Originally written on The Sports Post  |  Last updated 11/20/14

I don’t care what Bill Parcells says, you aren’t what your record says you are. That’s an entirely simplistic way of looking at things. Way too many things go into winning or losing a football game to say that the outcome is always the team that played better. Like it or not, luck plays a huge role in who wins and loses football games, and as such, can incorrectly skew the standings towards the luckiest teams as opposed to the best ones. Take last year’s two luckiest teams: Atlanta and Indianapolis. In the case of the Colts, they happened to play against mostly bad teams, all of which they beat by only a few points. They won 11 games last year despite being outscored by 35 points over the course of the season. Atlanta also played an easy schedule and won close games, but they also had the benefit of recovering an absurdly high percentage of fumbles (65 percent). When they made the playoffs, both teams were exposed. The Colts were bounced in round one, and the Falcons were knocked out by the 49ers after getting all they could handle by the far more unlucky Seahawks. So what can we take from all of this in 2013? Plenty. Four of our five luckiest teams so far are in line to make the playoffs and the fifth is easily in the hunt, but none hold a lead greater than two games for their current position. If the luck mentioned here swings the other way, we could start to see any of these teams lose some ground. Before we start ranking teams, what are the main indicators of luck in football? There are five in particular: 1. Pythagorean winning percentage vs. actual winning percentage Pythagorean winning percentage measures performance through point differential rather than record. This makes sense because a 40-point win obviously means more than a three-point win, but because of the way the formula works (points for^2.37)/(points for^2.37+points against^2.37) diminishing returns are given the bigger the difference is, so the difference between a one-point win and a two-point win is much bigger than the difference between a 40-point win and a 41-point win. If a team’s actual winning percentage is much higher than it’s Pythagorean winning percentage, it implies that they haven’t played as well as their record suggests, and vice versa. 2. Record in close games This is like Pythagorean winning percentage in that it sticks to the idiom of “great teams don’t win close games, they avoid them.” Close games tend to be statistically random, meaning that over a big enough sample size, most teams will eventually fall to .500 in games decided by a touchdown or less. The one exception is teams with quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, or Tom Brady. If all of a team’s wins are close, it suggests that they’ve gotten lucky on a few bounces to win games that easily could’ve gone the other way. 3. Strength of schedule This one is self explanatory. If a team has played an easy schedule, they’re more likely to win games than a team with a hard schedule. You have to take into account the opponents that a team has played against. 4. Fumble recovery percentage As with close games, fumble recoveries tend to be random. Once a fumble hits the ground, a team has around a 50-50 chance to recover it. A team that recoveries a much higher percentage is likely to eventually regress to the mean, or in layman’s terms, lose some of their luck. 5. Turnover differential Very close to fumble recoveries, but also including interceptions. High turnover differentials tend to be unsustainable as even the best teams slip up and turn the ball over and even the worst get lucky and generate a few that they shouldn’t. If a team has an especially high turnover differential, that is eventually going to turn and potentially swing a few games. Before we get into the actual rankings, there’s one more category that has to be mentioned: injuries. Injuries will not be considered in these rankings because they are impossible to quantify. There’s no way of knowing how valuable any individual player is, whereas everything mentioned above has a number attached to it. You can make your own assumptions based on injuries, and I’m sure some of them make sense, but this list only takes into account the luck a team has had in terms of plays on the field, not the actual players who have been on it. Now that that’s settled, let’s dive right in. 5. Seattle Seahawks Actual Winning Percentage .900 Pythagorean Winning Percentage .770 Record in One-Possession Games 5-1 Strength of Schedule .407 Fumble Recovery Percentage 8.7 Turnover Differential +7 The Seahawks have been remarkably lucky not only in whom they’ve played this year, but when they’ve played them. They drew the Texans right as Matt Schaub was falling apart, a much easier game than one against Case Keenum would’ve been, and only won because of a big mistake on Schaub’s part. They got some similar luck against the Rams, when Kellen Clemens started for the injured Sam Bradford, against the Titans with Ryan Fitzpatrick filling in for Jake Locker, and even against the Falcons when an earlier matchup might’ve meant defending Julio Jones and a team that was still motivated and engaged. Despite this, they’ve had to rely on quite a bit of luck to win the games that they’ve won. We mentioned the Schaub pick-six, but the Rams game easily could’ve swung on that last-minute goal-line stand, as could the Week 1 game against Carolina on any number of plays. The ball bounced Seattle’s way in those games, if it starts to go against them we might see them drop two or three games down the stretch. 4. Arizona Cardinals Actual Winning Percentage .556 Pythagorean Winning Percentage .466 Record in One-Possession Games 3-1 Strength of Schedule .518 Fumble Recovery Percentage 62.9 Turnover Differential -1 Arizona’s luck has come largely on fumbles. Whereas the normal team typically recovers around 50 percent, the Cardinals are at almost 63 percent. This makes a huge difference when you have a quarterback as turnover prone as Carson Palmer, and it shows in the stats: despite Palmer’s 15 interceptions, Arizona’s turnover differential is only -1. The schedule has also done Arizona several favors. Reggie Bush missed Week 2’s matchup, effectively taking away the Detroit running game. They were also lucky enough to catch Mike Glennon in his first start, and played Matt Ryan without Julio Jones, Roddy White, or an effective Steven Jackson (and it showed, as Ryan threw four interceptions). The good news for Arizona is that the schedule doesn’t figure to get much tougher. Jacksonville and Tennessee should be easy wins (to get them to seven), and even with the improved Nick Foles, the Cardinals should expect to take at least one of their two against St. Louis and Philadelphia. That would put them at 8-6 with San Francisco and Seattle looming. Win one, and a playoff spot is potentially theirs. 3. New England Patriots Actual Winning Percentage .778 Pythagorean Winning Percentage .666 Record in One-Possession Games 4-2 Strength of Schedule .434 Fumble Recovery Percentage 62.5 Turnover Differential +9 Where to begin with these Patriots? Everyone wants to point to the Jets game as a reason that they’re unlucky, but they’re 7-2 despite that loss and their luck shows in pretty much every category. Despite a very easy schedule, several inferior opponents (the Bills, Jets and Falcons) have pushed the Patriots as far as they could handle. If one or two plays swing in each game, the Patriots could be 4-5, or even 3-6 if we throw the Saints game into the mix. They’ve also had remarkable turnover luck. Even though Tom Brady already has more interceptions through nine games than he had in the entire 2010 season, the Patriots have managed to win the turnover battle thanks to their luck with fumbles. They recover 12.5 percent more fumbles than average, and they’re intercepting more passes than they should because of the quarterbacks they’ve played (Geno Smith twice, Josh Freeman, E.J Manuel, 2013 Ben Roethlisberger). The bad news? This is all about to change. The Patriots travel to Carolina for a tough Monday Night matchup before a home date with Denver. They’ll be underdogs in both of those games, and will have three tough road games against the Texans, Dolphins and Ravens before the season ends. The Patriots are a lot closer to 10-6 than 13-3. 2. New York Jets Actual Winning Percentage .556 Pythagorean Winning Percentage .323 Record in One-Possession Games 5-1 Strength of Schedule .482 Fumble Recovery Percentage 33.3 Turnover Differential -10 Let’s address the turnover differential first, as it has swung heavily against the Jets, but for explainable reasons. Geno Smith throws a ton of interceptions, and the Jets defense is built to stop the run rather than the pass, lowering their propensity for takeaways. As for the fumbles? Those are much harder to explain. Still, no team has had more luck than the Jets on seemingly random slip-ups. Two of their five wins came on questionable penalties (against the Patriots and Bucs), and all five came by a touchdown or less. Meanwhile, two of their losses have come by more than 25 points. The Jets are built to play low-scoring games, which tends to put the outcome in the hands of luck far more than any team can plan, but the amount the Jets have had has put them in a position to score an unlikely playoff spot. 1. Kansas City Chiefs Actual Winning Percentage 1.000 Pythagorean Winning Percentage .827 Record in One-Possession Games 4-0 Strength of Schedule .357 Fumble Recovery Percentage 66.7 Turnover Differential +15 Was there any real question about who would be here? The Chiefs are not only the league’s luckiest team, they are the league’s luckiest team in almost every stat. They lead the league in point differential and difference between actual and Pythagorean winning percentage, they are the only undefeated team in close games, they have the league’s best turnover differential, and they have played the easiest schedule in football. The only category they don’t lead is fumble recovery percentage, in which they are second by less than one percent. Need an explanation? Just look at the quarterbacks Kansas City has faced: Blaine Gabbert, Tony Romo, Michael Vick, Eli Manning, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Terrelle Pryor, Case Keenum in his first start, Jason Campbell, and Jeff Tuel in his first start. You can’t ask for an easier slate than that. After Romo and excluding Vick due to injuries, the highest ranked passer (by quarterback rating) on that list is Terrelle Pryor at 30. How is that possible? Manning is 31, and Gabbert, Fitzpatrick, Keenum, Campbell and Tuel are all unranked because they haven’t played enough. That’s the Chiefs season in a nutshell. What quarterbacks will the Chiefs face in their next seven games? Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning, Robert Griffin III, Terrelle Pryor, Andrew Luck, and Philip Rivers. In other words, this string of luck is about to end. Expect the Chiefs to lose at least three of these games and cede the AFC West to Denver. Coming tomorrow: The NFL’s five unluckiest teams.

1 Comment:
  • I'm glad that someone has "officially" exposed the KC Chiefs for what they are...an extremely lucky team that has played the easiest schedule in NFL history. The lowly Buffalo Bills outplayed this team in EVERY category...except the score. They were lucky that all the Bills QB's were injured and they played against Jeff Tuel...an undrafted, free agent QB playing his 1st NFL start. The Chiefs only won that game because Tuel threw a pick six on the KC 1 yard line. The 14 pt swing gave the Chiefs the win. What is ironic here is that the player who intercepted the ball was badly beaten by a Bills receiver who was open in the end zone...but the rookie QB did not see him. But talk about lucky....the Chiefs are about to play a superior team (Broncos) in their division and what happens...?...First the Chiefs get a bye and have 2 weeks to prepare...then the Broncos head coach goes down with a heart attack...then Peyton Manning gets injured. Now that's luck. They WILL however get exposed in the playoffs...and will most likely not survive the first round.
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