And yet, there remains a perception that flashy high-scoring teams are only capable of regular-season success, possessing some ambiguous inherent flaw that makes them go kaput in January. Recent examples include the 2010 Falcons, 2010 Patriots, 2011 Packers and 2012 Broncos. All these squads represent high-flying number one seeds whose pass-happy offenses flamed out in stunning fashion during a Divisional Round upset.
That brings us to the 2013 Philadelphia Eagles. At first glance, the Eagles are nothing like those teams. At 6-5, they're not even locks to make the playoffs, and Philly will almost certainly be playing on Wild Card weekend if they squeak in. Moreover, while Nick Foles has been brilliant, LeSean McCoy and his NFC-leading EPA per play mark makes Philadelphia one of the league's few ground games that provides substantial value.
Of course, Philly pairs that with a defense that's one of the worst against the pass, with the fifth-lowest success rate. That's an incredibly difficult handicap to overcome; and yet, the Eagles have been in the top 10 of the team efficiency rankings all season long.
Thus, the numbers imply that Philly is actually a very good team, one capable of challenging for a championship. This is obviously far out of whack with public perception. Such dissonance raises a few important questions, not only about the Eagles themselves, but the type of team that can earn the label of "championship contender" in today's NFL.
How Good Are the Eagles?
The most obvious component of the Eagles' recent success is the ascension of Nick Foles into the starting lineup. Foles had a rough start to his career, compiling a minus-11.3 EPA in seven starts on last year's dysfunctional team. He was up-and-down in his first five games this season, playing six solid quarters against the Giants and Bucs before a disastrous concussion-marred game against Dallas.
But over the last three games, Foles has been the best quarterback in the league by a fairly wide margin. Obviously that's a tiny sample size, and for reference, 11 quarterbacks have posted an adjusted yards per attempt (AYPA) over 8.0, which is far more than we'd see in a full season. Sorted by AYPA, here they are:
Foles will obviously regress a bit, especially considering that the three teams he faced, the Raiders, Redskins and Packers, are all in the bottom half in pass EPA per play. But what makes Philly sustainable is their run game, which leads the league with a 0.10 EPA/P mark. While running the ball is usually a losing battle in terms of improving a team's scoring odds, that mark is equivalent to the Cowboys' 13th-ranked passing attack, representing one of the few truly break-even run games.
Encouragingly, the Eagles are a top-10 offense in both pass EPA and run EPA per play, a characteristic that typically leads to a playoff berth. This year, the Eagles, Seahawks, Broncos and Packers fit the criteria. Denver vs. Seattle is perhaps the most obvious Super Bowl pick, and the Packers were certainly contenders before Aaron Rodgers' injury.
Of course, offense is only part of the equation, and the Eagles have an equally crippling association with pass defense. Entering Week 13, Football Outsiders has rated Philly as the 26th-ranked pass defense in DVOA. Again looking at a five year scope, just five teams have made the playoffs with a pass defense that poor, and only the 2011 Patriots and 2011 Saints won a playoff game.
The Eagles themselves have very little chance of making the Super Bowl, and it's not hard to see that. The Saints and Seahawks are both prolific offenses with higher EPA per play marks than the Eagles, and both have excellent defenses to complement them. So Philly is an unfortunate victim of circumstance, at least in 2013.
But what if those circumstances were different? As we'll see, the Eagles really aren't all that dissimilar from a few teams that recently played on Super Bowl Sunday.
The offense by defense EPA per game visualization is a handy way to get a quick synopsis of where a team stands in relation to the rest of the league. As you probably expect, Eagles are in the good-offense-bad-defense quadrant of the graph, where every team is a playoff contender so long as their defensive limitations aren't especially crippling:
I've put the Eagles offensive and defensive EPA up explicitly on the graph. We can look over recent seasons to see teams that fit a similar profile. I picked two teams from each of the past five seasons, both to expand the sample size and because there weren't clear perfect fits at times. Doing so paints a fairly consistent picture:
There are a lot of solid 10-6 teams there, most of which made the playoffs. That makes sense given that most of the teams in the 2013 region are playoff contenders who might finish with similar records.
Two teams probably pop out right away, the 2011 Giants and 2008 Cardinals. Both made unexpected Super Bowl trips when their respective defenses propped up into slightly above-average outfits in the playoffs, putting defensive EPA per game marks of a little over 0 during their postseason runs. Both also had to upset good-offense-good-defense teams during their runs—Arizona memorably extinguished Jake Delhomme's Carolina career, while New York took down the Falcons at home.
This should raise a question about fringe championship contention: If a team could only pick one, should they choose to have a great offense or a great defense? It's tough to make an apples-to-apples comparison, because a team with a defense as good as the 2000 Ravens or 1985 Bears would almost certainly do well. But even if we pick the two best defensive teams from the quadrant, theoretically the best "bad-offense-good-defense" teams, they only barely match up with the Philly doppelgangers:
Like the other exercise, it produced one Super Bowl champion, but only five out of 10 made the postseason. Interestingly all five made it to the conference championship round, though only the Steelers won (and they did so by beating the similarly profiled Ravens). But again, these are the teams equipped with the very best defenses, and the Eagles are not the best offense.
What this shows is that it is likely easier to make a dark horse Super Bowl run equipped with only a good offense rather than only a good defense. Brian wrote a post earlier this month illustrating how good offenses supersede good defenses in EPA. An important point in that post details how offense have a wider distribution. This means defensively challenged teams have less ground to make up when they need to pick things up in the postseason, giving offense-only teams a bit of an advantage.
The majority of champions will still come from the good-offense-good-defense quadrant, because well, duh. Remember, the good-offense-only teams that made surprise runs were able to pick up their D to league average levels. But when searching for second-tier teams that might snatch the Lombardi Trophy, it's important to realize that the old adage "Defense wins championships" is no longer entirely accurate.