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Falcons and Chiefs among the NFL's luckiest and unluckiest teams

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There's a lot of luck involved in a football game. It's not even a round ball, after all; you never know where that oblong thing is going to bounce.

So while we want to judge teams based solely on wins and losses, quite a few underlying elements help tell us how teams will play in the second half of the season. Sometimes teams get the benefit of pure luck: a defender dropping an easy interception, or an opposing kicker missing an easy field goal. There's nothing a kick returner can do when a kickoff sails over his head for a touchback, and nothing a defense did to deserve the gift of a blown snap that goes over the quarterback's head.

Other times "non-predictive events" occur to a particular team at an egregiously high or low rate. The best known of these metrics is performance in close games, which represents real quality play but also heavily regresses toward the mean in the future. Other "non-predictive events" include things like blocked kicks and interception returns for touchdowns.

Below we look at which teams have had a lot of luck so far in 2015, or very little of it. We've crunched a number of different metrics, including:

  • "Pythagorean projection," the difference between wins and how many wins a team would expect to win given its points scored and allowed.

  • Fumble-recovery rates: ball security and causing fumbles are skills, but pouncing on the loose ball is almost entirely luck.

  • "Hidden" special teams, consisting of how well opposing kickers do on field goal attempts as well as kickoff and punt distance without considering return yardage.

  • How often opposing receivers drop passes without contact from a defender.

  • Dropped interceptions: when defenders drop passes that should be easy picks as determined by ESPN Stats & Information charting.

  • What percentage of turnovers are returned all the way for touchdowns, on both offense and defense.

One thing we did not consider for this analysis is schedule strength, although that definitely falls under the category of good fortune. And the team with the easiest schedule in the league this season has been lucky in plenty of other ways.


Luckiest teams

Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons have benefited from opponents dropping their own passes (5.4 percent, third in the NFL) and Matt Ryan's passes (four dropped interceptions). Atlanta has turned the ball over 14 times without any touchdown returns, but its 14 takeaways have led to three touchdown returns. No team has been aided more by opposing kickers, who are just 10-of-15 on field goals with all five of those misses coming indoors. The Falcons have also faced below-average opponent performance on kickoff and punt distance.

Combine all these fortuitous events with Atlanta's ridiculously easy schedule, and it's no wonder the Falcons rank 19th in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric (read more here) despite a 6-3 record.