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Why Has Regular Season Become Less Predictive of NFL Playoff Success?

2012 February 3
by Brian Goff

Historically, regular season point differentials predicted the likelihood of reaching the Super Bowl very well.   In 2010, Green Bay may have been a “Wild Card” entrant based on their record, but their aggregate differential of +148 put them on top of both conferences.   Since 2002, however, regular season differential have become less meaningful.  The NY Giants’ regular season aggregate point differential of -6 ranked 10th out of the 16 NFC teams — Arizona’s ranking in 2008.  Since the 2003 season, four NFL teams whose point differentials placed them 7th or lower in their conference reached the Super Bowl with another 2 with rankings of 5.

Prior to 2003, the Raiders held the award for the lowest ranked team to reach the Super Bowl in terms of  point differential at 6th in the AFC in 1979.  From 1978 to 2002, four teams ranked 4th made the Super Bowl.  On the flip side, of the 50 teams making the Super Bowl in the time frame, 40 (80 percent) ranked either 1 or 2 in their conference in terms of point differential.  Since 2002, 50 percent have ranked 1 or 2.  Some of the Super Bowl winners with eye-popping regular season differentials have been ’85 Bears (+258), ’84 49ers (+248), ’99 Rams (+284), and ’96 Packers (+246).  The 2003-present era contains the ’07 Patriots with a whopping +315.  (Stats from Pro Football Reference).

What’s driving this shift?  I have read suggestions of greater parity but that merely restates the question in a different form.   The most obvious change has been the playoff format.  In 1978, the league introduced Wild Card” playoff format in 1978 and adjusted it in 1990 and 2002, suggesting a possible explanation.   This maybe the answer, but it’s not simple even with it.  The top two teams have received Wild Card “byes” under under all three WC systems (1978 2 Wild Card play each other, 1990 — three Wild Card teams + 1 of three division winners, 2002 — two Wild Card teams and two of four division winners).  The format change and league divisional restructurings have increased the number of teams in the playoffs, providing the opportunity for lower point differential teams to play whether they enter as a WC team or a divisional winner.  This may increase the likelihood of a team with a marginal overall regular season but jelling at the end of the season reaching the playoffs and disturbing the outcomes.

2 Responses
  1. Greg permalink
    February 7, 2012

    There is a different concentration of games scheduled today versus 10-30 years ago. It seems like relative division strength plays a greater factor in won-loss records today, as well as each season’s “matchup” games that pit your team against the same-place finishing teams in the two divisions within your conference that are not on your schedule. I think these two factors may cause more difficult schedules for good teams in certain years. Let me explain (it would be interesting if a stat-guy could investigate my hypothesis).

    Each team now plays 6 games against its own division (2x/team), 4 games against another (rotating) division in its own conference and 4 games against another (rotating) division in the other conference. It’s probable that in any given year, certain divisions are tougher than others. So it’s possible that looking at just these 14 games, schedule strength could vary significantly each year and cause equal teams to have different probabilities for the same win-loss records. For example, if one year the NFC East, AFC South and AFC East are the toughest divisions and the Patriots’ schedule is to play the NFC East and AFC South teams, then that’s a tough year for them. Maybe they go 10-6 instead of 13-3 if they had played the NFC East and AFC North teams this year instead. Their team will be the same strength in both cases, but with a different record.

    Additionally, the remaining 2 games are scheduled against the two other conference opponents that finished in the same position as your team in their division. In my example, if the Pats finished 1st the prior year, they would play the AFC North and AFC West first place finishers, while the Bills, who finished last, would play the AFC North and AFC West last place finishers. The Pats’ tougher opponents make it more likely that they will have a worse won-lost record with the same strength team.

    Contrast this with the past scheduling rules when divisions were bigger (several with 5 teams instead of 4). My understanding is that 5-team divisions would play 8 games against division opponents and 4-5 games against a division in the other conference. 4-team divisions would play 6 teams in their division and 4-5 against a division in the other conference. The 5-team division would then play 3-4 additional games against teams in other divisions in their conference, while the 4-team division would play 5-6 additional games against teams in other divisions in their conference. These same conference / different division games would be against a cross section of those divisions. For example, in 1990, CLE finished 1st in 1989 and played 6 games against the 1-3-5 and 1-2-5 place teams in the other divisions in their conference.

    So, while today’s schedules may encourage more “parity”, it may be that better teams may sometimes get more difficult schedules than they had in the past. So there can still be significant differences in relative team strength, but these differences can be more easily disguised behind a mediocre win-loss record than in the past, given the right conditions (high finish in previous year, a tough division of your own, and a tough non-conference division that is in your rotation this year).

    My two cents…

  2. February 7, 2012

    My hypothesis of why regular season dominance does not carry over to the playoffs is about momentum. (No stat guy can evaluate this)

    A big problem is the bye-week. Teams who have not earned a bye-week have wild card weekend to stay warm, and make improvements to on-field strategies and tactics. On the flip side, teams who are at rest during the bye week become cold and out of touch with the football environment. If a bye-weeker can make it past the first layoff, through conference championships and into the Super Bowl, it means they would have gone an entire 35 days playing only 2 games of competitive football. To add to that, if starters have been coasting through the end of the season (Aaron Rodgers), they will be even less comfortable with highly competitive situations.

    The problem with teams like the Patriots and recently the Packers, is that they EXPECT to win. They don’t have the mindset that you need to earn every win every week. In turn, when these teams are preparing against bottom-ranked seeds, they take for granted the preparation necessary.

    In conclusion, if you want regular season success to carry seamlessly through the playoffs, you must be in mid-season form. How does a team do this? 1. Don’t earn a bye week 2. Don’t rest your players, play every week as if it is for a playoff berth 3. Don’t get cocky, remember “any given Sunday”

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