Let’s start this week’s Football by the Numbers by applying the best shorthand assessment to the two undefeated teams. Then, we’ll examine defensive trends as you set your fantasy football matchups and look at key red zone stats in making some player recommendations.
When ranking teams, we’ve known for nearly 50 years (thanks mostly to the great Bud Goode) that if you subtract sack-adjusted yards per pass attempt allowed from the YPA gained, you have a reliable strength index. Over 2.0 (yards), you’re a Super Bowl contender. From 1.0 to 2.0 gets you 10-to-12 wins, on average.
Here’s how they line up today. The Saints are a ridiculous plus-3.0, which gets you 15 or 16 wins — and I’ll put my money on 16. The other unbeaten, Indianapolis, has been far less dominant. While the Colts are exactly plus-2.0 — the bare minimum requirement to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender — they are a clear step back from New Orleans.
At 10 to 12 (expected) wins (between plus-1 and plus-2 net YPA) are (in order of strength): San Diego, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Green Bay, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Houston and the Giants.
The Vikings and Texans are big outliers here. Of course, the game is only 80 percent net passing and the Vikings clearly do that other 20 percent well, while the Texans do not. But there’s no denying the Texans have badly underachieved.
The Jets have a higher net YPA than the Patriots after that Monday Night Massacre in New Orleans. But note that a pick is worth about six points, according to regression analysis going back four decades, and Mark Sanchez has thrown 17.
In sum, you’re very likely going to have to out-pass the Saints to beat them. There is no outstanding pass defense this year outside of possibly the Jets, who will not be a factor. So you need a quarterback who can outplay (or out-YPA) Drew Brees. Who in the NFC can do this in New Orleans? Maybe Brett Favre. Perhaps Tony Romo on his best day, which he never seems to have after December.
Let’s quickly run down defenses the last three weeks only. We’re focusing on yards per pass and per rush this time.
Best Pass Defenses: Bengals (4.0 sack-adjusted YPA), Vikings (5.2), Packers (5.5), Bucs (5.6), Cowboys (5.6), Eagles (5.6) and Saints (5.6)
Worst Pass Defenses: Lions (9.5), Patriots (9.1), Falcons (8.7), Raiders (8.0), Chiefs (7.8) and Browns (7.6).
Best Run Defenses: Vikings (3.0 yards per rush), Giants (3.1), Jaguars (3.2), Steelers (3.3), Jets (3.5), Ravens (3.5) and Lions (3.7).
Worst Run Defenses: Rams (6.2), Cardinals (6.1), Dolphins (5.2), Texans (5.2), Raiders (4.9), Chargers (4.9) and Saints (4.8).
Now let’s make some player recommendations based on red zone stats that are provided to us courtesy of our friends at Rotowire.com, where you find my weekly NFL Breakfast Table with Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski.
Chris Brown, RB, Texans: He’s the man on the goal-line now and the Texans get the run-friendly Rams and Dolphins playoff weeks 15 and 16. Michael Turner (ankle) owners, take note.
LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, Chargers: He is just about shot, but Norv Turner doesn’t care, giving him 21 touches inside the five, which leads the league. Note the Chargers are 18th in red zone scoring percentage, so the over-reliance on Tomlinson is very likely hurting the team.
Tim Hightower, RB, Cardinals: Beanie Wells was November’s flavor of the month. But Hightower has him beat in inside-the-five rushes 10-4, and we’ll take the 10 here every time when the rest of the action is essentially split.
Highly-targeted red zone receivers: Well, except Louis Murphy (50 percent of all red zone targets), as Oakland is rarely in the red zone. The other leaders are Mike Sims-Walker (38.5 percent), Nate Washington (35.1), Larry Fitzgerald (33.3) and Calvin Johnson (32.6). I’m afraid the Panthers' Steve Smith (31.3) falls into the Murphy category, given the pitiful state of the Carolina passing game.
Chris Johnson, RB, Titans: He has just six touches inside the five and only nine inside the 10. But he has that jet pack on his back, so who cares.
Antonio Gates, TE, Chargers: He has seven red zone targets. That’s less than both Donald Lee and Jermichael Finley, who play tight end for the same team (Green Bay). Gates has scored touchdowns in two games this year.
Frank Gore, RB, Niners: He has more passes thrown to him inside the five than rushes (three to two).
Bad WR Red Zone target guys (except Percy Harvin): Wes Welker (15.2 percent of red zone targets), Jerricho Cotchery (13.8) and Nate Burleson (14.5) are all overvalued in touchdown-heavy leagues. (Yes, Welker and and Cotchery each missed two games, but still.) Harvin (10.2 percent), like Chris Johnson, can score from anywhere.