NFL Week 16 Playoff Update

With Week 16 games completed, here is the playoff picture…

AFC East

New England won the division, and has a 79% chance at the 1st seed, 21% chance at the 2nd seed, though the Patriots have a tough game next week and often don’t perform well in week 17.

Miami has clinched a wild card, with a 10% chance at the 5th seed and a 90% chance at the 6th seed.

AFC North

Pittsburgh won the division and has clinched the 3rd seed.

AFC South:

Houston won the division and has clinched the fourth seed.

AFC West:

Oakland clinched a playoff spot. The Raiders have a 21% chance at the 1st seed and a 48% chance at the 2nd seed, adding up to a 69% chance of winning the division. They have a 31% chance at the 5th seed. Oakland holds the tie-breaker over New England. But Kansas City holds the tie-breaker over the Raiders.

Kansas City clinched a playoff spot. The Chiefs have a 31% chance at the 2nd seed. They have a 59% chance at the 5th seed and a 10% chance at the 6th seed.

NFC East:

Dallas won the division and holds the 1st seed.

The New York Giants have clinched a wild card spot and hold the 5th seed.

Washington has a 53% chance at the 6th seed. Since the Redskins are at home and the Giants have nothing to play for next week, that 53% chance is likely far too low. However, shenanigans are a potential problem for the Redskins.

NFC North:

Detroit has a 57% chance of winning the division (3% 2nd seed, 19% 3rd seed, 35% 4th seed), and a 20% chance at the 6th seed, adding up to a 77% chance of reaching the playoffs. The division winner will be the winner of next week’s game against Green Bay. A Washington loss clinches a playoff berth as does any win or tie.

Green Bay has a 43% chance of winning the division (10% 3rd seed, 33% 4th seed) and a 27% chance at the 6th seed, adding up to a 70% chance of reaching the playoffs. If Washington loses or ties next week and the Packers and Lions tie, the Packers win the division and the Lions are a wild card. However, if Washington wins next week and the Packers and Lions do not tie, the loser of the game misses the playoffs. Hence potential shenanigans. Just make it look good, guys, or your friendly commissioner may deflate your playoff hopes anyway. There will be a lot of extra attention given this game, as it has been broken out to the late time slot.

What about the tie-breakers between Tampa Bay and a 9-7 North team, with Washington losing next week? Detroit holds that tie-breaker based on common games, and Green Bay and Tampa Bay come down to strength of victory. The best Tampa Bay can do is tie Green Bay on strength of victory, which would require Chicago beating Minnesota and San Francisco beating Seattle. If that happens, strength of schedule breaks the tie. And, again, Green Bay has an edge there – under these conditions insurmountable. However, if Washington ties the New York Giants and Green Bay loses, this creates a three-way tie for the final wild-card slot, which will come down to strength-of-victory most likely, and in this case, there’s a tiny window for Tampa Bay to hold a percentage-points advantage. The odds of this happening are somewhere around 1 in 100,000 – maybe lower. At first, I did not see this case, but a reader pointed it out. Front Office Football does get this correct in that it recognizes 8-7-2 and 9-7 are considered identical records. But the playoff simulator won’t always see this sort of thing. Detroit, if it loses and Washington ties, takes the wild-card – either in a three-way tie with Tampa Bay or alone with Washington. Washington holds the tie-breaker over Green Bay.

NFC South:

Atlanta has clinched the division and has an 81% chance at the 2nd seed, a 10% chance at the 3rd seed and a 9% chance at the 4th seed. With a win next week, the Falcons gain that bye. Atlanta holds the tie-breaker over Green Bay, but Detroit holds the tie-breaker over Atlanta.

NFC West:

Seattle has clinched the division and has a 16% chance at the 2nd seed, a 61% chance at the 3rd seed and a 23% chance at the 4th seed. In case you’re wondering about Seattle at 9-5-2 against other division winners at 10-6, the North teams hold tie-breakers over the Seahawks and the Seahawks hold the tie-breaker over Atlanta.

Projected Matchups

AFC:
6. Miami (10-6) at 3. Pittsburgh (11-5)
5. Kansas City (12-4) at 4. Houston (9-7)
1. New England (14-2), 2. Oakland (13-3)

NFC:
6. Washington (9-6-1) at 3. Seattle (10-5-1)
5. New York Giants (10-6) at 4. Detroit (10-6)
1. Dallas (14-2), 2. Atlanta (11-5)

Draft Order

Cleveland is 1-14, and clinches the #1 pick with a loss. With a win and a San Francisco loss, the 49ers hold the #1 pick and Cleveland picks 2nd. The 49ers won’t pick lower than #2. Chicago holds the edge over Jacksonville for #3/4. Los Angeles holds the edge over the Jets for #5/6. The Rams would hold an edge at 4-12 over Chicago and Jacksonville, so they could go as high as #3. Jacksonville could drop to #6 with a win, though it’s close at 4-12 with the Jets. If Chicago wins and the Jets lose, they would be very close fighting over the #5/6 (or #4/5 if the Rams win). San Diego picks #7 with a loss.

Quick Week 16 Afternoon Playoff Look

Just a brief update on playoff percentages following the early afternoon games of Week 16.

This is just about wild card percentages.

AFC:

Team that doesn’t win AFC West (OAK/KC): 98% (note: Oakland has clinched a playoff berth)
Miami: 92%
Denver: 7%
Pittsburgh: 3%

NFC:

New York Giants: 99%
Team that doesn’t win NFC North (DET/GB): 44%
Team that doesn’t win NFC South (ATL/TB): 31% (note, Atlanta has clinched a playoff berth)
Washington: 26%

NFL Playoff Picture

A look at the NFL playoff picture updated with Week 15 complete. Percentages based on 25,000 simulations with expected point spreads for the remaining games:

AFC East:

New England (12-2): Clinched division and first-round bye. 88% chance of top seed.
Miami (9-5): 54% chance of wild card. While the Dolphins enjoy a one-game lead for the final wild-card spot, Denver holds the tie-breakers over Miami at 10-6. Still, while Miami does finish against New England and won’t be favored in that game, the Patriots are likely to have sewn up that top seed and usually do not bring their A-game in Week 17.
Buffalo (7-7): 1% chance of wild card. The Bills have some favorable 9-7 tie-breakers, enough to reach the playoffs in 228 of the 25,000 simulations.

AFC North:

Pittsburgh (9-5): 87% chance of winning division, 5% chance of first-round bye, 7% chance of wild card. The Steelers host Baltimore next week and will be strongly favored. They also have an easier Week 17 game. But the Ravens hold the tie-breaker.
Baltimore (8-6): 13% chance of winning division, 13% chance of wild card. The Ravens hold every possible tie-breaker advantage, so if they lose to the Steelers next week, while they’d need a lot of help they’re still in it at 9-7.

AFC South:

Houston (8-6): 36% chance of winning division, 3% chance of wild card. Houston visits Tennessee in Week 17 for what’s likely the division title. Houston holds all divisional tie-breakers.
Tennessee (8-6): 63% chance of winning division, 2% chance of wild card.
Indianapolis (7-7): 1% chance of winning division, +0% chance of wild card. The Colts need to thread a needle to get in a tie with Tennessee at 9-7, where they would hold an advantage.

AFC West:

Oakland (11-3): 70% chance of winning division, 69% chance of first-round bye, 12% chance of top seed, clinched playoff berth. The Raiders have a one-game edge over the Chiefs, but a tougher remaining schedule. The Chiefs also hold the tie-breaker. Should New England falter, the Raiders almost certainly hold the tie-breaker for that top seed.
Kansas City (10-4): 30% chance of winning division, 27% chance of first-round bye, 69% chance of wild card. The Chiefs are almost certainly in the playoffs, even holding the tie-breaker over Denver. The only risk is with two losses, the Chiefs lose tie-breakers at 10-6 to Pittsburgh and Miami.
Denver (8-6): 21% chance of wild card. The Broncos still have games with Oakland and Kansas City, and only win a tie-breaker with Miami, Houston and Indianapolis. However – and this could be important given expected point spreads for remaining games – in a three-way tie with Houston and an AFC East team, Houston would win the tie-breaker.

NFC East:

Dallas (12-2): 98% chance of winning division, 98% chance of top seed, clinched playoff berth. The Giants hold the tie-breaker, though it’s fairly unlikely they’ll win two while Dallas loses two.
New York Giants (10-4): 2% chance of winning division, 2% chance of top seed, 97% chance of wild card. The Giants do not fare well in 10-6 tie-breakers, except with Detroit. But they missed the playoffs in only 16 of 25,000 simulations.
Washington (7-6-1): 15% chance of wild card. The tie makes tie-breaker math pretty much moot. Monday’s loss to Carolina took 48% off of the Redskins’ playoff chances.

NFC North:

Detroit (9-5): 69% chance of winning division, 4% chance of first-round bye, 15% chance of wild card. Since Detroit hosts Green Bay in Week 17, the Packers hold the tie-breaker. Next week’s game at Dallas is surprisingly irrelevant – irrelevant enough that the Lions should consider a vanilla game plan and resting Stafford early next Monday should Green Bay beat Minnesota on Saturday.
Green Bay (8-6): 31% chance of winning division, 21% chance of wild card, +0% chance of first-round bye. If it does come down to a battle of the Bays for the final wild card at 9-7, it will come down to strength-of-victory, where the Packers hold only a slight edge.
Minnesota (7-7): 4% chance of wild card. In that tiny scenario where they tie teams at 9-7, they do not hold tie-breakers.

NFC South:

Atlanta (9-5): 81% chance of division, 17% chance of first-round bye, 17% chance of wild card. The Falcons lose the divisional tie-breaker to Tampa Bay. They hold almost every possible out-of-division tie-breaker.
Tampa Bay (8-6): 19% chance of division, 28% chance of wild card, 1% chance of first-round bye. The Buccaneers need help from someone. And even in the very unlikely scenario that Detroit beats Dallas then loses to Green Bay, the Lions would hold the tie-breaker at 10-6. In the slightly more likely scenario that Tampa Bay and Detroit tie for the final wild card at 9-7, it matters which game Tampa Bay lost – a Week 16 loss is more harmful than a Week 17 loss.

NFC West:

Seattle (9-4-1): won division, 78% chance of first-round bye (but no chance of top seed).

Projected playoff matchups, based on remaining games and expected point spreads:

AFC:

6. Baltimore (9-7) at 3. Pittsburgh (11-5)
5. Oakland (12-4) at 4. Tennessee (10-6)
1. New England (14-2)
2. Kansas City (12-4)

NFC:

6. Green Bay (9-7) at 3. Atlanta (11-5)
5. New York Giants (12-4) at 4. Detroit (10-6)
1. Dallas (14-2)
2. Seattle (11-4-1)

Brief Draft Order Discussion:

If teams all “lose out” and things go as expected, keeping in mind that Los Angeles hosts San Francisco in Week 16:

1. Cleveland, 2. San Francisco, 3. Jacksonville, 4. Chicago, 5. New York Jets, 6. Los Angeles.

What if San Francisco beats Los Angeles, which is entirely possible given how bad the Rams are on offense lately and that the 49ers’ lone win this season was 28-0 over the Rams in Week 1?

Los Angeles would probably switch places at 5/6 with the Jets. The 49ers would still pick #2.

What if Cleveland wins a game and ties San Francisco at 1-15?

San Francisco would almost certainly take the #1 pick.

And Jacksonville/Chicago at 3/4, should they both finish at 3-13?

Chicago would very likely pick #3.

What about Chicago/Jets at 4/5, both at 4-12?

Far too close to call.

Who had the toughest and easiest schedules this season, based on projections for the last two weeks?

Toughest – Philadelphia (.582). Easiest – Seattle (.414). It looks like both will very likely hold on to these rankings.

College Football Playoff Discussion

The college football playoffs are set, and definitive statements made. Aftermath?

After the math, it turns out everything came down to the number of losses. Major schools with 0 or 1 losses are in. Major schools with 2 or more losses are out.

There are no egregious omissions here. The controversy comes down to whether you reward conference champions and whether you penalize schools that avoid risk in non-conference games. The playoff committee answered those questions definitively: no and no.

No, Penn State, the Big Ten champion, is not ranked ahead of Ohio State. Perhaps a more convincing head-to-head victory would have made a difference. The Nittany Lions beat the Buckeyes on October 22, but only due to a freak play in a contest that the Buckeyes dominated. Washington, the Pac 12 champ, is ranked behind Ohio State as well.

No, Penn State, which lost a close game at 8-4 Pittsburgh (who also defeated Clemson) in September and defeated AAC champion Temple (10-3) a week later, is not given the benefit of the doubt over Washington, which faced a much easier schedule than most major schools – avoiding road non-conference games. Their September challenges? The Sun Belt’s Idaho Vandals, outscored 115-20 in their two-game road trip in the state of Washington. Portland State, a 3-8 FCS team, and Big Ten cellar-dweller Rutgers, which lost to the three top-ten teams in their division by a combined score of 175-0 (accumulating a total of 86 yards on 12-of-51 passing in those games, yet somehow throwing 24-40-168 against Washington).

This is not a claim that any of the four top Big Ten schools were flawless, or robbed, or otherwise dissed. Ohio State faded late and fate rewarded them with a couple of season-ending victories that more than made up for the unlucky loss at Penn State. Penn State finished as strong as any team in the country, but if you had claimed that, at 5-2 and coming off that crazy win over the Buckeyes, the Nittany Lions would emerge as conference champion six weeks later, you would have been deluged with offers to purchase real estate near Brooklyn. Michigan’s offense looked anemic in road games. Wisconsin couldn’t close out games.

It’s not an indictment of Washington, either. Non-conference schedules are set years in advance. The Huskies are addicted to that annual FCS candy, but in 2018, they will also take on BYU and will even venture to the southeast for a neutral-site game against Auburn.

Still, the scheduling criticism rings loud and clear. If Penn State had avoided the fan-pleasing challenge of visiting long-time rival Pittsburgh and instead had treated the home fans to an exhibition victory over a spirited, but hopelessly overmatched FCS school, the Nittany Lions would be focused on Clemson’s Tigers right now and not on a Rose Bowl consolation prize against USC – another school that embraced September risk (a devastating drubbing at the hands of Alabama) and finished strong.

At least no one outside of Kalamazoo is claiming that Western Michigan was robbed. The Broncos were 13-0 and did what they could out-of-conference, beating a pair of Big Ten teams on the road that happened to be down this year, but anyone who watched the MAC Championship on Friday and claims that this is a team that deserves a playoff match-up against Alabama probably isn’t watching with an unbiased eye. Under the college football system we have, where schedule strength is incredibly varied, it’s just too much of a stretch to assume this record would hold up in a major conference.

In recent years, the Big Ten has done what it can to improve its schedule. Like the Pac 12, they’ve gone to a nine-game conference schedule. But they’ve also encouraged non-conference challenges, setting up games with the Pac 12 and taking the additional step of banning future non-conference games against FCS opponents. Should scheduling be more flexible? Next year, Washington will venture Piscataway-ward with a road game at Rutgers.

What if the Big Ten/Pac 12 challenge were late in the season and opponents were set a couple of weeks earlier to enhance schedule strength? What if every major conference team had to schedule two non-conference games against other majors? Measures like this would give people confidence that playoff teams were more tested. Given the inequities of recruiting and the need to have almost 100 athletes under scholarship, parity like we have in professional leagues is impossible. But major college football remains the only national sport we have in the United States that doesn’t have a playoff structure designed to address these problems.

If the current structure remains unchanged, today’s committee decisions will result in weaker non-conference games down the road. No one will return Kathy Beauregard’s phone calls this winter*. Arrangements, like Michigan’s home-and-homes with Notre Dame, Oklahoma, UCLA, Texas, Virginia Tech and, yes, even Washington over the next decade will become the exception to the norm.

(* – Beauregard is Western Michigan’s athletic director)

I think the fans lost today, in that it will be harder to schedule non-conference challenges. Though it would be reasonable to say the fans also gained from having four of the major conferences represented rather than three. Inclusion is also a factor here.

All told, I just hope we’re one step closer to a real playoff system in college football.

College Football Playoffs, Version 2016

The scenario everyone foresaw is here.

The NCAA was thoroughly warned and yet here we are anyway. The problem with setting up a four-team playoff and keeping the conference championship games is the likelihood that either the blowout loser of a championship game will have locked up an invitation before the game started or a team will deserve an invitation despite not even reaching its conference championship. Add in the danger of having a top-heavy conference warrant two or possibly even three invitations and you’re guaranteed to make everyone angry more sooner than later.

The NCAA was lucky, frankly, not to have fallen deeply into either trap in the first two seasons under the new system.

The problem is very simple. Four teams out of 128 in football is too few. We don’t need 64 or 68 in the playoffs, like basketball, where everyone accepts that going undefeated is a once-in-a-generation thing and the tournament itself is an important spectacle. With only 12 games in the regular season, there just isn’t enough time to separate four elite teams from the rest of a fairly deserving crowd.

This four-team event is a compromise – and one that not only preserves the flaws in the system; it emphasizes them.

I think we’re long past the point where anyone has any illusion that major college football players on scholarship are students. The difference between a maximum of 16 games (12 plus the potential Hawai’i clause plus a conference championship plus two playoff games) and a maximum of 18 games doesn’t seem like that much, especially when you consider you can begin a playoff before Christmas.

An 11-team playoff seems ideal to me. The five major conference champions receive byes. That’s the bonus for winning a major conference and it gives those games renewed importance. If Florida upsets Alabama, Florida deserves the bye and Alabama still gets in. And six at-larges play each other in the first round. Add in a rule that an undefeated (and only an undefeated, because the schedule differences are enormous) Group of Five school may receive consideration for an at-large invitation and the committee can come up with a compelling tournament.

Here’s mine…

1. Alabama versus (8. Florida State versus 9. Wisconsin)
2. Clemson versus (7. Michigan versus 10. USC)
3. Penn State versus (6. Ohio State versus 11. Colorado)
4. Washington versus 5. Oklahoma

You still have legitimate beefs from WMU and from the SEC, which suffered from having one world-beating team and a tremendous amount of not-quite-great evenly-matched talent knocking each other around. But it’s quite a compelling tournament. I’d keep the Broncos out because of that schedule. I can’t imagine them finishing without at least three losses in a major conference.

I’m sure there are bowl purists around who wouldn’t appreciate the further evisceration of the unique characteristics of a Rose is a Rose is a Rose or an Orange and a Sugar and a Cotton are cool, too. Even though these are usually more a “thanks for being good, but not great” reward than anything else these days. I felt that way myself around the turn of the millennium. Now, I can’t for the life of me remember who gets what assignment and why. Just that there are semifinals and finals and a bunch of other games. The later you play the better your team, except that there’s seemingly always a MAC team playing on a Tuesday somewhere.

However… we’re still dealing with a four-team playoff. So here’s how I see it:

First, my accumulated accomplishment per game metric:

1. Alabama 71.7
2. Ohio State 69.0
3. Clemson 67.9
4. Penn State 62.5
5. Washington 61.5
6. Colorado 60.6
7. USC 60.3
8. Michigan 58.2
9. Wisconsin 56.9
10. Florida State 56.8

14. Oklahoma 53.4

70. Western Michigan 37.2

SEC

Somewhat controversially, I think Alabama (13-0) deserves an invitation.

Big 12

Somewhat controversially, I don’t think Oklahoma (10-2) even belongs in the conversation. Why? Well, they’ve done everything right. Nine straight wins sweeping the Big 12. Challenging non-conference games (unlike seemingly everyone else in the Big 12). But a really bad year for the conference as a whole, and, well, the Sooners lost their two quality non-conference games.

The Big 12 thinks it can fix this problem with a conference championship game pitting the top two teams in the standings. Reason? Attention at a critical time. But what would have happened this year under such a system? Oklahoma and Oklahoma State would have played last week, each team having sewed up a berth in the championship. So last week’s game would have been dreadfully bland. The starting quarterbacks would have played one series, the playbooks expunged of anything Barry Sanders or Billy Sims wouldn’t recognize.

Of course, that wouldn’t happen every year. But it would be a rematch every year, and that doesn’t give a game a championship feel – especially with no divisions to conquer. It’s a bad idea.

The Big 12 is in a poor position here, I recognize this. They’ve lost four quality schools in recent years. One can argue that’s their own fault for letting Texas get away with too much over the years, but there’s still some depth and some greatness here. Expanding to 12 may be a good idea – especially since getting West Virginia a rival in Cincinnati is valuable and Houston, while not exactly bringing in television revenue, would add significant sports credibility. If not, then better non-conference scheduling has to happen.

ACC

Clemson (12-1) won a thriller at Florida State (9-3) in October, and, given Louisville’s late collapse, that ended up being the game of the year in the ACC. Clemson is a deserving champion with a solid win in the ACC championship and a high-quality win at SEC power Auburn in its resume. There simply isn’t any compelling reason not to invite the Tigers.

PAC 12

Based on everything that’s happened since September, USC (9-3) is the best team in the Pac 12. The Trojans even beat both division champions. They played a top-notch schedule. But look at September. An evisceration against Alabama, a really poor effort at Stanford, then a bit of bad luck in a loss at Utah. The quality wins are the wins against Colorado and Washington. This is an at-large resume in a bigger tournament. You just can’t rank USC ahead of Washington (12-1). So what about the Huskies? The win over Colorado (10-3) Saturday solidifies Washington as the only PAC 12 team that deserves attention under the four-team system. So do you take the Huskies over a second Big Ten team? I think it comes down to this non-conference resume: Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State. If your out-of-conference schedule is that weak, you have no room for error, and the loss at home to USC was a convincing loss. Under the circumstances, that takes away the “automatic” from Washington.

Big Ten

First, I’ll deal with the bad luck. Michigan (10-2) has no case. I’ll spare the rant about the officiating at Ohio State. It’s a compelling rant, but in the end, if you want to take the game out of the hands of the guys in stripes, don’t keep turning the ball over. Best defense in the country? Probably. Quality wins over top ten teams? Absolutely. Wins over both division champions? Check. Ok, you’re in the same at-large boat as USC. But third in their division and an absolute stinker of a November performance at Iowa. Out of the conversation.

Wisconsin (10-3) also has no case. Even with a quality non-conference, neutral-site win over LSU to open the season, those three losses to the other three conference candidates are the deal-breakers.

Penn State (11-2) has won nine straight games, including wins over Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Ohio State win was at home and more than a little lucky. The two losses were on the road, both in September and both to quality teams. The loss to Michigan was a blowout. Clemson also lost a close one to Pittsburgh. Is this a top-four resume? Hard to say for certain. But the Nittany Lions played a top-notch schedule (even the win against Temple ended up being a decent achievement) and came out champions of the conference with the most depth at the top.

What about Ohio State (11-1)? Due to tie-breaking procedures, the only one-loss team in the Big Ten didn’t get to play for the championship. There’s the huge non-conference win at Oklahoma. The one loss was due to a freak play at Penn State. On the down side, their wins over Wisconsin and Michigan required overtime. They were a two-point conversion away from losing at Michigan State two weeks ago and were outplayed most of the game last week against Michigan. On results alone, the Buckeyes are in. But can you take a team that didn’t win its division and hasn’t been convincing against a quality opponent in a few weeks?

Summary

In the end, we have five candidates for four positions. I think Alabama is an easy #1 and Clemson is an easy #2. The next two spots are tougher. Penn State’s head-to-head edge over Ohio State is mitigated because they played at home and Ohio State dominated most of that game. I don’t like the system in that a team that didn’t play for its conference championship probably shouldn’t be in a four-team tournament, but all three of these remaining teams are flawed. I think Ohio State takes #3 because of strength of schedule. That leaves Penn State and Washington, and I give the edge to Penn State because of its nine-game current winning streak and, again, strength of schedule. But I wish there was room for more teams.