No Playoffs for Steelers (07/21/15)

By John Ewing Director of Research and Analytics @johnewing
Bold Predictions – an interesting player or team prediction for the 2015 NFL season.

Each day, over the next two weeks (July 13th – 24th), we will reveal an interesting player or team prediction for the 2015 NFL season. The first five articles of the series will have a fantasy focus while the next five will be bold predictions for the upcoming season.

Previous Articles: Hill leads NFL in rushing, Luck highest scorer in fantasy, Landry over 100 receptions, Peterson is No. 1 running back, Mariota over Winston, New Playoff Teams

Prediction: Steelers, Lions and Cardinals will miss the playoffs

According to NFL Media research, at least four new teams have made the playoffs every year since the NFL adopted the 12-team format back in 1990. Last season was no different as the Pittsburgh Steelers, Detroit Lions, Arizona Cardinals, Baltimore Ravens and Dallas Cowboys all reached the postseason after missing the playoffs in 2013. All of these teams were beneficiaries of some form of luck but unlike a season ago, the Steelers, Lions and Cardinals aren't as likely to get the same breaks. We expect regression to the mean and for those three franchises to miss the playoffs.

One way to tell whether a team was lucky or not is to compare their actual win-loss record to what their expected win-loss record was based on Bill James' Pythagorean Expectation, which examines the number of points a team scores and the points it allows. By this metric, the Steelers (1.4 wins), Lions (1.8 wins) and Cardinals (2.7 wins) all performed better than one would expect based on point differential. Arizona outscored opponents by eleven points, indicative of an 8-8 team, but defied the odds and won 11 games.

Another common form of luck is record in one-score games. A season can swing on how many games a team wins that were decided by seven points or fewer. All three teams had winning records in such games combining to go 14-5 in games decided by one touchdown or less last season. Of course, that type of performance isn't consistent from year to year. The Lions were 6-1 in one score games last season but a dreadful 6-14 in the previous two campaigns.

Luck takes all forms including the ever-fickle turnover. Randomness is common in turnover differential and teams rarely maintain a good (or bad) performance, as teams tend to regress to the mean over time. The Chiefs were +18 (made the playoffs) in 2013 but were -9 (missed the playoffs) in 2014. The Cardinals were +8 and the Lions were +7, both are likely to regress in 2015. The Steelers weren't all that fortunate with turnovers but they were lucky to be one of just three teams in the league that didn't allow any points to be scored off of turnovers.

Luck isn't the only reason these teams will miss the playoffs but it will be a contributing factor. Pittsburgh is projected to finish third in the division with a 7.4-8.6 record (31.5 percent chance to make the playoffs). Detroit has a 21.6 percent chance to reach the postseason, but is projected to finish third in the NFC North with a 7.3-8.7 record. Arizona is also projected to finish third in its division with a 7.3-8.7 record and has only a 20.5 percent chance to return to postseason play.