For a long time, there was a belief amongst football fandom that the AFC was the stronger conference. This was probably born from the fact that Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger were alternating Super Bowls over those years, but regardless, the narrative has shifted in the last couple of seasons. The NFC, through a combination of some teams rising and other teams reloading, has become the arguably more competitive conference. I took a look at DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) rankings from last season to see just how much more dominant, if at all, one conference is over the other. First though, you might be wondering what the heck DVOA is.
What is DVOA?
DVOA was created at Football Outsiders as a tool to measure more deeply a team’s success. A fault in the NFL’s schedule is that it is only 16 games long, so compared to other professional sports, this is a much smaller sample size. DVOA combats this by treating every snap as a single event and taking into account the circumstances of that snap. This means that down/distance, situation of the game, and quality of the opponent all go into the equation. DVOA comes down to being a percentage, and the league average is represented at 0%. For offense, the higher the percentage means that team was X% better than the league average (and –X% would mean it was that much worse than average). For defense, the opposite is true, which means a team defense DVOA ranking being –X% would mean it was that much better than the league average (and X% would mean it was that much worse). Granted, this may seem confusing, but if you remember that positive percentages are good when judging offense, and negative percentages are good when judging defense, then you’ll be just fine. There’s also a formula to come to a percentage for judging special teams, but instead of confusing you even more I’m just going to tell you that that’s a thing and that it’s useful (and that you can read more about everything DVOA here). There’s also a team’s total DVOA, but I promise this one is actually pretty simple. All you do is subtract the defense DVOA from the offense DVOA, and add the special teams DVOA to create a single percentage known as total DVOA. To make it more clear, the Eagles DVOA in 2017 looked like this:
Offense DVOA – Defense DVOA + Special Teams DVOA = Total DVOA
10.0% – -12.6% + 0.9% = 23.5%
So how is it useful? For starters, a team’s record might not be a perfect indicator of how good or bad they are. By using DVOA you can see how a team performed in relation to the league simply based on how efficient they were on offense and defense. Obviously, luck and the human element, as well as coming out on the wrong end of close games, can make a team’s record worse than DVOA would imply, but it still gives you a deeper perspective into how that team performed outside of their record. For example, in 2016, the Eagles finished with a 7-9 record and missed the playoffs, but they finished fourth in total DVOA. This implied that the Eagles would improve in 2017, and they did by a whopping six games to finish 13-3 and win the Super Bowl by a score of 41-33. That’s not to say it’s a nostradomus-esque tool, as roster changes and experience were a huge part of the Eagles’ improvement, but it still accurately indicated that the team performed better in 2016 than their record showed.
How the Eagles & the Rest of the NFC Ranked in DVOA Last Season
Spoiler alert: the Eagles were really good in 2017! Their total DVOA was 23.5%, which ranked 5th in the NFL. On offense, they were 10 percent better than the league average (ranked 8th), and on defense they were -12.6 percent better than average (ranked 5th). It’s no surprise that teams like Minnesota, New Orleans, New England, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, and the LA Rams all found themselves in the top 10 of total DVOA ranks, but what is somewhat revealing is the top 5. (I’ve also included the top ten teams based off record in 2017 below, for comparison)
Rank Team Total DVOA
1) NO 30.7%
2) LAR 27.7%
3) PIT 27.1%
4) MIN 25.1%
5) PHI 23.5%
6) NE 22.6%
7) BAL 18.5%
8) JAC 13.1%
9) CAR 13.0%
10) KC 10.5%
Four of the top five teams are all in the NFC, and all four of those teams come from different divisions. In the top ten, the AFC and NFC split with five a piece, but it shows some of the best competition in the NFL will come within the Eagles’ own conference. Even if the Rams, Vikings, and Saints take a step back in 2018, I’m not sure teams like Baltimore or Kansas City necessarily jump them in these rankings. The NFC has become the powerhouse of the NFL, and the Eagles will have their work cut out for them in earning home field advantage this post season.
What This Means for the Eagles’ 2018 Campaign
The Eagles play five opponents this season who ranked in the top ten of total DVOA in 2017: The Vikings (week 5), the Panthers (week 7), the Jaguars (week 8), the Saints (week 11), and the Rams (week 15). All of these opponents, save for the Jags, are teams the Eagles will potentially have to go through to reach a second consecutive Super Bowl. Fans should circle these games as having even extra importance for both their pursuit of clinching a top seed but also as previews of playoff matchups. If the Eagles want to make another run like they did last year, they’ll have to show that the 2018 edition of the team is capable of beating these high quality opponents.