Winning Stats: Playoff Edition. What really wins in the Playoffs?

During the offseason, I went through a whole host of stats, which we as a community thought up, to find out which stats led to the most wins.  I focused exclusively on Regular Season stats from 2001-2008, and we found out that Passing the Football, and Stopping the Pass, were more important than Rushing and stopping the run.  It gave us a clear picture into what wins games in the NFL.

That was all fine and dandy, until people starting saying things like this:

I seriously don’t care if passing wins you 3.59875% more regular season games, no one cares, or at least they shouldn’t because that doesn’t win games in the playoffs.

Or this:

Explain to me what the point in having a dominant passing game is in the playoffs when the passing game is NEVER DOMINANT IN THE PLAYOFFS!

Or this, just today:

Weve seen it time and time again, Teams that stop the run win in the playoffs.

It's a pretty common perception that Running > Passing in the Playoffs.  But is it really the case?  Is the game fundamentally different when only the best teams are playing against each other?  First, answer the survey question before reading on.  I'd like to know what everyone thinks is the answer before seeing what it really is.  Then follow me after the jump to find out the answer to one of life's great mysteries...

I'll start with the league as a whole.  Here are the Averages for each stat, with their Record when a team is Above Average on both Offense and Defense, and the difference between the Regular Season and Playoff Win Percentage (all from '01 - '08):

Statistic Regular Season Playoffs Pct. Diff
Average Record Win % Average Record Win %
DSR 69.1% 742-90 89.2% 70.2% 30-4 88.2% -0.9%
ANPY/A 5.415 969-108 90.0% 5.470 42-5 89.4% -0.6%
Turnovers 1.76 912-193 82.5% 1.81 49-11 81.7% -0.9%
Yds/Drive 28.36 707-160 81.5% 29.20 25-4 86.2% 4.7%
ToP/Drive 2:39.3 843-216 79.6% 2:41.4 39-8 83.0% 3.4%
Yds/Play 5.140 688-188 78.5% 5.217 24-12 66.7% -11.9%
First Downs/Drive 1.62 657-203 76.4% 1.68 24-7 77.4% 1.0%
3rd/4th Down 39.1% 745-247 75.1% 40.6% 33-10 76.7% 1.6%
Avg Start Pos 31.2 898-334 72.9% 31.4 44-9 83.0% 10.1%
3 and Outs 3.92 577-248 69.9% 3.81 27-14 65.9% -4.1%
RZ Eff 65.6% 713-309 69.8% 67.4% 32-13 71.1% 1.3%
Plays/Drive 5.503 624-312 66.7% 5.596 31-13 70.5% 3.8%
Penalty Yds / Play 0.822 538-346 60.9% 0.685 25-18 58.1% -2.7%
RB Success 45.6% 614-426 59.0% 45.4% 25-18 58.1% -0.9%
Yds/Carry 4.13 548-448 55.0% 3.94 21-21 50.0% -5.0%
Net Punts Yds/Game 37.90 499-443 53.0% 36.68 22-20 52.4% -0.6%

What do I see here:

  • The top 2 stats, Drive Success Rate and ANPY/A, are the best in the Regular Season, and have equally high win rates in the Playoffs, only suffering a slight drop-off.  Raise your hand, who didn't think this was the case?
  • Turnovers had a similar small drop-off, but got surpassed by 3 different stats.  Still very important, but not as important as the Regular Season.  My reason why?  Better teams can overcome turning the ball over more so than bad teams.
  • The stat that had the highest jump?  Average Starting Position, jumping 10.1% from the Regular Season percentage.  That was unexpected, unless you remember the Colts playoff game last year: the Colts started at the 15 yard line, the Chargers started at the 35.  May have been anecdotal evidence, but not any more.  It's pretty important.
  • Anyone who bet on Yards / Carry being the worst stat, in terms of winning percentage, you've hit the jackpot.  Only winning 50% of games when you rush for over 3.9 YPC, as well as hold the other team below 3.9 YPC, is even worse than Net Punting AverageRB Success Rate is slightly better, but still the 3rd worst stat.
  • The other surprising thing I found, is that 12/16 of the stats improved for the offense, meaning the offenses get slightly better in the playoffs than they are in the Regular Season.  The 4 that didn't were Turnovers (which I talked about why above), and the 3 worst stats.  This definitely was unexpected.

These are all League-wide stats, which gives us the best view of trends, but let's see how the Colts-specific stats look:

Statistic Regular Season - 128 Games Playoffs - 13 Games
Offense Rank Defense Rank Offense Rank Defense Rank
DSR 77.3% 1 71.6% 30 75.2% 1 72.0% 19
ANPY/A 7.292 1 5.247 12 6.366 6 5.516 12
Turnovers 1.41 2 1.86 8 1.92 17 1.92 13
Yds/Drive 35.77 1 30.82 29 35.50 2 30.78 19
ToP/Drive 2:55.8 1 2:54.1 31 2:45.8 12 3:00.0 25
Yds/Play 5.803 1 5.261 21 5.764 7 5.327 16
First Downs/Drive 2.14 1 1.80 30 2.07 2 1.81 19
3rd/4th Down 47.7% 1 42.9% 31 45.0% 7 42.6% 19
Avg Start Pos 30.9 22 31.0 14 29.8 24 32.6 19
3 and Outs 2.63 1 3.12 32 3.15 6 3.46 17
RZ Eff 71.3% 2 66.1% 16 63.1% 20 70.1% 19
Plays/Drive 6.165 1 5.858 31 6.159 3 5.778 19
Penalty Yds / Play 0.676 3 0.792 23 0.554 8 0.597 19
RB Success 50.9% 1 48.9% 30 48.8% 6 49.7% 23
Yds/Carry 3.89 26 4.49 30 3.80 20 4.35 23
Net Punts Yds/Game 37.52 20 39.14 31 37.22 13 40.96 25
Overall 1 30 3 21

Some thoughts here:

  • The Regular Season Offensive numbers are simply unbelievable.  I don't need to say more than that.
  • Overall, the Colts have had the 3rd worst defense in the regular season.  They've been good forcing Turnovers, as well as defending the pass, but they've been below-average to bad in almost everything else.  In the playoffs, however, they're a little more dependable, ranking 21st out of 29 teams that have been in the playoffs since 2001 (Lions, Bills, and Texans).  Not great in any one area, but solid all around.
  • The Playoff offensive numbers, even with some of the struggles we've seen in the playoffs, is still the 3rd best in the league, only bested by the Cardinals (all last year) and the Jets (color me surprised).  The stats the Colts have traditionally been good at in the Playoffs are the same ones the Colts have been good at this season as well, which is a good sign.

Lastly, here's an overview of each of the 13 playoff games played by the Colts since 2001 (176 games total):

Opponent Round Year Result Offense Defense Total
Jets WC 2002 L 41-0 162 175 176
Broncos WC 2003 W 41-10 7 124 37
Chiefs DIV 2003 W 38-31 1 169 75
Patriots CC 2003 L 24-14 113 99 120
Broncos WC 2004 W 49-24 5 128 35
Patriots DIV 2004 L 20-3 132 148 162
Steelers DIV 2005 L 21-18 120 125 141
Chiefs WC 2006 W 23-8 48 3 5
Ravens DIV 2006 W 15-6 137 11 47
Patriots CC 2006 W 38-34 39 96 56
Bears SB 2006 W 29-17 86 17 26
Chargers DIV 2007 L 28-24 41 161 112
Chargers WC 2008 L 23-17 90 113 110

A couple things here too:

  • The best offensive game in the league since 2001 is the 2003 Divisional Playoff game against the Chiefs.  That wasn't expected.  It was so close because of the bottom 10 defensive effort. Manning's 2 great games against the Broncos were also top 10 offensive games.
  • The Colts have also played the worst playoff game over the past 8 years, that 41-0 debacle against the Jets back in '01.  Neither side was any good that day.
  • Those games in 2006 really stand out, especially defensively.  I think it can be easily argued that the defense won three of those playoff games, and got an assist from the Offense in the Championship game.  I really wasn't expecting the best playoff game played by the Colts was the Chiefs game in 2006.  Really surprised.
  • People like to take shots at the Colts Super Bowl victory over the Bears, saying it wasn't a very well played game.  It was the 2nd best Super Bowl played over the past 8 years, only bested by the Bucs in 2002.  I guess the Colts played better that day than people give them credit for.

So what did we learn here?  Playoff games, while being slightly difference, still greatly favor Passing and Stopping the Pass to Rushing and Stopping the Run.  Take it to the bank.

As a bonus, I'm going to give you my Excel file to look at, and see how every team looks in their stats, as well as being able to look at any playoff game played, and how the team fared.  Just change the values in the yellow squares, and you're all set.  You can thank me later.

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