Lessons through the Rear View Mirror: Making Sense of Season Rankings of 2011 Playoff Teams

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Lessons through the Rear View Mirror: Making Sense of Season Rankings of 2011 Playoff Teams

Now that the new 2012 NFL season chatter about free agents, franchise tags, and NFL combine rankings have started to flesh themselves out, we can easily get caught up in forgetting about last season. Some fans don't want to think about their respective teams from last season; while others will never forget their team's miraculous plays. Nevertheless, I think it would be a little naïve not to at least attempt to digest some defining characteristics of several teams (specifically the 12 playoff teams from last season) and determine what trends 2011 brought that might be applicable to 2012.

Rummaging through some numbers and rankings (according to ESPN) from last season, I determined that a team's defensive susceptibility to the passing game is the least important determining factor for getting your team to the Super Bowl. Let me explain. Using the four major categories for team rankings (offensive passing yards, offensive rushing yards, passing yards allowed, and rushing yards allowed), I broke down the playoff teams (Denver, Houston, New England, NY Giants, Green Bay, Detroit, San Francisco, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Cincinnati, and Atlanta) from 2011. For example, Denver was the 31st ranked offensive passing team, the 1st ranked offensive rushing team, the 18th best team in passing yards allowed, and the 22nd ranked squad in regards to rushing yards allowed. Thus, Denver is in the top 10 in only offensive rushing yards compiled.

Using a threshold consisting of only the top 10 for each category, we get the following breakdown for all 12 teams that made the playoffs:

Pass Rank: 7/12=58.3%

Pass Defense: 4/12=33.3%

Rush Rank: 5/12=41.7%

Rush Defense: 6/12=50%

The percentages are compiled by taking the amount of teams in the top 10 for that specific category divided by the total amount of teams that made the playoffs. Let's continue this analysis, but instead using the 8 teams that made it to the Divisional Playoff Round:

Pass Rank: 4/8=50%

Pass Defense: 2/8=25%

Rush Rank: 5/8=62.5%

Rush Defense: 3/8=37.5%

And then top 10 rankings of the 4 teams to compete in the Conference Playoff Round:

Pass Rank: 2/4=50%

Pass Defense: 1/4=25%

Rush Rank: 2/4=50%

Rush Defense: 2/4=50%

And, lastly, the 2 Super Bowl contending squads:

Pass Rank: 2/2=100%

Pass Defense: 0/2=0%

Rush Rank: 0/2=0%

Rush Defense: 0/2=0%

Taking the percentages for each ranking, adding them together, and dividing the sum by the number of rounds, we get a percentage that indicates the relative importance of each ranking for eventually winning the championship. This percentage is shown below:


Pass Rank: 64.6%

Pass Defense: 20.8%

Rush Rank: 51.4%

Rush Defense: 45.8%

Thus, based on accumulating the rankings from all of the playoff teams, the relative importance for the 4 major statistical team categories shown from most important to least important are as follows - Offensive Pass Rank, Offensive Rushing Rank, Rush Defense, Pass Defense. However, considering that both the 49ers and the Ravens lost by a single field goal (accurately demonstrating that either team could have been in the Super Bowl instead of the Giants or Patriots), it would only be fair to crunch these numbers using the 49ers and Ravens in the Super Bowl too. When this is performed the following results show that passing yards allowed is still the least important factor in gauging the championship contenders.


Pass Rank: 52.8%

Pass Defense: 33.3%

Rush Rank: 63.6%

Rush Defense: 59.4%

Taking the average of the actual percentages and the simulated percentages, we see that offensive passing yards (58.7%) is the most important determinant followed by offensive rushing yards (57.5%), rushing yards allowed (52.6%), and lastly, passing yards allowed (27.1%). Obviously, the illustrated results are skewed toward a top 10 team ranking, but I believe that type of stringency seems reasonable in a league of 32; thus forcing a team to be in the top 31% to be a qualifier. Ultimately, these data suggest that NFL teams should be doing everything in their power to bolster their passing and running games (to at least top 10 status) even if it means significantly compromising at the cornerback and safety positions.

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