NFL Playoffs: 0 wins IN…14 wins OUT

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As do many of you groovy geezers, I take an afternoon nap most days. And more often than not, I wake up from that nap with a thought in my mind…above are 2 questions from a few days ago’s nap.

Now since the merger of the NFL and AFL in 1970…and ignoring the strike season of 1982 when the schedule was reduced to 9 games…the actual extremes are 7 wins and in…11 wins and out, as shown below.

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What was especially galling for the Patriots in 2008 is that they tied for their Division’s championship…yet by the rules, that wasn’t enough. What are the ultimate extremes, based on the way schedules are put together, the structure of the Divisions and Conferences, and the tie-breaking procedures? The answers I think will surprise you…they are not very likely to happen of course, but not impossible either, which is the whole point of the exercise.

But we can’t attack this problem without knowing precisely who plays whom and why. Most fans are aware that their favorite team plays each of the other 3 teams in their Division twice, once at home, once on the road. Beyond that, what? I was going to explain it myself, but the official NFL Record and Fact Book does a pretty good job with that, so let me quote them verbatim…

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There is much good to be said about this current arrangement. A team will play every team from the other Divisions in its Conference at least once every 3 years…and it will play every team from the other Conference once every 4 years. Which Divisions it will play from its own Conference and from the other Conference each year, considered together, will rotate every 12 years, so that gives a good deal of variety. Based on this scheme, the members of one Division play 14 of their 16 games against “common opponents,” which adds to the fairness factor.

In fact, the only controversial part of this is those last 2 games, against teams in the same Conference who finished in the same place in the standings in their Division the preceding season….what’s also called the “positional match-ups.”  Thus in 2013, beyond their 14 common opponents, first place New England plays 2 more first place teams…4th place Buffalo plays 2 more 4th place teams. This was put in place to sort of “even things out”…as if parity weren’t enough of a reality in the league already! But some of the grousing about 4th place Kansas City’s fantastic start in 2013 centered on their having an “easy schedule”…which, when you actually look at the schedule, is completely unwarranted, but there you go…the idea of it is in play, because of those 2 positional games.

And of course, the coolest thing about this scheduling setup is, you know exactly which teams your team will play next year. True, you won’t know the order in which they’ll occur, but still, in the old days you had to wait till spring to know who you’d be facing…now, it’s all laid out in front of you the day the season ends.

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Before we tackle the answers to our 2 questions, a quick look at how to use this scheduling information…at left is a pretty easy example, but it will give you a taste of it. Are those final standings possible? The answer is no…why?…because New England and Miami face each other twice…and they can’t both win both games! If New England won both, all else being equal, they would be 16-0, Miami 14-2…or if they split, each team would be 15-1. Both can’t be 16-0. Similarly, Buffalo and the Jets play each other twice…and they can’t both lose both games, see how it works?

As to our questions, first,  What’s the fewest wins a team can have and still make the playoffs? The answer to this was hinted at above, when in 2010 the Seahawks advanced to the post-season despite a losing record, 7-9. And that’s because, one team from each Division HAS to make the playoffs, as Divisional Champion, regardless of its record compared to other teams in the rest of the Conference.

Soooo…what about no wins at all…can you win no games and still be a Divisional Champion? The standings below show 3 ways it can indeed happen.

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In scenario (A), we assume that all 4 AFC East teams lose every game outside their Division…that’s 10 losses each. Then every one of the 12 Division games ends in a tie…thus 4 teams tied at 0-10-6.  Obviously, the tie-breaking fairies have their work cut out for them, but somebody advances with 0 wins. Scenario (B) assumes New England also tied one of its out-of-Division games…ties are reckoned as half a win and half a loss in determining positional standing, so with that extra ½ a win, the Pats are in…mind you, they are still credited with 0 wins for the season.

We take it all the way in scenario (C )…here the Pats, when compared to other teams in the Conference for playoff seeding purposes, are considered to be 8-8. And New England  would advance, even if say Miami had 2 wins to New England’s 0 wins…Miami’s record would only be 4-12. Thus, outrageous as it sounds…The fewest wins a team can have and still make the playoffs is 0.

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As to the second question: What is the most wins a team can have and not qualify for the playoffs? Sure, you can try various standings and scenarios willy nilly…but as we saw with the first question, one simple insight can greatly simply your task. There, it was that one team from every Division has to make the playoffs, regardless of its record. Here, the insight could be this: Four teams from one Division cannot all make the playoffs. Why?…because those 4 teams, plus the Champions of the other 3 Divisions, would make 7 playoff teams, and only 6 qualify.
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So we pick a high number…I chose 13 wins, as in the scenario to the right. Now the beauty of this is, we don’t have to worry about how the Jets record compares with the rest of the Conference…if they’re in 4th place, they’re automatically out, again because it’s 6 not 7 that make the post-season. Is this scenario possible?

And to answer that, I am going to expand the standings to show precisely where each of those wins comes from…

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Here the yellow column on the right shows the total number of wins for each team…the other red numbers should add up to that total. Checking E1 (New England), we have them with 4+3+4+2=13 wins…4 against their NFC opponents, 3 in their Division, 4 in the other AFC Division they’re matched with, and 2 against the other 2 1st place teams from last year in the Conference. And the same is true of the other 3 teams in the Division.

The second column from the left, that of the 12 Divisional games, is high-lighted in gray, because that’s where we have to be careful…each team can win its other 10 games without regard to what the other teams in its Division do. But not so within the Division…since there are 12 games, there can only be 12 wins…as we see here, there are only 12 wins…3+3+3+3=12. Let’s say each team won against each Divisional rival at home, lost on the road. That would do it.

So we can now say with certainty that a team can win 13 games yet miss the playoffs. The question is, could they win 14?

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If they could, it couldn’t be the same way as with 13 wins, as shown above. That’s because of that gray column…you’d need 4+4+4+4=16 wins in the Division, and there can only be 12. And we’ve assumed each team has won every other of its non-Divisional games, so there’s no place for the extra wins needed to bring all 4 teams up to 14 wins to come from. Our only other possibility is to consider the Conference as a whole.

There may be many ways to arrange the Conference standings so that a 14-win team is out of the playoffs…all we need to do is come up with one to show it’s possible. It seems to me that the simplest way, if it could be done, would be to have a 3rd place team with 14 wins…and they’re out of the playoffs if the 1st and 2nd place teams in both their Division and one other Division also have 14 wins. In such a case, we don’t have to bother with the records of the other 2 Divisions…2 of those teams will get in regardless, so we may “poach” as many wins from them as we need to get our 5 14-game winners.

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Which is why I don’t bother to show the North and West in the above standings…nor do we need to tally the wins of the non-14-win teams…we simply have to make sure the Divisional wins and losses are right. I believe the above fits the bill…only 4 of the 5 14-2 teams make the playoffs, and all wins are accounted for. And trying to jigger 5 15-1 teams, like we did for 5 14-2 teams, simply won’t work….try it if you don’t believe me…

You see a mistake? By all means let me know…but for now I am confident in saying…The most wins a team can have and miss the playoffs is 14. Which of course sucks…but if I do say so myself, that was a bit of brainwork, boy…time for a nap…

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Copyright © 2013 Mark John Astolfi, All Rights Reserved

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