Playoff Scenarios and Probabilities

Friday December 5th, 2014

By Keith Goldner

numberFire.com

Entering Week 14, there are still 25 teams with a chance to make the playoffs, 21 of which have at least a 10% chance of playing postseason football in January.

In the NFC, there is a 33.0% chance we will see a sub-.500 team make the playoffs thanks to the horrid NFC South. The Eagles are tied for the top record in the conference, but have lost head-to-head matchups against the other two conference leaders.

Parity is the name of the game in the AFC, where there are currently six teams sitting at 7-5; three are in the AFC North and two are in the AFC East. In fact, every division except for the AFC South has at least three teams over .500.

To determine playoff probabilities, we simulated the remainder of the season thousands of times. In order to determine win probabilities for each individual game, we used our internal metric Net Expected Points.

A quick refresher: NEP compares every single play over a season to how a league-average team should perform on that play. Every situation on a football field has an expected point value; that is, how many points an average team would be expected to score in that situation (given down, distance-to-go and yard line). For example, the Chiefs may be playing the Steelers, facing a third-and-2 on the 50. That’s a ton of variables, but numberFire has data from the past dozen years of every single play, so most situations have come up at least once. According to our data, an average team may be “expected” to score 1.23 (estimated number) points on that drive. However, Jamaal Charles reels off a 32-yard run to bring the Chiefs into the red zone, increasing the “expected” point value of the next play to 4.23 points (still an estimated number). Jamaal Charles then gets credit for the difference, in this case 2.96 points, as his NEP. That’s Net Expected Points.

First, let’s take a look at our projected seeds in both conferences and the chances that each team reaches the playoffs:

 

Seed NFC % AFC %
1 Cardinals 91.4% Patriots 94.1%
2 Packers 94.3% Broncos 99.3%
3 Eagles 88.9% Colts 91.1%
4 Saints 53.5% Bengals 73.1%
5 Seahawks 73.0% Chiefs 47.2%
6 Lions 78.6% Chargers 45.5%

 

 

Due to their current records (and in the case of Indy, the division in which they play), the Cardinals, Packers, Eagles, Patriots, Broncos and Colts should all make the playoffs with a high level of certainty. That said, despite the 88.9% line for the Eagles and remaining games against the Cowboys and Seahawks, we have seen crazier things happen in the NFC East. What about the rest—those just outside the division title hunts and battling for the wild card?

 

Team %
Cowboys 45.7%
Falcons 42.2%
Dolphins 38.7%
Ravens 32.8%
Steelers 31.2%
49ers 27.4%
Bills 17.2%
Texans 17.2%
Browns 12.8%
Panthers 4.3%

 

The Dolphins, despite just a 38.7% to see postseason action, are actually the most likely six-seed in the AFC at 15.6%, but due to likely upcoming outcomes and tiebreakers, we have them on the outside looking in. A big part of this is the Week 17 matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers. It’s somewhat of a tricky scenario. Miami is the most likely No. 6 seed (by about 1%) over Kansas City and San Diego, but both the Chiefs and Chargers are much more likely to make the playoffs as the wild-card teams. That’s why we thought it best to put San Diego in as the No. 6 seed. (The projections were based on teams going into Week 14. With a win on Thursday night to kick off Week 14, the Cowboys’ playoff odds jump from 45.7% to 58.1%.)

 

Finish Strong

So which teams are most likely to win out? And which have the toughest road? With only four games remaining, every contest has huge playoff implications.

 

Winning out is a combination of team ability and strength of schedule. Here are the five most likely teams to win out:

 

Team Win Out %
Broncos 27.33%
Saints 17.43%
Patriots 16.93%
Packers 16.66%
Texans 13.98%

 

The Saints essentially control their own destiny, with remaining games against Carolina, Chicago, Atlanta, and Tampa Bay.

 

Similarly, the 6-6 Texans probably need to win out to make the playoffs with two remaining games against the Jaguars, a game in Indy, and a home matchup against fellow wild-card contender Baltimore.

 

The Texans have the second easiest remaining schedule out of potential playoff teams. To determine strength of schedule, we looked at how many games a league-average team would be expected to win against each team’s remaining schedule:

 

Easiest Schedule Wins Toughest Schedule Wins
Saints 2.3 Chargers 1.6
Texans 2.2 Bills 1.7
Panthers 2.2 Bengals 1.9
Lions 2.2 Cardinals 1.9
Broncos 2.2 Seahawks 1.9

 

The Bills have a very tough remaining schedule, with games at Denver and at New England, and a home contest against the Packers. But the Chargers have the toughest schedule, with home games against the Patriots and Broncos followed by games at San Francisco and Kansas City.

 

Bubble Poppers

 

Since there is the potential to have a team with a losing record make the playoffs, that means at least one team with a solid record will be watching from hom. Remember when the 2008 Patriots were 11-5 and missed the playoffs?

 

We currently have seven teams projected to win at least nine games, with less than a 50.0% chance to make the playoffs: Dallas, San Diego, Baltimore, Miami, Kansas City, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh.

 

The projected 10-win teams with the lowest chance to make the playoffs?

 

Cowboys: 10.0 – 6.0, 45.7%

Seahawks: 10.3 – 5.7, 73.0%

Lions: 10.5 – 5.5, 78.6%

 

So while the AFC certainly has the depth as far as playoff contenders are concerned, the NFC has the talent.

 

Here are the expected number of wins for the first team out of the playoffs in both conferences:

 

Wins AFC NFC
8 0.38% 2.08%
9 56.26% 41.38%
10 43.28% 54.04%
11 0.08% 2.50%

 

 

That’s right: There is a better chance that a 10-win team misses the playoffs in the NFC than flipping heads on a coin. What’s more, in the NFC, there’s a better chance that an 11-win team misses the playoffs than the first team out only winning eight games.

 

In The Unlikely Event That…

 

With six 7-5 teams in the AFC, we could be setting up for an enormous tie. There is a 39.0% chance that the season finishes with at least four teams tied at 9-7 and a 5.1% chance that six or more teams finish at 9-7.

 

It’s actually conceivable that there could be an eight-way tie at 9-7 (or 10-6), either of which would happen about 1 out of every 1,000 times the NFL played out the final four weeks.


Keith Goldner is the chief analyst at numberFire.com, the leading fantasy sports analytics platform. Follow him @keithgoldner.


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