For NFL Fans

Don’t forget to read the 2009 version. You can read the original version of this on the author’s site.

All right, let’s get this column punched out. A couple nights ago I was up past 1 a.m. proving to myself that the Steelers have clinched their strength-of-victory tiebreakers against the Jaguars and Chargers—so you won’t have to! Please, there’s no need to thank me. But I don’t know that I want to be up past 1 a.m. again.

Q: What’s the big deal about the Steelers’ strength-of-victory tiebreakers? It says in my newspaper they’ve already clinched the playoffs.

A: In your what?

Q: Okay, I wasn’t really reading a newspaper. It was a free website.

A: I thought so. And yes, you observed the little x next to Pit on your favorite website’s standings chart and correctly deduced that the Steelers have clinched the playoffs. However, in their worst-case scenario, where they lose twice and the Chiefs, Chargers, Colts, and Jaguars all win twice and the Ravens and Jets each win at least once, the Steelers wind up in a 3-way tie for the last wild card spot, and that tie is resolved by best strength of victory among the Steelers, Chargers, and Jaguars. In order for the little x to be accurate, it was necessary that the Steelers had already clinched that tiebreaker. So I had to make sure that was true.

Q: You had to?

A: To weed out any flaws in my charts. This is what I do.

Q: Well, what else did you find out?

A: I found out that the Packers have clinched their strength-of-victory tiebreakers against the Buccaneers and Saints. I have a theory that they’ve clinched it against the Giants, too, but I didn’t see the point of proving that.

Q: Of course not. They’re about to play each other this week. Whoever wins that game wins their tiebreaker, head to head. Right?

A: Basically, yes. However, they could finish in a 3-way tie along with either the Bucs or Saints. In that case, it goes to a 3-way strength-of-victory test. It’s clear that the Bucs or Saints can’t win that tiebreaker, but it’s not clear that the Packers have to. I’ll let you fool around with the ESPN.com Playoff Machine, and if you find a scenario where the Giants beat the Packers in strength of victory, let me know.

Q: Oh, that’s neat! Is that Playoff Machine how you calculate your charts?

A: No, I never saw the Playoff Machine until this year. I think it’s new. Also, I don’t have time to run through all 4.3 billion possibilities, not counting ties. (Counting ties, there are 1,853 trillion possibilities—and you know the Answer Man always counts ties!)

Q: So you don’t use this new technology at all?

A: Well, if you click on the comments on the Playoff Machine, you’ll see where some dude called RocketC1980 laid out a scenario where Tampa Bay can win a strength-of-victory tiebreaker over the Giants. I took his word for it.

Q: All right. But what about tiebreakers that are actually going to happen?

A: Yes. In tiebreakers that are actually going to happen, the Bears have the advantage over the Eagles for a bye week because of their head-to-head victory Nov. 28. The Eagles have the inside track on the East division because they beat the Giants twice. The Bears have clinched the North because they’ve swept all their division games. The Falcons have not clinched the South because the Saints can attain a better division record. The Saints have not clinched the playoffs because they can be overtaken by the Bucs with a better record against common opponents.

Q: And in the, um, the …?

A: You mean the Division That Must Not Be Named? Three teams have a chance to win that division, even though the three words that best describe those teams are as follows, and I quote: “stink, stank, stunk.” On that topic, let’s take a reader question, passed on to me from “a guy in San Jose.”

He asks: I’m a huge Saints fan. Can I expect to see my favorite team in the playoffs at Candlestick Park?

A: First off, you don’t need an Answer Man to tell you that the Saints are likely to be the 5th seed, nor that the winner of the Division That Must Not Be Named will be the 4th seed. But who will triumphantly crawl out of that division, like the first amoeba from the primordial slime? You’ll be surprised to learn that if the Niners beat the Rams this week, and the Seahawks lose in Tampa, then the Niners will control their own destiny next week! And by the way, thank you for calling it Candlestick Park. We call it that at Answer Man Central too.

Q: You’re aware that the Niners are 5-9 right now? Like, not just more losses than wins, but a lot more losses than wins?

A: Yes, I agree that if they’re playing on Jan. 9, they deserve to be not in the NFL playoffs but up the road at the Kraft Finger Bowl.

Q: Finger Bowl? I assume you meant Fight Hunger Bowl, but Finger Bowl is a better name, actually.

A: I was typing too fast and “Fight Hunger” came out “Finger.” I couldn’t improve on that, so I left it. If I had more sleep, I could’ve worked it into a joke somehow.

Q: Yeah, it’s a pity you couldn’t do anything funny with that. Say, before we rid ourselves of this division, what are the Seahawks’ chances?

A: The Seahawks need to beat the Rams while the Niners lose at least once. If the Niners win twice, then the Seahawks need to win twice. (Not counting ties!) In an interesting quirk, the Niners play an early game Sunday and the Seahawks play a late game. If the Niners lose the early game, then the late game has no meaning to the Seahawks: regardless of the result, the winner of the Seahawks-Rams game in Week 17 would take the division.

Q: All right, let’s break down the AFC now.

A: Do you have a question?

Q: Could you please break down the AFC now?

A: Certainly. We’ll start with who gets the bye weeks. Any one win or tie by the Patriots, or any one loss or tie by the Jets, clinches 1st seed for the Patriots (and restores order to the universe). In general, the East division champion will have the 1st seed, unless the Jets and Ravens win their divisions at 12-4, in which case the Ravens will be 1st and the Jets 2nd. If this exception doesn’t apply, then the North division champion, assuming it has at least 11 wins, will have the 2nd seed.

Q: So the Ravens can win their division at 12-4?

A: Yes, but only if the Steelers don’t finish 12-4. The Ravens lose the tiebreaker based on division record.

Q: It looks like a whole lot of teams could finish 10-6. Can you clarify how those tiebreakers would shake out?

A: First off, if you’re looking at a 2-way tie, see if there was a head-to-head result: Jets over Pittsburgh, Baltimore over Jets, Indy over K.C., San Diego over Indy, and both K.C. and San Diego over Jacksonville. If that doesn’t apply, then eliminate the Chiefs on account of their 6-6 conference record; next, eliminate the Ravens, at 7-5 in the conference. All the other 10-6 teams will be 8-4 in the conference, and further steps will be necessary. In those further steps, the simplest thing I can say is that the Steelers and Jets are well situated and the Jaguars and Chargers aren’t.

Q: So for example, who wins a Colts-Jets tiebreaker?

A: There’s no such thing. At 10-6, the Colts automatically win the division; at 10-6, the Jets (same goes for the Ravens) can do no better than a wild card. A tiebreaker between a division winner and a wild card is meaningless.

Q: Who wins the Colts-Jaguars tiebreaker?

A: In most scenarios, the Colts. However, if the Colts go into Week 17 with a better record than the Jaguars, then the Jaguars would win any tiebreaker based on division record. Also, don’t rule out the Titans.

Q: Why wouldn’t I rule out the Titans? I already did.

A: I can understand that. In the real world, it’s hard to see them winning two road games against good, motivated opponents, when they have no quarterback and quit on their coach 14 months ago. But in my world, where I can’t name five Titans and it’s just math, they could win out. And if they did, they’d win the division if only three other games went their way (Indy at Oakland; Jax vs. Washington and at Houston)—that’s not a lot of outside help to ask for. They’d be in a 3-way tie where all teams are 8-8 overall, 2-2 against each other, 3-3 in the division; the Titans have the best record against common opponents.

Q: Can I at least rule out the Raiders?

A: No, don’t do that either. In the West division, the Chargers hold all the tiebreakers over the Chiefs, but the Raiders hold all the tiebreakers over both of them. In fact, if the Raiders win this week while the Chiefs and Chargers both lose, then the Raiders will control their own destiny! Next week’s Raiders-Chiefs winner would win the division.

Now let’s take a few more reader questions.

Joel from San Jose asks: Was Dan Connolly only tackled because the tackler was the guy he was assigned to block?

A: Isn’t that ironic.

Joel then notes the Raiders’ record and asks: Has a team been undefeated in the division but missed the playoffs/not had a winning record before?

A: I dunno, ask Mike Florio. Gotta believe the answer is no, going back at least 50 or 60 years. Recall that before 2002, a team’s division games composed at least 50%, sometimes over 70%, of its schedule. Nowadays the figure is only 37½%, so while the feat is still improbable, it’s at least imaginable. But let’s see if the Chiefs lose a key game at home on Jan. 2 before we crown the Raiders.

Ben from Chapel Hill asks: How often do teams start games with onside kicks? Has this practice increased in frequency over the past ten years?

A: I dunno, ask Mike Florio. I’d say it can’t increase much in frequency because the tactic depends on surprise, and the less it’s a surprise, the less effective it’ll become.

Gordon from Oakland has several questions, starting with some trivia: What was the last 8-8 team to win their division, then lose their first-round playoff game?

A: I dunno, ask Aaron Schatz.

Q: If the AFC playoff teams end up being NE, NYJ, IND, SD, BAL, and PITT, isn’t that pretty boring?

A: Maybe to you. If I had to hand-pick six AFC teams I wanted to watch in the playoffs, those would be the teams.

Q: Is it possible that the [Division That Must Not Be Named] looks so bad because the divisions they’re playing are really good? Can you graph this?

A: Graph this? No. You can draw your own picture of every team in that division playing the Broncos and the Panthers this year. My theory is that all four teams are simply bad. If you assume that good and bad teams are randomly distributed, and that a quarter of the league is bad, then the chances that 4 of the 8 bad teams would wind up in the same division are … I dunno, ask Mike Shackleford. This will happen by luck once in a while. Did you know that in 2002, the first year with four 8-team divisions, there were two divisions each with no losing teams? And that the same thing happened in 2007?

Q: If a team finishes 7-9 and wins the [D.T.M.N.B.N.], how many sports blowhards’ heads will explode?

A: I’d support a rule change wherein a team would have to win at least 8 games to be “bowl eligible.” If the best team in a division has fewer than 8 wins, then no one makes the playoffs from that division; there are three wild cards, the best of which gets a home game as 4th seed. I don’t take an apocalyptic stance toward the current state of affairs, though, as so many do. While there are tens of thousands of sports blowhards, most of those have no outlet but a pathetic little amateur blog with 14 readers. Therefore, one has to ask: if a sports blowhard’s head explodes, but no one knows about it, does it really explode? This leads me to Gordon’s last question:

Q: Why isn’t this just a blog already?

A: It’s hard to maintain readership on two posts a year. NFL tiebreakers are what I do. What am I going to say about playoff scenarios in September? All 32 teams control their own destiny?

Apropos of nothing, I’ve been listening to “Holly,” the Christmas channel on XM Radio, for three weeks and it dawned on me only today that I hadn’t heard the official Answer Man anthem, Andy Williams’ “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” I switched over to “Holiday Traditions” on Channel 4 and heard it within an hour. I’m so old now that when they say, “To hear the Christmas music you grew up with, switch over to Channel 4,” they’re talking to me.

Finally, this column is dedicated to the memory of the official Answer Man mascot, Pepper, who looked like the Panthers’ helmet logo. They finally won a game for her on local Phoenix television last Sunday, and after we put her down the next night, her all-time favorite player had a big game harassing the helpless Vikings offense. It was a fitting tribute.

As always, remember this is copyrighted material but may be freely distributed as long as this notice is preserved. Please freely distribute it. I welcome follow-up questions. Next week: my 23rd annual playoff charts, as I put my 260-0 record on the line. I’m not nervous. But I am tired. I seem to have made it to 1 a.m. again.

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