Commentary

The NFL's 'luckiest' teams

Playoff favorites change a bit when you factor luck into the mix; watch out San Fran

Updated: December 30, 2011, 12:13 PM ET
By Chris Sprow | ESPN Insider
Patrick WillisScott Boehm/Getty ImagesPatrick Willis and the San Francisco 49ers live and die by the flukey nature of turnovers.

Luck isn't just the story of the NFL draft; it's an idea that has essentially hijacked the debate in the NFL. Seriously, what percentage of NFL arguments this season have been centered around not who we know is great -- such as the Green Bay Packers -- but who our eyes tell us is lucky?

Add in a dollop of Tim Tebow, and you get the defining storyline of the NFL season with the success of the Denver Broncos. Think about it: You tell a buddy his favorite team sucks, and you're stating the truth. Tell him his team is lucky, and you set off a 600-reply email war.

This is more prominent because the growth of advanced statistical analysis in football means we don't just know what luck looks like; we think we can see it play out in real time. In Week 7, when Tebow led Denver to a two-score comeback win against the Miami Dolphins with fewer than four minutes to play, we knew as it was happening that he had overcome Miami win odds that were higher than 98 percent. But there are a few problems with simply calling a team "lucky":

1. Lucky teams are usually really good: During the past five years, the NFL's luckiest teams have won 12, 10, 12, 14 and 13 regular-season games, 12.2 a year. And they repeat it. Those teams won an average of 10.8 games the next season. So while luck is an argument, it's also granted to greatness.

2. Great QB play defines it: Those luckiest teams were led by Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton again and Matt Ryan. We know that great quarterback is the antidote to many ailments. Denver's luck is clear due to regularly overcoming long odds, but it's also been a product of a quarterback that has dramatically upgraded performance late in games.

3. You can make your own luck, to an extent: Dominating the turnover battle is an indicator of luck, because it tends to even out in a decent sample size. But what if you consistently get early leads, creatively scheme for quarterback pressure because opposing teams have to throw and can sit back and aggressively target interceptions with a packed secondary? Are Green Bay's ridiculous 29 INTs luck, the residue of design, or situational dominance?

Advanced stats tell us a lot, but they can't dismantle the tape. However, given the playoff picture is largely set, and the 15-game sample size can tell us a fair amount, let's align the current playoff seeds with luck factored in, indicate why a team got lucky and determine what it means.


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