Of course, whatever momentum may or may not exist is totally irrelevant if the team does not actually make the playoffs. The playoffs reward the teams that have performed best over the course of a 16-game season, but due to injuries and player development, the 16-game sample does not really accurately reflect team strengths by the end of the year. It's why Football Outsiders has weighted DVOA to quantify a team's recent performance.
Looking at the second half of the season (since Week 9, though bye weeks make it tough to neatly divide up the schedule), we can see that one of the best second-half teams is highly unlikely to make the playoffs, and one of the worst is already in:
So what's changed?
Yes, the Arizona Cardinals are neck-and-neck with the Seahawks as the most well-rounded team in the second half. Arizona's defense has been consistently great all year—though the absence of moveable Joker piece Tyrann Mathieu hurts—but the jump is due to substantial improvement from a surprising source.
They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but Bruce Arians' "Air Coryell" passing system has revived Carson Palmer's career. And it's not as if Palmer has demonstrated steady improvement—it's as if the light bulb suddenly flickered on around Week 8:
Apart from the Philly loss, Palmer has been excellent. Palmer has put up an average of 12.3 EPA per game since Arizona's Week 9 bye. That would be the third-highest EPA per game among quarterbacks this season, behind only Peyton Manning and Josh McCown.
More importantly, Palmer has been interception-free in four of the last five games. Considering he threw 14 picks the first eight games, the turnaround is a veritable shock. It's questionable whether that will hold up—Palmer's interception rate in the second half sits at a miniscule 1.4 percent, whereas his first half rate was 4.9 percent, and his rate over 2,649 throws from 2007-12 was 3.3 percent. But at least for a few games, Palmer has turned the clock back to 2005.
Alas, Arizona needs a borderline miracle to sneak into one of the wild cards. The Cardinals need to sweep their final two games—at Seattle and home against San Francisco. Even if Arizona wins both those games, they need the loser of next week's Carolina-New Orleans game to drop their Week 17 contest. The Panthers visit the Falcons, and the Saints host the Bucs. Alternatively, if the 49ers lose at home this week to Atlanta, the Week 17 meeting in the desert would be a win-or-go-home scenario.
None of those circumstances seem particularly likely. Indeed, Rob Hendryx's latest playoff probabilities gave the Cardinals a 17 percent chance going into the weekend, and Football Outsiders has dropped that number to 11.6 percent after this past week's games. Arizona is almost certainly one of the 12 best teams in the league, but they will likely be home come January.
Out of Horse Power?
If the Cardinals are victims of circumstance, the Indianapolis Colts are beneficiaries of it. The AFC South is the only division without at least two teams at .500 or better, making Indy the first team to clinch their division this season. Still, winning the AFC South is like having the nicest trailer in a trailer park, and the Colts have been on a downward spiral for a couple months now.
Everyone has pointed to Andrew Luck's inconsistencies since Reggie Wayne's season-ending injury, and while those claims are certainly true, they are not the Colts' main issue. Indy's pass defense sits at 24th in these efficiency rankings, but even that does not do justice to how poorly they have been recently:
Those terrible performances include not just Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers, but also Case Keenum, Kellen Clemens and Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Wayne injury in Week 7 is a convenient event to explain the offense's struggles, but check out the before-and-after splits for the Colts' pass defense (note that Week 8 was Indy's bye week):
It's tough to pinpoint a direct cause for Indy's precipitous pass defense decline. The sacks are down on a per attempt basis, which is mostly a byproduct of Robert Mathis slowing down after a torrid first half. Mathis has accounted for 48.5 percent of the Colts' sacks this season, but 11.5 of Mathis' 16.5 sacks came before the bye. Without much of a pass rush to supplement him, a secondary that is perilously thin beyond Vontae Davis has gotten exposed. According to Pro Football Focus, Davis is the only defensive back to play more than 100 snaps on the season and post a positive pass coverage grade.
Andrew Luck and the offense will take care of itself, particularly without the atrocious health luck they've experienced this season. But after Jim Irsay splurged on lots of mid-level free agent signings to bolster the defense this offseason, the Colts remain a bottom-half defense that lacks many significant difference-makers.
- The Dallas Cowboys defense must be relieved they have Tony Romo as a scapegoat for the media. Look back up at the graph at the start—the Cowboys have had the NFL's worst defense in the second half, and it's not even close. This isn't a new problem; Dallas has traditionally been a good-offense-bad-defense team in the Romo era. Take a look for yourself:
People like to point out Romo's poor December record, but perhaps it's worth noting that the Cowboys defense has given up the eighth-most points in the league over their quarterback's career. At some point, doesn't there have to be an official #FreeRomo movement?
- It's too little too late, but the Pittsburgh Steelers are finally rounding into form. Since an ugly 0-4 start, the Steelers have gone 6-4, even with just a 1-3 record in one-possession games over that span. Pittsburgh is 13th in Football Outsiders' weighted DVOA metrics this week, suggesting they are playing better than sixth-seed contenders Miami (18th) and Baltimore (20th). Pittsburgh is like a pre-adolescent going through an awkward growing phase, given their recent infusion of youth, but they do have a reasonable chance of maturing into a playoff team by 2014.
- How are the Chicago Bears surviving defensively despite the deadly combo of a bottom-10 run and pass defense? The Bears continue to force turnovers, with a 3.8 interception rate that is tied with Kansas City for the fourth-best mark in the league. Chicago also forces the ninth-most fumbles in the league at 1.5 per game, but in fairness, Bears' opponents have recovered an above-average 61.9 percent of offensive fumbles. Relying on mistakes is not a sustainable long-term strategy, but it may very well net Chicago an NFC North title.
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