Submitted by Jim Hurley on Friday, December 7, 2012 at 7:00 AM
Sports bettors and NFL fans who have been with us for a long time know that we have a relatively hidden handicapping stat that we place a very high priority on when evaluating teams. It’s not like this is an unknown stat…because TV announcers, head coaches, and particularly veteran quarterbacks talk about it all the time. But, it’s a stat that has historically gotten short shrift within the NFL handicapping and betting process.
Today, we’re going to REMIND you about the importance of this stat, and then we’re going to outline the playoff picture in both conferences through the lens that it creates.
That stat is third down conversions. We’re talking about both the offense and defense here. Successful offenses know how to move the chains consistently. Successful defenses force three-and-out’s so their offense can get the ball back. You probably haven’t heard a postgame interview with a star quarterback when this wasn’t mentioned. Yet, how often do YOU use the stat when trying to pick a winner? Probably, NEVER!
Do you even know who the best and worst teams are on both sides of the ball? Don’t make the mistake of assuming that all contenders must be good in these areas while non-contenders must be bad. It doesn’t always work that way. Some “pretenders” can hang in the race until the final month until issues get exposed. Sometimes, pretenders can even go deep into the playoffs until a relatively inexperienced team runs into a veteran squad that knows what it takes to win in crunch time.
And, that crunch time element of this stat is why we’re going to use it to outline the playoff races. When a team MUST win, their ability to move the chains when they have the ball, and their ability to force punts when they don’t is what’s most likely to swing a tight decision there way. What you learn today will help you make smart choices down the stretch in December…and will also prove important once the playoffs get here in January. Playoff games are lost, and Super Bowls are WON because of this stat.
We start in the AFC, where things are pretty cut-and-dried right now in terms of division winners and Wildcard contenders. Let’s look at those groups separately.
AFC LEADERS: THIRD DOWN CONVERSION RATES
Houston (11-1): 40% on offense, 28% on defense
New England (9-3): 53% on offense, 43% on defense
Baltimore (9-3): 36% on offense, 38% on defense
Denver (9-3): 44% on offense, 33% on defense
Houston and New England play each other this week, while Baltimore and Denver play each other next week. So…today’s article is timely for a variety of reasons! Note that Houston has the best differential at +12. Baltimore has been very disappointing considering all the hype about its hurry-up offense before the season started. If the Ravens don’t improve, it’s hard to see them as championship material next month even if they do ultimately earn a bye (they do have a heads-up win over New England in a potential tie-breaker).
The Patriots have a nice differential because of Tom Brady. But, the defense is weak relatively speaking. This could loom large in the postseason because they’ll be facing defenses that can slow them down…while their own defense won’t be slowing anyone else down! This is why the Pats are so often overpriced in the postseason…even if they go deep with close wins. Remember that poor defensive numbers are red flags that deserve your attention.
AFC WILDCARD TEAMS: THIRD DOWN CONVERSION RATES
Indianapolis (8-4): 44% on offense, 39% on defense
Pittsburgh (7-5): 45% on offense, 34% on defense
Cincinnati (7-5): 35% on offense, 37% on defense
Pittsburgh has the differential of a champion even though Ben Roethlisberger has been out for some time. This is why they’ll be such a dangerous Wildcard if they get in. Frankly, this is at the heart of why a few Wildcards have gone the distance in recent seasons. If you own this stat…you have what it takes to win nailbiters in January. HUGE! Indianapolis has impressed with a rookie quarterback, as Luck has made it very clear already that he’s on track to be the next Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. Cincinnati might catch some breaks and reach the playoffs. They’re not currently constituted to thrive if they get there.
Moving to the NFC…where the divisional races are still pretty interesting outside of the South. We’ll go in divisional order to outline the races…and you can use the data to evaluate the still-crowded Wildcard picture as well.
NY Giants (7-5): 41% on offense, 39% on defense
Washington (6-6): 33% on offense, 45% on defense
Dallas (6-6): 43% on offense, 38% on defense
The Giants have been a huge disappointing in this stat this year considering their defensive reputation and veteran quarterback. They’re just not playing to championship levels right now. Washington gets exposed as a pretender here in dramatic fashion. Yes, RGIII is amazing. He still doesn’t know how to move the chains though…which is going to matter in crunch time this month, and in January if Washington reaches the postseason. If only ESPN knew what really won games, they’d be able to hype the right people at the right times!
Green Bay (8-4): 44% on offense, 38% on defense
Chicago (8-4): 40% on offense, 35% on defense
Minnesota (6-6): 36% on offense, 44% on defense
Good race between the Packers and Bears, both of whom look capable of holding onto their current positions based on those stat differentials. Unsurprisingly, Green Bay grades out with the better offense, while Chicago grades out with the better defense (which will prove even tougher for opponents if the weather ever cools off!). Minnesota looks like a longshot for a Wildcard because Christian Ponder just isn’t a playoff caliber quarterback…and that defense is way too soft in this critical stat.
Atlanta (11-1): 46% on offense, 39% on defense
Tampa Bay (6-6): 34% on offense, 42% on defense
No suspense here. Atlanta actually grades out best amongst the NFC contenders in differential, even if that’s not a particularly dramatic differential compared to what we saw over in the AFC. They can be had as a #1 seed. Tampa Bay goes on the list of exposed pretenders for the last Wildcard spot…though somebody’s going to have to get in.
San Francisco (8-3-1): 37% on offense, 31% on defense
Seattle (7-5): 37% on offense, 42% on defense
San Francisco is only one back of Atlanta in differential at +6 compared to +7. They obviously have a championship caliber defense, and will try to grind out wins with either overmatched Alex Smith or inexperienced Colin Kaepernick. Seattle doesn’t grade out well here in terms of plus/minus…but actually does rank well when you compare them to all the 6-6 teams. Their rookie quarterback needs to keep improving…and their defense needs to toughen up after some recent inconsistency.
Consider yourself warned now. This stat is going to matter this weekend…this month…and in this season’s Super Bowl chase. Be sure you’re watching third downs very closely on TV. Be sure you’re studying the boxscores. Be sure you’re incorporating this stat in your handicapping process. You should be a little embarrassed if you haven’t already!
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