Category Archives: Games People Play

My Super Bowl Rooting Record

Like most NFL fans, especially those who root for perennially mismanaged franchises, I have to decide prior to nearly every Super Bowl which of the conference champions to root for. While I’m old enough to have watched nearly all of them live, I’ve had a local team to root for fewer than ten times. Even if I include Super Bowl III which, while I don’t remember watching live, I have viewed many times on tape and would have had a clear favorite, I can cite at most nine Super Bowls in which I felt a strong pre-game stake in the outcome: 1 Jets, 3 Seahawks, and 5 Giants.

When I don’t have one of those teams to root for, I usually pick based on a combination of the following: Which team has won the fewest Super Bowls, hasn’t won for the longest time, or is the underdog. For example, this year it was easy to root for Kansas City based on the first two criteria, and for a long time it has been easy to root against New England. (My most recent exception to these guidelines is Super Bowl 50, when I chose Denver over Carolina based on what I correctly assumed would be Peyton Manning’s final game.) Based on these and my memories of having rooted for a lot of losing teams in Super Bowl blow-outs (hello, Buffalo), I would have guessed that my preferred team has lost far more often than it has won. But I had never gone back and counted, until now.

So I reviewed the list of Super Bowls and reconstructed which ones I watched and for which teams I was rooting. The results were somewhat surprising to me.

Before sharing the results, I should emphasize two points:

  • I haven’t considered which teams I predicted would win. I’m much more interested in who I wanted to win. (Hello again, Buffalo.)
  • I’ve tracked who I was rooting for to win at that time, which definitely isn’t always who I would root for based on current knowledge or if the teams played today. For example, I rooted for Washington three times in the 1980s (they went 2-1 in those games), but in retrospect I wouldn’t have rooted for them then given how I feel about the team now. And I rooted for New England in their first four Super Bowls (the two pre-Brady and the first two with Brady), but haven’t rooted for them since.

Of the 54 Super Bowls to date, there are seven that I either didn’t watch or have no memory of watching. Super Bowl V is the first one I have a clear memory of watching live, and starting with Super Bowl VIII I’ve watched all of them with the exception of XVI (the first Cincinnati-San Francisco game). Adding the Jets game as a special case means I’ve watched 48 Super Bowls. In those games, I have a 22-26 record. This is somewhat better than I expected.

As interesting to me as the total record are the recent and the longest streaks. Starting with Super Bowl XLVIII, i.e. the past seven games, there haven’t been two consecutive years in which I’ve ended up on the same side of the desired outcome (largely due to New England’s recent appearances). Super Bowl XLVIII was also the end of my longest streak of successful picks, at five, which started with New Orleans’ win (XLIV). My longest streak of unsuccessful picks is six in the 1990s, starting with Buffalo’s second of four straight Super Bowl losses (XXVI) and continuing through Green Bay’s victory over New England (XXXI). (Those six coincided with the end of the NFC’s record streak of 13 consecutive Super Bowl victories.) I’ve also noticed that in the first eight Super Bowls I watched consecutively as a youth (VIII through XV), I was 1-7, which probably explains why I have stronger memories of rooting for the losing teams.

Here is the full list. (Due to most browsers’ table rendering, you might need to scroll side-to-side to view all of the columns.) For further reference, consult Wikipedia’s list of Super Bowl champions.

#SeasonAFC/AFLNFC/NFLMy PickWinner
I1966Kansas CityGreen BayGreen Bay
II1967RaidersGreen BayGreen Bay
III1968JetsColtsJets🏆 Jets
IV1969Kansas CityMinnesotaKansas City
V1970ColtsDallasColts🏆 Colts
XI1976RaidersMinnesotaRaiders🏆 Raiders
XVI1981CincinnatiSan FranciscoSan Francisco
XVII1982MiamiWashingtonWashington🏆 Washington
XIX1984MiamiSan FranciscoSan Francisco🏆 San Francisco
XX1985New EnglandChicagoNew EnglandChicago
XXI1986DenverGiantsGiants🏆 Giants
XXII1987DenverWashingtonWashington🏆 Washington
XXIII1988CincinnatiSan FranciscoCincinnatiSan Francisco
XXIV1989DenverSan FranciscoDenverSan Francisco
XXV1990BuffaloGiantsGiants🏆 Giants
XXIX1994ChargersSan FranciscoChargersSan Francisco
XXXI1996New EnglandGreen BayNew EnglandGreen Bay
XXXII1997DenverGreen BayDenver🏆 Denver
XXXIV1999TennesseeRamsRams🏆 Rams
XXXVI2001New EnglandRamsNew England🏆 New England
XXXVII2002RaidersTampa BayRaidersTampa Bay
XXXVIII2003New EnglandCarolinaNew England🏆 New England
XXXIX2004New EnglandPhiladelphiaPhiladelphiaNew England
XLI2006ColtsChicagoColts🏆 Colts
XLII2007New EnglandGiantsGiants🏆 Giants
XLIV2009ColtsNew OrleansNew Orleans🏆 New Orleans
XLV2010PittsburghGreen BayGreen Bay🏆 Green Bay
XLVI2011New EnglandGiantsGiants🏆 Giants
XLVII2012RavensSan FranciscoRavens🏆 Ravens
XLVIII2013DenverSeattleSeattle🏆 Seattle
XLIX2014New EnglandSeattleSeattleNew England
502015DenverCarolinaDenver🏆 Denver
LI2016New EnglandAtlantaAtlantaNew England
LII2017New EnglandPhiladelphiaPhiladelphia🏆 Philadelphia
LIII2018New EnglandRamsRamsNew England
LIV2019Kansas CitySan FranciscoKansas City🏆 Kansas City

Why The Seahawks Can’t Clinch The NFC West This Weekend

TL;DR While the Seahawks’ season-ending game against the 49ers is the most significant factor by far in who will win the NFC West, if you’re a Seahawks fan, you should be rooting this weekend and next for Atlanta, Minnesota, and Philadelphia to win and for Green Bay, New Orleans, and Washington to lose.

It’s time for my late autumn foray into NFL playoff mathematics.

It is well established that the season-ending game between San Francisco and Seattle at CenturyLink Field will in all likelihood decide the championship of the NFC West division. While both teams have clinched playoff berths, the winner of the NFC West will hold at least the third seed in the conference, which guarantees hosting at least one playoff game. This winner also has an excellent shot at either the first or second seed, which would give them a first-round bye. The runner-up would at best earn the fifth seed, meaning no bye and an extremely slim chance of hosting a playoff game. So these teams’ regular season finishes matter a lot.

[N.B. For the purposes of the following discussion, I am ignoring the possibility of tie games.]

Both teams currently sit at 11-3 with two games remaining, and Seattle holds the tie-breaking edge over San Francisco because of its victory in their first matchup last month. As a result, if Seattle defeats San Francisco in their December 29th rematch, Seattle wins the NFC West, regardless of what happens this weekend. For example, in the case where Seattle loses and San Francisco wins this weekend, both teams would finish 12-4, and Seattle would win the NFC West by virtue of a 2-0 record in their head-to-head games.

If either Seattle loses or San Francisco wins this weekend (or both), and then San Francisco defeats Seattle in Week 17, San Francisco finishes at least one game ahead of Seattle and claims the NFC West with a 12-4 or 13-3 record.

This leaves one remaining scenario: Seattle wins and San Francisco loses this weekend, and then San Francisco defeats Seattle in Week 17. Both teams would finish 12-4, and would have split the season’s head-to-head series. Determining the NFC West winner in this situation requires diving deeply into both other teams’ records and the NFL’s tiebreaking rules.

This scenario also raises the following question: Is it possible for Seattle to clinch the NFC West this weekend, irrespective of the outcome of its rematch with San Francisco? The fact that it’s not mentioned in the coverage of this weekend’s games suggests that the answer is no, but since it’s not addressed explicitly, I decided to analyze it myself.

Since we’ve already determined that Seattle and San Francisco have matching won-lost and head-to-head records, we look at the division record tiebreaker: Both teams would be 4-2. Next up is won-lost percentage in common games, where both teams would be 9-3, and then conference record, where both teams would also be 9-3.

The next tiebreakers are strength of victory and then strength of schedule, where things get considerably more unpredictable, so buckle up.

To calculate the strength of victory, you can exclude the teams that both Seattle and San Francisco defeated and their victories against each other, which collectively account for nine of their twelve victories. This leaves the following six teams to consider: Atlanta, Minnesota, and Philadelphia for Seattle, and Green Bay, New Orleans, and Washington for San Francisco. Currently that totals to 22-20 for Seattle and 25-17 for San Francisco. While that seems like a significant margin in San Francisco’s favor, it could break either way, from Seattle finishing with a 28-20 vs. 25-23 edge to San Francisco finishing with a 31-17 to 22-26 edge. (Incidentally, only one of the remaining games, Green Bay at Minnesota this Monday night, involves two of the above teams.) More relevant to this discussion, even if all of this weekend’s games break in Seattle’s favor, the two teams’ strength of victory calculations would be an identical 25-20, so there’s no way that Seattle could take the insurmountable lead in strength of victory required to clinch the NFC West prior to Week 17’s games. Alas, we conclude that even with help from other teams, there are no NFC West-clinching scenarios for Seattle this weekend.

In the rare event that Seattle and San Francisco end the season exactly tied in strength of victory, the strength of schedule tiebreaker favors Seattle. The NFL’s scheduling formula dictates that any pair of teams in the same division have exactly two games with non-common opponents: This season, they’re Minnesota and Philadelphia for Seattle and Green Bay and Washington for San Francisco. Currently this gives Seattle a 17-11 to 14-14 edge, so with the right combination of outcomes in this weekend’s games, Seattle could attain an insurmountable margin in strength of schedule. This is useful, because the next several tiebreakers after strength of schedule are based on differentials in points scored which, due to Seattle’s predilection for winning close games, gives San Francisco a huge advantage.

What all of this means is that if you want Seattle to have the best possible chance to win the NFC West, you are rooting for Atlanta, Minnesota and Philadelphia to win both of their remaining games, and for Green Bay, New Orleans, and Washington to lose both of their remaining games. The one additional complication is that if you want to maximize Seattle’s chances of getting the top playoff seed in the NFC, you want Green Bay and New Orleans to have identical records — I’m not going to explain why here — which means that if New Orleans defeats Tennessee on Sunday, you might want to root for Green Bay to defeat Minnesota on Monday.

Or you can ignore all of this and focus your energy on rooting for Seattle to win its remaining two games.

And… They’re Eliminated

Following up to Can the 0-10 Cleveland Browns Make the Playoffs?, Cleveland is now officially eliminated from playoff contention. And it would have been eliminated even if it had managed to defeat Cincinnati today.

Reviewing the Week Twelve games mentioned in the above post as affecting Cleveland’s playoff chances, Thursday’s Chargers’ victory over Dallas didn’t eliminate Cleveland, because it could have been replaced by the Chargers losing to Washington in two weeks. And four of the five games played today went the Browns’ way: Tennessee, New England, Carolina, and Oakland all won. Today’s critical game was Buffalo versus Kansas City, as Buffalo’s victory eliminated the possibility that Cleveland could have won the tiebreaker between them. The only scenario in which this might have been possible is if Buffalo were to lose all of its remaining games. But for this to occur, Miami would have to win both of its remaining games against Buffalo, which would give Miami the tiebreaker over Cleveland.

All of this is moot because Cleveland lost today. Browns fans, better luck next year.

Can the 0-10 Cleveland Browns Make the Playoffs?

In a word, yes.

After Cleveland lost their tenth game of the season to Jacksonville last week, I was surprised to see them still listed as “In the Hunt” on the NFL’s Playoff Picture page. The NFL is careful about this stuff, but I’m loathe to accept it on face value. So as I have done in the past, I set about to prove that this is indeed possible, with the help of Microsoft Excel and the New York Times’s 2017 NFL Playoff Simulator.

I started by separating the AFC into teams that have already clinched a higher seed than Cleveland (surprisingly, only four) and those that haven’t, and assumed the remaining games always go in favor of the former. Of course I assumed that Cleveland wins all of its remaining games. Then I assumed that the teams with which Cleveland is still mathematically in competition lose all of their remaining games against NFC opponents. Finally, I determined the ideal (for Cleveland) outcome of the remaining twenty or so games involving AFC teams. The aforementioned playoff simulator was useful for verifying this work.

Here are the results: If Cleveland wins out to go 6-10, they can end up in a four- or five-way tie for the sixth and final playoff seed (with the Jets, Buffalo, Baltimore, and optionally Miami). In these scenarios, New England, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, and Kansas City win their divisions and Tennessee wins the fifth seed wildcard. The remaining six or seven teams (Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Houston, the Chargers, Oakland, Denver, and optionally Miami) all end up either 5-11 or 4-12.

But how does Cleveland win the wildcard tiebreaker with the other 6-10 teams? Since there are three or more teams from multiple divisions, first we apply the division tiebreaker “to eliminate all but the highest ranked club in each division.” Buffalo beats the Jets and Miami by virtue of the best record against common opponents (being tied in head-to-head and division record) and Cleveland beats Baltimore by virtue of a better division record. Then Cleveland beats Buffalo by virtue of a better record against common opponents (being tied in conference record).

For this to happen, about half of the remaining 96 regular season NFL games have to go in Cleveland’s favor, including Cleveland winning all six of its remaining games after an 0-10 start.

Let’s look at the upcoming Thanksgiving weekend (week 12). Cleveland must defeat Cincinnati and at least five or six of the following must occur:

  1. Dallas defeats the Chargers
  2. Tennessee defeats Indianapolis
  3. Kansas City defeats Buffalo
  4. New England defeats Miami
  5. Carolina defeats the Jets
  6. Oakland defeats Denver
  7. Houston defeats Baltimore

It’s extremely unlikely that Cleveland’s playoff hopes survive this week, let alone the remainder of the regular season, for which even one-in-a-million is a generous assessment, mathematically speaking. But it’s possible, which I imagine for Browns fans is worth something.

Here’s a detailed simulation.

Disclaimer: I did not factor tie games into any of my calculations.

Reliving The NFL’s Worst Plays

This weekend the NFL Network aired the NFL Top 10 Worst Plays. I believe it speaks to my psyche as a sports fan that I watched three of the top four as they were happening — one of them in person, from just a few hundred feet away — and in all three cases, I was rooting for the team that was on the failing side of the play.

I accept number one as the top choice because of how consequential it was. It’s the only play in Super Bowl history where the team on offense has gone from near-certain victory to near-certain defeat. Even the conclusion of Super Bowl XXV, perhaps the closest analogue, involved a relatively low percentage field goal attempt.

What I do continue to dispute is the conventional wisdom that this was the worst play call of all time. Statistically speaking the risk of a quarterback throwing an interception at the one-yard line is comparable to a running back fumbling at the one-yard line. If anything, the real problem with the play call is that the Patriots anticipated its use. As the video shows, the Patriots defense had run through the play in practice, and former Seahawk Brandon Browner warned Malcolm Butler to be ready for the coverage as they lined up for the snap. This belies the standard criticism of this play call: That the obvious choice in this situation was to have Marshawn Lynch run the ball. It also points out how well prepared the Patriots were to play the Seahawks.

The conventional wisdom also neglects the fact that the fateful play wouldn’t have even been possible if not for a phenomenal catch by Jermaine Kearse two plays earlier. What really cost the Seahawks this game is that they gave up two fourth quarter touchdown passes to the Patriots. Prior to Super Bowl XLIX they had an eight-game winning streak in which they consistently dominated the ends of games.

If there’s any consolation for me, reliving it through the replay might help anesthetize me to the coverage of it that is sure to intensify as November 13th approaches.

How the Seahawks Clinched, 2015

Seahawks clinch 2015 - small

When the Seahawks defeated the Browns on Sunday, it was announced broadly that the Seahawks had clinched a playoff berth. Nowhere, however, was it explained how this was determined. It appeared to be taken on faith, generally without a source, though in some cases the information was cited as coming from “the league”. This is not good enough for me.

When the same thing happened in 2013, I took it upon myself to investigate, and produced How the Seahawks Clinched. At the time I imagined that it couldn’t get much more complicated to prove that a team had clinched a playoff berth. I was wrong. Hold on for the ride.

Let’s start by excluding the scenario where the Seahawks win the NFC West division. As of this writing it is moot due to Arizona’s victory on Sunday night, but when the Seahawks-Browns game was completed, it was still theoretically possible. (Obviously had the Seahawks won the NFC West, they would have had a playoff berth.) This means that we only have to concern ourselves with how the Seahawks clinched a wildcard berth.

Because the Seahawks are 9-5, they can only be defeated for a wildcard berth by a team that has lost at most seven games and isn’t going to win its division. Not counting the NFC East for the moment, this limits the teams to Green Bay (10-4), Minnesota (9-5) and Atlanta (7-7).

Now let’s dispatch the NFC East. Washington can go 9-7, but if they do then they win the division title and thus aren’t part of wildcard consideration. Philadelphia could also have gone 9-7 had they not lost to Arizona on Sunday night (which occurred after the Seahawks clinched). However, in order for the Eagles to have finished 9-7, they would also have had to have defeated Washington next weekend. In this case, Washington would do no better than 8-8, Philadelphia would win the NFC East, and Washington would not be part of the wildcard picture. To summarize, no NFC East team can qualify for a wildcard position.

This leaves three detailed scenarios to consider, which I will cover in increasing order of complexity.

The first and simplest scenario is where Seattle wins (or ties) at least one more game or Atlanta loses (or ties) at least one more game. If Seattle wins or ties one more game, it is at least 10-6 (or 9-6-1) and Atlanta’s theoretical 9-7 best is not good enough. Similarly, if Atlanta loses (or ties) at least one more game, it can finish no better than 8-8 (or 8-7-1) so Seattle’s theoretical 9-7 worst is good enough. In either case Seattle is guaranteed one of the two wild card slots, and the other goes to either Minnesota or Green Bay (whichever of these two doesn’t win the NFC North).

As a result of this, in the remaining scenarios we only have to consider cases where Atlanta wins out and Seattle loses out and thus they both finish 9-7.

The second scenario is where Minnesota wins (or ties) at least one more game. In this scenario, Minnesota and Green Bay are both 10-6 (or 9-6-1) or better and Atlanta and Seattle are both 9-7. The better of Minnesota and Green Bay wins the NFC North, and the worse gets the higher wild card position, i.e. 5th seed overall. This leaves Atlanta and Seattle competing for the final wild card position.

Atlanta and Seattle didn’t play each other, so there’s no direct head-to-head, and they are in different divisions, so intra-divisional records aren’t compared. The next tiebreaker is conference record; in this scenario both teams would be 6-6. After that the next tiebreaker is record against common opponents, with a minimum of four. It turns out that Atlanta and Seattle have exactly four common opponents this year — Carolina, Dallas, Minnesota, and San Francisco — and the Seahawks are 4-1 (3-1 if you count the 49ers only once) while the Falcons are 1-3. Even if you include the Panthers a second time, and the Falcons defeat them in the rematch next weekend to finish 2-3 (which they need to do in order to finish 9-7), it’s not good enough. So the Seahawks win this tiebreaker and are in the playoffs.

The third scenario is where Minnesota loses both of its remaining games, leaving them tied with Atlanta and Seattle at 9-7. Figuring out who wins this three-way tiebreaker is quite involved. None of these teams defeated both of the other two, so there’s no winner based on sweeping the head-to-head games. Minnesota would also have a 6-6 conference record in this scenario, so that doesn’t help either. And these three teams do not play at least four common opponents in 2015.

The next step in the tiebreaker is strength of victory. This is where things get really gnarly. Strength of victory involves taking the combined won-lost-tied records of all of the teams that each team defeated and computing an aggregate won-lost-tied percentage. This means that even a meaningless Week 17 game like Chicago vs. Detroit could have an effect on the tiebreaker because it could improve one team’s strength of victory at the expense of another.

The good news is that who wins the three-way tiebreaker amongst Atlanta, Minnesota, and Seattle is moot as it affects the Seahawks playoff chances. Here’s why: Let’s assume that one of the three teams has the best strength of victory. If it’s the Seahawks, then they win the 5th seed by virtue of this tiebreaker. And if it’s not the Seahawks, then either Atlanta or Minnesota wins the 5th seed, leaving the Seahawks in a two-way tie with the other team to determine the 6th seed.

If Minnesota wins the three-way tiebreaker, then Atlanta and Seattle are competing for the 6th seed. This is the same as the second scenario, where we’ve already shown that Seattle wins over Atlanta by virtue of record against common opponents. If Atlanta wins the three-way tiebreaker, then Minnesota and Seattle are competing for the 6th seed, which Seattle takes on the basis of its 38-7 victory over Minnesota on December 6th.

Even in the unlikely case that no team won the strength of victory tiebreaker (and I’m not even sure if this is mathematically possible at this point), eventually one of the three teams would have to win one of the lower tiebreakers — coin toss, anyone? — and the above logic still applies: Either the Seahawks win the three-way tiebreaker and get the 5th seed, or they’re competing one-on-one against either Atlanta or Minnesota for the 6th seed and win that two-way tiebreaker.

So to recap, in any season-ending scenario that was possible at the time that the Seattle-Cleveland game ended on Sunday afternoon, the Seahawks would have a playoff berth. Q.E.D. And phew!

[Updated 2015-12-24: Added image and made minor text edits.]

Seahawks: Anticipating History’s Judgment

Steelers vs. Bears

After another lackluster Seahawks performance in yesterday’s loss to the Cardinals, in the first of what are likely to be several “must win” games, Seahawks fans are starting to resign themselves to a wait-till-next-year attitude. It’s a tough spot for those of us who have been counting on 2015 to erase the bitter taste that was left in our mouths by the excruciating loss in Super Bowl XLIX. I prefer to cope with this season’s difficulties by trying to place the team — prematurely, I readily admit — in a longer-term historical context.

When I watched the Seahawks of the early Russell Wilson era in 2012 and 2013, the team they reminded me of most was the Pittsburgh Steelers of the early 1970s. A team that won two consecutive Super Bowls after the 1974 and 1975 seasons on the strength of a punishing defense, a strong running game led by an All-Pro running back, and a quarterback who was then known more for scrambling than downfield passing.

It is, to be sure, a flattering and optimistic comparison. After missing the Super Bowl the next two seasons, this Steelers team, still possessing a dominant defense but transformed by a pass-first offense thanks to the blossoming of its Hall of Fame-bound quarterback and receivers, won another two consecutive Super Bowls, cementing its place as one of the greatest teams in NFL history. How nice to believe, especially in the modern NFL era of parity and free agency, that the current Seahawks team could sustain such a record of achievement over the next decade.

There is another historical comparison that, while equally apt, is considerably less optimistic: The 1985 Chicago Bears. A team that dominated during the regular season with outsized swagger, led by one of the greatest defenses of all time. Featuring a beloved, Hall of Fame running back and a quarterback known more for finding ways to win than for his passing skills. A team that dismantled its opponent in one of the most dominating Super Bowl victories of all time. And sadly for its fans, a team that, while remaining a contender for the next several years, never regained the dominance that characterized its one glorious Super Bowl-winning season.

Which path are the current Seahawks likely to follow? We’ll know in a few years.