Predicting the NFL Playoffs: It Helps to be Hot!

Now that the NFL’s regular season has ended and we shift gears to Super Bowl XLIV in Miami, I thought I would blow the dust off my recent article that discussed the Colts and Saints pursuit of perfect seasons.*  The question to be answered is who football fans should expect to see in Miami.

* My sincere thanks to Joe Posnanski for exposing this piece to a much larger audience than I ever would have thought possible.

To answer that question I am going to make use of the research I did in the previous article which looked at the last 15 Super Bowls.   Yes, I used too small a sample size to really have confidence in the results, but I have never been one to allow statistical insignificance to stand in the way of a good time.

· 80% (12 of the last 15) Super Bowl winners won at least their last game of the regular season.
· 73% (11 of the last 15) Super Bowl losers won at least their last game of the regular season.
· 63% (19 of the last 30) of Super Bowl participants ended the season on what I will call a hot streak, defined as at least 4-1 in their final five games.
· Only 1 team won the Super Bowl having gone 2-3 in their last five games.
· Only 1 other team made it to the Super Bowl having gone 2-3 in their last five games.

With these parameters in mind, I will take a stab at predicting each playoff team’s fate.  Here is how the 12 playoff teams ended the regular season.

The Have Nots:

My research noted that only 2 of the past 30 Super Bowl participants arrived going 2-3 in their final five games.  This will eliminate the Bengals, Saints and Vikings from contention.  Yep, I am jumping off the bandwagons of the NFC #1 and #2 seeds.   The NFC is up for grabs!

The Probably Nots:

I also found that 80% of Super Bowl winners and 73% of Super Bowl losers won their last game of the season.  This means that Indianapolis and New England are out in the AFC, with Arizona going home early in the NFC.  Yep, I am throwing aside Indy’s 14 wins in a row and letting their 2 losses do the talking.  Indy’s decision to rest its players and take a couple of losses was the specific scenario I wanted to research and survey says ‘second round loss”.   

The Possibly So:

The Eagles are the most interesting team to predict as they lost their game, but head into the playoffs on a 4-1 hot streak.   Five times in the past 15 years and twice in the past four years a team in the NFC has gone 4-1 with a loss in the final regular season game and still made it to the Super Bowl.  63% of Super Bowl participants ended the season 4-1 or better so it would not surprise me to see the Eagles rebound from Sunday’s embarrassing shutout against the Cowboys.

Baltimore is less interesting to me, but their 3-2 record down the stretch and win to wrap up the season indicates that they have a puncher’s chance.   A running game and defense always results in a puncher’s chance.  I am just not so sure if the defense is actually good or just living off of its past reputation.

The Probably Go:

That leaves me with San Diego, New York Jets, Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers as my four teams most likely to appear in this year’s Super Bowl.   San Diego ended the year on an 11 win tear which might finally be enough to steady Norv Turner’s nerves come playoff time. 

The Jets ended the year 4-1 and absolutely destroyed the Bengals last night.  They run the ball and play defense.  The Giants, Steelers, Buccaneers, and Ravens will all tell you that a Super Bowl can be won with that recipe.

Dallas finally ended their streak of regular season choking and ended the year with 3 straight wins and 2 straight shutouts plus a victory over the Saints.  If they can win their first playoff game and remove that monkey from their backs I really like their chances.  That said, Wade Philips and playoff failures have been know to go hand in hand…

Last but certainly not least, Green Bay ended the season 4-1 with 2 straight wins.  They may have lost the two Favre Bowls during the regular season but my numbers are telling me that the Packers will get the last laugh.

As Dick Enberg might say, “Oh my!”  I have dumped 3 of the 4 best teams of the regular season and have instead gone with two consistent playoff chokers and Brett Favre’s two former employers.  Something tells me that I am not going to find any of the NFL insiders sharing a similar opinion.

One final question yet to be answered is whether or not my research conclusions are useful in predicting future Super Bowl participants?  Random chance would say that the teams playing this weekend each have a 12.5% probability of playing in the Super Bowl (50% chance at winning multiplied by 3 games).  Those with a bye this week have a 25% probability of playing in the Super Bowl (50% chance at winning multiplied by 2 games).  If you subscribe to the notion that the teams with a bye are better than those without, you can up their chances and reduce the chances of the wild card weekend teams.

I am not quite sure how to crunch the math, but my prediction needs to beat random chance to have a shot at significance.  I think having two of Dallas, NY Jets or Green Bay make it to the conference finals sounds like a pretty impressive success (I will exclude San Diego as they would be likely to make the conference finals by both my method and random chance).  I will crunch the actual numbers next month.

Are there any other ways to interpret the data?   Your comments and suggestions are appreciated!

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Predicting the NFL Playoffs: It Helps to be Hot!

  1. Umm, how do I delete posts?

    A have not will definetly be in the Super Bowl (Saints or Vikings). A probably not has at least a 50% chance (Colts) and only one of my probably go’s (Jets) has a shot. Yikes.

  2. After the first week of the playoffs, a pretty good result:
    1. Have nots: 1 for 1 lost (Bengals)
    2. Probably nots: 1 for 2 lost (Patriots lose, Cardinals win)
    3. Possibly so: 1 for 2 won (Ravens won, Eagles lost)
    4. Probably go: 2 for 3 won (Jets, Cowboys win; Green Bay lost)

    Of interest, either the Saints or Cards will be in the NFC championship game.

  3. Silly me re how to evaluate whether or not the 15 year historical results will hold up predicting this year. The stats are right there:

    1. 75% chance Super Bowl participant won last game
    2. 63% chance they won at least 4 of their last 5.
    3. 6.5% chance they went 2-3 in their final 5 games.
    4. No team has lost 2 or more in a row to end the season and made the Super Bowl.

    So, the numbers will have some merit if:
    1. None of the ‘have nots’ make it to Miami (Saints, Bengals, Vikings); and
    2. The Colts don’t make it (lost two in a row); and
    3. At least 1 of the 2 teams went 4-1 of 5-0 in their final 5 games (Chargers, Jets, Packers, Eagles); or
    4. At least 1 of the 2 teams won their final game of the season.

    Nothing to get too excited about as I only excluded 4 teams. Personally, seeing Arizona or New England make it would somewhat go against the stats, leaving 6 teams to hopefully battle it out.

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