Game Theory

2020 NFL playoff picture: Who will rise out of the NFC East?

NFL franchises use contextualized data to create competitive advantages. In order to realize an edge, teams need to employ the right data in the right way at the right time. This means distilling, interpreting and applying only the most influential data in a framework that accounts for personnel, opponents and evolving game situations. My goal is to be your analytics department. Each week this season, I want to work for you by giving you a peek into which numbers flag in my models as the most impactful ... or the most misunderstood.

As always, let me know if your eye test is picking up on something interesting, or if there's a stat/trend you'd like me to take a deeper look at. You can hit me on Twitter @CFrelund. As with any great analytics department, the more collaborative this is, the more value we can create.

When scanning the 2020 NFL playoff picture, the NFC East presents an extremely interesting case study in the competitive life cycle of NFL franchises. Heading into Week 13, all four teams -- the 4-7 Washington Football Team, the 4-7 New York Giants, the 3-7-1 Philadelphia Eagles and the 3-8 Dallas Cowboys -- still have a chance to land a playoff berth or a top-three choice in the 2021 NFL Draft. (In fact, it's likely that multiple teams from the division will be picking in the top five.) And while the division, which is nearly certain to field only one postseason team, might appear to be in sorry shape, we should remember that the difference between the best teams and the worst teams in the NFL often isn't as dramatic as it seems. After all, any team that earns a playoff spot has the potential to make a Super Bowl run, whatever their regular-season record might have been.

What will it take for each NFC East team to make it to the playoffs? To find out, I simulated the rest of the season 100,000 times per remaining game. Below, you'll see the most likely outcome for each team, along with some of the main contextualized statistical drivers behind the results:

Rank
1
Washington Football Team
Washington Football Team
4-7-0

They win the division in: 31.5% of simulations.


To make the playoffs, they must: stay balanced and efficient on early downs and continue to lean on their defensive front.

 

A strong indicator for success is the combination of an excellent defensive front (in terms of generating effective pressure on passing downs) and the ability to generate efficient yardage output on early downs (first and second). Washington's front ranks fourth-best in terms of win-share as a unit in my model, and Pro Football Focus agrees with that rosy assessment, giving Washington's pass rush the fifth-best grade in the NFL. Next Gen Stats shows that Washington's front generates pressure on 28.6 percent of dropbacks, tied for the sixth-best rate in the NFL, and the rest of the defense helps back that up by allowing a completion percentage on passes of 10-plus air yards of just 43.1 percent, sixth-lowest, per NGS.

 

Over their past four games (since their Week 8 bye), they've averaged 6.09 yards per play on early downs, which is a dramatic increase from their mark of 4.62 in Weeks 1-7. NGS shows that Antonio Gibson leads the NFL with eight rushing touchdowns between the tackles. When facing six or fewer defenders in the box, Gibson is averaging 5.5 yards per rush; when there are seven or more defenders in the box, that average drops to 3.7 (and 3.9 on non-red-zone attempts), illustrating the importance of maintaining balance between the run and pass and staying efficient on early downs. Receiver Terry McLaurin has 10 or more receptions on four different routes (slant, screen, hitch and crossing). Since quarterback Alex Smith is only attempting passes of 10-plus yards 18.7 percent of the time (the lowest rate in the NFL, per NGS), space has to be created through balanced diversity of passing routes and the threat of the run.

 

Washington is the best team in the division as of Week 13 -- their remaining schedule (at Pittsburgh, at San Francisco, vs. Seattle, vs. Carolina and at Philadelphia) is the biggest threat to their postseason potential. My model only has Washington favored in one remaining contest (and by a narrow margin, in Week 17 against the Eagles). But they are within probable striking distance (meaning no less than a 45 percent chance to win) in their games against the Niners and Panthers, which drives Washington’s highest projected win total in the NFC East.  

Rank
2
New York Giants
New York Giants
4-7-0

They win the division in: 28.8% of simulations.


To make the playoffs, they must: keep the QB from being pressured on passing downs and use the balance the defense provides.

 

Daniel Jones' availability is a question mark after he suffered a hamstring injury Sunday -- but what is clear is that he's committed many more turnovers (nine interceptions and four fumbles lost) than touchdown passes (eight) this season. This isn't really an analytics note, but it is just plain staggering. In fairness to the second-year pro, though, I'll point out that he's been under pressure on 40.6 percent of dropbacks this season, the highest rate in the NFL. Meanwhile, NGS shows that Jones has attempted just 25.5 percent of passes at a distance of 10-plus air yards, ranking third-lowest in the NFL this season. The Giants' defense has been a strength, allowing a 25.6 percent third-down conversion rate over their past four games, which is the second lowest in the NFL in Weeks 8-12 (down from 50.5 percent in Weeks 1-7).

 

Eyeing New York's remaining schedule (at Seattle, vs. Arizona, vs. Cleveland, at Baltimore and vs. Dallas), keeping Jones (or whomever is playing quarterback) clean and ensuring an efficient run game is going to be a key driver of success (or the lack thereof). My model only favors the Giants in their Week 17 matchup against Dallas, with the team forecasted at 44 percent in their next-closest matchup, against Cleveland.  

Rank
3
Philadelphia Eagles
Philadelphia Eagles
3-7-1

They win the division in: 22.4% of simulations.


To make the playoffs, they must: take care of the ball on offense and lean on their defensive front.


Playing winning football is a balancing act. No team is without flaws or pressure points, but the best teams are able to accentuate their strengths while minimizing the impact of their weaknesses. Some teams can rely on exceptional units to drive their success, as long as the other units hold up their end of the bargain. Ahead of the season, the Eagles looked to have the right blend of personnel, potential and schedule to win the division. However, as we move into December, Philadelphia is half a game behind the Giants (whom the Eagles will not face again this season) and Washington -- and the game-breaking defensive front has not received enough point-scoring support from the offense for the Eagles to win games.

The Eagles have the best defensive front in the NFC East, generating the third-best pressure rate in the NFL this season (29.9%), per NGS, narrowly edging out Washington. Over the past four games, they've only allowed 27.8 percent of third downs to be converted (the third-best mark over Weeks 8-12). However, their banged-up O-line has hampered the offense's ability to move the ball. Carson Wentz has been under pressure on 33.1 percent of dropbacks, ranking third-most in the NFL (only the Giants' Daniel Jones and the Cowboys' Dak Prescott have been under pressure more often). Wentz is pacing the NFL in interceptions (15), and he has not topped 100 in passer rating in any game this season; this is just the eighth time since 2000 that a QB has started 11 games without reaching the century mark in passer rating at least once. For the season, the Eagles' 21 giveaways rank third (only Dallas and Denver have committed more). Over their past four games, the Eagles' offense has only converted 28.3 percent of third downs while connecting on just seven passes of 20-plus yards; both marks are the second-lowest in the NFL in Weeks 8-12, while their 4.5 yards-per-play mark in that span is tied for the lowest.

When I simulate the Eagles' remaining schedule (at Green Bay, vs. New Orleans, at Arizona, at Dallas and at Washington), they are favored in just one remaining matchup. Remember, it's never binary (100 percent) until the game is played, but Philadelphia's most likely record is 5-10-1, which happens in about 54 percent of simulations (6-10-1 happens in 21 percent of simulations).

Rank
4
Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys
3-8-0

They win the division in: 17.3% of simulations.


To make the playoffs, they must: keep Andy Dalton’s quick passing efficient and limit the time the defense is on the field to exploit a favorable schedule.

 

No team is allowing a higher passer rating on passes of 10-plus air yards than the Cowboys (129.8, per NGS). That, combined with leaky early-down run defense (Dallas gives up 126.5 rushing yards per game on early downs, the second-most in the NFL), presents a steep defensive hole for the offense to dig out of, especially considering Dalton is throwing only 23 percent of his passes 10-plus air yards this season. Even Dak Prescott, who was throwing 32 percent of his passes 10-plus air yards (per NGS) before going down with an ankle injury in Week 5, would have a hard time with this kind of challenge. Since Week 8, the Cowboys average just 4.62 yards per play on all downs (down from 5.73 in Weeks 1-7) and only a 36.8 percent third-down conversion rate (down from 42.5% in Weeks 1-7).

 

The Cowboys' remaining schedule (at Baltimore, at Cincinnati, vs. San Francisco, vs. Philadelphia, at New York Giants) is the best in the NFC East. Bolstered by a forecasted narrow win against Cincinnati (53.2), the Cowboys' best chance to shift their fate is to flip two forecasted narrow losses (to Philadelphia and New York) into wins. However, it's quite likely they could be playing spoiler to the Giants as opposed to playing for their own berth.

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