Doom, Gloom, and NFL Tiebreakers

One of the enduring traditions of the NFL is the week 2 ritual in which the media, with a tone containing some mixture of grave solemness and outright glee, pronounce dead, or at least mortally wounded, the playoff chances of various teams that start the season at 0-2. The litany of the 2006 ritual was the frequently mentioned statistic that teams that start the season at 0-2 have qualified for the playoffs only 13% of the time. My playoff forecasting software validates the historical lesson; it predicts that the average chance of making the playoffs for the eleven 0-2 teams is 15%. But not all 0-2 teams are equally doomed. Several 0-2 teams still have decent chances of making the playoffs including 2005 NFC playoff qualifiers Carolina, Washington, and Tampa Bay and AFC contenders Kansas City and Miami. You can look at the week 2 playoff forecasts in the preceeding post to get the specific odds of each team.

 I’m going to devote the rest of this column to the exciting topic of NFL tiebreaker rules. Most fans who have been in a tight playoff race in the last few years are aware of these and may even have a vague notion of the order of the tiebreakers committed to memory. However, I’ve been hanging around fan message boards long enough to see that many devoted and informed fans don’t fully understand them. They come into play more often than one would think and in some cases, you have to go up to six levels deep into the tiebreakers to resolve the tie. I’m going to focus on the aspects of the tiebreaking rules that most often cause confusion. One area that always causes confusion is 3-way ties. Let’s consider a couple hypothetical examples. Example A: The following 3 teams are tied at 10-6 and vying for two open wild card spots:

Denver 10-6 San Diego 10-6Pittsburgh 10-6 To break this 3-way tie, you must first break the tie between Denver and San Diego, since they are in the same division. Always break ties within a division before considering ties outside the division. Let’s assume San Diego wins that tiebreaker. They would then face the Steelers in a 2-way tiebreaker. Now if San Diego wins that tiebreaker, they would become the number 5 seed. Then Pittsburgh and Denver would have to go through a tiebreaking procedure to determine which one would claim the final playoff seed.

Example B: The following teams are tied at 10-6 for and vying for a single wild card spot:

Jacksonville 10-6

Miami 10-6  

 If Miami defeated Jacksonville in a head-to-head match up earlier in the season, do they have an iron-clad tiebreaker advantage over Jacksonville? Not necessarily. If another team is tied with them, say San Diego, and neither team played San Diego, then the head-to-head tie breaker is not applicable. The other tiebreaker that causes confusion is the strength of victory tiebreaker. Some fans mistakenly think that this is the point spread by which you won your games. Instead, it is the WLT percentage of the opponents that you have defeated. It is like strength of schedule, except it only considers the teams you defeated, not the teams you lost to.

My recommendation when it comes to tiebreakers is to use my software to analyze them. That’s how I do it, because it is faster and much less prone to mistakes than figuring them manually. Let’s say you were interested in who would win the Division between the Cowboys and the Redskins and there are 4 weeks left in the NFL season, including one game in which they play each other. You have a particular scenario in which both the Redskins and the Cowboys end up having the same record. Who would make the playoffs? You can analyze this scenario by selecting the winners of each of the seven games of interest by moving the sliders in the “Advanced Analysis” tab all the way toward each of the projected winners. Then click “Forecast Remainder of Season”. The software will determine the winner of the tiebreaker for that scenario. If the odds of one of the teams winning is less than 100%, that means that the tiebreaker is at the strength-of-victory or strength-of-schedule level and the final resolution depends on some unplayed games not involving these two teams. Next week, I’ll tell you a secret about the tiebreakers (they don’t work) and the surprising implications regarding the relative importance of various games on each team’s schedule.


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