20 Yards From the NFL Playoffs | Swish Analytics

20 Yards From the NFL Playoffs

While it might seem obvious, there's simply no understating the importance of red zone efficiency when it comes to making the NFL playoffs

By Josh Planos
on August 21st, 2014 at 10:25PM PST
   

It would appear obnoxiously discernible, but a the vast majority of teams that make the NFL postseason are hyper-efficient in the red zone. They have to be. When you're within 20 yards of the goal line, you have to be able to maintain composure and not let the opportunities to create points slip away.

"Red zone" is a shorthand form of discussing whether or not a team is better when compared to another given a glaring opportunity. The 20-yard-line is a starting point, an easy location to reference that every football fan has, at the very least, some faint understanding of spatially. We can see it and if you happen to forget, networks plaster red lines on the TV screen to remind us. It's general, it's simplistic, but it's an effective means of discussing an element of the game that's importance can't be echoed enough.

The last eight teams to play in the Super Bowl have scored on an 88.15 percent clip in the red zone.

Of the 10 teams who made the 2013 NFL Playoffs a season ago, all of them had a red-zone efficiency of above 80 percent. Since 2010, only Chicago (2010: 79.6) and Pittsburgh (2011: 78.6) have made the postseason scoring on less than 80 percent of their red-zone opportunities and just Chicago was able to make past the first round—on the legs of Devin Hester and the backs of Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and the Bears fortress of a defense, mostly.

Frequency of Outcomes in the Red Zone

Season Team TD % FG Make % FG Miss % FUM % INT % END of QTR %
2013 DEN 77.8 16.7 0 5.6 0 0
2013 CIN 73.5 12.2 2 0 6.1 4.1
2013 DAL 64.9 26.3 1.8 1.8 1.8 0
2013 DET 62.7 22 3.4 6.8 1.7 1.7
2013 CHI 58.3 30 1.7 0 5 3.3
2013 OAK 56.8 25 4.5 0 4.5 9.1
2013 KC 56.7 23.3 3.3 3.3 3.3 5
2013 IND 56.4 34.5 1.8 0 5.5 1.8
2013 CAR 56.4 27.3 0 0 7.3 5.5
2013 TEN 56 36 2 2 0 4
2013 SEA 55.9 35.6 1.7 3.4 1.7 0
2013 NE 55.4 32.3 0 3.1 4.6 3.1
2013 MIA 55.3 31.9 6.4 2.1 2.1 2.1
2013 NO 55.2 29.3 6.9 0 1.7 3.4
2013 SF 54.1 34.4 1.6 1.6 4.9 3.3
2013 PHI 54 30.2 3.2 3.2 1.6 3.2
2013 WAS 53.8 28.8 1.9 7.7 3.8 1.9
2013 ATL 52.8 34 1.9 0 3.8 5.7
2013 PIT 52.7 40 3.6 3.6 0 0
2013 CLE 52.5 30 2.5 0 0 12.5
2013 ARI 51.9 32.7 3.8 1.9 7.7 0
2013 GB 51.5 33.8 1.5 2.9 2.9 2.9
2013 MIN 50 36.5 0 1.9 3.8 5.8
2013 SD 50 40 1.7 3.3 1.7 1.7
2013 HOU 50 31 2.4 0 7.1 7.1
2013 STL 49 35.3 0 5.9 0 7.8
2013 NYJ 48.8 37.2 2.3 0 7 2.3
2013 BUF 46.8 44.7 2.1 0 2.1 2.1
2013 TB 46.5 39.5 4.7 2.3 2.3 4.7
2013 NYG 45.9 37.8 2.7 2.7 10.8 0
2013 BAL 44.4 42.6 1.9 0 3.7 5.6
2013 JAC 41.3 32.6 0 0 8.7 17.4

Teams that have ranked in the top 2 overall in red-zone scoring attempts per game haven't missed the playoffs since the 2008 New England Patriots became the first 11-win franchise to miss the postseason since the 12-team playoff expansion happened in 1990.

In his two years in Denver, Peyton Manning turned the Broncos from a team that averaged a ranking of 20th-best (1.45 red-zone scores per game) in the two years prior to his trade to a team that averages 2.8 red-zone scores per game and hasn't ranked lower than second. And it's no surprise that Denver has become a significantly more competitive franchise as a result.

This isn't to say that a team needs to have an elite passing QB in the red-zone to make the postseason, or even a deep run in the playoffs. For example, while Manning had the best quarterback rating in the red-zone in 2013 (120.7), Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks clocked in at No. 16 (92.2). Seattle's ‘Beast Mode,' Marshawn Lynch, often does the brute work close to the goal line for the defending champions. A team simply must have an effective offense the closer the closer they get to paydirt to maximize their chances of making the postseason.

Of the 10 teams who made the 2013 NFL Playoffs a season ago, all of them had a red-zone efficiency of above 80 percent.

To make the data a shade clearer, let's remove the kicking element and focus in on offensive errors in the red zone: interceptions, fumbles and turnover on downs.

Seattle and Denver were two of six teams in the NFL to not turn the ball over on downs in the red zone a season ago. The Broncos' notable running back problems were the lone outlier, as both ranked below the league average in interception (3.66 percent) and fumble (2.03 percent) percentage made inside the 20-yard-line.

Although win projections have been released by multiple media channels and articles claiming "x team will win x games" or "x team will be abysmal this year" are being produced in high volume, a critical factor that'll determine overall record in the 2014 NFL regular season will be made inside the red zone. Remember this when placing your bets on NFL playoff futures.

Josh Planos has had his work featured at the Wall Street Journal, Denver Post, Chicago Tribune's RedEye Chicago, Rivals, CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. He currently writes for Washington Post Sports, the ESPN TrueHoop Network and The Cauldron. Start a dialogue with him on Twitter (@JPlanos).

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