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Does anyone want to be Elite? Making sense of a crowded NFC field

We turn to EPA and DVOA to try to separate the contenders from the pretenders.

Green Bay Packers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

First it was the Green Bay Packers staking their claim. In Week 3, they went down to New Orleans and came out with a victory over the Saints. Then it was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who curb-stomped the Packers in week 6. This past weekend, it was now New Orleans once again, who, after racking up 30 kills, called in a tactical nuke on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But remember, the Packers went into the Superdome and came out with a win not too long ago. Then there are the Seattle Seahawks, who had largely scraped by solely on their high powered passing attack, with narrow wins over lesser teams such as New England, Dallas, and Minnesota, until they were handed a double-digit loss by the Bills this past weekend. Then there’s the Los Angeles Rams, whose strong defense is pulling a ton of weight for a pretty average offense.

So is anyone here actually great? Does anyone want the one-seed?

There are quite literally endless ways to try and answer the “great” question, but, per usual, I’m gonna let some stats do the work. Before I get too deep down that rabbit hole though, it’s important to understand some key ideas. Firstly, offensive performance is more predictive than defensive performance. If you have a good offense now, it is more likely that you’ll have a good offense in the future than the same being said for defense. This is why year-over-year it is generally a good idea to fade teams who had historically great defenses the year prior (2020 Patriots, 2020 49ers, 2018 Jaguars, 2019 Bears). In order to try and account for this, you can weight offensive performance more heavily than defensive performance (you could also down-weight defense, you’d get to the same point).

The two stats I’m going to use to analyze the teams are EPA/play and DVOA. For the offensive version of each of these stats, I am going to use a multiplier of 1.5x to up-weight their impact on the overall picture. The reason for that is due to the higher predictiveness of offense than defense. This 1.5x is what is used in the rbsdm tiers charts that you see floating around Twitter dot com.

In the chart below, you can see how each teams stacks up by each of the statistics. (Remember that positive numbers always favor the offense, so lower numbers are better when looking at defenses.)

NFC Contenders

Team Wtd Off EPA/play Def EPA/play Wtd EPA/play Wtd Off DVOA Def DVOA Wtd DVOA
Team Wtd Off EPA/play Def EPA/play Wtd EPA/play Wtd Off DVOA Def DVOA Wtd DVOA
GB 0.311 0.114 0.197 34.35% 9.80% 24.55%
TB 0.105 -0.067 0.172 19.65% -25.40% 45.05%
NO 0.168 0.052 0.116 13.95% -6.40% 20.35%
SEA 0.272 0.119 0.153 34.05% 5.90% 28.15%
LAR 0.081 -0.129 0.21 21.45% -6.40% 27.85%
ARI 0.201 0.047 0.154 10.95% -5.40% 16.35%
CHI -0.091 -0.034 -0.057 -25.50% -14.80% -10.70%
PHI -0.084 0.003 -0.087 -30.75% -2.40% -28.35%
SF 0.132 0.052 0.08 11.55% -3.70% 15.25%
MIN 0.171 0.093 0.078 4.65% 2.90% 1.75%
WAS -0.095 -0.002 -0.093 -33.45% -17% -16.45%
rbsdm and Football Outsiders

The teams that were selected have at least a 10% chance of making the playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight.

DVOA really loves Tampa Bay and also really hates Green Bay’s defense. When we chart the weighted totals for each stat, we can get a pretty clear picture of the contenders and pretenders.

Teams above the line are relatively better by DVOA and teams below the line are relatively better by EPA/play. There’s really only one meaningful outlier and that is Tampa Bay, who is far better by DVOA than by EPA/play. This is largely fueled by their defense running well ahead of every other contender in the NFC. Tampa Bay has a really good defense, there is no doubt about that, but defense tends to be less stable over time, so we may see some regression there.

The pretenders basket is very easy to find. Chicago, Washington, and Philadelphia are just not very good. All three have defenses that rank in the top 11 by DVOA, but all three offenses are bad. Minnesota may have dug themselves too big of a hole to come out of, but they look more like a fringy Wild Card contender than a bad team.

The contender basket is pretty crowded. I’d say the top tier of teams is Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, and Green Bay. From there it is a small drop to the second tier of Seattle, Arizona, and New Orleans. The final tier of NFC contenders is San Francisco and Minnesota.

There is very little separating the first two tiers though. We saw a second tier team annihilate a top tier team on Sunday. Two Sundays ago, a tier three team beat a tier one team. Football happens. Given that there are a relatively small number of possessions and NFL games are rarely decided by more than two scores, anything can happen on any given Sunday. What is clear to me from this analysis is that the NFC has no truly elite team. There is no Kansas City Chiefs in the NFC.

The fact that there is a great deal of high-quality parity in the NFC makes the quest for the one-seed all the more vital. Using DVOA, the Packers have the 12th easiest schedule remaining in the NFL. The only contending teams in the NFC with easier schedules are Seattle and Washington. Seattle has some layups (Giants, Jets, and Washington), but also have to face the Rams twice, the Cardinals once, and the 49ers at the end of the season (likely after many of their players return). FiveThirtyEight actually gives the Packers the best odds of any NFC team to get the one-seed at 31%. Doing so will be vital as any advantage you can get in this crowded NFC field, and it may be the difference between a Super Bowl appearance and going home.