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Using Points-Per-Game to Profile the Typical Playoff Team

| June 15th, 2018

I’ve been writing a bunch of articles lately about how the Bears are expected to improve, so now I want to focus on what level they have to reach in order to make the playoffs.

As I’ve said before, there is some precedent to teams who have been as bad as the Bears over the last few years going straight to the playoffs in recent NFL history, but not many make that big of a jump. I still think it’s more likely that the Bears end up somewhere around average this year and are poised to make a playoff push in 2019.

But if they are to be one of the few that jump directly to the playoffs, what type of improvement will they have to show? In an effort to answer this question, I looked at the offensive and defensive rankings in terms of points per game for every team from 2008-17. I then looked at what those profiles looked like for playoff teams.


Crunching the Data

Unsurprisingly, teams that had better offenses and defenses made the playoffs more often. I generally split the rankings into quartiles (1-8, 9-16, 17-24, and 25-32) and grouped teams based on their combination of stronger and weaker unit. We’ll tentatively call 1-8 good, 9-16 above average, 17-24 below average, and 25-32 bad. The results can be seen in the table below, or full raw data can be viewed here.

So we basically have four different categories of teams that consistently make the playoffs.

  • Good offense and defense. All of these teams have made the playoffs over the last 10 years except the 2008 Patriots, who went 11-5. You mean to tell me teams that are really good on both sides of the ball make the playoffs? No way!
  • Good stronger unit, above average weaker unit. Slightly lower percentages here, but now about 80% of teams make the playoffs. Again, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Teams that are among the best in the league on offense or defense and above average in the other should be in the playoffs. Most of the exceptions just missed earning a playoff berth, as they averaged over 9 wins per year.
  • Good stronger unit, below average weaker unit. Just over 60% of these teams made the playoffs, which again makes a lot of sense. Having one unit among the best in the league is enough to win you a lot of games even if your other side of the ball isn’t all that strong.
  • Both units above average. Just under half of these teams made the playoffs. I was honestly surprised a well-balanced solid team with no great unit had lower playoff odds than one great unit and one below-average one. That speaks to the importance of building one really strong unit.

Other combinations almost never make the playoffs; the exceptions are almost exclusively mediocre teams that won a weak division or lucked into a wild card berth with 9 wins.


Applying to 2018 Bears

Looking at these four groups, where could the Bears fall in 2018? Let’s take a quick look at both sides of the ball to see where they’ll likely fall.

  • Defense: the Bears ranked 9th in points per game allowed last year, which would qualify them as above average in the above categories. With mostly the same unit back this year, I think expecting a similar outcome is a reasonable expectation for 2018. I believe the lack of edge rush will keep them from becoming a top-end unit, but it is possible they find a way to take another step forward and become a top defense, which would make getting a playoff berth easier.
  • Offense: Chicago’s offense has been among the league’s worst for the last several years, but as I wrote last week, is likely to improve in 2018 based on recent NFL history. How much they improve will be the key determinant for how good the Bears are this year. If they can get to the average or above-average level, the Bears should have at least a 50% shot at being a playoff team, but the odds aren’t good if they only step up to the below-average level and the defense holds as above-average but not great.

So in my estimation, the defense is likely going to be in the above average category, but might step it up to a top unit, and the offense is most likely going to be below average, but might step it up to above average. If both units perform to their more optimistic projection, the Bears will most likely be a playoff team. If one unit performs to the more optimistic projection, they have around a 50% chance at making the playoffs, and if neither unit performs to the more optimistic projection, they’ll likely miss the playoffs, but still win more games than they have the past few years.

Like I said at the top, I still think the most likely outcome is that the Bears are around .500 this year and make the playoffs in 2019, but there is a somewhat realistic path to them making the playoffs in 2018.

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