It takes a lot to win in the National Football League: skilled on-field play, smart coaching, and, well, a bit of luck.
Today, we’re most interested in the last part of the equation. It’s no secret that the best teams don’t always win in the NFL, and that not all divisions are created equal. So which teams are getting the lucky bounces, easy schedules, and other lucky breaks that will give them the boost to get over the top? Here are the three luckiest teams so far in 2015.
The Bengals don’t need much luck to make the playoffs: they’re 5-0 (the first AFC North team to ever earn that distinction) and look absolutely dominant. But the Bengals’ playoff berth looks like even more of a foregone conclusion thanks to a bunch of things that are going very right for them in their division.
The Ravens and Steelers were supposed to be the class of the AFC North this year, and both of them find their teams in shambles. The Ravens look horrible. They started 0-3 with a humiliating loss to the Oakland Raiders. They probably would gone to 0-5, except that the Steelers are a mess, too: Pittsburgh looked great through their first three games (they lost only one game, a tough one against the Patriots in Foxboro), but they lost star QB Ben Roethlisberger to injury in the second half of their Week 3 match-up with the Rams. The Bengals look great, which has nothing to do with luck; but their division looks pathetic, which is a nice break for Cincy.
There are a lot of ways to measure luck in the NFL, but two of them stand out for their simplicity. One is to measure fumble recoveries: theoretically, any fumble has about a 50/50 chance of being recovered by the offense or defense, so any team that has a high recovery percentage is getting lucky. The other is to compare point differential to wins, since you would expect high point differentials to lead to more wins, and any other correlation probably has a lot to do with luck (of course, factors like bad coaching go in there too, but we’re keeping things simple).
By both these measures, Denver has gotten pretty lucky. They have the lowest point differential (+34) of any undefeated team; theirs is worse than the Cardinals (+100) and Jets (+40), and both of those teams have a loss. These are small sample sizes, but they’re still telling. The Broncos played close games against the Ravens and Vikings and needed fumbles to go their way to earn a 4-0 record over a relatively weak portion of the schedule (the teams Denver played were a collective 4-12). They’ve gotten away with five wins thanks to good luck.
The Seahawks are a good team – better than their 2-3 record might imply. But that doesn’t mean that they haven’t been extremely lucky. You know what we’re talking about: the blown call at the end of the Lions game. The Seahawks should have lost that game, which would have been a brutal blow to their playoff chances (at 1-3, we could have expected the Seahawks to make the playoffs about a third of the time; at 2-2, they’re likely to make it about two times out of three). The Seahawks are an excellent team, and they’re likely to take full advantage of their lucky break – but make no mistake, it was a lucky break. The blown call was probably the most crucial moment that any likely playoff team has faced so far, and Seattle walked away better off only because of pure chance.
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