the Texans became the first team since the advent of the 16-game season to start the year 11-1 without eventually holding a first-round bye.
Interestingly enough, each of the five teams that posted an inferior point differential to that -30 figure won in the wild-card round before losing in the divisional round.