A couple days ago, I showed that True Wins is an able replacement for Pythagorean wins as a simple, “luck-free” measure of team quality in the NFL. True Wins gives full credit for blowout wins and half credit for close wins and losses (defining close games as games within 7 points). Heading into week 15 tonight, I thought it would be fun to see how teams stack up this season. First, let’s look at teams almost certain to make the playoffs (4 of the 7 have already clinched):
True Wins agrees that the Packers are the clear best team, and there’s not much difference among the six teams at 10-3. All these teams have gotten a little lucky in close games (i.e., their wins are higher than their True Wins), but only the Packers and Saints True Win differences are especially high. These teams are all legitimate playoff contenders.
Next, consider teams still in the hunt (I’ll be generous and include 6-7 teams plus the Eagles):
Here, things get more interesting. Of the “lucky” teams (Falcons, Lions, Jets, Broncos, Giants, Cardinals, Raiders), 5 out of 7 would qualify for the playoffs right now. Of the neutral or “unlucky” teams (Bears, Bengals, Cowboys, Titans, Chargers, Eagles, Seahawks), 0 out of 7 would qualify. True Wins carries a lot of information for this group — it tells us that mediocre teams will need some lucky breaks to make the playoffs.
I feel especially bad for the Bengals, Chargers, and Eagles, who have the biggest deficit between wins and True Wins (and long-suffering fans). The Bengals have 8 True Wins to the Jets 7. However, the Jets are 3-1 in close games while the Bengals are 3-5. The Chargers have effectively been Tebowed out of the playoffs (7 True Wins to Denver’s 6). They even trail the Raiders in the standings, who have only 4.5 True Wins. The Dream Team Eagles are just a few lucky bounces behind the Giants and Cowboys.
Now for the bottom third:
It’s hard to ignore the Panthers, Dolphins, and Vikings on this list. The Vikings, with only 2 wins, have nearly as many True Wins as two playoff teams (Giants and Broncos). If the Vikings had been moderately lucky instead of horribly unlucky, they could be at 7 wins right now. The Panthers and Dolphins match the Giants and Broncos exactly in True Wins, but trail them by 3 or 4 games in the standings. I bet we’ll see a lot of churning among these 5 teams next year.
Of course, the real goal of any NFL team is to win a Super Bowl, not just make the playoffs. How well do True Wins predict playoff success? Since 2002:
“Right” means that the playoff game winner had more True/actual wins than the loser, and vice versa for “Wrong.” “No Prediction” means that the two teams had the same number of True/actual wins. I count the no prediction games as “half-right” to average them in (same idea as coding ties as half a win when calculating winning percentage).
There’s no real contest. True Wins has never predicted under 50% of games correctly in a single playoff season and got almost two-thirds of playoff games right overall. Actual wins only predicted 55% of games correctly over the last 9 years. True Wins also does a better job of predicting Super Bowl winners:
The green shading marks games where the winner ranked higher than the loser. True Wins gets 7 correct, while actual wins only gets 4. The Steelers in ’05 and Packers in ’10 had particularly unlucky regular seasons, as evidenced by their high True Wins ranks. Amazingly, the top ranked team by True Wins has won 4 of the last 9 Super Bowls. Things are looking good for the Packers!
For some added fun, the top five True Wins (TW) teams of the last 9 years are the ’07 Patriots (16-0, 14 TW), the ’04 Patriots (14-2, 13 TW), the ’09 Saints (13-3, 12.5 TW), the ’06 Chargers (14-2, 12.5 TW), and the ’05 Colts (14-2, 12.5 TW). Ten teams have had 12 True Wins over this time period, including the ’08 Eagles, who were only 9-6-1 but made it to the NFC championship game. The ’72 Dolphins, whose perfect record is threatened again this year, managed 12.5 True Wins in a 14 game regular season. Only the ’07 Patriots rate comes close.
My Lions were an embarrassment over the last decade; True Wins is not kind to them either. In ’08 (0-16) and ’09 (2-14), the Lions managed just 2 True Wins. The ’10 Panthers (2-14) matched this feat, and the Colts are in danger of doing the same this year. Let’s hope the Lions erase those memories by smashing the 4.5 True Win Raiders this weekend and cruising into the playoffs!