December 31, 2008

NFL Handicapping - Wild Card Round Schedule Analysis

Due to the NFL's scheduling system, not all playoff-worthy records are created equal. For example, the NFC and AFC West teams had awful strengths of schedule this year, primarily because they have to factor in playing each other.

Strength of schedule (SOS) is the average winning percentage of all sixteen teams played. This year, the 32 teams had SOSs ranging from .447 (San Francisco) to .572 (Cleveland). For perspective, this means the average San Francisco opponent went 7-9 and the average Cleveland opponent went 9-7.

SOS is only useful as a benchmark in analyzing how well a team actually performed. Obviously, a team cannot beat or lose to teams that aren't on the schedule. To know what it means, it is important to look at two other numbers: Strength of Victory (SOV) and Strength of Defeat (SOD). Just as you probably guessed, SOV is the average winning percentage of the teams a team defeated, and SOD is the average winning percentage of the teams that beat a team.

Ranked from easiest schedule to toughest, here is where the eight wild card teams fall:

Atlanta - .459
Miami - .461
Arizona - .486
Indianapolis - .498
Minnesota - .504
Philadelphia - .514
San Diego - .516
Baltimore - .521

Ranked from most cupcakes beaten to fewest, here is how they rank in terms of SOV:

Arizona - .368
San Diego - .398
Miami - .398
Atlanta -.403
Baltimore - .412
Minnesota - .431
Philadelphia -.486
Indianapolis - .492

Ranked in terms of SOD, from teams that lost to bad teams to teams that only lost to studs:

Indianapolis - .516
Atlanta - .581
Philadelphia - .594
Miami - .600
Minnesota - .625
San Diego - .634
Arizona - .638
Baltimore - .763

These numbers are just one tool that can be used to handicap the wild card round. It obviously is superseded by other factors, like matchups, momentum, home field, coaching, injuries, etc.

A couple things do stand out, however. Arizona had a weak schedule and still really only beat the trash on it. Combine that with no real home field advantage and a weak finish, and you'd be hard-pressed to take a mere two points from Vegas.

Philadelphia and Indianapolis look the flakiest here, until one remembers that Indianapolis started slow as Manning's surgery recovery was more serious than we had been led to believe. The fact that Philadelphia, though, has such a clumping between the three numbers rightly indicates that they are the most unpredictable of the bunch. However, this also indicates that they did beat some of the better teams on the schedule this year. I would tend to avoid the Philly-Minnesota game based on its unpredictability on both sides.

Like the Philadelphia-Minnesota game, the numbers are not telling for the Indianapolis-San Diego matchup. San Diego's reflect what would be expected from an 8-8 team in a weak division. Indianapolis' are skewed by their slow start. The spread, Indianapolis (-1), screams SUCKER LINE, though.

Baltimore's whopping .763 SOD stands out, as they only lost to teams with 12 or more wins. I suppose the question that has to be asked is whether Miami is closer to Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, the Giants, and Tennessee, the only teams to beat the Ravens this year, or are they still in the pack behind that elite group?

So based on these, combined with what I already know (or think I know), if I were going to wager Wild Card Weekend I'd do the following:

Ravens (-3) over MIAMI
Falcons (-2) over ARIZONA
Colts (-1) v. SAN DIEGO - No bet.
Eagles (-3) v. MINNESOTA - No bet.

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