Sunday, December 14, 2008

AFC Playoff Scenarios

The AFC East has its most competitive season since the first season of realignment in 2002. That year, the New England Patriots' two wins over the New York Jets gave them the AFC East title, while the Jets grabbed a wild card over the Dolphins on the strength of a superior within-division record. This year, there is the potential for the AFC East to go down into even further tiebreaker no-mans land. Three teams sit at 9-5 with two weeks to play; what's more, the Baltimore Ravens have the inside track towards the final wild-card spot, so it's win or go home for the AFC East foes. Here's how the schedules line up:

NY Jets
Week 16: at Seattle
Week 17: vs Miami

Miami Dolphins
Week 16: at Kansas City
Week 17: at NY Jets

New England Patriots
Week 16: vs Arizona
Week 17: at Buffalo

Each team has one sub-.500 team and one plus .500 team to play in the final weeks. The first tiebreaker is head-to-head play. The Patriots have split with both the Dolphins and the Jets, while the Jets bested the Dolphins in week 1. What matters, however, is the state of the tiebreakers at the end of the season. I feel it's best to break it down in terms of the various scenarios:

Cliff's Notes version:
1) The Patriots need some help to get into the playoffs-- Even if they beat both the Cardinals and Bills, they need the Jets or the Dolphins to drop one of their week 16 games to make the playoffs. 2) The Monday night matchup between the Ravens and Cowboys is pivotal to the rest of the playoff picture. Should the Ravens prevail, it is unlikely that a 10-6 AFC East team will make the playoffs as a wild-card. 3) With few exceptions, the Dolphins-Jets game on December 28 will decide either the AFC East champion or the wild card should the Ravens lose both of their remaining games.

Scenario 1: All three teams win in Week 16
Sub-scenario 1a: Patriots lose to the Bills in week 17.
In this case the winner of the Jets-Dolphins game would win the AFC East at 11-5, that game's loser and the Patriots would both be 10-6. Which team would win a wild-card berth? If there's a tie with the Ravens, the NFL wild-card tiebreaker rules stipulate that only one team per division can be in a tiebreaker, so the within-division rules would apply. If the Jets lost to the Dolphins, they would win a tiebreaker with the Patriots on Tiebreaker 2 (within-division play). If the Ravens beat the Jaguars, they would also win that tiebreaker. Should the Ravens lose to Jacksonville, they would match the Jets' 7-5 within-conference record, triggering "common opponents," of which the Jets and Ravens have four: Cincinnati, Tennessee, Oakland, and Miami. The Jets are 3-2 against these opponents while the Ravens are 4-1. In the less-likely tiebreaker matchup with the Colts, the Jets would lose on conference record.

If the Dolphins instead lost, both they and the Patriots would be 3-3 in the AFC East. The next tiebreaker is record in common games. In this scenario, the 10-6 Dolphins lost to the Ravens and Texans, while the 10-6 Patriots lost to the Colts and Steelers... both teams are 10-4 in common games. The next tiebreaker is vs AFC record, and the Dolphins would be 6-6, beating the Pats' 5-7. They, of course, would not get very far in a tiebreaker against the Ravens, having lost to them in Week 7.

Sub-Scenario 1b: Patriots defeat the Bills in Week 17.
If the Jets win, they would grab the AFC East crown with a superior in-division record (5-1) to the Patriots (would be 4-2), and barring a complete collapse by the Colts AND Ravens, the Dolphins would be out of the playoffs. The Patriots, meanwhile, would lose a conference-record tiebreaker to the Ravens (8-4 to 7-5). If the Dolphins win, they too would be 4-2 within the division, but 8-4 in the conference, besting the Patriots' 7-5 to win the AFC East. In either scenario, the Patriots could face the Ravens in that conference record tiebreaker, and would miss the playoffs.

Scenario 2: Everyone loses in Week 16.
Sub-scenario 2a: Patriots lose to the Bills in Week 17, ending their season at 9-7. The Dolphins-Jets winner captures the AFC East at 10-5.
If the Jets win, despite having the within-division tiebreaker edge over the Patriots, the Dolphins would miss the playoffs, perhaps because of their loss to Baltimore. This is also true for the Jets if they lose to the Dolphins, because of their common games record compared to Baltimore's, seen in 1a.

Sub-scenario 2b: Patriots beat the Bills, ending their season at 10-6.
If the Jets win, they win the tiebreaker and the AFC East as in 1b. The Patriots cannot beat either the Ravens or the Colts in a tiebreaker, as discussed above. If the Dolphins win, both they and the Patriots would be 4-2 in the AFC East and 7-5 in the AFC. This moves towards the "strength of victory" tiebreaker. I calculate a .400 percentage for the Dolphins (58-87) and a .376 for the Patriots (55-91). Naturally this can change, but given the common victories the only outcomes that matter are the Chargers' last two games (TB and DEN) and the Chiefs' Week 17 game against the Bengals. Even if the Chargers lose both and the Chiefs win, it would not put the Patriots over the top.

If there were a three-way tie for the wildcard between the Pats, Colts, and Ravens, the Colts would get the first spot by virtue of their sweep of the other two teams. The Pats and Ravens would depend on whether their loss came against the Cowboys-- meaning they beat the Jaguars and improve their conference record to 8-4, better than the Pats' 7-5; or, if the Jaguars are the Ravens' sixth loss. In this case the Patriots and Ravens have identical conference records at 7-5, and we move to
common opponents. Both have played the Steelers, Colts, Dolphins, and Raiders, with the Ravens going 2-3 same as the Patriots. We then move to strength of victory, the winning percentage of teams beaten. Under this scenario (considering both factual and hypothetical games), the Ravens currently have a .399 to .383 edge over the Patriots. With too many variables to consider, this one is a toss-up.

Scenario 3: Pats and Jets win in Week 17
Sub-scenario 3a: Pats and Jets win in Week 16 (both finish 11-5), Dolphins Lose (9-7). The Jets win the AFC East on the division-games tiebreak. The Patriots' wild-card chances depend on the Ravens- if they also win twice, they beat the Pats on conference record.

Sub-scenario 3b:
Pats (11-5) and Dolphins (10-6) win in Week 16, Jets Lose (10-6). Obviously the Pats win the AFC East, but here the Jets win a wild-card tiebreaker with the Dolphins due to the head-to-head sweep. This would also put them at 8-4 within the AFC, which bodes well in a potential wild-card tiebreaker with the Ravens, should Baltimore lose to Jacksonville. If the Ravens instead lose to Dallas, (beating the Jags), they too would have an 8-4 conference record. Two wins over the Dolphins brings them equal with the Ravens at 4-1 in common games, and we would move to everybody's favorite: strength of victory. In the event the Colts lose to both Jacksonville and Tennessee, finishing at 10-6, they would have an equal conference record to the Jets in this case. Strength of victory would be invoked here, because in common games the Colts and Jets are both 3-2 against the Titans, Patriots, Chargers, and Bengals. (Thanks to reader Shomu for correcting me on that bit!)

Sub-scenario 3c: Dolphins (10-6) and Jets (11-5) win in week 16, Patriots lose (10-6). With the Jets grabbing the AFC East, the Pats and Dolphins once again would have equivalent division records, but the Dolphins have the superior AFC record at 7-5. This would do them no good against the Colts or Ravens in a wild-card tiebreak however. Only the Jets would make the playoffs in this scenario.

Sub-scenario 3d
: Pats (11-5) win in week 16; Dolphins (9-7) and Jets (10-6) lose. With the Patriots grabbing the AFC East, the Jets would need help beating the Ravens in a wildcard tiebreaker, as in 3b.

Sub-scenario 3e: Dolphins (10-6) win in week 16; Pats (10-6) and Jets (10-6) lose. Happy three-way party! The Jets win the AFC east with a superior record against the other two teams, while the potential Pats-Dolphins tiebreaker would need to go to "strength of victory," where the Patriots currently have the advantage. The Dolphins would need some help from the Chargers and Seahawks to have a chance to win this tiebreak. Then, of course, the winner would require the Ravens losing twice to make the playoffs.

Sub-scenario 3f: Jets (11-5) win in week 16; Pats (10-6) and Dolphins (9-7) lose. With the Jets winning the AFC East, the Patriots need the Ravens to lose both in order to make the playoffs.

Scenario 4: Pats and Dolphins win in Week 17.
Sub-scenario 4a:
Pats (11-5) and Jets (10-6) win in Week 16, Dolphins Lose (10-6). As the Pats win the AFC East, the Jets and Dolphins finish with identical division (4-2) and conference (7-5) records. Common opponents is the next tiebreaker, and the Dolphins would be 9-3 (subtract the games against the Jets, Ravens, and Texans), which beats the Jets' 7-5 (subtract the games against the Dolphins, Titans, and Bengals). However, unless the Ravens lose both games, the Dolphins will be staying home in January.

Sub-scenario 4b:
Pats (11-5) and Dolphins (11-5) win in Week 16, Jets Lose (9-7). This is not a good scenario for this Jets fan. The Dolphins win the AFC East due to the within-conference tiebreaker. The Patriots would need the Ravens to lose one game, or the Colts to lose two, to make the playoffs.

Sub-scenario 4c:
Dolphins (11-5) and Jets (10-6) win in week 16, Patriots lose (10-6). While the Jets would win the tiebreaker over the Patriots, they once again would need the Ravens to lose both their games in order to make the playoffs.

Sub-scenario 4d: Pats (11-5) win in week 16; Dolphins (10-6) and Jets (9-7) lose. With the Patriots grabbing the AFC East, the Dolphins would need help the Ravens to lose twice.

Sub-scenario 4e: Dolphins (11-5) win in week 16; Pats (10-6) and Jets (9-7) lose. The Patriots would need the Ravens to lose twice to make the playoffs.

Sub-scenario 4f: Jets (10-6) win in week 16; Pats (10-6) and Dolphins (10-6) lose.
Another three way tie, this time a true nightmare! With each team 2-2 against the others, the next tiebreaker is division record. The Patriots would get knocked out of the three-way for their inferior 3-3 record, the Jets and Dolphins, who would have identical conference records (7-5). The Dolphins would win the AFC East on the strength of their record against common opponents. The Jets would then win the wildcard tiebreaker against the Patriots due to conference record, but would need help, since they cannot beat the Ravens in a tiebreaker.

Scenario 5: Bills and Jets win in Week 17
Sub-scenario 5a:
Pats (10-6) and Jets (11-5) win in Week 16, Dolphins Lose (9-7). This is a clear scenario. The Patriots would still need the Ravens to lose twice to make the playoffs.

Sub-scenario 5b: Pats (10-6) and Dolphins (10-6) win in Week 16, Jets Lose (10-6). It's the three-way tie nightmare!!! Actually this isn't so bad, as the Jets win the AFC East because they would be 3-1 against the other two teams. The Dolphins would win the wild-card tiebreaker because of a superior conference record, and would need two Ravens losses to make the playoffs.

Sub-scenario 5c: Dolphins (10-6) and Jets (11-5) win in week 16, Patriots lose (9-7). Another easily stratified result, with the Dolphins hoping for help from the Jaguars and Cowboys against the Ravens.

Sub-scenario 5d: Pats (10-6) win in week 16; Dolphins (9-7) and Jets (10-6) lose. The Jets would win the AFC East due to the superior Division record, while the Patriots need two Baltimore losses to make the playoffs.

Sub-scenario 5e: Dolphins (10-6) win in week 16; Pats (9-7) and Jets (10-6) lose. The Jets win the head-to-head tiebreak on common opponents, while the Dolphins need help from the Cowboys and Jaguars in the wild card.

Sub-scenario 5f: Jets (11-5) win in week 16; Pats (9-7) and Dolphins (9-7) lose.
It takes quite the scenario for someone to win the AFC East by two games. The Dolphins would still hold any wild-card tiebreak over the Patriots on conference record. Two other teams can finish at 9-7: the Ravens (who beat the Dolphins) and the Texans (who lost to the Ravens). Only the Jets make the playoffs here.

Scenario 6: Bills and Dolphins win in Week 17
Sub-scenario 6a:
Pats (10-6) and Jets (10-6) win in Week 16, Dolphins Lose (10-6). Happy threeway party, with a resolution identical to 4f-- Dolphins win the AFC East and the Jets have the wild-card tiebreaker over the Patriots, assuming the Ravens lose twice.

Sub-scenario 6b: Pats (10-6) and Dolphins (11-5) win in Week 16, Jets Lose (9-7). This easy result leaves the Dolphins as the AFC champs, and the Patriots needing help from Dallas and Jacksonville to make the playoffs.

Sub-scenario 6c: Dolphins (11-5) and Jets (10-6) win in week 16, Patriots lose (10-6). With the Dolphins safely winning the AFC East, the Jets would be the ones winning the rights to hope for two Baltimore losses in order to make the playoffs.

Sub-scenario 6d: Pats (10-6) win in week 16; Dolphins (10-6) and Jets (9-7) lose. The Dolphins win the AFC East based on conference record while the Patriots wait for the Ravens' results.

Sub-scenario 6e: Dolphins (11-5) win in week 16; Pats (9-7) and Jets (9-7) lose. With the Dolphins winning the AFC East, the Patriots can't match the Jets' conference record in this scenario. A Jets-Ravens tiebreaker matchup would go to common opponents, with the Ravens winning.

Sub-scenario 6f: Jets (10-6) win in week 16; Pats (9-7) and Dolphins (10-6) lose.
This final scenario gives the Dolphins the AFC East on common oppnents, while the Jets hope for two Ravens losses.

I believe those are all the iterations, if there are others please let me know. We are aided by the lack of parity in the AFC, since only two other teams (the Colts and Ravens) have a shot at the wild-card. How important is the week 17 showdown at the Meadowlands? Well, it depends on the fates of all three AFC East teams in week 16, as well as the result of the Monday Night Football game between the Ravens and Cowboys on December 22. Should the Ravens prevail, all else being equal the Dolphins-Jets game will likely decide the AFC East, and the loser will miss the playoffs. The only exceptions are 3b and 4a (Pats win twice, and the winner of the Dolphins-Jets game loses in week 16). The Patriots, meanwhile, need some help next week to have hope of winning the AFC East- every title scenario for them involves either the Jets or Dolphins losing in week 16.

Useless Sports: The Extra Point

It's been a while since I've been motivated to post anything here at Immaculate Inning... the way baseball season ended for this Yankees fan, plus my first real semester of graduate school that included actual work to do are my excuses. For the both of you who still check this site, I've got a treat for you today. We're going to talk about one of the most useless features of modern sport: the extra-point.

Sports historians tell us that the Point After Try (or PAT) has its roots in the precursor to American football- rugby. A "try"-- placing the ball in the end zone--  did not score any points for the team, but triggered a kicking attempt parallel to the spot in the end zone where the ball was placed. When touchdowns became more important in American football the point totals were adjusted, but the basic principle is that a TD is worth twice a FG... unless of course you make the PAT.

Up until the 1980s, the last part of the equation was not a sure thing, as the graph found here shows. However, the percentage of missed extra-points after 1984 (when defenders were banned from taking running leaps at the line of scrimmage) has never exceeded 5%; the last time it exceeded even 2% was the 1993 season. In 2008, the percentage is staggering: up to and including Thursday's Bears-Saints game, there have been 957 extra-point attempts, and only four missed attempts. The 99.6% success rate is the best in the history of football, surpassing the 99.2% rate in 2004. It's possible that we may be confusing increased ability with statistical noise, but that has not stopped other bloggers from calling for a modification of the Point After Try.

Because we at the Immaculate Inning like to champion the rare event, let us look at the four ignoble kickers who have missed this year.

Taylor Mehlhaff, New Orleans Saints When Martin Grammatica went down to injury on October 8, the Saints re-signed Mehlhaff the man Gramatica defeated in training camp. The left-footed rookie sixth-round pick out of Wisconsin played just three weeks for the Saints, making two out of three field goal attempts, and missing the first extra point of the 2008 season. The failure made Mehlhaff famous on two continents, as the miss came in an October 27 game against the Chargers played in London. As you can (kind of) see in this video, Drew Brees had just completed a 12 yard TD pass when Mehlhaff lined up for the point-after, and you can hear in the video the result- clank! Even the American-football naive fans at Wembley had mind enough to boo his performance. So, too, did the Saints, who cut Mehlhaff two days later.

It was suggested in the ESPN-comments of that article that the Saints had no confidence in Mehlhaff to begin with, and would "frequently" go for it on fourth down. The Saints did go for it twice on fourth down at Wembley, from the 1 yard line (not suspicious) and another time on 4th and 2 on the Chargers' 14 (quite suspicious). The previous week, the Saints were held to only 7 points and Mehlhaff did not attempt an field goal; they went for it on a 4th-and-one from the Carolina 37, which is no-man's land for FGs for anyone. The fourth-quarter failed conversion on a 4th and 2 from the Carolina 3 yard also makes sense as the Saints were down by twenty points at the time. In his first game against the Raiders, Mehlhaff missed his first attempt (31 yards), made his second (44 yards), and the Saints never went for it on fourth down. As always, don't trust ESPN commenters, but it may be that the extra point did spell doom for Mehlhaff; making PATs is important for a Saints team that leads the NFL in touchdowns scored.

Jason Hanson, Detroit Lions By far the most experienced kicker of the four, Hanson has 16 years kicking in the NFL, and has made 98.5% of his extra points. This season, he was unlucky November 2 in Chicago, under some pretty terrible conditions. The muddy field was causing players to slip around all day, and the Lions struck for the first time in the second quarter on a Kevin Smith 1 yard TD run. Hanson slipped and fell in the mud during his PAT attempt, rose to his feet and attempted to complete the try, but it was blocked by Alex Brown. The play became immensely important later in the game, as the Lions got the ball back with 1:04 to go and 87 yards to make up a 27-23 Bears lead. Had Hanson completed his extra point, the Lions could have tied with a field goal.

Jeff Reed, Pittsburgh Steelers We didn't have to wait long for the next missed PAT. The seven year NFL veteran missed an extra-point in Washington on November 3. The Steelers had scored right before halftime on a 1-yd QB sneak by Ben Roethlisberger, who injured his arm on the play. Led by backup Byron Leftwich, the Steelers rallied again for a big drive to open up the third quarter, capped by a 1-yard TD run by Willie Parker. According to the play-by-play, Reed's PAT was wide left. This was a significant event for Reed, who had not missed a PAT since 2003, his sophormore season. Weather did not seem to be a factor; the NFL's gamebook reported 51˚F and no wind that day. Teams typically have their backup QB receving the snap on field goal attempts- was there a switch made when Leftwich entered the game? No, because Reed's holder all day was punter Mitch Berger. However, this ESPN fantasy football page notes that Berger's hold was bad. It is unknown whether Berger's botched hold has anything to do with the fact he was released following the game. He's back with the Steelers now though after four weeks as a free agent, so I guess there's not that many hard feelings.

Matt Bryant, Tampa Bay Bucs Also a seven-year NFL veteran, Bryant missed a point after last week at Carolina. Jeff Garcia had just completed a 15 yard pass to Antiono Bryant (no relation) to bring the Bucs within a touchdown at 31-23 with under two and a half minutes to go. The kicker who two years ago knocked through the third-longest field goal in NFL history (62 yards) lined up for the point-after. Julius Peppers busted through the line and blocked the kick (his seventh since entering the league in 2002, second most over this span). Bryant's subsequent onsides-kick attempt was also not successful, and Carolina went on to win the game.

So, that's it on missed PATs in the 2008 NFL season. Just nine were missed all of last year, and since 2003 (the season I grew tired of copy-pasting PAT stats) there have been 6,520 PATs, of which 6456 were made, for a grand average of 99.018% over the last five-plus seasons. So I ask, any NFL fans out there, what is the purpose of retaining the extra point? Other than tradition, what good does it do the game to have an event which is successful over 99% of the time? I can't think of a single scoreboard-impacting event in American sports that has anywhere near a 99% success rate; the closest may be the penalty kick in soccer, but that's another topic. Meanwhile, while typically you don't see defenses going all-out on the PAT unless there is something at stake, there is still the significant risk for injury to the very large men in that line of scrimmage.

On the other blogs that have discussed this, one of the objections to eliminating point-afters was that it would renew the importance of the field goal. While I don't think that's a bad thing, I think that it could just be that a touchdown is worth 7 points unless a team wants to make it 8 with a conversion attempt. Making the team play the same from-scrimmage football that got them to the end zone seems a much fairer way of handing out extra-points. And at a current rate of just 50%, the two-point conversion is much less of a sure thing.

As it stands, at the professional level, the point after try is the most worthless waste of time in modern sports.