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2011 NFL Playoffs: Similar Playoff Teams to This Year's AFC Wildcard Round Participants

The playoffs are here. Each of the first round matchups features a road team with a better or equal record to the hosting team, and we have a wide variety of teams in this year’s playoff. We have our first ever losing team, and a 12 win team going on the road. Being the history buff that I am, I like to go back and look at teams that have been similar in some ways to the playoff teams to see who might be a surprise team.

I whipped up a similarity score for the playoff teams in this year’s playoff, using all other playoff teams that played a 16-game schedule (340 teams since 1978). For those that are not familiar with similarity scores, it was developed by Bill James, and basically involves starting with a set number, like 1000, and then subtracting points for differences between the subject team and the comparison teams in categories of your choosing. Doug Drinen at pro-football-reference used a method for this old post on matchups following the 2006 season.

Doug used matchups back then, but I’m going to look at teams here.  Examining similarity of matchups would probably give you a better sense of the likelihood of winning a particular game, while this gives more of a sense of how that team stacks up compared to other specific playoff contenders.

I used the following categories: wins, points for, points against, point differential, passing yards for, passing yards against, rushing yards for, rushing yards against, yardage differential, and turnover margin.  I’ll not bore you with all the math details, but the weights assigned for each category were based on the standard deviation for the entire group of playoff teams in that category.  For example, the playoff teams had a standard deviation of 8.8 in turnover margin, and 581 in passing yards on offense.  So, a 581 yard difference in passing yards would result in the same 100 point penalty off the similarity score as a 8.8 difference in turnover margin. (Oh, and I did double-weight the wins category to make it more likely to get teams that had the same record on the similarity list).

Now, I’m not guaranteeing this is anything more than an academic exercise that allows us to visit the past and reminisce about other playoff teams.  Maybe there is something to the combination of these numbers that points out a type of team that will do well or poorly, maybe not.  Still, I think it’s fun.  Hopefully you will too.  Here’s a discussion of the ten most similar playoff teams to this year’s AFC Wildcard Round participants.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (10-6)

The Chiefs profile out as a very good running team with an average defense, a positive turnover margin, and a moderate-to-low point differential. When we look at teams with similar records who fit that profile, we actually get one Super Bowl winner, though I have no delusions that Kansas City is going to meet that standard. The 1980 Raiders played in a far more balanced conference, where they were tied for the best record at 11-5 but had to advance as the wildcard. Other than that team, only the 2004 Falcons advanced to a championship game.  Teams that run the ball well tend to do better at home, and notably, though, these teams went 6-0 at home in the playoffs, while going 4-9 in road games.

San Fransisco 49ers 2002
Pittsburgh Steelers 1983
Houston Oilers 1988
Oakland Raiders 1980
Buffalo Bills 1995
New Orleans Saints 2000
Kansas City Chiefs 1991
Los Angeles Rams 1984
Washington Redskins 2005
Atlanta Falcons 2004

BALTIMORE RAVENS (12-4)

The Ravens comparable list looks even better than I expected. The top team on the list lost in a memorable game at home when Jim Everett hit Flipper Anderson in overtime, but four of the top six reached a Super Bowl, and the next four all played in a conference championship game. The difference, though, is that most teams with a 12-4 record that fit the Ravens profile won a division or at least hosted the playoff game. The Ravens have to likely win all three on the road. The Ravens comparables went a combined 14-9 in the playoffs.

New York Giants 1989
San Diego Chargers 1994
Buffalo Bills 1993
Jacksonville Jaguars 2005
New England Patriots 2001
New York Giants 2000
New England Patriots 2006
Tennessee Titans 2002
Carolina Panthers 1996
Detroit Lions 1991

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (10-6)

I know the media is going to be all over the Colts drawing comparisons to their 2006 team that advanced to win the Super Bowl as a #3 seed. That team, though, was 12-4 and played a tough schedule. Unfortunately for Colts fans, two other Manning era teams show up on this list instead. The Colts pass the ball for a lot of yards, and it masks other areas, such as rushing offense, rushing defense, and turnover margin. When we look at similar teams, there is not a lot to like. Only the Cardinals’ improbable run to the Super Bowl two years ago shows up on the list.  In fact, you have to go all the way down to the 39th most similar team (1986 Broncos) to find the next team like these Colts to reach the Super Bowl. This similar list includes teams quarterbacked by Favre, Manning (2x), Warner (2x), Brady, Brees, Marino and Gannon, so it’s picking up teams with star quarterbacks. These teams went 7-10 overall, with almost half those wins coming from the 2008 Cardinals.  Four of the top five lost their first playoff game.

Green Bay Packers 2004
Indianapolis Colts 2000
New England Patriots 1994
Arizona Cardinals 2008
Indianapolis Colts 2002
New England Patriots 2005
New Orleans Saints 2006
Miami Dolphins 1995
Oakland Raiders 2001
Arizona Cardinals 2009

NEW YORK JETS (11-5)

Because they run the ball alot, this team shares some of the similar teams with the Chiefs. It’s in the differences, though, that this team stands out. The Jets’ comparables went 17-8, including an incredible 10-4 on the road. The top comparable is a team that was the first team to ever win three straight road games to reach a Super Bowl. Three wild card teams that reached the Super Bowl show up on the Jets top ten list, and a fourth, 2005 Pittsburgh, comes in at #11.

I know the popular view is going to be that Peyton Manning will beat the Jets like he did last year. Maybe this is hokey science, but history appears to be telling us that teams like the Jets have fared a lot better than teams like the Colts in the playoffs.

New England Patriots 1985
Pittsburgh Steelers 1997
Jacksonville Jaguars 2007
Buffalo Bills 1998
Buffalo Bills 1992
New York Jets 1985
San Francisco 49ers 1988
Washington Redskins 1990
Oakland Raiders 1980
New Orleans Saints 2000

[photo via Getty]

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