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Aug 28

TABM 2014 NFL Preview: Five Factors, AFC West

From year to year, the NFL experiences rapid and dynamic changes. As we explained upon the creation of this website, many of these changes have to do with regression to the mean. Because of this regression, a majority of these changes can actually be predicted. With proper research of the NFL stat books and a keen understanding of the game’s context, you can successfully predict the changes.

This is exactly what during last year’s Five Factors feature, when we published the 2013 NFL Preview. The feature had greater than 90 percent success rate, making this feature one of the best in the world at correctly predicting key factors for any given season. Therefore, we will once again spend eight August days discussing five factors of regression for each team in the NFL. This will help to paint the picture for the 2014 NFL season predictions, which will be made at the end of the month after this feature is complete.

Today, we look at the AFC West.

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Denver Broncos (13-3, 1st place in 2013)
Denver Broncos
For all that went well for the Broncos in 2013, almost all of the good vibes were wiped away with a 43-8 loss in Super Bowl XLVIII. The offense put up historic numbers, with Peyton Manning leading the charge. He broke records left and right, including Milt Plum’s 16 touchdowns before his first interception. As a whole, Denver’s 606 points scored created new limits for an NFL offense. However, the offense was mere afterthought to the defensive dominance exercised by the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, the defense waded through some overlooked problems, only to finally hit some stride in late December. However, once February showed up, Russell Wilson toyed with the Denver defense in a game in which he never had to press his luck. Mighty Manning and the Broncos now must pick up the pieces of their super embarrassment. Gone are the days of Super Bowl losers missing the playoffs the next year. Still, a return trip is a hard task.

Down1. Offensive efficiency: See “The Record-Setting Broncos Offense: What’s Next in 2014?” for more details on the regression involved for Denver. To quickly summarize all involved for the Broncos, they did the following in terms of offensive efficiency: (1) finish with a plus-30.33 Relative Offensive Passer Rating, (2) average 6.33 yards per play, (3) average 2.83 points per drive, which is at least a half-point better per drive than any other team in the league, and (4) average 27.19 first downs per game, which is at least three first downs per game more than any other team in the league. There is a lot that built up to the record-setting 606 points scored for the Broncos, and most of those factors will experience regression in 2014. We can address many factors here, but we’ll go with the two most basic factors. Regression results: fewer yards per play and points per drive

Down2. Pass offense: See “The Hyper Efficient Quarterbacks: What’s Next for Manning and Foles?” for more details on regression involved for the Broncos. Looking into the plus-30.33 Relative Offensive Passer Rating a bit deeper, we can see how rare Denver’s passing efficiency truly was. If we consider a plus-20 ROPR as grounds for a “historically elite” offense, what do we qualify a plus-30 ROPR to be? Peyton Manning won’t throw another 55 passing touchdowns in 2014, which begins the passer rating regression in itself. Denver’s 8.15 touchdown percentage dwarfed the rest of the league, as no other team surpassed 6.5 percent. In what’s just as astounding, with only 10 interceptions and 20 sacks in 695 dropbacks, the Broncos held a sterling 4.32 Negative Big Pass Play Percentage. Every other team had at least a six percent total. Cue more regression for the 2014 Broncos, with the focus being on offense in the air. Regression results: worse Relative Offensive Passer Rating and Negative Big Pass Play Percentage

Up3. Key defensive subsets: According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, the 2013 Broncos fielded an average defense overall. They finished with a negative-0.5% Defense DVOA, which ranked 15th in the league. However, Denver struggled on third down (25.5% DVOA, ranked 29th) and in the red zone (15.2% DVOA, ranked 25th). In regards to the former, the Broncos allowed 21 plays of 20+ yards on third down. All but one came against the pass. Denver’s biggest problem probably was the absence of Von Miller for seven games (29.4% Pass Defense DVOA without him, ranked last). Thirteen of the 21 plays happened with Miller inactive. In regards to the latter, the problem simply manifested in Denver finishing 26th in defensive red zone touchdown percentage. The red zone problems were simple. Regression results: better Defense DVOA on third down and in the red zone

Down4. Placekicking: Matt Prater had a strong season for the Broncos in 2013. He converted 25 of 26 field goal attempts, including all 19 attempts from inside 50 yards. Prater’s placekicking efficiency was simply an added topping to the sundae of scoring success for the team. A 96.15 field goal percentage is tough to uphold regardless of circumstance, due to the volatile contextual-based nature of field goal attempts from one season to the next. Then again, Prater is due for some grass roots regression, as he converted 8-of-8 field attempts from 40-to-49 yards last years after converting only 8-of-16 the previous two years combined. On, and there’s an added twist: Prater will serve a four-game suspension. Maybe Brandon McManus performs a solid job during those four games, but he won’t outkick the 2013 version of Prater. Regression results: worse field goal percentage

Up5. Kick return coverage: A landmark play in Super Bowl XLVIII occurred when Seahawks receiver Percy Harvin returned the second half opening kickoff 87 yards for a touchdown. That effectively was the cherry on top of Seattle’s victory. It was also a metaphorical exclamation point of disgust added to the season-long sentence of kick return coverage problems. In the regular season, Denver’s opponents returned 32 kicks for 936 yards, resulting in a league-high 29.25-yard average. No team allowed at least 27.5 yards per kick return. This is particularly frustrating, considering the Broncos play eight games in the mile-high altitude. Denver should find a kickoff specialist who can get more height. This would give more time for the coverage units to set up and get down the field. This strategy beats what was used in 2013. Regression results: fewer yards allowed per kick return

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Kansas City Chiefs (11-5, 2nd place in 2013)
Kansas City ChiefsWhat a difference a year makes in Kansas City. For all that went wrong in 2012 during a nightmarish 2-14 season, everything seemed to go right last year. The Chiefs stormed out to a 9-0 start thanks to a defense that dominated in historic fashion during the first half of the season. Sure, ball protection and an easy schedule helped out masterfully, because that was simply the mojo taking a 180 in favor of the 2013 Chiefs. Eventually, reality started to set in during a tough second half of the season. Kansas City lost six of its eight final games, including the heartbreaking 45-44 wild card loss in Indianapolis. Kansas City blew a 38-10 lead in the game, something unbecoming a team that didn’t even allow 20 points in a game until mid-November. As 2014 looms, regression will be at play again in Kansas City, but this time it won’t be a huge help. It will be a burden, making life a lot more challenging for head coach Andy Reid and quarterback Alex Smith. How much will they regress?

Down1. Scoring efficiency: See “The Great Turnaround from the Chiefs” for more details on the regression involved for Kansas City. To quickly summarize the details, Kansas City was able to improve nine games in the standings because of three major reasons. First, the team made a 180 in the turnover battle. In 2013, the Chiefs owned a plus-18 turnover margin and held a plus-102 scoring margin off turnovers. Second, the team held a serious advantage in return touchdown margin. Kansas City scored 11 return touchdowns during the season, while opponents failed to score a single one on the Chiefs. Third, the team had the best field position on offense (33.4-yard average) and defense (23.2-yard average). All said and done, the Chiefs scored 219 more points than they did in 2012. With Kansas City more than doubling its preceding scoring offense, elasticity will be very heavily at play in 2014.
Regression results: worse turnover margin, worse return touchdown margin, worse net field position and fewer points scored

Down2. Big-play defense: Looking deeper into the team’s plus-18 turnover margin, we can see where elasticity is at play in this department. In 2012, the Chiefs forced only 13 takeaways while committing 37 giveaways. Last year, the Chiefs totaled 36 takeaways and 18 giveaways. The latter can be explained in large part to the great fit Alex Smith provides for the team. Smith now owns a 1.45 interception percentage over the last three seasons, as he works with run- and defense-oriented teams. Therefore, we can overrule giveaway regression. However, the former cannot be explained by anything so clear. Quite simply, the Kansas City defense did not improve enough for the 23-takeaway increase to be so organic. Regression results: fewer takeaways

Down3. Return game: With the Chiefs scoring 11 return touchdowns, they are put into rare company. The team website claims that this marks the third time in franchise history that team had at least that many return touchdowns in a season. It also tops the total the 2012 Bears had to lead the league, and that’s something we focused on in Five Factors last year. So where will Kansas City regress? The answer could be everywhere, as the Chiefs has at least two kick return, punt return, interception and fumble return touchdowns apiece. Perhaps we may even see regression across the board. Regression results: fewer return touchdowns

Up4. Pass defense: Going back to the defense, the Chiefs experienced an interesting dynamic with the defense. En route to a 9-0 start, Kansas City forced 23 takeaways and tallied 36 sacks. However, that came against a weak slate of opponents, as only the Philadelphia Eagles finished with a winning record among that group of opponents. That hid the problems with Kansas City’s pass defense. For the season, the Chiefs allowed 43 pass completions of 25+ yards, which was tied for the most in the league. When the big plays died down and the Chiefs played tougher opponents, the scoring defense shot up over the final seven games. Kansas City allowed 194 points in the final seven games, as opposed to the 111 allowed in the first nine games. When everything regress, we will probably get a defense that is better than what it was over the final seven games. Allowing fewer “big plays” will certainly help; and that should happen in 2014. Regression results: fewer pass completions of 25+ yards allowed

Down5. Overall record: Putting everything together, we see a case of overall elasticity for the Chiefs. Going from 2-14 to 11-5 requires some breaks that are likely bite a team back the following season. Of the all teams since 1978 (the 16-game era) to fall under the “Plus-7” category, the only exceptions to regression are the 1998 Jets and 2013 Colts. The Jets improved by three games, while the Colts kept an even record. Those two examples aren’t enough to suggest the Chiefs will fall in the company. For everything that’s bound to regress for Kansas City, even grassroots improvement for the Chiefs will lead to decline in the standings. More or less, 2014 will have to be judged by how the team limits its decline. Regression results: worse W-L record

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Oakland Raiders (4-12, 4th place in 2013)
Oakland RaidersHopefully, this losing thing is getting tiresome in Oakland. The Raiders frankly stink, and we’re running out of ways to give hope for those paying their hard-earned dollars to cheer away in the Black Hole. The 2013 season saw the Raiders field the worst pass defense in the league. It also saw Terrelle Pryor, a quarterback team picked up in the Supplemental Draft, arguably get outplayed by an undrafted rookie named Matt McGloin. Oh, and then there were those wasted dollars on Matt Flynn. No matter, the team will now either go with Matt Schaub (the Flavor of the Decade when it comes to pick-sixes) or rookie Derek Carr at quarterback (who’s probably least-suited to start as a rookie of any quarterbacks drafted in the first two rounds). Life goes on in the Bay Area, and a black hole of disappointment continues to whirl. Do any signs of regression illustrate true hope for the Raiders in 2014, or is it just old news?

Up1. Pass defense: See “The Super Seahawks Defense: What’s Next in 2014?” for more details on the regression involved for the Raiders. On the opposite side of Seattle’s stellar season defending the pass, the Raiders were getting lit up through the air. With a 105.09 Defensive Passer Rating, Oakland’s defense finished with a negative-21.04 relative rating. That’s put the Raiders in line for regression. Look no further than the team’s 33-to-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio allowed as a primary focus for improvement. Precedent strongly suggests regression. Regression results: better Relative Defensive Passer Rating

Down2. Rush offense: The Raiders ran for 2000 yards last year despite its 4-12 record. This would seem like something unusual, given that Oakland trailed so often. Three other losing teams besides the Raiders ran for at least that much last year. However, those teams had their reasons. The Minnesota Vikings had Adrian Peterson. The Washington Redskins had Mike Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme. The Buffalo Bills had the second-fastest pace in the league. Oakland’s reason was much less concrete. Terrelle Pryor ran for 576 of those yards, and he certainly won’t be the quarterback in 2014. No wonder the Raiders finished in a tie for 18th in the league with 90 rushing first downs. The next lowest with 2000+ yards totaled 105. We’re taking an educated guess by claiming that rushing regression from the quarterback leads to an overall impact. Regression results: fewer rushing yards

Down3. Red zone offense: Along with the 2000 rushing yards, the Raiders scored 16 touchdowns on the ground. It was achieved in large part due to a red zone offense than performed much better than expected. Oakland averaged 27.53 yards and 1.52 points per offensive drive, ranking 23rd in both areas. However, the team also scored a touchdown on 59.52 percent of red zone drives, ranking sixth in the league. This disparity is tough to replicate, as the sample size for red zone opportunities is much smaller than the whole. Of the team’s 16 rushing touchdowns, 12 came from inside 10 yards (including seven from one-yard out). Expect that to change. Regression results: lower rank in red zone touchdown percentage and fewer rushing touchdowns

DownUp4. Pass blocking: This factor headed in two distinct directions, depending on who played quarterback. With Terrelle Pryor and Matt Flynn, the Raiders allowed 38 sacks in just 344 dropbacks. This led to a 11.05 sack percentage. On the flip side, with Matt McGloin, the Raiders only allowed six sacks in 217 dropbacks. This led to a 2.76 sack percentage. We have an absurdly high rate counteracting with an absurdly low rate. Expect the two rates to converge, with the Pryor-Flynn regression having the larger impact. Regression results: lower sack rate allowed, but capped at four percent

Up5. Placekicking: In most regards, 2013 was a rough year for Sebastian Janikowski. With the Raiders performing well in the red zone, most of Sea Bass’ field goal attempts were from a deep distance. Janikowski converted only 21 of 30 field goal attempts, but much of that has to do with his 11-of-18 clip from beyond 40 years. With some red zone regression, Sea Bass will likely be able to kick in more favorable situations. On a semi-related note, Janikowski’s hard luck was made worse when the Raiders were unable to recover any of his 12 onside kick attempts over the past two years. Regression results: better field goal percentage

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San Diego Chargers (9-7, 3rd place in 2013)
San Diego ChargersAs the Chargers hired Mike McCoy to become head coach, talks were very quiet about the move at the national level. After the resurgence of Philip Rivers in 2013, perhaps that move deserved more talk. McCoy’s offense sent Rivers back to an elite level of production, as the veteran quarterback zipped pass after pass while quickly running through the offense. The efficiency helped San Diego to pull off some of the biggest wins of the season. The Chargers owned a 7-4 record against quality opponents, postseason included. Imagine what can happen if this team can clean up its act against inferior teams. Losses to Houston, Oakland and Washington come to mind. The great news for the Chargers is that the defense has a lot of room for improvement, especially after the June signing of cornerback Brandon Flowers. He could help to turn around fortunes for this defense, which in turn could make the Chargers a dark horse contender for Super Bowl XLIX. Can the Chargers live up to that potential?

Down1. Pass offense: See “The Record-Setting Broncos Offense: What’s Next in 2014?” for more details on the regression involved for the Chargers. The gist of this factor can be explained away by the team’s Relative Offensive Passer Rating in 2013. With a 105.47 passer rating by Philip Rivers last year, San Diego finished with a plus-21.42 ROPR. This puts up the Chargers for regression in the passing game. Expect teams to better understand what made Rivers tick in Mike McCoy’s offense, as they had a whole offseason to break down the Chargers’ film. Regression results: worse Relative Offensive Passer Rating

Down2. Offensive efficiency: Our focus here will be on San Diego’s ability to maintain drives and score points. The 2013 Chargers led the league with 37.68 yards on 6.57 plays per drive. San Diego also averaged 2.33 points per drive, which only trailed the Broncos’ historic offense. All this was achieved by the team’s offense, which focus on short and accurate passing. Philip Rivers completed 69.49 percent of his passes last year, which help to move the chains. No team had fewer than San Diego’s 23 three-and-out drives last year (resulting in a league-best 13.77 three-and-out percentage). San Diego also led the league in Five Minute Drive Percentage (18.56) and Ten Play Drive Percentage (23.35), according to Sporting Charts. As mentioned, we believe opponents used the offseason to better combat San Diego’s usage of short passes. Regression results: fewer plays, yards and points per drive

Up3. Red zone offense: For all that the Chargers did well on offense, the problem with the short-range offense was that the team ran out of space in the red zone. San Diego ranked 22nd with a 51.52 red zone touchdown percentage. The Chargers scored 42 touchdowns and attempted 37 field goals during the 2013 season, and the ratio would’ve been more favorable had the red zone offense fared better. Nick Novak converted 22 of 25 field goal attempts from inside 40 yards. Given the nature of the red zone as a subset, we can chalk part of the disparity up to being bad luck. Therefore, we can expect regression, even if San Diego’s short passing continues to led to red zone problems. Regression results: better red zone touchdown percentage

Up4. Defensive efficiency: As good as the Chargers were on offense, they were that poor on defense. San Diego allowed 5834 yards on 959 plays, making a 6.11-yard average for yards per play allowed. The Chargers allowed 35.2 yards per drive, which ranked 31st in the NFL. Part of that had to do with an average 23.8-yard drive start, but the truest issues surrounded the defense. Since 1964, only one team allowed at least six yards per play in back-to-back seasons. That was the 2008-09 Lions, who had arguably the worst defensive run in NFL history. Regression seems guaranteed. Regression results: fewer yards allowed per play

DownUp5. Subset records: The 9-7 Chargers had the interesting distinction of going 6-3 against quality teams (.500 record or better) while going 3-4 against teams with a losing team. San Diego defeated Philadelphia, Dallas, Indianapolis, Kansas City (twice) and Denver. The team also lost to Houston, Tennessee, Oakland and Washington. This isn’t the dynamic you generally see. It should be the other way around. That’s how 2014 should pan out for the Chargers, and that’s a virtual guarantee. Regression results: better non-quality record and worse quality record

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