Let’s Talk Playoffs, but Let’s Not Talk Tiebreakers

Filmstudy Let’s Talk Playoffs, but Let’s Not Talk Tiebreakers

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The Ravens have played well in the 1st half and have earned the right to discuss possible playoff chances.  I have seen a number of folks who seem to think the Ravens have a shot to win the division merely by beating Pittsburgh on December 14th, but in fact the likelihood of the Ravens winning any tiebreaker against the Steelers is remote.  Here’s why:


1st Tiebreaker:  Head to head.  The best the Ravens can do is tie for this one with a win on December 14th.


2nd Tiebreaker:  Divisional record.  To win this tiebreaker, the Ravens will need to beat Cincinnati on the road and also beat Pitt in the aforementioned 12/14 game.  In addition, the Steelers would need to lose at home to either Cleveland or Cincinnati.  It would be wonderful to see one of those teams upset the Steelers, but it’s unlikely.  The most likely result, if the Steelers and Ravens are tied at season’s end is that both teams are 5-1 in division.  That said, when you look further down the tiebreaker list, this is by far the Ravens best shot to win a tiebreaker vs. the Steelers.


3rd Tiebreaker:  Common opponents.  Each team in division plays 14 common opponents and 2 “uncommon” opponents.  It’s actually easier to see the common opponent tiebreaker by looking at uncommon opponent results.  For this tiebreaker to be important, Pitt and Baltimore will need to have the same overall record.  The Ravens have already swept Miami and Oakland, the 2 uncommon opponents.  At best, the Ravens can force the next tiebreaker here, and only if the Steelers beat both New England and San Diego while the Ravens do not lose ground in the standings.  That last sentence contains a very unlikely combination of events.


4th Tiebreaker:  Conference record.  By the time we get to this tiebreaker, all of the following must have happened:
  • The Ravens and Steelers have the same overall record
  • The Ravens have beaten Pit on 12/14
  • The Ravens and Steelers are both either 4-2 or 5-1 in division.  The Steelers must beat either the Browns or Bengals at Heinz, and it is much more likely they have won both, since otherwise this tiebreaker will only need resolution if the Ravens lose at Cincy.
  • The Steelers have beaten both New England and San Diego, so the 3rd tiebreaker has failed to determine the division winner
Pittsburgh will have no fewer than 9 wins (almost certainly no fewer than 10, based on the 3rd bullet) and no fewer than 3 losses with the outcomes of Indianapolis, @ Tennessee, Dallas as the only games impacting the chance of reaching or resolving this tiebreaker.  So this tiebreaker will only be invoked if the Steelers and Ravens each have 9, 10, 11, 12, or 13 wins (and we’ll see in a moment that not all those are possible).


The Pittsburgh/Dallas game is the key to the conference record tiebreaker:

If Pittsburgh loses to Dallas, they will be 1-3 vs. the NFC.
1.     For the Ravens to win by the conference-record tiebreaker, they would need to go 0-4 vs. the NFC East, which would give them 7 losses on the season and guarantee them a record at least 1 game worse than the Steelers.
2.     Alternatively, the Ravens could go 1-3 vs. the NFC East and tie the tiebreaker.  The combination of events will only occur if Pitt loses all 3 of the above bolded games.  We are out by Pluto in probability terms now.


If Pittsburgh beats Dallas, they will be 2-2 vs. the NFC.
1.     The Ravens could then win the tiebreaker by going 1-3 vs. the NFC and still finishing with the same number of wins as the Steelers.  Those 3 losses would cap the Ravens record at 10-6.  If the Ravens are 10-6, and the other conditions for this tiebreaker to be invoked are met, that would mean Pittsburgh will also have won both of their other divisional games and have an overall record of no less than 11-5.  So this can’t occur.
2.     Alternatively, the Ravens could go 2-2 vs. the NFC East and tie the conference record tiebreaker.  For us to be down to this tiebreaker the divisional records are the same so either the Steelers and Ravens have 1 more loss or 1 more win.  It does not matter which, but let’s assume the Ravens and Steelers are both 5-1 in division.  This combination of events will give the Ravens at least 5 losses and the Steelers at least 11 wins.  So the Steelers will need to lose both the Indianapolis and Tennessee games and the Ravens would otherwise need to run the table on their non-division conference schedule (Houston, Jacksonville) in addition to all the bullets above.  Like 2 above, this is remote.


To summarize the entire conference record tiebreaker…the Ravens can’t win it, but they have some remote hope of forcing the 5th tiebreaker.


5th Tiebreaker:  Strength of Victory.  This is a tiebreaker the Ravens can win, but if you are still following at this point, you know the chance of getting to this tiebreaker requires a very remote string of outcomes.


Please send me an email if you see a logical flaw or component I have not explained in this analysis and I’ll get it corrected/added

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Ken McKusick

About Ken McKusick

Known as “Filmstudy” from his handle on area message boards, Ken is a lifelong Baltimorean and rabid fan of Baltimore sports. He grew up within walking distance of Memorial Stadium and attended all but a handful of Orioles games from 1979 through 2001. He got his start in sports modeling with baseball in the mid 1980’s. He began writing about the Ravens in 2006 and maintains a library of video for every game the team has played. He’s a graduate of Syracuse with degrees in Broadcast Journalism and Math who recently retired from his actuarial career to pursue his passion as a football analyst full time. If you have math or modeling questions related to sports or gambling, Ken is always interested in hearing new problems or ideas. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @filmstudyravens. More from Ken McKusick


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