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Handicapping the AFC

Posted by Chase Stuart on December 5, 2006

Here are the remaining schedules for the AFC contenders.

Team 14 15 16 17
Cin Oak @Ind @Den Pit
Den @SD @Ari Cin SF
Jac Ind @Ten NE @KC
KC Bal @SD @Oak Jac
NYJ Buf @Min @Mia Oak

To handicap the race, we need to rank the teams. I'll use Jeff Sagarin's PREDICTOR ratings, which he claims to be the best predictor of which team will win in the future. Replacing each team in the above chart with their rating, you get:

Team 14 15 16 17
26.00 11.96 27.57 20.60 21.65
20.60 29.58 11.51 26.00 9.02
28.58 27.57 19.68 30.32 19.67
19.67 29.15 29.58 11.96 28.58
22.20 20.81 17.87 19.81 11.96

To be clear what the above chart means, the Jets have a rating of 22.2 and the Bills have a 20.81 rating (the Jets opponent in week 14). According to Sagarin, we need to add 2.75 points to the home team, so viola:

Team 14 15 16 17
26.00 9.21 30.32 23.35 18.90
20.60 32.33 14.26 23.25 6.27
28.58 24.82 22.43 27.57 22.42
19.67 26.40 32.33 14.71 25.83
22.20 18.06 20.62 22.56 9.21

This enables us to create a legitimate point spread for each game.

Team 14 15 16 17
Cin -16.79 4.32 -2.65 -7.1
Den 11.73 -6.34 2.65 -14.33
Jac -3.76 -6.15 -1.01 -6.16
KC 6.73 12.66 -4.96 6.16
NYJ -4.14 -1.58 0.36 -12.99

Now, we need to convert those point spreads to likelihoods of victory. We can do this using a crude formula that I developed, which more or less jives with what actually happens. It's unclear whether the relationship is linear or not, but that's the simplest measure and approximates what happens pretty well. The formula to determine winning percentage (the dependent variable) from point spread is Y = -0.028X + 0.500. So a point spread of 0 would of course give a team a 50% chance of winning; a point spread of -3 would equate to a 58.4% chance of winning, and a 7 point spread is equivalent to a 69.6% chance. Those seem pretty reasonable. So...

Team 14 15 16 17
Cin 0.97 0.38 0.57 0.70
Den 0.17 0.68 0.43 0.90
Jac 0.61 0.67 0.53 0.67
KC 0.31 0.15 0.64 0.33
NYJ 0.62 0.54 0.49 0.86

This gives the Bengals a 97% chance of winning at home against the Raiders and the Broncos a 68% chance of winning in Arizona. Those feel about right, too.

Basically, if the season was played 1000 times, we'd expect the Bengals to win against the Raiders in 970 games. So we give them .97 wins this week, 0.38 wins in Indy, 0.57 wins against the Broncos and 0.70 wins against the Steelers. That means we'd project Cincinnati to average 9.62 (7 wins already, plus the 2.62 wins over the next month) wins if the season was replayed 1000 times. How does that compare to the other teams?

Cin 2.62
NYJ 2.51
Jac 2.48
Den 2.18
KC 1.42

That list more or less is the best I think we can to do to handicap the AFC. It also reflects what my gut is telling me, too. The Jaguars are given 2.5 wins despite facing Indy, Ten, NE and KC, but it's easy to see why. Sagarin ranks them as the 6th best team to date, mostly because Jacksonville killed the Jets 41-0, beat the Titans by 30, and beat the Giants and Dolphins by a combined 30. These rankings examine ONLY the margin of victory in each game, and winning and losing is irrelevant. The Jaguars rank 11th in the system when the ONLY thing that matters is who wins, and the margin of victory is thrown out.

We could debate which system is better, and Sagarin seems to think the margin of victory is better at predicting future games. That leads to the counterintuitive result of ranking Jacksonville ahead of Indianapolis, and giving the Jaguars a great chance to win the game since it's at home.

Either way, the Jaguars and Jets are in the big games this week. You'd expect KC to lose to Baltimore, Denver to lose in San Diego and Cincinnati to romp the Raiders. The Jets and Jaguars have games that could go either way, and if either team could come out of this weekend with a victory, that would go a long way towards putting Denver and Kansas City in their rear view mirrors.

A couple of final notes on the Jets, who seem to be everyone's surprise team. I'm not shocked the Jets have done so well, but people are overlooking the biggest reason why New York has been so successful: Chad Pennington stayed healthy. It was easy to project the Jets to go 4-12 if Pennington played 6 games; but a healthy Pennington means the Jets shouldn't have been predicted to have a losing record. From 2002-2005, the Jets were 8-18 in games where Pennington wasn't the main QB, versus 21-17 when Pennington was the main QB. Pennington and the Jets are now 28-22 after the strong performance this year.

The other reason, of course, is the job that Eric Mangini's done. It's now a two-man race for coach of the year between him and Sean Payton. Loyal PFR readers shouldn't be too surprised by the success of these first time coaches; In July I pointed out that only two of the last ten rookie coaches had losing records. Mangini and Payton were the cream of this year's crop, and Rod Marinelli has been unsuccessful. The next four games will tell us a bit more about Gary Kubiak, Brad Childress, Mike McCarthy and Scott Linehan, but I don't think any of the four has been a dissapointment so far in 2006.