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A recipe for playoff success which the Pittsburgh Steelers could follow in 2016

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There are a lot of factors which can come into play when concocting a recipe for NFL playoff success. We dive into the numbers to try and find just what it takes to win a championship.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Defense wins championships.

Which Coach-QB tandem has the most championships?

Such-and-such a quarterback has however many championships.

It's a passing league.

Running Backs have been devalued.

You've heard it all before, but new research by, um, me, shatters some of these well known assertions with fascinating, and somewhat-credible, never before seen data. Specifically, it shows that the quarterback position may have much less influence on the outcome of the game than many have previously thought, that the running back position may actually be more influential, and above all the startling conclusion that football is actually a team sport.

I started this study specifically to determine the influence of quarterbacks. Dan Marino vs. Joe Montana, Peyton Manning vs.Tom Brady, playoff success has often been a significant component of comparisons between great quarterbacks. We all know that the quarterback almost always has more influence on the outcome of the game than any other player, but with at least 23 other players sharing some responsibility how much does that really mean? That's like having the biggest slice of a pizza cut 24 ways; not exactly impressive.

How much can a great quarterback really raise your odds of lifting a Lombardi? How much bigger is his slice of the influence pizza? That's what I wanted to know, so I looked at the 55 games comprising the last 5 years of the NFL playoffs to check the correlation between playoff wins and 8 possible advantages that could lead to those wins.

1. Having more passing yards during the regular season than your opponent (i.e. a better QB)

2. Having a higher quarterback rating that year than your opponent (to double check who has the better QB)

3. Having a running back with more yards per game than your opponent during the regular season

4. Having a wide receiver with more yards per game than your opponent  during the regular season

5. Having a defense that allowed fewer yards than your opponent  during the regular season

6. Having a defense that allowed fewer points than your opponent (to double check who has the better defense)

7. Having the head coach with the longest tenure (long tenured coaches tend to be winning coaches, so this comes close to a tautological observation that winning coaches tend to win, but there's also long-tenured guys like Jeff Fisher and Marvin Lewis who don't win, and it's hard to think of anything better).

8. Having home field advantage

This is what I found. The percentages stand for the percent of games won by the team with the given advantage.

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

5 yr avg

QB (rating)

55%

36%

64%

73%

45%

54%

QB (yards)

64%

45%

55%

55%

36%

51%

Def (scoring)

45%

45%

45%

45%

64%

49%

Def (yards)

36%

64%

73%

45%

45%

53%

RB (yds/g)

55%

45%

82%

64%

55%

60%

WR (yds/g)

45%

36%

45%

55%

64%

49%

Head Coach (tenure)

55%

60%

60%

73%

17%

53%

Home field

80%

60%

60%

80%

60%

68%

Clearly, none of these advantages is sufficient to guarantee victory or even tilt the balance that much all by itself. Even home field advantage, which in the playoffs almost always means having a better regular season record and being presumably the better team, only correlates to victory 68% of the time. That suggests that there's a fair bit of "any given Sunday" or random chance involved in playoff outcomes and/or regular season record isn't the greatest measure of which is the better team by the time the playoffs roll around.

One surprising outcome is the low significance of defensive superiority. You would expect that winning the battle on one side of the ball would be much more significant than any single positional matchup. You have to keep in mind, though, it's not a vacuum and if teams with superior defenses tend to have inferior offenses that diminishes their ability to influence the game and raise the probability of winning.  It would be interesting to compare the numbers for offensive superiority, but I'm not going to go back and do that.

Another surprising outcome is that having a more prolific RB than your opponent is actually the best predictor of playoff success over the past 5 seasons. Is that because good teams play with a lead and run the ball more, so a team with a more productive RB is more likely to just be a better team all around? Not really. A lot of teams don't run more when they have the lead, and when they do they're often using a short yardage RB who contributes to the team rushing total but actually cuts in to the yards per game of the team's lead back. Also, some of the most productive RB's in the league during the past 5 seasons have played for some pretty mediocre teams, think Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, and Jamaal Charles. It seems that having a bell cow RB that can rack up big yards and control the pace of the game really is a pretty big key to playoff success.

It's also worth noting that 2015 was a catastrophically bad year for established coaches that screams "outlier," or freak occurrence. Based on the previous 4 years, and what would seem like the norm, having a quality head coach with his system fully in place would be slightly more significant even than having a more dominant RB than your opponent. And remember, that's with Marvin Lewis trying his best to ruin the stat line of stable head coaches, going 0-5 as the longer tenured coach in every matchup.

The biggest thing this points out, though, is that football is the quintessential team sport. There are far too many factors involved to say that any particular player won a championship. Players do not win championships. Teams win championships. It takes more than one key advantage to win in the playoffs. You don't win by having a great quarterback, you win by having an accumulation of advantages.

To see how clearly the accumulation of advantages corresponds to victory, we can look at how teams performed when they had the majority of advantages. For this purpose you have to combine the two defensive metrics and the two quarterback metrics, otherwise teams could appear to have two advantages when they really just have a better defense either way you measure it. This leaves us with 6 categories, and teams that held an advantage in at least 4 of those 6 categories won a whopping 90% of the time over the past 5 years. That's a strong indicator that these metrics really are correlated to victory, but that they're just not significant enough individually to correlate strongly to victory.

One final item of interest is that looking at these minority games where a team won with under half the advantages to see what they have in common. This could be another way of measuring which advantages are sufficient to really carry a team. It ends up confirming that RB's are a major influence in playoff success as 64% of the winning underdogs had the more productive RB among their advantages. This tied with defense, while an advantage at QB was a common feature of only 45% of the winning underdogs.  A great RB would therefore seem more likely to single-handedly carry you to playoff success than a great QB.

So what does this all mean? First of all, it takes championship rings more or less out of the equation when comparing quarterbacks. Bradshaw and Roethlsiberger are still great passers, but their championships are more from having the good fortune to be part of a great team than any personal skill compared to say Dan Fouts or Philip Rivers.

Second, and more importantly, it highlights the significance of the loss of Le'Veon Bell before each of our past two playoff runs, and the importance of keeping him healthy this year. Ultimately, losing Bell for the first 4 games of the season may prove to be a blessing if it keeps him fresh and healthy for the playoffs.

Finally, it suggest that the Steelers, because of their diversity, are well positioned for a playoff run. The Steelers are not built solely around running and defense, or a prolific aerial attack, and in most matchups should be able to claim advantages at the head coach, quarterback, running back, and wide receiver positions, and hopefully defense too. This year very well could end up with Roethlisberger winning another ring to seal his Hall of Fame status (irony intentional).