As is Wednesday habit, we have a new power ranking and season prediction today. When I ran the numbers yesterday though, I noticed something I thought was odd. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers – proud owners of a 5-4 record – are surprisingly high on the list. What gives? Let’s take a look.
First off, here are the ratings.
The very top of the list looks pretty typical, what with your Patriots and Broncos and Texans. Yet there the Bucs are in fifth, roughly in a tie with the 49ers and ahead of other popular teams like Atlanta, Green Bay, and the Giants. So what are the Bucs doing to get such a great honor?
Well, the Bucs are generally winning. They have a point differential of +51, which ties them with the Giants and puts them just a point behind Green Bay. The league leaders (divided roughly into tiers) are Houston and Chicago, followed by New England, followed by Denver and San Fran; Atlanta is kind of floating between those teams and the Packers/Giants/Ravens/Bucs. So strictly by point differential, the Bucs are somewhere between 7th and 10th in the league. Their ranking is a bit above that, but not too far off.
The Bucs haven’t faced a super hard schedule, but they’ve played a number of mediocre teams. They drew the NFC East this year and have already played the Giants, Redskins, and Cowboys. They happened to lose to each of them, but two were on the road and none was by more than a touchdown. They played the Chiefs, who are terrible, but they beat them handily. The Bucs’ only other loss, which was also only by a touchdown, was to the Saints, which is looking like a better loss every week. Rounding out the schedule, they’ve defeated the Panthers, Vikings, Raiders, and Chargers. Those teams are all mediocre, but every win was by double digits except for against Carolina. So the Bucs are following my usual standards for a decent team: when you lose, don’t lose by much, and when you win, win by a good amount. It’s hard to say how good a team is when they don’t play any really good teams (the Giants possibly being the exception), but we’ll get more info when the the Bucs play the Falcons and Broncos in the next month.
How about the Bucs’ other numbers? According to pro-football-reference, the Bucs actually lead the league in yards per play. They’re second in the league at net passing yards per attempt, which factors in sacks, but perhaps more importantly they’re well ahead of third place; there’s about as much distance from third (Atlanta) to average as there is from Atlanta to the Bucs. Tampa is also above average at yards per rush. They aren’t particularly successful with the run, according to Advanced NFL Stats’ success rate, but they do rank near the top of the league at expected points added per run play. The same is actually true for passing. I think what that must mean is that the Bucs run a fair number of “bad” plays, where they do little to advance the ball, but when they do hit a good play it’s a big play. The abundance of EPA on the good plays outweigh the losses on the bad plays, although there tend to be more bad than good. In other words, they’ve been explosive. They also don’t turn the ball over, with their 5 interceptions and 3 fumbles adding up to the second-fewest turnovers in the league (tied with a number of teams, one behind the Patriots). In sum, the Bucs run a pretty good offense.
Defense is kind of the opposite story. The Bucs are 4th-worst in overall yards per play; they are just ahead of the Saints to avoid being league-worst against the pass. They are decent against the run though, giving up the league-lowest yards per rush and being at or near the top for defensive run EPA and success rate. Interestingly, they don’t rate as being awful against the pass in Brian’s pass defense EPA, so perhaps they give up a fair number of yards but in a bend-don’t-break fashion. Overall, Brian has the Bucs at 12th in defensive EPA, which would be above average. So depending on which numbers you look at, the Bucs are either pretty bad or are ok at defense. Either way their defense is offsetting the quality of their offense some, but when your offense is that good your defense can slack a little bit. And ignoring all that (or perhaps partially explaining the disconnect between the ‘raw’ stats and Brian’s numbers), the Bucs have gathered 19 turnovers (15 picks and 4 fumbles). You can afford to give up some yards when you get two turnovers a game.
So in sum, the Bucs take care of the ball while taking it from the other team, are probably not terrible at defense, and have a very solid offense. They’ve happened to lose four games, so I think they’re floating under the radar. But with remaining winnable games against Carolina, Philly, and the Rams, an interesting home game against the Falcons, and another game in week 17 against the potentially-resting-their-starters Falcons, the Bucs could end up with 10 wins even if they drop their road games against Denver and the Saints.
Speaking of future wins, let’s look at the season projections at this point. Remember that current wins is how many wins a team has right now, expected wins is how many games that team would be expected to win if they played the whole season over, and the last two columns are expected wins so far and expected wins remaining. So if you want a guess at a team’s final record, add their current wins to their future wins.
The Bucs appear to be looking at more like 9 wins; without looking at the actual predictions, my guess is that they’re underdogs in both Atlanta games (the model doesn’t and won’t know that the Falcons could be sitting starters in week 17) as well as against the Saints and Broncos. Obviously they have some chance to win those games, but they also have some chance of losing the other games they’re expected to win. Atlanta is looking at 12 wins, so they’ll probably take the division easily, but if the Bucs can win their first game against the Falcons and Atlanta stumbles a bit in their other games, things could get interesting.
In other playoff races, the model likes the Pats, Ravens, Texans, and Broncos to win the AFC divisions and the Bears, 49ers, and Giants to win the other NFC divisions. The top wild card teams would then be the 9-win Bucs, 8 or 9-win Vikings, 10-win Packers, and 9-win Seahawks in the NFC and the 9-win Colts and 9-win Steelers in the AFC. With Big Ben going down though, it’s hard to say how the Steelers will play going forward. After next week I’ll use the predictions (along with an extra week of data) to run my numbers through the nfl-forecast site and put some probabilities on these things. But right now it seems like the NFC is much more open than the AFC. Of course, when you say something like that usually the games turn out just the opposite.