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NFL Playoff Tiebreakers: Sifting Through the Mess

Given how close the division races are this year, I thought it might be a good idea to go through the tiebreakers and what they mean for the teams in contention. First, let’s review the tiebreakers the NFL uses.

  1. First tiebreaker is head to head record. Pretty self-explanatory.
  2. Second one is overall division record, so those games against the other teams in the division carry more importance.
  3. Third one is record against common opponents, which should include every game but two against conference opponents.
  4. Fourth is overall conference record.
  5. Fifth is strength of victory (SOV) followed by strength of schedule.  SOV is the combined record of all opponents that each team in the tiebreaker has defeated, with the team with the higher opponent winning percentage advancing.

There are five more steps before it gets to a coin flip, but I think any tie will be broken by that fifth step this year.

Let’s go through the divisions and handicap who has the advantage:

AFC East-  The Patriots blowout last night puts them in great position. The Jets would only gain the tiebreaker if the Patriots lost to either Buffalo or Miami, and the Jets beat both.  The common opponents tiebreaker will be a draw, and if the Pats were to lose to either Green Bay or Chicago, the conference tiebreaker would be a push as well. If it gets down to SOV, the Patriots have the edge right now (wins over SD > DEN, IND > HOU, BAL > CLE) and that lead is probably insurmountable.

AFC North- Pittsburgh currently has the tiebreaker based on division record because of Baltimore’s costly loss to Cincinnati in week 2, but a Steelers loss to either the Bengals (not likely) or at Cleveland (possible) would bring that even. Baltimore gets to a tiebreaker with Pittsburgh by beating Houston and New Orleans, so if it wins those, the common opponents and conference tiebreakers are moot. I’m projecting that SOV would favor Pittsburgh if it is a tie at 12-4 with a loss only to Cincy or Cleveland, but could swing to Baltimore at 11-5, if the Steelers lose to both Jets and Browns and the Ravens beat Saints.

AFC South- What a mess. Jacksonville and Indy are in control, but Houston would have a shot if they get to a tiebreaker. If Indianapolis beats Jacksonville and sweeps Tennessee, they would own the tiebreaker on either divisional record or common opponents.  f Indy beats Jacksonville and loses a game to Tennessee to get to 9-7, then Jacksonville would have tiebreaker with a win over Houston (division record), but not if they lost to Houston (common opponent). I realize we are entering unicorn land here, Texans fans, but if there is a three way tie at 9-7, then I believe Houston has the advantage based on either division record (if Indy splits with Tennessee) or conference record (even if Indy sweeps Tennessee but loses to Oakland).

I started to work on Tennessee’s scenarios, but I quit on Jeff Fisher halfway through.

AFC West- The Raiders own the tiebreakers over KC and SD, and I’m assuming if they get even with Kansas City, it’s because they have to win in week 17 at Arrowhead. San Diego would likely have the tiebreaker over Kansas City based on common opponents if they beat the Chiefs this Sunday, though that could change if the Chargers lost in Denver, KC beat Oakland, and the teams finished at 9-7.

The most plausible scenario is that the Chiefs, despite being up in the standings by 2 games, really have a game and a half lead because they would lose tiebreakers to either team that caught them.

NFC East- If the Eagles beat the Giants again, they would have the tiebreaker.  If the Giants win, then it would come down to whether New York can beat Washington again or not, because if they do, New York would do no worse than tie on division record, and beat the Eagles on conference record.

NFC North- If Chicago beats Green Bay in week 17, they would own the head-to-head tiebreaker.  Whether Green Bay would get the tiebreaker with a win vs. Chicago likely depends on the result of Sunday’s game at Detroit.  If Green Bay wins it, they would be done in division except for the Bears game, and could not lose the tiebreaker on division record.  I am projecting that if Green Bay wins at Detroit, they would likely own the tiebreaker with a win over Chicago.  This would be true whether they and Chicago both won out (conference tiebreaker to GB), or whether GB lost to either the NYG or NE, and the Bears lost a game to either Minnesota (division), or Pats/Jets (conference if GB only loss to Pats; SOV tiebreaker if GB loss to NYG).

NFC South- Atlanta is in great shape here.  They pretty much win the division with the head to head tiebreaker with a win over New Orleans (does anyone see them getting swept by Carolina and losing to Seattle?).  A loss to New Orleans, meanwhile, still leaves Atlanta with the tiebreaker based on common opponents.  The only thing that could swing that is another loss (to Carolina while NO beats Tampa, or to Seattle if NO loss is to Baltimore only), which would allow the Saints to beat them out on the division or conference tiebreaker.

NFC West- The winner of the week 17 matchup between St. Louis and Seattle would own the tiebreaker (St. Louis based on H2H; Seattle on division record).  If San Francisco can sweep out the division with wins over all three division teams, they would own the tiebreaker, whether they were in a 2-way tie, or a 3-way tie with both Seattle and St. Louis.  That would require Seattle and St. Louis losing three of four against Atlanta, Tampa, New Orleans and Kansas City, and whichever team that wins against one of those four then losing the finale.  I’m pretty sure San Francisco is going to set some sort of record for meaningful games lost this year.

[photo via Getty]

 

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