A week 1 loss isn’t that bad, is it?

So week 1 of the 2006 NFL season is but a distant memory. Most fans have shifted their attention to week 2. Most fans don’t include Chiefs fans (like me) who are still wondering when the NFL changed the rule to make it okay to lower your shoulder into a sliding QB and get up and celebrate afterwards. Before we leave week 1, let’s look at the playoff implications of the outcome of week 1 games. They are larger than you might think.

First, consider that 9-7 probably leaves you sitting at home. So a week one loss means that you are one-seventh of the way to being eliminated from the playoffs. The average chance of making the playoffs for each team at the beginning of the season is 6/16 or 37.5% . If you are one-seventh of the way to driving those odds to zero, you can figure that a week one loss dropped your team’s odds of making the playoffs by 5%. That is a pretty significant drop in odds, but for most teams, the loss was even more costly than that, because in the NFL, nothing is average.

In the table below, I’ve calculated the difference in week 1 and preseason playoff odds for all 16 losing teams. In the first column, I’ve listed their drop in odds in absolute percentage points. In the second column, I’ve listed the percentage of their initial chances that have been “lost”. For example, I predicted in preseason that the Titan’s odds of making the playoffs were 6.88%; after their week 1 loss to the Jets, they have dropped to 1.98%. So in absolute percentage points, their odds have dropped by 4.9%. The have also lost (6.88-1.98)/6.88 = 71% of their initial chances of making the playoffs by virtue of their week one loss. Their season is practically over.

Carolina          -15.9    -24.2
Washington      -11.4    -23.3
Kansas City     -11.2    -22.2
Denver             -8.9      -14.3
Tampa Bay      -8.8      -26.1
Detroit             -8.4      -42.4
Miami              -8.2      -16.7
Green Bay       -7.9      -43.2
Cleveland        -7.7      -44.4
NYG                -6.9      -17.3
Buffalo            -5.8      -41.9
Tennessee        -4.9      -71.2
Dallas              -4.9      -9.5
Oakland           -4.8      -43.0
Houston           -3.2      -40.8
San Francisco  -3.1      -48.4

How could one loss cause so much carnage? Let’s look take the Titans again as an example, since it is pretty unlikely that we will get too many more chances to talk about them again this season. According to the Vegas odds makers, the “average” Titans’ season was projected at 5 wins. In order to make the playoffs, they would need a season much better than average, and even then, the best chance of making the playoffs was to sneak in at 9-7. Now also consider that the Titans were favored on Sunday. My software predicted that they had a 59% chance of beating the Jets at home. By losing, the average predicted wins of the season drops from around 5 to 4.4, and most of those 9-7 seasons in which they barely qualified are now 8-8 seasons with them sitting at home. Add in the fact that the Colts and Jags won their games, and that another wild card contender won (either the Steelers or the Bengals) and it’s not difficult to see how the Titans are on the verge of mathematical elimination after week 1.

For every loser, there is a winner. Here is the same list for the winners.

Atlanta             16.4     21.3
Minnesota        12.4     10.6
Chicago           11.2     21.3
San Diego        11.0     33.7
Cincinnati        10.3     12.3
Philadelphia    7.8       22.2
New England   6.7       9.7
Indianapolis    6.3       8.2
Seattle             6.3       7.7
Pittsburgh        6.2       9.7
Baltimore        5.9       20.6
Jacksonville    5.6       22.3
New Orleans   5.3       31.4
St. Louis          4.5       18.3
Arizona           3.3       34.7
NYJ                 2.6       44.7

Some caveats are in order. It is absolutely ridiculous to be doing playoff predictions based on the outcome of one game. This is the first year that I’ve done predictions this early; I normally wait until four to six games have been played to get a better idea of how good the teams really are. I’m also well aware that football is played on a field, not a computer, so the Titans and every other NFL team still control their own destiny. However, this little study emphasizes one of the key attractions of the NFL:  every game matters. And if every game matters, then the entire season could be hinging on any given snap of the ball. Just ask a Chiefs fan.

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