NFL Top 10: Differences in Postseason Expectancy (10/11/16)

By Rob Pizzola @robpizzola
We're five weeks into the NFL season, and as is usually the case with the NFL, a lot of expectations have changed since the preseason. We simulated the regular season 50,000 times on the morning of the first day of the NFL season, and arrived at expected postseason probabilities for each team. Here's a look at the ten biggest movers from those original numbers to where we are now:

Arizona's peripherals aren't all that bad this season. The Cardinals rank in the top half of the league in yards per play differential, yards per point differential, and points per play differential; all of which are highly predictive of future success. The Cardinals; however, have seen declining play out of Carson Palmer. who has turned the ball over six times in four games, and has struggled to keep the chains moving. Arizona is still a highly talented team, but they've surely dug themselves into a big hole with a poor 2-3 start.

We weren't high on the Jets heading into the season, but there was certainly an opportunity for New York to thrust themselves into the AFC East race with Tom Brady on the shelf for four weeks. The Jets let a winnable game in Week 1 slip away against the Bengals, and enter Week 6 on a three-game losing streak, already three games back of the Patriots in the AFC East. New York's peripherals have been atrocious this season, getting outgained by an average of 0.8 yards per play, and at this point, it's extremely unlikely that they'll find themselves in a playoff race late into the season.

The Chargers were unlikely to make the playoffs heading into the season, and their situation has worsened since then. San Diego has actually graded well stastically through the first five games, but their penchant for blowing games late in the fourth quarter has them sitting at 1-4 on the season, three games back of both the Broncos and Raiders for the division lead. San Diego entered the season with the talent level to compete with almost anyone in this league, but injuries have really hurt them in the early going, and things are likely to get worse with an upcoming three-game stretch against Denver, Atlanta, and then Denver again.

We liked a lot of the upgrades that the Bears made on defense in the offseason, but similarly to San Diego, Chicago has been ravaged by injuries in the early going. With the Vikings out to a perfect 5-0 start, and the Packers playing good football at 3-1, it would take a lot of things going right for the Bears to find a way to bridge that gap. Chicago's play has improved since Jay Cutler went down due to injury, but they still rank in the bottom half of the league in all of our efficiency metrics, making a postseason berth very unlikely.

Finally, a team that has improved on their preseason expectations. Dallas was projected to make the playoffs just one third of the time when Tony Romo went down due to injury, but Dak Prescott has proven to be more than capable at quarterback, and has the Cowboys sitting pretty at 4-1 out of the gate. Dallas' offense isn't the only unit that has been better than expected, as the defense continues to improve their efficiency rankings on a week-to-week basis. It seemed as though the season may had been lost for Dallas just over a month ago, but the Cowboys are now the favorites to represent the NFC East in the playoffs.

Full disclosure: We were preaching the Broncos as being the most undervalued team in football heading into the season. Denver has picked up right where they left off a season ago, and could potentially be 5-0 if starting quarterback Trevor Siemian didn't have to miss last week's contest against Atlanta due to injury. The Broncos still rate has having the most efficient defense in the league, and they are getting enough production out of their offense to safely call them a legitimate contender again in the AFC.

While one team that represented the Super Bowl a season ago seems to be off to a solid start, the other sits in the basement of the lowly AFC South. Carolina's early season woes continued on Monday Night Football with a home loss to the Bucs, and their season could continue to freefall if Cam Newton doesn't return from a concussion anytime soon. The Panthers rank in the bottom half of the league in yards per point differential and are very unlikely to improve in that category with turnover machine, Derek Anderson, under center.

After opening the season 2-0, the Giants have dropped three straight games and looked abysmal in the process. Granted, it's not easy to play in Minnesota and Green Bay in back-to-back primetime games, but the Giants were utterly lost in both contests. Ben McAdoo has yet to prove himself as an upgrade over former head coach, Tom Coughlin, as the Giants continue to struggle with clock management, penalties, and turnovers. New York also has suffered through injuries to two of their top three cornerbacks, and it's difficult to win in this day and age without a good pass defense.

When Teddy Bridgewater was lost for the season, it was expected that the Vikings would take a step back this season, but they have been arguably the best team in football through the first five weeks of the season. Sam Bradford has looked comfortable in the pocket, but it's the Vikings defense that has them off to a torrid start. Minnesota has yet to allow more than 16 points in a single game this season, and that more than makes up for their inability to run the ball effectively without Adrian Peterson. As the only remaining undefeated team in football, the Vikings now make the playoffs 19 times out of every 20 simulations.

While the Vikings season is somewhat of a surprise, there are very few people who saw the Falcons getting off to this torrid start. Atlanta lost a home date with Tampa Bay in Week 1, but has since reeled off four consecutive victories. The most impressive part of that winning streak is that three of the four victories have come away from home, which has notoriously been a struggle for the Falcons in past years. Atlanta is averaging a whopping 7.2 yards per play on offense; 0.9 more yards per play than the next best offense in the league. With a two-game lead in the NFC South through five weeks, the Falcons are now the overwhelming favorites to win the divsion en route to a postseason appearance.