New England and Baltimore are the top two seeds entering the AFC playoffs, and they have arrived in slightly different ways. New England has not defeated a team with a winning record all season. Baltimore achieved the #2 seed because they did beat the other playoff teams they played (6-1 against teams with winning records), but missed out on the top seed precisely because they lost to teams with losing records (a worse 6-3 record against teams with non-winning records).
Of course, some of this is result of the Patriots beating teams. Oakland, Denver, San Diego, the Jets, Philadelphia and Dallas would have all had winning records if they had managed to beat New England, while the Patriots would only be 0-1 against teams with winning records if they had defeated the Giants.
The temptation might be to think that a team like Baltimore, who has proven their mettle by beating the best, is in much better shape entering the postseason. There are no bad teams left, so Baltimore doesn’t have to worry about playing to the level of their competition. New England should be able to point to the folly of that just from last season, when the Patriots went 7-1 against teams with winning records and an identical 7-1 against the rest of the league.
Going back to 1990, there have been 252 playoff teams. Here’s a breakdown of the difference in winning percentage against non-winning teams and winning teams, going from highest (those that had a winning percentage at least 60% higher against non-winning teams) to lowest (those like Baltimore that actually had a better record against winning teams). The chart lists the average actual wins, and the expected wins (adjusted for seeding) for the teams in each category.
The teams that were the worst against winning teams compared to their record actually performed the best. They were expected to win only 0.84 playoff games on average (there is of course a tendency for these teams to be worse seeds), but averaged 1.00 wins. Based on this, I would say there is no evidence to suggest you should favor Baltimore in the playoffs based solely on the fact that they did well against winning teams while the Patriots have no wins. Of course, those numbers include all playoff teams, from top seeds to the last team in the playoffs. What if we focus only on the teams that earned a bye?
No difference. The 12 teams with the a bye with the largest differential had 17 wins in the playoffs, and three won a Super Bowl. The 13 teams (because of ties) who all had better records against winning teams and had a bye won 16 games, and two of them won a Super Bowl.
[Photo via Getty]