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....
Injury Luck and Record Against Top Competition - Cincinnati Bengals
Perhaps few things are as totally essential to a team's overall success than the health of its players. Both the players and the fans of every team can and do invoke "adversity" and "injuries" whether their team was good or not. It's one of the more overused crutches in sports. It's also rarely accurate. Some teams simply have a bit more injury luck than others do in a given season. There's nothing inherently wrong with that as we would all love our teams to stay healthy (and the NFL would be so perfect without them) but injuries do play a huge role in the totality of a season.
In 2013, the most fortunate team was, perhaps not surprisingly, Kansas City. And boy did their injury luck run out in the worst way at the worst time.
The #2 team? The Philadelphia Eagles, who parlayed that good fortune into winning a weak division. They'd be a good candidate for this article except for the fact that the NFC East is so terrible, the Eagles might even get better regardless of their injury fortunes.
Coming in at #3 are the Cincinnati Bengals.
While much was made of Geno Atkins injury - and there is no question that he is a dominant player - the Bengals still enjoyed one of the healthiest rosters in the NFL. While it's entirely possible that the Bengals will be healthy in 2014, the odds are just as likely if not more so that they will not be. Injuries are to some extent random but have been shown to regress to a league average on the seasonal level. In other words, given enough time, injuries tend to sort themselves out. Teams don't have any particular skill in staying healthy. But if you are healthy, you had better take advantage of it while you can.
Injury luck alone is likely not enough to explain the Bengals' probable regression but it's definitely part of the equation. Schedule is another factor. With games against New England and Denver while their division rivals have to play neither team, Cincy faces an uphill battle to threaten for a first round bye as they did last year.
Record Against Top Competition
Prior to 2013, the Bengals were a dismal 4-10 against teams with a winning record. That even understates how bad it was. Two of those wins were against 9-7 teams who failed to make the postseason (Tennessee Titans and New York Giants). Another was against a team in the midst of a 3-6 start who later finished 10-6 (Washington Redskins). The fourth win came against a team resting its starters in week 17 (Baltimore). In other words, the Bengals were beating bad teams, and losing to good teams effectively straight up. They had not beaten a single true contender in two years.
In 2013, the Bengals to their credit improved to 4-1 against teams with a winning record. That one loss came at an awfully bad time, but their four wins belie the truth as well. One of those four wins came against Green Bay where the Packers improbably fumbled the ball in the final minutes, while hoping to kill clock. That ball was scooped up and run back for a touchdown for the go-ahead points, from which Green Bay did not recover. Another came against a team with a losing record at the time, finished 9-7, and then later beat Cincinnati in the postseason. The final two were certainly legitimate wins at home against New England and Indianapolis and provided the team with some reason for optimism.
While one can point to Dalton's continued improvement in passing metrics each year - something which certainly is commendable - the problem facing the Bengals and especially Dalton is that they have yet to show they can beat good teams on any notable basis, and even then have rarely done it on the road. Even against their floundering division rivals, the Bengals were pounded on the road by Pittsburgh and would have lost comfortably to Baltimore but for a Hail Mary making a game of it.
Dalton Against Pressure
Bill Barnwell of Grantland performed a study that showed that Dalton performs horrifically under pressure. His first two losses in the playoffs came against the same team with a dominant pass rush. His third loss came against San Diego, who seemed to realize at halftime that mercilessly blitzing Dalton would help them. They were right. Dalton almost single-handedly put his team behind the eight-ball as he unraveled against the Chargers' relentless blitzes. His defense did their part to hold San Diego to field goals at times instead of touchdowns, but his turnovers against pressure killed Cincy's chances in the game.
Dalton's performance against pressure would be perhaps academic except for one major problem: to get anywhere in the playoffs, you must defeat teams with elite pass rushes. Performing badly under intense pass rush pressure is a critical problem to have. Dalton's arm strength is not really that much of a liability. His performance against heavy pressure is an enormous one. All of this ties into Cincinnati's difficulties against top NFL teams.
Cincinnati will be in the mix for a playoff berth. They didn't really improve but they should still be approximately the same team. Their defense will be its usual top 10 self with top five upside. AJ Green is still one of the best receivers in football. Marvin Lewis will still make terrible challenges.
However, in a conference in which Denver, New England, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore all got significantly better, standing pat simply isn't good enough. In the NFL, when your principal rivals get appreciably better, staying the same is effectively getting worse.
Prediction for Cincinnati Bengals: 9-7, Miss Playoffs on Conference Record Tiebreaker for Wild Card with San Diego, 3rd Place in the AFC North
How Have the Ravens Fared in Injuries Lately?
Baltimore's Injury Luck in 2013 was a moderate ninth, though almost all of those injuries were concentrated on the offense, contributing to their massive downturn. The defense remained fairly healthy and played like it. Baltimore's Adjusted Games Lost came in at 13th in 2012. It would seem they would have been worse than that given the rash of injuries sustained but in their case, it was the "who" of the injuries that were so critical.
In 2011, Baltimore was the healthiest team in football. Part of what made the 2011 loss in the AFC Championship so devastating was the knowledge that the team would likely not be as fortuitous in that respect - and they weren't. The previously 12-4 Ravens lost two of their best players for significant time and fell to 10-6. There's nothing wrong with being fortunate in the injury department but it does illustrate how sometimes a team's future is impacted by it. When a team enjoys a good streak of health, they must capitalize.