Most NFL teams’ win-loss records are highly volatile on a yearly basis. Just look at last year. Carolina went from 15-1, and on the cusp of a Super Bowl title, to last place in the NFC South at 6-10. The Cardinals also had a similar decline even though they didn’t lose any integral players over that offseason: they went from being NFC finalists in ’15 to 7-8-1 and out of the playoffs. And we can’t forget the Broncos, who failed to make the playoffs after claiming the Lombardi trophy the year before.
Meanwhile, teams like the Cowboys (4-12 in ’15), Giants (6-10 in ’15), and Titans (3-13 in ’15) made significant strides. All finished over .500 after poor seasons the year prior; and in Dallas’ case, they did a complete 180 and went from being the NFC’s worst team in 2015 to the conference’s top seed in the 2016 playoffs.
Given these massive fluctuations, I find forecasting the next teams to either improve or decline significantly fascinating. I did a relatively good job at this last year, pegging Dallas as the team I expected to improve the most, while Denver and Carolina were my top two picks to regress. I also was optimistic about the aforementioned Titans, who I said would improve by as many as 4 wins, and pessimistic about the Jets, who I said would decline by 2-5 wins after a 10-6 season. I was in the ballpark for each of them. However, I did make a couple egregious mistakes. I said the Browns would get better, and I saw the Falcons getting worse. You win some, you lose some.
Overall, though, by looking at underlying indicators of improvement, I was right far more than I was wrong last season, proving that it’s possible to identify the teams that will surprise, for better or worse, before the season even begins. I’ll discuss these indicators in more depth, as I highlight the top five teams expected to improve in 2017.
1 Los Angeles Chargers
Record in 2016: 5-11 / Predicted Improvement: 4-5 wins
The Chargers are my top pick to improve this season, largely for two reasons. First, Phillip Rivers and company will have significantly better results in one-score games after going a horrific 1-8 in close contests last season. To help explain why, let’s take a look at some of these narrow losses more closely:
- Week 1: Blew a 21-point second-half lead (and a 17-point lead in the 4th quarter) at Kansas City; they eventually lost in overtime
- Week 3: Gave up a 63-yard touchdown with 1:17 to go while holding a 3-point lead at Indianapolis; Chargers fall 26-22
- Week 4: A thirteen-point lead with under five minutes to go against the Saints disappeared after two consecutive 4th quarter turnovers doomed San Diego; New Orleans took the lead with under a minute remaining, holding on 35-34
- Week 5: A botched snap on a potential game-tying field goal with seconds left secured another heartbreaking loss to Oakland, 34-31
I could keep going, but I think those four games summarize how last season went for the Chargers: they were snake-bitten. But I know some of you might be thinking, “well, the Chargers simply didn’t have it.” That’s not relevant when it comes to this season, though, because there’s overwhelming evidence that teams ascend to the mean after seasons in which they perform exceptionally poor in close games. For example, the Giants were 3-8 in one-score games in 2015; they then went 8-3 in those same situations last season and finished 11-5.
In short, Los Angeles will win more games that are decided by one-score this season. Bank on it. However, there’s another reason why I’m unbelievably confident in a Chargers resurgence. Injuries to the likes of Keenan Allen led to the Chargers ranking third in Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost metric in 2016, meaning they had the third-most injuries among their starting players. It’s unlikely they’ll get as unlucky in this respect again, too.
Natural ascension to the mean alone will help the Chargers improve by at least three wins, and if things finally break their way this year, they’ll be a surprise playoff team.
2 Philadelphia Eagles
Record in 2016: 7-9 / Predicted Improvement: 2-4 wins
The Eagles’ defense was quietly one of the league’s best last year. Despite playing the NFL’s toughest slate of opposing offenses, Philadelphia’s D finished 4th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) metric. That unit is legit. Also, like the aforementioned Chargers, the ’16 Eagles had terrible luck in one-score games, going 1-6 in such contests. Assuming they ascend to the mean in this metric, as history suggests they will, Philadelphia is likely to see enough of an increase in their win-loss record to put them in playoff contention. And if the gap between their offense, which ranked 29th in yards per play last year, and their terrific defense closes, the Eagles will be a dark horse in the NFC.
3 Arizona Cardinals
Record in 2016: 7-8-1 / Predicted Improvement: 2-3 wins
As mentioned, the Cardinals regressed mightily after a 13-3 season that included an NFC Championship game appearance. But their six-win decline last season really shouldn’t have been quite as bad. Arizona had a strong point differential (+56) that suggests they profiled as a 9-10 win team, according to noted baseball analyst Bill James’ famed pythagorean win expectation calculator.
Teams that have a discrepancy between their actual and expected win-total greater than two games, as the Cardinals did, have historically improved by 2.6 wins the following season, according to an old Grantland article by Bill Barnwell. And another good sign for Arizona is that they got rid of kicker Chandler Catanzaro, the scapegoat for two of Arizona’s most frustrating finishes last year (Week 1 against the Patriots and that famed tie against Seattle). Catanzaro was the primary reason why the Cardinals finished 31st in special teams last season, so if they make strides in this underrated aspect of play, Arizona will approach double-digit wins once again.
4 Jacksonville Jaguars
Record in 2016: 3-13 / Predicted Improvement: 2-4 wins
The Jaguars had the biggest gap between their actual win-total (3) and their expected win-total (5.8) last season. As mentioned in the preceding paragraph, teams that underachieve this greatly in one season tend to improve in the next (just ask the Titans, Giants, and Cowboys, who all improved significantly last season after undershooting their expected win-total by an average of 1.5 games the year before).
Another thing that plagued last season’s Jaguars: turnovers. Jacksonville had the third-worst turnover-margin in the league, largely because Blake Bortles couldn’t stop throwing interceptions. However, the Jaguars were also incredibly unlucky at recovering fumbles, ranking dead-last in fumble recovery rate. Without launching into a dissertation, turnovers rates are largely erratic on a yearly basis, so there’s reason to believe that Jacksonville’s turnover-margin will be closer to league-average in 2017, especially if Bortles somehow cuts down on his interceptions.
Yet even if their quarterback continues to struggle, Jacksonville should ride their emerging defense to at least a 5-11 season.
5 Carolina Panthers
Record in 2016: 6-10 / Predicted Improvement: 2-4 wins
There’s one last underlying indicator I haven’t discussed thus far: the plexiglass principle. Similar to many of the other metrics already discussed, the plexiglass principle states that teams that decline significantly one season tend to improve the following year; and there’s massive amounts of evidence dating back to Bill James’ early baseball studies in the ’80’s that confirm this. But to use a more recent example, just look at last year’s Cowboys. After declining by eight wins in 2015 after a 12-4 season in ’14, Dallas had another wild swing up to 13-3 in ’16.
Based on the plexiglass principle, the Panthers are almost guaranteed to see a similar improvement after regressing by a league-high 9 wins last season, even if it’s not quite as dramatic of a turnaround as Dallas’. Carolina may not be as formidable as the team that nearly won the Super Bowl two years ago, but Christian McCaffrey should provide a spark to their offense; and with Luke Kuchley and Thomas Davis still patrolling the linebacking corps, Carolina will once again be a strong team worth keeping an eye on in the NFC.
Stay tuned for my take on the five teams that will regress this season, released tomorrow.