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Playoff teams that will regress in 2014: Indianapolis Colts

Turnover is a fact of life in the NFL Playoffs. We seek to figure out who will struggle to duplicate their 2013 success.

Andy Lyons

One of the more common fallacies in NFL predictions is the assumption that most playoff teams will perform approximately the same as the previous year. It's an easy stance to take, as one will be usually right on at least 50% of the playoff field and the surprises can be chalked up to hollow platitudes like "they just knew how to win!"

In actuality, there is often a legitimate explanation for that turnaround or sudden collapse. One need only look at the disaster that became of the 2013 Texans or Falcons to know that the one's fortunes in the NFL can change swiftly and suddenly.  Regression does not always take the form of a complete collapse to 2-14 but it does mean that the team may not achieve its level of success from the year prior.

The reasons for such sudden changes in fortune are usually one or more of the following:

  • Easy schedule
  • Record in close games (i.e. one score games)
  • Injury Luck
  • Roster Turnover

Thankfully, we have some tools at our disposal to make educated guesses on what teams those will be....

Record in Close Games - Indianapolis Colts

I wrote before about Pythagorean Wins, explaining that they are a common analytics metric for evaluating a team's true strength.  At their core, they represent point differential, which is a better predictor of actual and future team success than the team's previous winning percentage itself.

The Colts' achieved seven Pythagorean wins in 2012 - indicating that they were extraordinarily fortunate to have won 11. Indeed they are the worst 11 win team in NFL history.  Probability suggested they'd be worse in 2013 by pure wins and losses but might actually still be a better team as Luck got better.  The latter did happen with the Colts achieving nine Pythagorean wins, but they still managed to duplicate their 2012 record. Its exceedingly unlikely that the Colts will outperform their true ability to this extent once more.

One principal reason that a team wins more games than it should is its record in one score games. Analytics gurus have noted in their research that teams have little control their performance in such games.  The better quarterbacks do tend to generally have a better record in such games than others historically but it is not necessarily consistent year to year.

One team that came crashing back to Earth in this department in 2013 was the Atlanta Falcons.  Bill Barnwell noted that from 2008 until 2012, the Matt Ryan-led Falcons were 27-11 in such games.  Come 2013, they went just 3-7.  Winning close games is not a skill in the exact sense of the word.  Sometimes you get lucky and get that field goal drive in the final 40 seconds.  Other times, the pass falls incomplete.

The Colts are the current leaders in one score games lately.  They have accrued a 14-2 record in close games since 2012, an astonishing win rate of 88%.  Even if one believes that Luck is the next Manning, it is simply unlikely that the Colts can sustain that ratio.

The AFC South is still decidedly awful but eventually the Colts will not get the sort of good fortune they experienced in the playoff win over the Chiefs.  Losses like 8-38 to the Rams, 11-40 to the Cardinals, and 22-43 to the Patriots suggest they were not quite the Super Bowl contender some thought. They should still win the division comfortably but the odds are against them sustaining another dominant stretch in one score games.

Regression for Indianapolis is likely not to take any visible form - in other words, they should still have a winning record and win the division.  But don't be surprised if they fall to 9-7 or 10-6 rather than the dominant heavyweight some believe they'll be.  They may play closer to their true performance level as their record in close games regresses closer to 50%, rather than achieving more than two wins above what their point differential suggests.

However, with a weak NFC East on their slate, its hard to predict the Colts to miss the playoffs or anything drastic - again, regression for them may simply be not winning more games than they should have given their division.

Prediction for the Indianapolis Colts:  10-6, AFC South division winner, 4th seed, 4-4 record in close games

How Have the Ravens Fared in One Score Games?

Baltimore has been no slouch in one score games either, having played in many of them.  They currently are 33-25 in them since 2008, including playoffs (using 8 points as the cutoff instead of 7 as Barnwell does).  In 2011 they went 7-3, in 2012 they went 8-4, but their good fortune ran out in 2013 where they finished 6-5.  And quite a few of them ended in unbelievable fashion, including 61-yard game winning field goals against Detroit and five go-ahead touchdowns inside of the final two minutes against Minnesota.

Baltimore is a good example of a team that was excellent in such games for several years and then found itself at league average of near 50%.

The surest way to winning games is to never let the game get that close in the first place.  You don't want to have your season coming down to 61 yard field goals and touchdown drives in the final 45 seconds.  The Ravens should be a better team in 2014 and hopefully will not have so many nail-biters in the end where a single play, whistle, or bounce of a football can do them in.