Lions, Bengals, And Fails: Why Two Wildcard Winners May Miss the Playoffs In 2015
The AFC and NFC North both had multiple teams make the playoffs last season. In the NFC, both the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions made the playoffs, and in the AFC every team not from Cleveland managed to squeak their way in. For fans of the Lions and Cincinnati Bengals, the season ended on a particularly tough note. The Lions lost on the road against the Cowboys in a game where they played better for most of the clock and had some very questionable calls and decisions go against them in the end (to say the least). The Bengals would utterly dominated by the Colts and the playoff win drought for Cincinnati lived on. Well to those fan bases, i would love to say that it will get better, but I don't think it will. Both the Lions and Bengals over-performed last season, which will most likely leave them on the outside of the playoffs looking in at seasons end.
One of my favorite stats to look at (and really one of the most simple) is point differential. Team sports are full of nuance and strategy, but at the end of the day the objective is clear. You need to score more points than the other guy. And while a win is a win, clearly a team that wins by more points got to their win with a little more skill and a little less luck. The Detroit Lions won 11 games last season but based on their points scored and given up, their expected number of wins was 9.2. For the Bengals, they managed to go 10-5-1 while there point differential would have predicted them getting 8.6 wins. Neither of these differences between expectation and reality are super extreme, however, among teams that made the playoffs these were two of the biggest over-performers. The Arizona Cardinals were another one, but I already wrote about them, so I won't beat that issue to death. But the good fortunes of the Lions and Bengals begged for a second look into the numbers.
Both the Lions and the Bengals finished in the top half of the league in turnover differential, with the Lions finishing 6th. Although these performances are good, they are not reliable. Turnovers are very volatile from year to year and are determined heavily by luck. There is no strong correlation between turnovers one year and turnovers the next. So if the Lions or Bengals get a bit less lucky less season and don't fare so well in turnovers, it could cost them a game or two, because although they are hard to predict, they are very important when it comes to winning and losing.
In addition to the turnovers, in a league that is becoming more and more dependent on offense, last year these two teams were downright average. The Lions finished 22nd in points and 19th in yards (12th in passing and 28th in rushing). The Bengals finished 15th in points and in yards (21st in passing and 6th in rushing). These numbers aren't bad, but they aren't great. They don't instill confidence in these team's abilities to score next season.
Defense was a different conversation for Detroit, but more of the same for Cincinnati. Detroit had a great season giving up the second least yards, ranking 13th against the pass and 1st against the rush. The Bengals finished 22nd in defensive yards per game, ranking 20th in both the pass and the run.
As you can see, the strength for Detroit was in their defense, and for the Lions, it all stemmed from their defensive line. Big bodied pass rushers and run stoppers with big talent were able to keep teams under wraps. This off-season was bad news on that front as the Lions lost both Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. They did make some good moves, adding Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker to help out with the defensive line. This additions will soften the blow, but the Lions will look different without Suh. They did strengthen the offensive line with a draft day trade for Denver's Manny Ramirez, but any off-season where you lose a top 5 defensive talent is hard to call a win.
The Bengals off-season was pretty underwhelming. They signed Denarius Moore of the Oakland Raiders and A.J. Hawk of the Green Bay Packers. These guys are solid players, but overall, they're not huge adds. The Bengals also signed a couple retreads for their defensive line in Michael Johnson and Pat Sims. Most of their work this off-season consisted of bringing back their own guys and hoping guys get and stay healthy. This may prove to work, but they failed to add any premier talent.
It's the same story as their draft. The drafted a lot of guys with potential. Players like Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher likely won't help much this season, but will be assets down the road. Unfortunately for Bengals fans, this piece is about next season and the Bengals draft does not provide any immediate help. The Lions draft was similar. They didn't blow any experts away, but they did get a player or two like Laken Tomlinson and Ameer Abdullah that could provide some assistance next season.
When you add it all up for these teams, there is definitely a reason for concern. From a wins standpoint, they outperformed their statistics and what can be shown for their play is lackluster offensive and defensive numbers. Both teams had mediocre off-seasons and drafts and didn't really take the step forward that Wild Card teams need to take. But what could be most concerning is this: The Bengals had the 17th hardest strength of schedule last season, this year it is the 2nd. The Lions had the 4th easiest schedule and will go into 2015 with the 15th hardest. It could be rough sailing for these hopeful AFC contenders.