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Posts Tagged ‘Minnesota Vikings’

Explaining NFL Playoff Scenarios

In NFL on December 27, 2018 at 12:13 PM

I’ve done this a few different times over the years since there is kind of a lull in college football action, at least among the top teams. Also, I like solving the puzzles presented by tiebreaker scenarios. It’s like sudoku except fun and informative.

SECTION I: TEXT EXPLANATIONS

NFC

I’m going to start with the NFC to get it out of the way. The AFC if you get into some of the tiebreakers is very difficult to follow, but the NFC is pretty simple.

The division winners are the Saints, the Rams, the Bears, and the Cowboys. The Seahawks will be one of the two wild card teams.

The Saints are definitely the top seed (and as a result will have a first round bye, followed by playing the lowest-remaining seed), and the Cowboys are definitely the fourth seed, who will play the better of the two wild card teams in the first round.

Saints QB Drew Brees escapes the Steelers’ pass rush in New Orleans on Sunday. As a result of the Saints’ win, New Orleans clinched the #1 seed and put the Steelers on the brink of elimination from playoff contention.

The Rams have the inside track for the #2 seed, which entails a first-round bye. They clinch if either they win or the Bears lose. If neither of those happens, the Bears will be the #2 seed since Chicago beat Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago.

The Seahawks have the inside track on the #5 seed, the top wild card. They clinch with a win or a Vikings loss. If the Seahawks lose and Vikings win, the Vikings will take the #5 seed.

The Vikings have not clinched the playoffs yet, but they have the inside track against the Eagles. Minnesota would have to lose and Philadelphia would have to win for the Eagles to take the last playoff spot. In that scenario, the Seahawks wrap up the #5 seed regardless of the outcome of their game.

I don’t think any charts are even necessary for the NFC.

AFC

Intro and Making the Playoffs

The AFC, simply put, is a mess. It’s very weird to only have one known division champion of the four divisions. And that one known champion could be the best division winner or the worst division winner, so even that doesn’t clarify things as much as usual.

In the discussion below, except for one clearly marked paragraph, I will basically be pretending ties aren’t possible.

In order to finish as a top-4 seed (which also means your first game will be at home), you must win your division. So I’ll start by covering what needs to be done in order to win each division.

The one team I referred to who completed this process is the Patriots of the AFC East.

Patriots QB Tom Brady throws over the middle of the Bills defense in a lackluster win in Foxborough, Mass., on Sunday. With the win, the Patriots clinched the NFC East for the 10th year in a row.

In the AFC North, the Ravens only have to win in order to clinch. But if the Ravens lose and the Steelers win, the Steelers win the AFC North. If both lose, the Ravens win the AFC North. Without a tie, neither the Ravens nor the Steelers can make the playoffs as a wild card team.

In the AFC South, there are three potential champions. The Texans are one win away. If the Texans lose, the champion will be the winner between the Colts and the Titans (again, I’m excluding ties, but for that one I looked it up).

The AFC West is the only division that is tied going into the final week. Since the Chiefs have lost two games outside of the AFC (to the Rams and Seahawks) and have lost only once (against the Chargers) in the division, they hold the tiebreaker. So the Chargers would need to win and hope the Chiefs lose to the Raiders.

I’m going to reserve discussion of how the divisional champions will be seeded until the end since it’s the most complicated.

Wild Cards

An AFC wild card team would have to finish 10-6. I mentioned that the Texans haven’t clinched the division, but they have clinched at least a wild card spot. Both possibilities in the AFC West have clinched at least a wild card and could not fall below #5, which is the top wild card team.

The winner of the Colts and the Titans will get the last remaining playoff spot. As mentioned earlier, the playoff spot could be a division champion and in the case of the Titans could be as high as #2. Regardless, the loser is out.

For this one paragraph, I did look up what happens in the event of a tie in that game. First of all, the Texans would win the AFC South regardless of the outcome of their game since they start out a full game ahead. If the Titans and Colts tie and the Steelers win, all three will have the same record. If in addition to that the Ravens win, the Steelers will then have to compete for a wild card (if the Steelers win and the Ravens lose, the Steelers win the division and don’t compete for the wild card). The way the tiebreakers work is ties within a division are resolved first. The Colts beat the Titans earlier in the year, so they would eliminate the Titans. Then the Steelers would win the tiebreaker against the Colts with a better record in common games. If the Steelers lose, the Colts would take the spot.

Number One Seed

That wasn’t even the trickier aspect of the AFC. The real headache is how the division winners would be seeded in the event of ties. As many as five teams could finish with 11-5 records, and as many as four teams could finish with 10-6 records.

These are the main scenarios (“AFC West” refers only to Chargers and Chiefs.):

Two AFC West losses + Patriots win = Patriots #1 (Patriots would win tiebreakers against the Chiefs and/or Texans)

Chiefs lose + Chargers win = Chargers #1 (Chargers would finish with the best AFC record outright regardless of other outcomes.)

Two AFC West losses + Patriots lose = Texans #1 (Texans would win tiebreaker over Chiefs.)

Any other scenario = Chiefs #1

Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes looks to throw against the Seahawks in Seattle on Sunday night. Despite two losses in two weeks, the Chiefs have one more chance to wrap up the #1 seed against the Raiders next Sunday.

Number Three and Number Four Seeds

I’m putting the scenarios for #2 last since that’s the most complicated.

I’ll start with the simplest and most likely situation. If the Patriots and either (or both) the Chiefs or the Chargers win, this will be the Texans’ to lose.

If the Patriots lose, Houston will be in the top two with a win though. In that case, the Ravens would pass up the Patriots for the #3 spot.

If Houston does lose, they would not be in the running for a top four seed. The Ravens and Titans could then rise as high as #2 with wins, and the Colts could rise as high as #3 with a win. It’s likely that the Patriots would keep all of the above an additional spot lower with a win though.

A three-way tie between the Patriots, Colts, and Ravens (meaning the Patriots lose while Colts and Ravens win) would make the Ravens #2 and the Patriots #3.

A three-way tie between the Patriots, Titans, and Ravens would make the Ravens #2 and the Titans #3.

In the event of a loss, Houston would lose the tiebreaker to the Titans/Colts winner for the division, so the Texans would fall to the second wild card (#6 seed).

Number Two Seed

In the discussions above, I mentioned a couple of routes to the #2 seed.

If one of the two relevant AFC West teams win, the simplest route to #2 would be for either the Patriots or Texans to win and finish as the only 11-5 team (which would require the other to lose). If both win to finish 11-5, the Patriots win the head-to-head tiebreaker.

I mentioned in the previous subsection that if both the Patriots and Texans lose to finish 10-6, the Texans become a wild card team and the Patriots would end up tied with the Titans/Colts winner and/or the Ravens.

I covered the three-way ties, but the Patriots would lose a two-way tie for the #2 seed with the Titans but win a two-way tie with the Colts. The two-way tie is what happens if the Ravens and Patriots lose.

If both AFC West teams lose and the Texans win, the Texans don’t necessarily finish ahead of the Chiefs. As mentioned in the “#1” subsection, if the Patriots win in this scenario, they will take the #1 seed since they beat both the Texans and the Chiefs (who have not played each other).

The next step – and this is what I’ve been saving for last – is to resolve the tie between the Chiefs and the Texans. I mentioned they didn’t play each other, so the next step is common opponents. Both lost to the Patriots and beat the Browns. The Texans beat the Jaguars twice and the Chiefs beat the Jaguars once, which gives the Texans a half-game lead. But in return the Chiefs beat the Broncos twice, and the Texans only beat the Broncos once. So both teams are 4-1 in total against the 4 common opponents.

How a Chiefs-Texans tie in the standings would actually be resolved if everything favorable to the Chiefs happens. The italicized teams are involved in the five game the Chiefs would need to go in their favor. The bolded teams are involved in games where it won’t matter either way because the numbers at the bottom wouldn’t change. The numbers at the bottom would be the final strength of victory for the respective teams.

The next tiebreaker is “strength of victory”. If it were strength of schedule, the Chiefs would win regardless of any other outcome, and there would never be a need to talk about any NFC games (the Texans and Chiefs played completely different NFC teams, but since every team of one conference only plays a single division of another conference and every division has two intra-divisional games in the final week, none of the outcomes would matter), but the NFL apparently thinks strength of schedule is a completely useless way to resolve a tie between two teams.

Since the teams that beat the Chiefs were all very good, this takes the better teams away from the Chiefs’ average. As a result, strength of victory (which is an assessment of who beat the best collection of teams) gives the Texans a clear edge.

That edge can be overcome, but only if the Ravens and both of the NFC teams who lost to the Chiefs (the Cardinals and 49ers) win and both of the NFC teams who lost to the Texans (the Cowboys and Redskins) lose. I’ll warn you that ESPN’s “Playoff Machine” contradicts me here, so if I’m missing something, let me know. I checked my numbers thoroughly (I even briefly thought I made a mistake in one of the records. I doubt Excel is wrong in its computation.

Same key as the chart above, but the games below the thick black horizontal line are the games that were (or would be) lost. Even if every relevant game were changed to an unfavorable result for the Chiefs, the Chiefs would still win the tiebreaker. I think it’s a sign of a better team if you only lose once to a team with single-digit wins rather than three times, but the NFL didn’t ask me.

The Cardinals and the 49ers winning would be bizarre results, especially since they’re both playing much better teams with something meaningful to play for, but remember that we don’t even have this conversation unless the Chiefs and the Chargers both lose, so we’re pretty far down the rabbit hole anyway.

Finally I have a historical note to make this a little weirder. The original nickname for the franchise that became the Kansas City Chiefs was the Texans. Those were Dallas Texans though.

Team Possibilities

This is the range of possible outcomes for the various AFC teams, excluding ties:

The Chiefs could get the #1, #2, #3, or #5 seed.

The Patriots could get the #1, #2, #3, or #4 seed.

The Chargers could get the #1 or #5 seed.

The Texans could get the #1, #2, #3, or #6 seed.

The Titans could get the #2, #3, #4, or #6 seed (or nothing).

The Ravens could get the #2, #3, #4, or #6 seed (or nothing).

The Colts could get the #3, #4, or #6 seed (or nothing).

The Steelers could get the #4 seed (or nothing).

SECTION II: AFC SCENARIO LISTS

I already covered a couple of these when I discussed the AFC #1 seed, but this is a more mathematical way of explaining the various scenarios (again, this is ignoring ties; and “AFC West” refers to the two competitive teams, the Chiefs and the Chargers). This is also kind of my proof of the last subsection:

Patriots win + at least one AFC West win = Patriots #2

Chiefs win + Patriots lose + Texans lose + Titans lose + Ravens lose = Chiefs #1, Patriots #2, Colts #3, Texans #6

Chiefs lose + Chargers win + Patriots lose + Texans lose + Titans lose + Ravens lose = Chargers #1, Patriots #2, Colts #3, Texans #6

Chiefs lose + Chargers lose + Patriots lose + Texans lose + Titans lose + Ravens lose = Chiefs #1, Patriots #2, Colts #3, Texans #6

Patriots lose + Texans win + at least one AFC West win = Texans #2

Patriots win + Chiefs win + Texans win = Texans #3

Patriots lose + Texans win + Ravens lose = Patriots #3

Patriots lose + Texans win + Ravens win = Patriots #4

Titans win + Patriots lose + Texans lose + Ravens lose = Titans #2, Patriots #3, Texans #6

Titans win + Patriots lose + Texans lose + Ravens win = Ravens #2, Titans #3, Patriots #4, Texans #6

Patriots win + Texans lose + Ravens win = Ravens #3, Titans/Colts winner #4, Texans #6

Patriots win + Texans win + Ravens win = Ravens #4

Titans win + Patriots win + Texans lose + Ravens lose= Titans #3

Titans win + Patriots win + Texans lose + Ravens win = Titans #4

Titans win + Patriots win + Texans win = Titans #6

Colts win + Texans lose+ Ravens lose = Colts #3

Colts win + Texans lose+ Ravens win = Colts #4

Colts win + Texans win = Colts #6

Steelers win + Ravens lose = Steelers #4, Ravens eliminated

Steelers lose = Ravens at least #4

SECTION III: AFC CHARTS

This is mostly from the New York Times, except I had to add the Eagles/Redskins game to the flow chart of the Chief’s various routes to their playoff seed. Previously, it said “50% chance of div. champ” on the right after “the Ravens win”. In this scenario, the Chiefs would already be the division champs, so that’s not really true (#fakenews); but I guess that was like an error message trying to tell the makers of the chart they didn’t provide enough information. The red box around “#2 BYE” means in that scenario the #1 team is the Texans. The blue box means in that scenario the #1 team is the Patriots. Where it says “#3 DIV. CHAMPS,” that would mean the Patriots are #1 and the Texans are #2. The various scenarios to the right of the red asterisk only apply to breaking the tie between the Texans and the Chiefs.

I’m starting with the most complicated situation since that is what seemed like it may require a chart the most. Also, it covers the Patriots’ and Texans’ potential routes to #1 seeds. Also, if the Chargers win, they would be #1 under the scenario above where it says “#5 wild card”.

As a supplement to that, these are the potential results if the Texans win and the Patriots lose. If the Texans and the Patriots both win, the Texans lose the tiebreaker and stay at the #3 spot.

It’s also pretty simple if the Patriots win. They’re #2 unless the Chiefs and the Chargers both lose, in which case they would be #1. But it gets a little more confusing if they lose, so here is the chart to cover that situation. The Patriots win the tiebreaker against the Colts but not against the Titans. If either the Patriots win or the Texans win, that game doesn’t really matter to anyone except the teams involved though.

The Ravens would win a tiebreaker against either the Titans or the Colts, so that game wouldn’t matter to them even if the Texans lose. They do want the Texans to lose though, because that will move them up a spot, either from fourth to third or from third to second.