Falcons-Seahawks: Better record against better numbers
7:36 am January 11, 2013, by Mark Bradley
"There's nothing to sweat, guys. We'll dazzle 'em with analytics." (AP photo by Matt Slocum)
Two sets of numbers are at play in the run-up to Falcons-Seahawks. There are your basic W’s and L’s — quoth Bill Parcells: “In the NFL, you are what your record says you are” — and the Falcons were 13-3 in the regular season to Seattle’s 11-5. But more advanced analytics exist, and nearly all suggest that a road team with a lesser record and a rookie quarterback should win Sunday.
“On a play-to-play basis, Seattle has been a much better team that Atlanta,” said Rivers McCown of Football Outsiders. “That doesn’t mean that’s how it’s going to play out on the field.”
“Back in 2010, when Atlanta was the No. 1 seed, all the advanced metrics said Green Bay was the No. 1 team in the NFC,” said Chase Stuart of Football Perspective. “Seattle fits that mold a little bit.”
The Falcons tied with Denver for the NFL’s best record. According to Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), the Falcons were the league’s 10th-best team. Seattle was the best. Said McCown: “The Seahawks were top four in offense, top four in defense and top four in special teams.”
What of the Falcons’ glossy record? McCown: “They were the second-worst 13-win team ever.”
Stuart: “They’re different sides of the coin. Seattle was better than its record, and the Falcons weren’t as good as theirs.”
Some of this has to do with strength of schedule — “Atlanta had the 27th-hardest schedule in the (32-team) league,” McCown said — and some with the Falcons’ inability to win big while winning. In a Football Perspective post, Stuart pointed to the Simple Rating System employed by Pro-Football-Reference, where he used to work, that combines degree of difficulty with margin of victory and noted that Seattle ranks first in the NFC to the Falcons’ fifth.
Wrote Stuart: “This is just the second time such a matchup (where a team that won two more games than its opponent but finished five or more points worse in the SRS) has occurred in the last 10 years… and the first involved the 2010 Falcons (in the aforementioned 48-21 loss to Green Bay). In fact, this scenario has only unfolded five times since 1970.”
How did those first four games go? The team favored by advanced metrics lost twice, Stuart noted, but both bore asterisks: One was the Titans’ Music City Miracle kickoff return against Buffalo, and the other was a 1976 AFC title game victory by Oakland over Pittsburgh, which was missing both Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier.
About here, you might be saying: What do a bunch of pencil pushers know about a man’s game like football? Well, the older I get, the more fascinated I am by advanced analytics in all sports, and lately I’ve corresponded with enough analysts to know they don’t fit the profile of geeks gone wild. Said McCown: “We’re not living in our mother’s basement. We have our own houses.” (Although McCown’s personal blog is titled, archly enough, “From Mom’s Basement.”)
In November, the sabermetric baseball community was a-dither over the American League MVP balloting, which saw old-school numbers (Miguel Cabrera and his Triple Crown) trump new-age analytics (Mike Trout and his WAR total). As an interested layman, I see Falcons-Seahawks in that same vein. And, just for the record, I’d have voted for Trout.
McCown: “We project Seattle to win, but my personal feeling is that Atlanta will give them a close game. I think it will be low-scoring.”
Stuart: “I don’t think Atlanta is a bad team — it’s probably the eighth-best team in the league. I would agree that the passing game is better than it was in 2010, but from afar, this looks like the same average defense. Everyone thinks Seattle is really balanced, pretty good at everything, kind of like San Francisco last year … I think it’s a very, very close game, but I’d probably pick Seattle.”
But wait. Remember that part about the rookie quarterback? Russell Wilson isn’t to be confused with Aaron Rodgers just yet, is he?
Stuart: “I don’t think there’s that fear factor you get with (facing) other quarterbacks. So yes, Atlanta might be in a better position in that regard.”
OK. That makes me feel a bit better about my stated belief that these Falcons will win the Super Bowl. (In both advanced metrics and real life, you can’t win it all if you lose your first playoff game.) And what does Football Outsiders think of the Birds’ prospects?
McCown: “We give them a 7.1 percent chance (of winning the Super Bowl, which is sixth-best of the eight teams standing). Me, I’d say their chances are closer to 15 percent.”