Category Archives: Games People Play

Hitting the Danny Trifecta

When I wrote How I Play “Real” Fantasy Football last year, I mentioned my core criterion for determining whether I consider a particular weekend of NFL football a success:

It started years ago with a simple rule of thumb that I employed for a long time: A successful NFL weekend for me was one in which the Seahawks, Jets, and Giants all won. The Seahawks because I’ve lived in the Seattle area for most of my adult life and have actively rooted for them for most of that time, the Jets because of my historical and long-suffering allegiance to them, and the Giants because of my legacy loyalty to all things New York.

This confluence of victories, which a friend of mine has labeled the “Danny Trifecta”, has been rare in recent years due to the consistently poor play of the Jets and Giants, both of whom sported identical 18-49 won-loss records from the beginning of the 2017 season through week 3 of the 2021 season. So it was an unexpected pleasure yesterday when the Jets and Giants — both seven-point underdogs — came back from deficits in the fourth quarter and ultimately won in overtime, capped by the Seahawks breaking a two-game losing streak to defeat a tough divisional opponent on the road.

This led me to wonder the last time I enjoyed such a trifecta. For that, I have to go all the back to Week 14 of the 2018 season, when both the Jets and Giants defeated divisional opponents on Sunday, December 9th and the Seahawks defeated Minnesota the following night. After two years, nine months, and 24 days, it’s worthy of celebration.

The NFL Draft to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Part II: Answers and Analysis

In my previous post, I wondered how much retrospective analysis of NFL draft picks is done, and devised a shortcut method of determining this: Looking at where NFL players elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame who were draft-eligible from 1967 to the present were drafted. My analysis led me to construct a trivia quiz.

Here is the answer key to the quiz:

  1. 56%. Of the 146 Hall of Fame players who were draft-eligible in 1967 or later, 82 were selected in the first round.
  2. 5%. Of those 146 players, 8 were undrafted. They are: Larry Little (1967), Jim Langer (1970), Cliff Harris (1970), Drew Pearson (1973), Donnie Shell (1974), Warren Moon (1984), John Randle (1990), Kurt Warner (1994). Little and Langer were offensive linemates on the dominant Dolphins teams of the early 1970s, and Harris and Pearson were teammates on the dominant Cowboys teams of the mid-to-late 1970s.
  3. #4. 11 Hall of Famers were drafted in the #4 position in the draft. They are: Bob Griese (1967), Joe Greene (1969), John Hannah (1973), Walter Payton (1975), Dan Hampton (1979), Kenny Easley (1981), Chris Doleman (1985), Derrick Thomas (1989), Jonathan Ogden (1996), Charles Woodson (1998), Edgerrin James (1999).
  4. 11. See above.
  5. 10. Ron Yary (1968), O.J. Simpson (1969), Terry Bradshaw (1970), Lee Roy Selmon (1976), Earl Campbell (1978), John Elway (1983), Bruce Smith (1985), Troy Aikman (1989), Orlando Pace (1997), Peyton Manning (1998), Tim Couch (1999). OK, not Tim Couch.
  6. 2. Per above, 1968-1970 and 1997-1998. Give yourself credit for 3, but only if you chose to count 1968-1969 and 1969-1970 separately.
  7. #33. 4 Hall of Famers were drafted #33, though none of them when it was the first pick of the second round, as it is today. They are: Ted Hendricks (1969), Fred Dean (1975), Brett Favre (1991), Isaac Bruce (1994).
  8. #214. Ken Houston, drafted by Houston in the 9th round of the 1967 draft. Choice #198 was a nod to Tom Brady being selected #199 in 2000 draft, and choice #321 was a nod to Giants Hall of Fame OT Rosey Brown, who was drafted #322 by the Giants in the 27th round of 1953 draft.
  9. 1967, with 9 (including one undrafted). They are: Bob Griese (#4), Floyd Little (#6), Alan Page (#15), Gene Upshaw (#17), Lem Barney (#34), Willie Lanier (#50), Rayfield Wright (#182), Ken Houston (#214), and Larry Little (undrafted). Note that Wikipedia reports 10 Hall of Famers for this draft, as they also include Jan Stenerud. I exclude Stenerud because he was originally selected in the 1966 AFL draft. The runner-up drafts are 1983 with 8, and 1968 and 1981 with 7 each. We’ll see if any of the more recent drafts will eventually challenge these numbers; currently no draft after 1996 has more than four Hall of Famers.
  10. 1992. 1972 and 1977 have one each (Franco Harris and Tony Dorsett, respectively). Tony Dungy is also a Hall of Famer who was draft-eligible in 1977 (though undrafted), but he’s in as a coach, not a player. Some people consider the 1984 draft to be one with no Hall of Famers, but I count the three Hall of Famers who were selected in the 1984 supplemental draft: Steve Young, Gary Zimmerman, and Reggie White.

What can we conclude from all of this? First, it’s incredibly difficult to predict when drafting who is going to be a future Hall of Famer. If we constrain ourselves to the years 1967 through 2000, 29% (= 10/34) of the #1 draft picks are in the Hall of Fame. If you look at the top five draft picks from each year, it’s 21% (35 players out of 170 picks). And while we don’t know for certain how many Hall of Fame players more recent drafts will turn out, it’s not looking promising for the top picks. Of the fifteen players chosen #1 from 2001-2015, the best are Eli Manning, Mario Williams, and Jake Long, and it drops off pretty quickly after that, so maintaining the 29% hit rate seems unlikely.

A major thing that has changed in the NFL over the past twenty years is the greater emphasis of the passing game, and the central role of the quarterback to that. Teams are increasingly spending their top draft picks in search of franchise QBs. And while I don’t have hard evidence for this assertion, it seems like it’s easier to predict that an outstanding college lineman will be HoF caliber than a college quarterback. I conjecture that the skills and attributes that make a lineman great in college translate to the NFL more readily than for a QB.

From 1981 through 2000, 7 of the 20 (35%) #1 picks were QBs, and three of them (Elway, Aikman, and P. Manning) are in the Hall of Fame. (The four who aren’t? Vinny Testaverde, Jeff George, Drew Bledsoe, and Tim Couch.) From 2001 to 2015, 11 of the 15 (73%) #1 picks were QBs, and from 2016 to 2021, 5 of 6 (83%).

Those 1981-2000 quarterbacks combined for 13 Super Bowl appearances and a 7-6 record. (You can increase those numbers to 14 and 8-6 if you want to give Bledsoe credit for his role on the 2001 Patriots.)

If you look at the eleven 2001-2015 #1 pick quarterbacks, you have three combined Super Bowl appearances to date: Two wins by Eli Manning and a loss by Cam Newton. (If you choose to include backups, you can count David Carr’s win in 2011 and Alex Smith’s loss in 2013.) Now you can argue that comparing Super Bowl records is unfair in the Tom Brady era, but let’s look at who is a reasonably candidate for the Hall of Fame from this cohort. Eli Manning has a good shot, but is not a slam dunk. Cam Newton has won an MVP award, but seems like a long shot. Matthew Stafford has had a long career and put up some good numbers, but nothing HoF-worthy, esp. without a playoff victory. Still, Stafford’s not out of the question if he can lead the Rams to success. Carson Palmer and Andrew Luck had impressive if injury-riddled careers, but neither seems like a plausible HoF candidate. That leaves Michael Vick, Carr, Smith, JaMarcus Russell, Sam Bradford, and Jameis Winston. The likely future HoF quarterbacks from this era, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers, were first-round picks, but not in the top ten.

It’s way too early to tell how the QBs picked #1 in the last five years will fare, but given how much top college QBs have been front-loaded in recent years, it seems likely that future Hall of Fame QBs from this era will be first-round picks, if not #1. An open question is whether there are likely to be later-round QB picks who have HoF-caliber careers, the way Tom Brady (6th round in 2000) and Russell Wilson (3rd round in 2012, and still only a potential HoFer) have.

Broadening the analysis beyond quarterbacks picked #1, we can see that there is an apparent correlation between draft round and eventual Hall of Fame membership:

RoundNumberPercentage
18256%
22316%
31410%
475%
521%
611%
732%
811%
911%
Supplemental43%
Undrafted85%
Total146
Pro Football Hall of Fame players by NFL draft round, 1967-present

More than half of the future Hall of Famers were chosen in the first round, and more than 80% in the first three rounds. So even if the top picks are hit-and-miss, especially recently at quarterback, the top of the draft doesn’t seem to miss to many Hall of Fame-caliber players.

Here’s the breakdown of these players by position. I could have included some questions about this on the quiz, but I didn’t do this analysis until later.

PositionNumberPercentage
OL2920%
WR+TE2416%
DB2114%
DL2114%
RB1913%
LB1611%
QB1410%
K+P21%
Total146
Pro Football Hall of Fame players by position, 1967-present

While it’s noteworthy that the quarterback position is near the bottom of this list, it’s tricky to compare this to other positions where there are typically two or more starters per team. If you break down the position groups further, for example, you find that there are only five centers and six tight ends in this group. So fourteen QBs is actually high by that measure.

Narrowing the analysis to only Hall of Fame players probably doesn’t do a great job of determining the draft’s ability to identify the overwhelming number of NFL players who have solid but not top-tier careers. Even broadening the list to All-Pro selections would give a more meaningful measure. I’ll leave that on my to-do list for a later date.

The NFL Draft to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Part I: Trivia Quiz

The 2021 NFL Draft is now in the history books, and with it, the interminable pre-draft analysis has concluded and been replaced by interminable post-draft analysis. Given how closely scrutinized the process is, how many millions of dollars are at stake, and how much analytics have taken over the game of NFL football, you’d think that there would be more research put into how effective teams are at drafting players and how to optimize one’s draft picks. But even the best NFL analysts’ take can be roughly summarized as, “Drafting players is a crapshoot, so the best approach is to draft as many players as possible to increase your team’s chances of finding NFL-caliber players.”

It’s easy to look at recent high-profile draft picks and spot the apparent randomness. 2012: Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III drafted #1 and #2; Russell Wilson drafted #75. 2015: Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota drafted #1 and #2. 2016: Jared Goff and Carson Wentz drafted #1 and #2. 2017: Mitchell Trubisky drafted #2, Patrick Mahomes #10, Deshaun Watson #12. None of the six quarterbacks drafted #1 between 2009 and 2016 (Matthew Stafford, Sam Bradford, Cam Newton, Luck, Winston, and Goff) are still with their original teams, including two drafted by the Rams. The same goes for the five quarterbacks drafted #2 and #3 from 2012 to 2017 (RG3, Blake Bortles, Mariota, Wentz, and Trubisky).

This belies the notion that using a top-three draft pick to select a potential franchise quarterback is a solid bet. Unless teams have suddenly gotten smarter or luckier, and given that the four most recent #1 picks and the top three picks in 2021 were all quarterbacks, there’s a good chance this trend will continue.

Because of injuries and team quality, there is always going to be a significant element of fortune with the ultimate performance of top draft picks, as exemplified by Luck and RG3. But I wonder how much serious analysis has been done in this regard. For example, how strongly do PFF grades for NFL players correlate with their original draft order? On average, do first rounders grade higher than second rounders, and if so, by how much? Does the relative performance of certain position groups correlate more with draft order than others (e.g. offensive linemen versus quarterbacks)? Is there a strong correlation between performance and draft order at different phases of a career (years 1-3 vs. 4-6), and is that correlated by position group (e.g. do running backs start stronger and fade faster while linemen start more slowly but continue to improve)?

I could research all of this myself, but it would take a lot of time. So I took a major shortcut by looking only at the players elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame who were drafted (or draft eligible) starting in 1967. I chose 1967 because it’s the first year of that the NFL and AFL merged their drafts. Including the 2021 HoF class, there are 146 players in this cohort.

Before I get into the details and what did and did not surprise me, I thought it would be fun to construct a quiz based on the analysis. Ten questions, multiple choice. Remember we’re only looking at Hall of Fame players who were first draft-eligible in 1967 or later. Let’s see how good your guesses are:

  1. What percentage of Hall of Famers were drafted in the first round?
    • 31%
    • 44%
    • 52%
    • 56%
  2. What percentage of Hall of Famers were undrafted?
    • 3%
    • 5%
    • 7%
    • 9%
  3. Which draft position has the most Hall of Famers?
    • #2
    • #3
    • #4
    • #6
  4. How many Hall of Famers were drafted in the position referenced in the previous question?
    • 11
    • 12
    • 13
    • 14
  5. How many Hall of Famers were drafted #1?
    • 7
    • 8
    • 9
    • 10
  6. How many times have Hall of Famers been drafted #1 in consecutive years?
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
    • 4
  7. Outside of the first round, which draft position has the most Hall of Famers?
    • #33
    • #36
    • #40
    • #41
  8. Excluding undrafted and supplemental picks, what is the lowest draft position of a Hall of Famer?
    • #198
    • #214
    • #277
    • #321
  9. From 1967 through 2000, which draft year has the most Hall of Famers?
    • 1967
    • 1968
    • 1981
    • 1983
  10. There is only one draft year from 1967-2000 with no Hall of Famers. Which is it?
    • 1972
    • 1977
    • 1984
    • 1992

Once you’ve attempted to answer these questions, go to the follow-up post to read the answer key and some additional analysis.

How I Play “Real” Fantasy Football

Ten months ago, when I wrote My Super Bowl Rooting Record, the coronavirus we now know as Covid-19 was just starting to appear in the United States. The first U.S. death from the virus had occurred a few days earlier, though we didn’t learn this for months. The following post, which is a long overdue prequel to that February post, comes at a time when the virus has irrevocably altered lives around the world, and the positive case, hospitalization, and fatality numbers in the U.S. have reached record highs. Despite the NFL’s efforts, its 2020 season has been continually disrupted, and at this moment it’s not entirely clear that the full season will be completed as planned. While I do not wish to minimize the tragedies that this pandemic has brought upon us, I welcome NFL football as a distraction from them. And so I share this.

I understand why the NFL and its fans like fantasy football. The gamification of player performance helps keep fans engaged and paying attention even when their team isn’t playing, or when their team is playing but is hopelessly inept. Personally, however, I don’t care for fantasy football for this very reason: It causes fans focus on and care about factors that are not directly related to winning and losing games.

Traditional point-spread-style betting is better because it focuses on the outcomes of the games themselves, though still not strictly on the winning and losing. For example, if a team is favored to win by five points and you pick them to cover the spread, you’re disappointed if they win by a field goal, even though from the team’s (and the team’s real fans’) perspective, the victory is all that matters. Last weekend’s Seahawks vs. Eagles game illustrates the point nicely.

In reaction to all of this, I’ve developed my own system for picking games, which I refer to as “Real Fantasy Football.” Simply put, it’s my method of choosing which team to root for in each NFL game. This raises the questions, A) how do I pick the desired winner of each game, and B) how do I measure my success?

It started years ago with a simple rule of thumb that I employed for a long time: A successful NFL weekend for me was one in which the Seahawks, Jets, and Giants all won. The Seahawks because I’ve lived in the Seattle area for most of my adult life and have actively rooted for them for most of that time, the Jets because of my historical and long-suffering allegiance to them, and the Giants because of my legacy loyalty to all things New York.

You might wonder what happens when two of these teams play each other, and the answer is my default hierarchy is Seahawks over Jets over Giants. In rare cases I will flip that order when playoff considerations are at stake. In fact, the only time I ever rooted against the Seahawks in person at a Seahawks home game was in late December 2008, when they hosted the Bret Favre-quarterbacked Jets. The Seahawks were in their final season under coach Mike Holmgren and at 3-11 were already out of playoff contention, while the 9-5 Jets were fighting for a playoff spot. Of course, the Seahawks won. In the snow. The Jets ended up losing the following week as well, missing the playoffs, and firing coach Eric Mangini. In other words, a typical Jets season.

In my current system, I start by dividing each week’s games into three tiers. The top tier includes the games involving those three teams. The middle tier includes games that affect the playoff chances of those three teams. (In recent seasons this has meant the Seahawks’ playoff chances, though in 2020 the weakness of the NFC East means that the games involving the Giants’ division rivals are now in this tier.)

The bottom tier includes all games that don’t fall into either of first two tiers, and typically represents about half the total games. My determination in these games is based on my personal feelings about the teams involved, with several factors involved. Here they are, in no particular order, with some examples:

  • Preference for teams who have gone the longest without a championship or against those who have won many championships. Helps: Cleveland, Buffalo, Detroit, Minnesota, Philadelphia until 2017, Kansas City until 2019. Hurts: New England, Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Dallas, San Francisco.
  • Preference against bitter division rivals of my top tier teams. Hurts: San Francisco, New England, Miami, Dallas, Washington.
  • Preference against teams with offensive nicknames and logos. Hurts: Washington before 2020.
  • Preference for/against owners. Helps: Jacksonville. Hurts: Washington, Dallas, Las Vegas.
  • Preference for/against current GMs/head coaches. Helps: Denver, Kansas City, Atlanta. Hurts: New England, Las Vegas.
  • Preference for/against current players: Helps: Houston (Deshaun Watson). Hurts: Tampa Bay (Tom Brady).

Note that I do not take betting line favorites into consideration at all when making my picks.

In addition to the tiers, I rank all games in a given week from 1 to N. Typically the bottom few games each week fall into the “I don’t really care who wins, I just want the game to be exciting” category, but even in those games I force myself to pick a preferred winner.

As an illustration, let’s go through my picks for last week, Week 12 of the 2020 season:

RankTierAwayHomePickFavoriteWinner
13SeattlePhiladelphiaSeattleSeattleSeattle
23MiamiJetsJetsMiamiMiami
33GiantsCincinnatiGiantsGiantsGiants
42SFRamsSFRamsSF
52ArizonaNENEArizonaNE
62NODenverDenverNONO
72KCTBKCKCKC
82ChicagoGBChicagoGBGB
92WashingtonDallasWashingtonDallasWashington
101ChargersBuffaloBuffaloBuffaloBuffalo
111ClevelandJacksonvilleClevelandClevelandCleveland
121LVAtlantaAtlantaLVAtlanta
131CarolinaMinnesotaMinnesotaMinnesotaMinnesota
141TennesseeIndianapolisTennesseeIndianapolisTennessee
151HoustonDetroitDetroitHoustonHouston
161BaltimorePittsburghBaltimorePittsburghPittsburgh

The first three picks were a straightforward application of my top tier. Games 4 and 5 were to help Seattle reclaim first place in the NFC West, and games 6-8 were to help Seattle against its top-ranked conference rivals. Game 9 was to help the Giants claim first place in the NFC East. Games 10 and 11 were based on giving preference to Buffalo and Cleveland, though in this case both of their opponents happened to also be in the “never won a Super Bowl” club. Game 12 was rooting against Las Vegas. The remaining games were based on the mildest of preferences.

How do I measure my success? The simplest manner is total number of successful picks. Also, because my methodology leads me to disproportionately root for underdogs, I compare my results against the designated favorites for each game (going 7-9 when I’ve picked six favorites is better than going 9-7 when I’ve picked ten favorites). Finally, I calculate a weighted score by giving 3, 2, and 1 points per game to each respective tier. (Having the Jets and Giants go a collective 4-18 through the first twelve weeks of the 2020 season has not aided this last metric.)

It turns out that Week 12 was not a representative sample of my record. At 11-5, it was my best week of the season, not only in absolute terms but by having picked five more winners than favorites. (Contrast it with Week 7, in which Cleveland was my only successful pick.) Here is my week-by-week record to date for 2020:

WeekFavorites PickedRecordWeighted Score
196-109-15
267-911-16
3105-119-17
469-616-14
555-98-16
645-99-13
761-131-23
8710-416-8
978-614-11
1054-107-16
1178-613-10
12611-519-9
Totals7879-98132-168

So at the beginning of the season I fell quickly behind the favorites tally. This isn’t entirely surprising, as the who the favorites are gets more accurate when there is more recent regular season game data, especially in 2020, with its absence of preseason games and reduced home field advantage. With a strong Week 12 showing I’ve nearly caught back up.

When I started this system several years ago, I waited until around Thanksgiving to start picking games, figuring that the games didn’t matter until the playoff stakes were evident. But starting last season (2019), I’ve begun with Week l and continued through the playoffs and the Super Bowl. It may appear from this detailed description that I spend a lot of time on this, but in practice it occupies less than fifteen minutes per week. I especially value that I now start each NFL weekend with a clear sense of which games I should care most about.

Every year I revise this system, so 2021 will see some tweaks. I’m considering changing how I calculate the weighted score to give more relative weight to all Seahawks games — realistically, I care a lot more about how the Seahawks do each week than all of the bottom tier games put together — and/or playoff-affecting games that occur later in the season.

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 complete 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
VI1971MiamiDallasDallas
VII1972MiamiWashingtonMiami
VIII1973MiamiMinnesotaMinnesotaMiami
IX1974PittsburghMinnesotaMinnesotaPittsburgh
X1975PittsburghDallasDallasPittsburgh
XI1976RaidersMinnesotaRaiders🏆 Raiders
XII1977DenverDallasDenverDallas
XIII1978PittsburghDallasDallasPittsburgh
XIV1979PittsburghRamsRamsPittsburgh
XV1980RaidersPhiladelphiaPhiladelphiaRaiders
XVI1981CincinnatiSan FranciscoSan Francisco
XVII1982MiamiWashingtonWashington🏆 Washington
XVIII1983RaidersWashingtonWashingtonRaiders
XIX1984MiamiSan FranciscoSan Francisco🏆 San Francisco
XX1985New EnglandChicagoNew EnglandChicago
XXI1986DenverGiantsGiants🏆 Giants
XXII1987DenverWashingtonWashington🏆 Washington
XXIII1988CincinnatiSan FranciscoCincinnatiSan Francisco
XXIV1989DenverSan FranciscoDenverSan Francisco
XXV1990BuffaloGiantsGiants🏆 Giants
XXVI1991BuffaloWashingtonBuffaloWashington
XXVII1992BuffaloDallasBuffaloDallas
XXVIII1993BuffaloDallasBuffaloDallas
XXIX1994ChargersSan FranciscoChargersSan Francisco
XXX1995PittsburghDallasPittsburghDallas
XXXI1996New EnglandGreen BayNew EnglandGreen Bay
XXXII1997DenverGreen BayDenver🏆 Denver
XXXIII1998DenverAtlantaAtlantaDenver
XXXIV1999TennesseeRamsRams🏆 Rams
XXXV2000RavensGiantsGiantsRavens
XXXVI2001New EnglandRamsNew England🏆 New England
XXXVII2002RaidersTampa BayRaidersTampa Bay
XXXVIII2003New EnglandCarolinaNew England🏆 New England
XXXIX2004New EnglandPhiladelphiaPhiladelphiaNew England
XL2005PittsburghSeattleSeattlePittsburgh
XLI2006ColtsChicagoColts🏆 Colts
XLII2007New EnglandGiantsGiants🏆 Giants
XLIII2008PittsburghCardinalsCardinalsPittsburgh
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.]