After winning last night, the Colts are 6-3. A year after going 2-14, they appear to be headed toward a playoff spot. People are starting to talk about Andrew Luck as a possible MVP candidate. In short, everything’s coming up Milhouse. But I am here to tell you, beloved readers, that things aren’t going to stay like this for long.
Let’s start out with an oddity. The Colts are 6-3, putting them something like 6th in the league by win percentage, depending on how you feel about ties. Yet my power rankings say they’re a below-average team. How can this happen? It’s probably because my rankings are crap, right? But let’s look elsewhere. Brian Burke says they’re the 26th-best team in the league, which is the nice way of saying they’re the 7th-worse team in the league. The football-reference guys have the Colts’ SRS (a measure that combines margin of victory with strength of schedule) at -4.7; 0 would be average. Only seven teams are rated worse. But the Colts are 6-3! They must be good.
Maybe we’ll learn more by looking at who the Colts have played. They’ve now played Jacksonville twice (losing once), Tennessee, Cleveland, the Jets (getting shellacked), Minnesota, Miami, Green Bay, and Chicago (losing handily). That isn’t exactly a murderer’s row of opponents. Five of those games have come against teams I have ranked as below-average, and Minnesota hasn’t been looking so hot recently. Perhaps this is why their F-R strength of schedule is -2.9, also known as second-easiest in the league (behind the Chargers).
Maybe the Colts have had an easy road, but they’re just taking advantage of it? Well, the Colts also manage to have a negative point differential; they’ve been outscored on the season. How do you do that while playing an easy schedule and winning two thirds of your games? Well, before last night, the Colts hadn’t won a game by more than 6 points. That win, as it turns out, came in an overtime victory; the Colts were tied but managed to get an overtime touchdown for their second-largest margin of victory all year. Their other four wins are by 3, 3, 3, and 4 (in each of those games, the Colts scored last; it isn’t like the losing teams are getting meaningless scores to keep the margin low). In contrast, their losses are by 5, 20, and 26. Winning is obviously nice, but isn’t directly a sign of a good team. Good teams also tend to win in certain ways. They beat bad teams by a lot, mediocre teams by some, and other good teams by a little (and are outscored by better teams). A good team given the Colts’ schedule should have a pretty solidly positive margin of victory; even an average team should be racking up points against the Jaguars (twice!), Browns, Titans, and even the Jets.
Ok, maybe you don’t like the points argument. Let’s ask, what do the Colts do well? Well, they have Andrew Luck, so maybe they pass well. But they’re only 8th in the league in passing yards per game, which isn’t as high as you might guess for a potentially elite passing team. They also get there by just passing a lot; they lead the league in passing attempts, and even if you take away a hearty 40 passes (their per-game average) they would be 11th, behind four other teams that have already played nine games. If you switch from per-game to per-attempt numbers, things get worse. The Colts have been sacked 21 times this season, an above-average number, and if you include the yards lost there and add the sacks in as a drop-back, the Colts are only 15th in yards per attempt, just above average. If you use F-R’s adjustment for touchdowns and interceptions, the Colts fall to 17th, dead average. Now, average isn’t bad, but it isn’t what you would think is driving a 6-3 team.
Rushing tells a similar story. The Colts are 6th in rushing attempts but only 12th in yards; that makes them 19th for yards per attempt. They do seem to run in the right spots though; Brian’s site has the Colts at 6th in expected points per run play, 9th in run success, and 3rd in total run win probability added. Of course, when you have a lot of plays happen when the game is close, you have more of an opportunity to pump up your win probability. By EPA and success rate the Colts run just as well as the Rams (and worse by yards per attempt), but the Rams don’t have nearly the win probability because they’re typically losing. So the Colts are probably a bit above average at the run, all in all, but no great shakes.
How about defense? The Colts have an average sack-adjusted yards per pass against, but are 7th-worst when you factor in touchdowns and interceptions (they only have 4 picks on the year, good for a tie for second-worst in the league). They’ve also been fourth-most-generous at opponent rushing yards per attempt, complemented by fourth-worst expected points per run (although they are average at success rate). Overall, the Colts give up an above-average number of yards per play, and Brian has them rated at 6th-worst at expected points per play. All these numbers are pretty bad when you add in the fact that they’ve come against offensively-challenged teams like the Jags, Browns, Jets, Titans, and Dolphins.
Perhaps none of that convinces you. The Colts are 6-3, and that’s what’s important. But who do they play in the future? Well, they haven’t played either of their games against the Texans yet. Houston is one of the for-real teams in the league; the Colts might only be spared two losses because the second game is in the last week of the season and the Texans could be resting players. Next weekend they play the Patriots, which will not be easy. They’ll play in Detroit, which will be a challenge. That’s potentially four losses in their final seven games. The rest are certainly winnable; hosting Tennessee and at Kansas City, and against the Bills who are in their usual mid-and-late-season swoon. So a double-digit win season is not out of the question. Even then, however, the Colts will have gotten there by skating by on a ridiculously easy schedule. They won’t have home field advantage in the playoffs, if they get there, because they’re behind the Texans in the division. That means in the first round of the playoffs they’ll play on the road against one of (probably) the Patriots, Ravens, Steelers, or Broncos. That will not be a good thing for the Colts. Oh, it’ll be great compared to being 2-14, but the game probably won’t go well.
So let’s sum up. Yes, the Colts are 6-3. But they have played a very easy schedule, possibly the easiest in the league if the Chargers hadn’t happened to play the Chiefs twice already. Their offensive and defensive stats, both of the typical and more advanced variety, are essentially average despite having played so many crummy teams. When you put the numbers together (either mine, Advanced NFL Stats’, or football-reference’s), they tell you the Colts are below average. It might not matter, since they still have three very winnable games to play and obviously have some chance at winning in the other four; a playoff spot would not be a crazy outcome at this point. But unless the Colts put in a really good game against either the Pats or the Texans (or, to a lesser extent, the Lions or Bills), I’m not going to buy in just yet.