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The Packers defense preserved a 24-16 win Sunday by stuffing Carolina’s MVP candidate running back Christian McCaffrey inches from a potential game-tying touchdown as the clock wound down at snowy Lambeau Field. It was a scene tailor-made for NFL Films. Green Bay is now 8-2, and if the season continues on this special path, Sunday’s dramatic closing sequence will appear in many highlight films for many years to come.

 

But how likely is this Packers run of success to continue?

 

There is an adage that you are what your record is, and at 8-2, it suggests that the Packers are one of the best teams in the NFL. But if you look at their statistical rankings, you’ll see a very odd sight.

 

In the four prominent team statistical rankings - Points Scored, Offensive Yards, Points Allowed, and Yards Allowed -the Packers currently rank 11th, 17th, 12th, and 28th respectively. What is odd about that? Since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970, there have been 171 teams begin a season 8-2 or better over their first ten games. All but three finished ranked in the top 10 in at least one of those categories. 92% of those teams finished ranked in the top 10 in more than one of those categories. Nearly a third of those teams were ranked in the top 10 in ALL FOUR of those categories. Here is what the average 8-2 or better team's rankings look like in these categories:

Points Scored
Avg

Offensive Yards
Avg
Points Allowed Avg Yards Allowed Avg Final Win Total
Avg
6.29 8.49 7.45 10.12 12.02

 

While the Packers have had some thrilling victories and impressive individual performances this year, most fans would admit that they haven’t looked as dominant as an 8-2 team typically looks. That becomes even more apparent when you compare them to the two other eight win teams in the NFL this year; the 8-0 San Francisco 49ers and the 8-1 New England Patriots. Here are their rankings compared to the Packers:

Team Record Points Scored Rank Offensive Yards Rank Points Allowed Rank Yards Allowed Rank
Packers 8-2 11 17 12 28
Patriots 8-1 2 15 1 1
49ers 8-0 3 6 2 1

 

The Patriots and 49ers certainly fit the traditional profile of dominant teams. Granted, they have played fewer games at this point, and the 49ers have yet to play in Week 10 (though all these rankings are on a per-game basis). But to illustrate just how differently the Packers have performed, let’s imagine what it would take for San Francisco’s rankings to look similar to Green Bay’s after tonight’s game. The Seahawks would have to win tonight’s game 83-0, gain 1,520 yards of offense and hold the 49ers to 83 yards or less of total offense. However, even with the shutout, the 49ers would still rank ahead of the Packers in Points Scored 10th to 11th.

 

To play devil’s advocate, the Packers are nearly in the top 10 in Points Scored and Points Allowed, and you can argue that a top 10 ranking is arbitrary anyway. Both are true. But let’s make this rankings club even more exclusive. How many of the 174 teams (171 teams plus the three from 2019) did not rank in the top 5 in any category? That number jumps from 4 to 21. At first, it appears the Packers' situation is less rare until you realize this means that 83% of teams that started 8-2 or better were top 5 in one of these categories. Two-thirds of them ranked in the top five in at least two areas! The 2019 Packers are a very rare team that has a phenomenal record yet doesn’t excel in any area that would explain why they are 8-2 in the first place.

 

Most bizarre in all of this is Green Bay ranks an awful 28th in Yards Allowed while ranking a solid 12th in Points Allowed. They are taking the principle of “bend, but don’t break” to the extreme. The 16 slot discrepancy in Points Allowed and Yards Allowed is unusually wide. On average, a team’s Points Allowed and Yards Allowed rankings are separated by just 4.9 spots. Of the teams to finish 28th in Yards Allowed historically, none have finished as high as 12th in points allowed, and only five teams finished higher than 22nd. Conversely, just three teams have ever ranked 12th in points and finished lower than 23rd in yards. And not to go total math nerd, but since 1970 the correlation coefficient between Points Allowed and Yards Allowed is 0.82. That is incredibly strong. For reference, the correlation between the average daytime high temperature and the day of the year is about 0.85. As sure as it will be hot in July and cold in December, teams that give up lots of yards give up a lot of points and vice versa. It would seem something has to give.

 

Yds Allowed Ranking for the 28th Team in Pts Allowed
(Since 1976)
Count
12th 1*
13th 1
15th 1
16th 1
17th 1
19th 1
22nd 4
23rd 1
24th 1
25th 4
26th 3
27th 6
28th 14
30th 3
31st 1

 *2019 Packers

Pts Allowed Ranking for the 12th Team in Yds Allowed (Since 1970) Count
1st 1
2nd 1
5th 2
7th 3
8th 1
10th 2
11th 2
12th 7
13th 4
14th 1
15th 2
16th 1
17th 2
18th 4
19th 3
20th 1
21st 1
22nd 2
23rd 4
27th 2
28th 1*
31st 1

 *2019 Packers

 

Now, I know what you’re thinking – Eric hasn’t produced any content in almost two years, and now he returns with this downer of an article to rain on the Packers’ parade. Not exactly. Historically, it would seem that it is unsustainable to win as often as the Packers have while having traditional rankings this mediocre. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are headed towards an impending disaster. I’ll use an example to illustrate this. At the midway point of last season, Andrew Luck was second in the NFL with 23 touchdown passes (nearly three a game) while averaging a mere 6.4 yards per pass attempt – second-worst in the NFL. Much like wins and team rankings, there is nothing statistically linked between throwing touchdowns and yards per attempt, but in the history of the NFL, no player had thrown for 2.5+ touchdown passes per game and averaged less than 7.0 yards per pass attempt. What Luck was doing was not impossible, but in the 99-year history of the NFL, no one had sustained that throughout an entire season. History suggested that a correction would occur and he would either start throwing fewer touchdowns or he would throw for more yards per attempt. Was Luck masking an unproductive season with an overabundance of touchdowns, or was his high touchdown count a sign that he soon would start to gain more yards on each pass attempt? The answer to both of those questions was yes, but the latter ended up being more accurate than the former. In the second half of the season, Luck’s touchdown rate went down, but he still threw 16 more touchdown passes. However, his yards per attempt increased by over 25%. Luck finished the year with a conventional-looking 7.19 yards per attempt, and 39 touchdown passes – a stellar season that saw him selected to the Pro Bowl. While the Packers propensity of surrendering lots of yards might be a sign that they'll soon give up more points, it could also be a sign that their ability to keep points off the board is a sign that their defense is better than they've played between the 20s.

 

The Packers may be a mediocre team that has been fortunate to win a bunch of close games. The Packers are 5-1 in one-score games. Winning in close games has shown to even out over more extended periods. The Packers could be a slightly above average team on a lucky streak. However, defensively, they’ve also been remarkably consistent at limiting points. In 2019, the NFL average for team points scored per game is 22.6. The Packers have held eight of their ten opponents to between 16 and 26 points. They’ve had one way above average (34 vs. Phi) and one way below average (3 at Chi). Maybe they’re just a good defense that has focused on guarding the red zone.  

 

Also, I’d be remiss if I did not point out the glaring exception to this data set: Belichick’s Patriots. Since 2000, New England has been ranked higher in Points Allowed than Yards Allowed every year but one. In the last ten years, the difference is even more extreme. Since 2010, the Patriots Points Allowed ranking is incredibly 11.5 spots higher on average than their Yards Allowed ranking.

Year Tm W L Pts Allowed Rk Yds Allowed Rk Rk Diff
2000 NWE 5 11 17 20 3
2001 NWE 11 5 6 24 18
2002 NWE 9 7 17 23 6
2003 NWE 14 2 1 7 6
2004 NWE 14 2 2 9 7
2005 NWE 10 6 17 26 9
2006 NWE 12 4 2 6 4
2007 NWE 16 0 4 4 0
2008 NWE 11 5 8 10 2
2009 NWE 10 6 5 11 6
2010 NWE 14 2 8 25 17
2011 NWE 13 3 15 31 16
2012 NWE 12 4 9 25 16
2013 NWE 12 4 10 26 16
2014 NWE 12 4 8 13 5
2015 NWE 12 4 10 9 -1
2016 NWE 14 2 1 8 7
2017 NWE 13 3 5 29 24
2018 NWE 11 5 7 21 14
2019 NWE 8 1 1 2 1

 

In that time frame, just 11 teams have been 16+ slots worse at allowing yards than points: this year’s Packers, five Patriots teams, and five other teams. Sacrificing yards while protecting points seems to be something that Patriots have uniquely figured out how to do consistently. Have the Packers cracked that code too? Perhaps.

 

So what does this all mean? We will see. One flaw of this study is that I do not have the rankings in these categories for the 8-2 or better teams after ten games. It is entirely possible that many of these teams had profiles similar to the Packers and improved throughout the season. I hope that is the case here. Remember earlier when I mentioned there were three teams that, like the 2019 Packers, started 8-2 or better and didn’t finish in the top 10 in any of the four major categories? In case you were curious, here is what happened to them:

 

  • 1986 Jets: New York started 10-1 with a high-flying offense and looked poised to take the AFC’s top seed. They had the 2nd highest-scoring offense through 11 games. Then suddenly, their offense cratered. They scored the fewest points in the NFL over the last five weeks and lost every game. At 10-6, they made the playoffs due to a four-way tie and briefly seemed to recapture their magic. They won the Wildcard Game 35-15 over the Chiefs and then held a 20-10 lead at the top-seeded Browns in Cleveland with 4:00 left in the 4th quarter. Then they collapsed one last time. The Browns would tie the game in the final seconds before winning 23-20 in overtime.

 

  • 1987 Chargers: In Dan Fouts’ final season, San Diego started 8-1 on the strength of a Top 10 defense (and a 3-0 record from the replacement Chargers in the strike games). However, their offense could never get going. Once the defense started to sink, the offense dragged them all the way to the bottom. They scored the fewest points and allowed the 5th most over the last six weeks. Like the Jets, they lost every game. This time fate wasn’t so kind, as 8-7 Chargers missed the playoffs by a game.

 

  • 2004 Falcons: This one most resembles the Packers. After ten games, the Falcons were 14th in Points Scored, 20th in Offensive Yards, 14th in Points Allowed, and 20th in Yards Allowed. They were a perfectly mediocre team that was somehow 8-2. Much of that was due to a stellar 4-1 record in one-score games. Over the final six weeks, the mediocre Falcons showed their true colors by going 3-3 over their remaining schedule. The NFC was historically bad in 2004, so the 11-5 Falcons clinched a first-round bye outright. They clobbered a lousy 8-8 Rams team 47-17 in the Divisional Round before being soundly defeated 27-10 in the NFC Championship Game by the Philadelphia Eagles, who were likely the only NFC team that was any good that year.

 

Are the 2019 Packers awaiting a 2004 Falcons fate? Who knows. Maybe. Green Bay’s 8-2 start has been so unexpected. With a new coaching staff and influx of new players, no one had any idea what this team was going to be. As a fan, it has been a ton of fun to watch. This year's team is easy to root for and has made the plays in crunch time when they needed to. They have earned their 8-2 record, even if it doesn’t look like it usually does when a team wins this often. Has it been a little unsettling at times? No doubt, but after the mediocrity of the last couple of years, it’s been wonderful to watch. I can’t wait to see how it turns out. If they turn out not to be as good as their record suggests, so be it. At least they will have played in big games in December and (probably) January. Maybe this is an excellent team that hasn’t played their best football yet; thus, their rankings are lagging behind their wins. If that’s the case, the rest of the NFL better look out. And if they end up sustaining this peculiar balance the rest of the way, the 2019 Packers will statistically be one of the rarest teams in NFL history. Buckle up. This is going to be one hell of a ride.  

 

Eric Drews 
Host 
Green and Gold Forever 
@GreenGold4Ever

 

Thank you to anyone that reads this. I forgot how difficult it is to write even if you have a premise. This idea just came from my browsing Pro-Football-Reference.com and noticing how strange the Packers rankings were. Thanks for reading. I hope you found something interesting. I know it was probably a bit too long. I’ve missed producing content. I think I’ll just post things from time to time as I think of them and see if it gets any feedback. I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments. 

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