As Mark Twain was fond of saying, "There are lies, damn lies, and statistics." People can use statistics to serve whatever argument they might want to support. Coaches are the first to dismiss statistics as irrelevant to the game. They often say that the only meaningful statistic is total points scored or surrendered.
Of course, coaches usually make such arguments in defense of poor statistical rankings in one form or another. The same coaches who scorn statistics when their teams are performing poorly will wear you out with talk of third-down conversions, yards per attempt and turnover differential when their teams are performing well in those areas.
The question is, which stats hold the most relevance when it comes to identifying good and bad teams? Everyone says that they want to run the ball and have a balanced offense. It would be logical to assume, then, that the teams with high rushing totals would also be among the most successful. Yet, only half of the top 10 rushing teams in the NFL made the playoffs this season (Denver, Houston, New Orleans, San Francisco and Baltimore), while the worst-ranked rushing team (the New York Giants) does not seem to have suffered from its poor ranking. Every coach in the game will tell you that you must be able to stop the run, yet only six of the top 10 rushing defenses made the playoffs (San Francisco, Baltimore, Houston, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati).
Everyone wants to play good defense, but consider this stunning fact: The top seeds in the AFC (New England) and NFC (Green Bay) are ranked 31st and 32nd respectively in total defense. Everyone in today's game, me especially, says you have to be explosive offensively, yet four of the five most-explosive teams (measured in gains of 20 or more yards) missed the playoffs; only New Orleans (ranked fourth) advanced to the postseason.
Stats certainly don't tell the whole story, but they can still provide a basic indication as to what is needed to win in the NFL.
I have ranked each playoff team's performance in the 10 most important statistical categories (rushing offense, rushing defense, passing offense, passing defense, turnover differential, explosive-play differential, offensive third-down conversion rate, defensive third-down conversion rate, and offensive and defensive red-zone efficiency). As in golf, the team with the lowest score wins.
According to this chart, the likely participants in this season's Super Bowl are the Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints. Baltimore ranked highly in rushing offense (10th) and third-down conversions (seventh) and had superior rankings across the board defensively. New Orleans, as expected, dominated in so many offensive areas, particularly in the killer combo of explosive plays (fourth) and third-down conversions (fifth). The Saints do not rank in the top tier of very many defensive statistics, which just goes to show how truly dominant their offense is.
You might raise an eyebrow upon seeing No. 1 seeds Green Bay and New England ranked so low, at No. 8 and No. 9, respectively. Even though both are offensively dominant (like New Orleans), they have defensive vulnerabilities that can be hard to overcome. Most notably, Green Bay ranks 30th and New England 32nd in giving up explosive plays. Both teams have also been terrible at getting third-down stops (26th and 28th, respectively).
It is a shame that Houston is going through turmoil at the quarterback position. The Texans are a good team across the board, ranking particularly highly in offensive rushing (second), passing defense (third) and rushing defense (fourth). Unfortunately, they are also missing their starting and backup quarterbacks, which undermines their lofty ranking and their ability to parlay these statistics into playoff wins.
Again, understand that these rankings are calculated using baseline statistics that might determine the probability of success, but surely can't guarantee it. Football, especially in the NFL (and even more so in the playoffs), is all about matchups. How teams match up on the field has as much to do with their chances of winning as these statistics do, but they at least provide a starting point in forecasting postseason fortunes.