Friday, January 7, 2011

Statistical Analysis of the NFL Playoffs Since 1990

In 1990, the NFL restructured the playoffs to the current format, where the top two division winners got byes and there were 6 teams per conference in the playoffs.

Here's a look at some data from the past 20 years.

Let's start with the team-by-team data. In the last 20 years, every team except the Houston Texans has appeared in the playoffs. Ten teams have reached the playoffs more than 10 times. The Steelers, Packers, Cowboys, Eagles, and Colts lead the way with 12 playoff appearances, the Pats and Vikings have 11, and the 49ers, Dolphins, and Oilers/Titans have 10.

Of the teams with 12 playoff appearances, the Steelers have the best playoff win percentage at 60% (15-10) slightly better than the Cowboys 59.1% (13-9). Of all teams, the Patriots have the highest playoff win percentage at 68% (17-8).

Over the last 20 years, 34 of the 40 teams to reach the Super Bowl (85%) have been division champions. 18 of those 34 (53%) won.  Of the 6 wild card teams to reach the Super Bowl, only 2 ('05 Steelers and '07 Giants) were successful in bringing home the Lombardi. The most successful division champions at reaching the Super Bowl have been:
Surprisingly, some of the teams with the most division titles have been some of the least successful at reaching the Super Bowl. Of teams with 6+ division titles, only New England has reached the Super Bowl more than half the time. As I'll show later, all 5 of New England's Super Bowl appearances came when they had a bye week. I guess the key to beating them is to make them play on Wild Card Weekend. Minnesota has won 6 division titles (3 of them resulting in bye weeks) in the last 20 years and not reached the Super Bowl.

The Vikings lead the pack of teams that have won their division but not reached the Super Bowl, with the Houston/Tennessee franchise a close second. Here's a list of division titles in the last 2 decades that did not result in Super Bowl appearances:
It should be noted that Tennessee and Baltimore both did make the Super Bowl from Wild Card spots, but have failed to do so when they won the Division title. 

Of the 80 teams that were a #1 or #2 seed and got a first round bye, 31 reached the Super Bowl. The most successful teams at reaching the Super Bowl when they secure a bye have been:

Digging a little deeper, only 4 teams did not earn a bye in the last 20 years: Cleveland, Cincinnati, Arizona, and the Houston Texans.

Of teams that have earned a bye 3 or more times, only 6 teams have reached the Super Bowl more than half the time (New England, Buffalo, NY Giants, Green Bay, LA/St Louis, and Dallas).
You'll also note that 3 teams (Houston/Tennessee, Kansas City, and Minnesota) have failed to reach the Super Bowl every time they had a bye in the last 20 years.

Six teams have earned byes 4 or more times in the past 20 years. Only New England (5/5 100%) and Dallas (3/5 60%) have converted their byes into Super Bowl appearances more than half the time. In fact, the Steelers are third (2/7 29%) amongst teams that have had 4+ byes. Indy and Denver sit tied for 4th (1/4 25%) with San Francisco (1/6 17%) and Houston/Tennessee (0/4 0%) bringing up the rear. For as dominant as some of these teams have been in regular season play the last 20 years (San Francisco in the 90s and Indianapolis in the 2000s), it's interesting to see how that hasn't translated into playoff success. Of course, both of those franchises have had their nemeses: Dallas to San Fransicso and New England to Indy.

Teams with the #1 seed have fared better than #2 seeds. Of the 40 #1 seeds in the last 20 years, exactly 50% of them have made the Super Bowl. Interestingly, only 9 of those 20 (45%) have actually hoisted Lombardi. This next graph might pain Steelers fans to see, as we've been the least successful team with a #1 seed in the current playoff format.
Interestingly, the teams that have had the #1 seed 3+ times haven't had a lot of success in the playoffs. San Francisco reached the Super Bowl only once from the #1 seed in 4 tries, and Pittsburgh failed to reach the Super Bowl all 4 times. Buffalo reached the Super Bowl all 3 times they had the #1 seed but never won. Philly only reached the big game once with homefield advantage, but failed to win the Super Bowl. Arguably, Dallas has been the most successful with the #1 seed as 2 of their 3 Super Bowl wins have come from the #1 seed.

So herein lies the crux of the #1 Seed and Homefield Advantage: the teams that have had the most success with Homefield Advantage are those that aren't "traditional powers" but have a great season and cash it into a Super Bowl Appearance. Of the 21 teams that have earned #1 Seeds in the past 20 years, 9 of them have only earned the position once. Of those nine, 6 of them have gone on to Super Bowl appearances. Of those six, three (Washington, Green Bay, New Orleans) have actually won the Super Bowl.

So what does this mean? Well, Atlanta earned the #1 seed in the NFC this year, a spot they did not earn in the last 20 years. If the past holds true, this means the Falcons have about a 66% chance of making the Super Bowl as they are a first-timer in the #1 slot. Of course, New England has never not reached the Super Bowl when they have had a bye. And the counter-stat to both of those would be that only 50% of #1 Seeds make the Super Bowl, so the numbers are against one of them making it.

Did your head just explode? Yeah, that was some circular logic there, which is why you really can't use past stats to predict the future in the case of football.

In the case of the Steelers, we'll be honest, some of their numbers are great and some of them aren't. We're incredibly fortunate to have seen the Steelers win 10 division titles (more than any other team) in the last 20 years. The Steelers have also been to the playoffs 12 times during that period, tied for most in the league. The Steelers have the 4th highest playoff win percentage amongst all teams, second highest amongst those with 10 or more playoff berths. One might think of their success rates as being low, but when compared to other teams in their class, they actually don't fare too bad. The Steelers are behind only the Cowboys and Patriots (3 Super Bowls each) in Titles, ahead of other teams with 10+ playoff appearances.

Yes, the Steelers numbers with a bye are a bit disappointing, but as we touched on before, amongst the 7 teams that have had 4 or more Byes, the Steelers actually rank 3rd in getting to the Super Bowl. Probably the most disappointing number is the Steelers being 0-for-4 with the #1 seed, but let's not forget that #1 seeds league-wide only reach the Super Bowl half the time and win the Super Bowl less than half of the times that they make it. In fact, #2 seeds have fared a bit better (6-for-11, 55%) than #1 seeds (9-for-20, 45%) when they do reach the Super Bowl. And let's not forget, the Steelers are sitting on that #2 line this year, where they've reached the Super Bowl 2 of the 3 times they've been seeded there in the last 20 years.

Finally, since we're a Steelers blog, we're going to end this post with an obligatory segment from the "Remind Everyone How Much Cleveland Sucks" department.

In the last 20 years, only the Houston Texans have not made the playoffs.

Of the other 31 teams in the league, Cleveland is the only one to not win a division title since 1990. They have only made the playoffs twice in that time, less than any other team not named "Houston Texans." As Steelers fans will remember, it was in fact yours truly black and gold that beat the Browns in both of their playoff appearances.

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