NFL Week 17 Playoff and Draft Order Update

I wanted to share my guide to week 17 and team playoff chances and the projected draft order for 2018.

First, the playoff chart. This has sections for game results and how result combinations translate to playoff seeding. Since there have been no ties this season, it’s fairly easy to slot a team that ties a game. A chart is also provided showing how all potential two-team tie-breakers would be resolved. An “o” in a field means there’s no way the teams can tie for a division or wild card spot. An “x” means the team loses the tie-breaker if the teams wind up with the same overall record. Anything else explains which tie-breaker the team would win, starting with Head-to-Head.

I’ve bolded the expected result combinations. I’m not predicting anything crazy here. The only reversal from a standard prediction based on power rating and home field is that I expect Jacksonville to lose at Tennessee, given that Jacksonville is locked into the 3-seed, Tennessee has more on the line (clinching if it wins) and the two teams may well end up playing each other the following week as wild cards.

Playoff Chart

The second chart is the projected 2018 Amateur Draft order. Houston’s pick belongs to Cleveland. This chart shows the first 20 picks. Slots 21-32 are partially determined by how far a team goes in the playoffs. I’ve put an “x” where I expect a team to pick. A red background shows the range where a team can pick if it loses Sunday. Green shows range where a team can pick if it wins on Sunday. And a blue background shows a pick that’s possible, win or lose. I am projecting two ties in the draft order, which would be resolved by coin flips during the annual Combine.

Again, no fancy predictions went into this. In addition to Tennessee beating Jacksonville, I considered picking Dallas to beat Philadelphia, but didn’t. I wouldn’t be surprised if San Francisco beats the Rams, either.

Draft Chart

First-Round Order, 2018 Amateur Draft

Based on expected favorites winning in the last two weeks:

1. Cleveland
2. New York Giants
3. Indianapolis
4. Houston (Cleveland owns the pick)
5. San Francisco
6. Tampa Bay
7. Cincinnati
8. Denver
9. New York Jets
10. Chicago
11. Oakland
12. Miami
13. Arizona
14. Green Bay
15. Tennessee
16. Washington
17. Seattle
18. Buffalo
19. Dallas
20. Detroit
21-32. Based on playoff performance (Buffalo owns the Kansas City pick)

Is It Tougher Beating an NFL Opponent Three Times in One Year?

Whenever the situation arises in the NFL, the media likes to repeat the cliche that it’s unusually tough to beat one opponent three times in one season. We hear the usual pseudo-analysis – that if a teams beats an opponent, it will likely stick to that game plan because it was successful while the opponent gets to try new things. And that effect would be magnified in a third contest.

But why would a coach give away a game plan? Why wouldn’t multiple results against the same team have more to do with match-ups than anything else? Is there some rule that a team that wins a game has to stick with the same planning concepts?

It’s relatively rare to see teams play three times in one year. On an average of once or a little more per year, there’s an intra-divisional playoff game. Top teams often split home-and-home games during the regular season. So it turns out that only 19 teams have ever had the opportunity to take that third victory over one opponent.

It looks somewhat likely a 20th team will get that opportunity this year, since New Orleans has beaten Carolina twice and the schedule seems to favor a third game as the NFC 4/5 wild card match-up this season. Since the three-win opportunity hasn’t occurred since 2009, it will get more attention than usual.

Naturally, pundits will spend the week explaining that Sean Payton can’t possibly come up with a third way to beat the Panthers.

So, what’s the reality of the situation? Well, the home team has won 12 of those 19 games, and the team with the two prior victories has won 13 times. Myth busted.

I’ll also take the opportunity to point out that the last team to win that third game after losing the two regular season games was the New York Giants going out on the road as the fourth seed at 13-3 Dallas in the 2007 playoffs. Those Giants ending up beating the only 16-0 regular-season team in NFL history in the Super Bowl.

Dirty Play in the AFC North?

Yesterday’s episode of Monday Night Football had more than its share of unpleasant moments. Starting with an accidental, but particularly scary back injury to Ryan Shazier. That transcends the game and I’m sure every player in the NFL, even those who really don’t like the Steelers, shares genuine concern here and hopes for a full recovery.

Unfortunately, the game quickly devolved, mostly between Pittsburgh’s offense and Cincinnati’s defense. The Bengals’ George Iloka looked like he was going after Antonio Brown whenever possible, and finally was flagged after a touchdown. He was suspended for a game (strangely, his suspension was the only one retracted this week, since his behavior seemed the most calculated). The Steelers’ JuJu Smith-Schuster head-hunted Vontaze Burfict during a play, then stood over him and received a taunting penalty. He was also suspended for a game.

These incidents, combined with the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski’s disturbing behavior on Sunday, have the NFL once again at the top of the sports news cycle for all the wrong reasons.

Ben Roethlisberger, the Steeler quarterback with two Super Bowl rings to his name and a Hall of Fame resume, was asked about the dirty play after the game. His response? “AFC North.”

That got me thinking… are some teams more prone to dirty play or is it just perception? Is the AFC North some sort of special haven for teams that can’t help but goon it up against each other? How would you study this?

Given that dirty play stemming from high emotion is fairly easy to spot, my assumption is that penalty yardage would correlate to these games. So I constructed a spreadsheet with some penalty numbers from 2013-2017. This covers 1,260 games, including playoffs. I also separated out all the games involving two AFC North teams – a sample of 58 games.

Among these AFC North games, the 239 penalty yards yesterday was the most in a single game. The 173 from Cincinnati was second only to Cleveland’s 188 against Pittsburgh in their first matchup of 2015. Third place – and the only other +200-yard combined penalty performance was the infamous 2015 playoff game between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

I think NFL fans remember that game. Cincinnati looked like it had completed a fantastic fourth-quarter comeback. With Pittsburgh ahead, 15-0, Roethlisberger was sacked and injured on the last play of the third quarter. The Bengals scored two touchdowns and a field goal to take the lead with 1:50 remaining. Landry Jones promptly threw an interception and it looked like two decades of playoff futility had finally ended for Cincinnati. To that point, Pittsburgh had been penalized 142 yards to Cincinnati’s 49.

But the Steelers still had time outs, so the Bengals needed one more first down to secure the victory. Jeremy Hill fumbled on the next play. Still, Pittsburgh was back at its own 9. Roethlisberger returned. He moved the ball downfield quickly, but time was running out. He threw a long pass for Brown, maybe their last chance, and it fell incomplete. But Burfict was penalized for a nasty hit on Brown and Adam Jones drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and all of a sudden Pittsburgh was in position for the winning field goal in the closing seconds.

The way that game ended – with Cincinnati losing simply because their defensive players couldn’t control their emotions – cemented the Bengals’ reputation as an undisciplined team and lends a lot of credence to the claims Roethlisberger made yesterday.

Is all of this true? Here are some numbers:

Over the last five years, NFL teams average 56.2 penalty yards per team per game. Cincinnati has averaged 56.0 penalty yards per game. So, no, the Bengals are not a particularly high-penalty team. Teams range from Carolina (49.0 yards) to Seattle (66.3 yards). Baltimore, at 60.8 yards, is the only AFC North team in the top quartile.

Are AFC North games particularly penalty-prone? AFC North teams, overall, average 57.4 yards in penalties per game. However, divisional games average 58.3 yards in penalties. That’s not a huge difference, but Cincinnati’s 70.6-yard average against Pittsburgh (not including yesterday, it’s 57.0 yards) is the highest team versus team average.

The numbers really aren’t all that notable except for one total: in the 30 games against Pittsburgh, opponents are averaging 66.4 yards of penalties while in the 52 games against Pittsburgh played by the rest of the league, they’ve averaged 55.4 yards.

Now, one thing I haven’t done is split all divisions in this manner (I don’t want to turn this into a major project), but Roethlisberger’s perceptions seem valid (53.7 out-of-division committed by Pittsburgh, 58.2 in-division), though that experience does not hold true for the rest of the division. So, over the course of the last five years, Pittsburgh’s AFC North games have averaged about one major penalty per game more than you’d expect based on team averages. That seems significant and worth some extra attention from the NFL.