Pro Football Stats: How to Handicap
by Kevin Schweitzer - 09/02/2007
Statistics are everywhere in sports. They're on screen while you're watching a game, they're in the programs at the stadium, they're even on Web sites like this one.
When you're reading pro football stats to try to determine how a game might play out, what you're looking for is how the two teams match up with each other. A great gauge for matchups in the NFL is scores against common opponents. This is more true in football than in other pro sports because teams in other sports play every other team in the league. Even with unbalanced schedules, win-loss records in those sports will give you some idea of how two teams should fare against each other.
In the NFL, however, a 5-6 team may actually have an edge over a 7-4 team that played a weaker schedule. Those four losses may be by a large margin to teams that squeaked by the 5-6 team. I just use the transitive property and adjust for home-field advantage. In other words, if the Eagles beat the Redskins by 17 in Philadelphia, and the Cowboys beat the Dolphins by 10 in Dallas, then the Eagles should be seven points better than the Cowboys on a neutral field. I would expect the Eagles to win by roughly 10 over Dallas if the game was in Philadelphia, or roughly four if it was in Dallas.
Be sure to look for all common opponents, and if the results don't tell a consistent story, give more weight to the most recent games. Fortunately, because all the teams in each division play an entire division in their own conference and the opposite conference, there are plenty of common opponents in the NFL.
Another way to check matchups is to look at each team's yards gained per game and yards allowed per game. Yards gained and yards allowed is a more accurate gauge of a team than points scored and points allowed for a couple of reasons. First, not all points are scored on offense and allowed on defense. A kick return for a touchdown, for example, will count as points for and against a team, but that doesn't reflect how strong the team's offense or defense is. Second, because teams compile a lot more yards than points, there's more room for statistical separation between teams.
When gauging teams by yards gained and allowed, you read one team's defense against the other's offense, and vice versa. If one team is relatively strong on defense but weak on offense, and the other is weak on defense but strong on offense, this game might be too close to call. However, if two teams are similar in one area but one is clearly stronger in the other, this stat could back up (or tear down) your gut feeling about which is more likely to win.
It's also worthwhile to look at one team's passing yards per game versus the opponents' passing yards allowed per game, and rushing yards versus rushing yards allowed, just to see if there's an area in which one team should be able to establish itself. You can drill all the way down to yards gained on the road versus yards allowed at home, but unless a team has a really wide variance between their home and away performance, this factor has already been worked into the overall home-field advantage. Keep in mind, too, that a good defense tends to play well anywhere, but a good offense might be better under certain home conditions, such as on artificial turf or inside a dome, that could be replicated in other stadiums.