Washington is Not Equipped to Win When It Matters
Mediocre teams sneaking into the postseason is nothing new. Every season features one or two teams who either win a lackluster division or squeak into a wild card spot in a top-heavy conference, only to get blasted by a legitimate contender. The variability in football, both the sport itself and the small sample of a 16-game season, lends to imposters being able to pull out postseason bids despite doing precious little to prove they deserve it.
Washington is on track to be (one of) this year’s postseason pretenders. Though they hold a 6-3 record through Week 10, Washington is nowhere near as good as their record suggests. By all accounts, Washington is a league-average team — at best — who has benefited from a lax schedule and inching out close wins. Teams like that can and do make the playoffs each year, but they seldom have any real success.
Let’s look at Washington through the lens of Football Outsiders’ DVOA, for example. Washington is currently 19th in DVOA, sandwiched between Philadelphia (18th) and Miami (20th). If the season were to end today, that would make Washington the second-lowest ranked team per DVOA to make the playoffs, placing them only ahead of the 6th seed Bengals (21st) in the AFC.
Since 2013 (past five seasons), nine teams have made the playoffs while finishing 18th-or-worse in overall DVOA. Moreover, seven of those nine teams ended the season with negative point differentials and a handful of teams finished with an absurd win rate in close games (decided by seven points or less), which can be more or less chalked up to luck leaning in their favor.
Team (DVOA Rank)
Close Game Record
2013 Green Bay Packers (20th)
Lost 23-20 to San Francisco 49ers
2014 Arizona Cardinals (22nd)
Lost 27-16 to Carolina Panthers
2014 Carolina Panthers (24th)
Won 27-16 over Arizona Cardinals, then lost 31-17 to Seattle Seahawks
2015 Houston Texans (18th)
Lost 30-0 to Kansas City Chiefs
2016 Houston Texans (29th)
Won 27-14 over Oakland Raiders, then lost 34-16 to New England Patriots
2016 Detroit Lions (26th)
Lost 26-6 to Seattle Seahawks
2016 Miami Dolphins (18th)
Lost 30-12 to Pittsburgh Steelers
2017 Buffalo Bills (21st)
Lost 10-3 to Jacksonville Jaguars
2017 Tennessee Titans (18th)
Won 22-21 over Kansas City Chiefs, then lost 35-14 to New England Patriots
2018 Washington (19th)
Of the three wins accrued by these mediocre playoff teams, only one of them feels legitimate. In 2014, the Cardinals-Panthers game had to produce a sub-18th DVOA winner because both teams finished below 18th that year. That is the product of two middling teams making the playoffs and happening to face each other, not an unlikely team earning an underdog win.
Two years later, the Texans beat a Raiders team that was not only down starting quarterback Derek Carr, but was forced to start rookie third-string quarterback Connor Cook, who had about a week’s worth of practice to settle into NFL speed. Needless to say, Cook was not ready for the moment, and the Texans scooted by the Raiders. The Patriots took the Texans out to pasture the following week.
The Titans’ triumph over the Chiefs last season is the only win on this list that is not gimmicky. Sure, the game was decided by one point and the Chiefs shot themselves in the foot with horrid second-half play calling and time management, but that was a good Chiefs team playing with their starting quarterback. That the Titans even kept it within a score was impressive, much less that they came away with the win.
To accent Washington’s uninspiring position in DVOA, the NFC East frontrunners are also struggling to keep up strictly in passing value. Adjusted net yards per pass attempt (ANY/A) is a proper measure of a team’s value because the NFL is a passing league and it only makes sense to skew the perception of a team toward how they fare in the passing game. Similar to their DVOA ranking, Washington does not look too hot.
Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (ANY/A) is a passing stat correlated with winning football games: https://t.co/ta7qdnxtqv— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) November 16, 2018
NFL ANY/A Value (essentially adjusted yards above/below average) as it stands today pic.twitter.com/S857qZzJK5
Washington is 16th in cumulative team ANY/A value, again making them the lowest “current” playoff team except the Bengals. In both pass offense and pass defense, Washington is hovering at or just a hair below average — the only fitting place for a team quarterbacked by Alex Smith. However, middle-of-the-pack is not representative of a 6-3 team who has the NFC East title already within reach. A team with Washington’s record and division title chances should rank closer to the top-10, not two spots behind a 4-5 division rival.
We are not going to see Washington get exposed from this point on during the regular season, either. Per Football Outsiders, Washington has the 26th toughest remaining schedule, meaning they should not be tested too strenuously over the next seven games. With both Eagles games left to play, Washington could fumble away the division by getting swept in that series, but the Eagles are effectively the same team through both DVOA and ANY/A, and even just one win over the Eagles all but confirms Washington as division champs. Washington should be able to coast through the rest of the season despite the slew of injuries their offense has suffered.
When Washington stumbles into a wild-card round game versus the likes of the Vikings, Bears, Panthers, etc., they will be outclassed. Teams around them have either posted more impressive résumés, have shown development throughout the year, or both. Washington has done neither. Maybe they will be decent enough to avoid a waxing like Detroit’s 26-6 loss to Seattle in 2016, but Washington does not appear to be anything more than filler.
This is not a team on a roll set to take the league by storm in January. This is a fortunate, lightly-tested team that will serve as a mere stepping stone along a legitimate contender’s path toward the Lombardi.