It’s Never too Early for Tiebreakers
We won’t get into a full discussion about the Wild Card, but I want to look at the tiebreakers strictly with the Steelers in the event they are tied with the Ravens for the division lead at season’s end. In doing so, we are (rightfully) ignoring the Cincinnati Bengals. First, a look at the results and upcoming opponents is useful:
Ravens (7-2): @Pit, SD, Pit, @Was, Den, NYG, @Cin (3-0 in Div, 1-1 vs. non-common opps, 6-1 in Conf, 1-1 vs. NFC)
Steelers (6-3): Bal, @Cle, @Bal, SD, @Dal, Cin, Cle (1-0 in Div, 1-1 vs. non-common opps, 3-3 in Conf, 3-0 vs. NFC)
Head –to-Head: It’s the first tiebreaker, easy to understand, and it’s up for grabs. If either team sweeps, they are clearly in the driver’s seat. Affectively, a Steelers sweep would give them a 1.5 game lead on the division and a Ravens sweep would give Baltimore a 3.5 game lead with 5 game results not known.
Division Record: It’s the 2nd tiebreaker and will only matter if the Ravens and Pittsburgh split their 2 games. That would make the Ravens 4-1 in division and the Steelers 2-1. The Steelers would have both games against the Browns and home against Cincinnati. The Ravens would have just @Cincinnati in the season finale. A tie might be the most likely result, but either team could win this tiebreaker. One element favoring the Steelers is that the Bengals may be playing for a wild card in the season finale, but the Browns almost certainly won’t be.
Common Opponents: Let me start by saying the best way to determine who has or can win common opponents is by looking at the non-common opponents (2 games only). To win the common opponent tiebreaker, a team must lose the non-common opponent comparison, since the overall records must be equal. The Ravens are already finished at 1-1 with a win over NE and a loss @Hou. The Steelers are also 1-1 with a loss to Ten and a win over the Jets. Neither team can win the common opponents tiebreaker.
Conference Record: For the conference record tiebreaker to matter, there are 3 prerequisites:
- The Steelers and Ravens split
- Both teams finish with the same divisional record (we’ll assume 5-1 in the example below)
- Both teams have to finish tied in the standings (obvious for a tiebreaker to be used, but it forces some outcomes)
Similar to the common oponents tiebreaker, the easiest way to determine the winner is by which has the worse non-conference record. Right now the worst the Steelers can finish is 3-1 with a loss to the Cowboys. The best the Ravens can finish is 3-1 with wins over the Giants and Redskins. So the Ravens can win the conference record tiebreaker, but the Steelers cannot.
For the Ravens not to win by a tiebreaker up to and including conference record, an awful lot has to happen. Let’s consider the outcomes forced for both teams to finish 3-1 against the NFC and require another tiebreaker. The prerequisite outcomes would require a starting record of:
- Bal: 11-3 (7-2 current + 1-1 split with Pit + 1-0 other Div + 2-0 NFC). @SD and Den would be the only games unaccounted for and the Ravens would need to lose both of them to finish 11-5.
- Pit: 10-5 (6-3 current + 1-1 split with Bal + 3-0 other Div + 0-1 NFC). SD would be the only game unaccounted for, which Pit would have to win to go 11-5.
It is also possible that the Steelers could go 2-1 in division and the Ravens 0-1 to leave both teams 10-6 and tied through this tiebreaker. Regardless of how the division tie is forged, it’s not possible for the Steelers to win the conference record tiebreaker and there numerous combinations for the Ravens to do so.
Strength of Victory: Were all the conditions under the Conference record satisfied, the Ravens and Steelers tie would fall to Strength of Victory. It’s a longshot, but tiebreaker analysis is almost all about longshots. Amazingly, the concussion status of Michael Vick could play a big role in this tiebreaker. Assuming each team wins out in the division, the Steelers and Ravens would each have 3 opposing teams they would be hoping to succeed:
Bal: NE (6-3), Oak (3-6), and Dal (4-5). Currently 13-14
Pit: NYJ (3-6), SD (4-5), and Phi (3-6). Currently 10-17
That’s an enormous deficit for the Steelers’ horses to overcome over 21 games. The results of any other games would not impact the Ravens/Steelers tiebreaker because the Ravens and Steelers would have common results against those opponents. It is possible, although unlikely, the Steelers could add the Bengals as a horse in which case the Ravens would add the Browns. That would reduce the differential to just 1 game, but would be based on the Steelers losing to the Browns while the Ravens lose to the Bengals.
Strength of Schedule: If, by some use of magic beans, the SoV tiebreaker were to finish in a tie, the Ravens would be all but guaranteed the Strength of Schedule tiebreaker since their only 2 non-common opponents (NE and Hou) have a combined record of 14-4 while the Steelers’ non-common opponents (NYJ and Ten) have a combined record of 7-12.
Summary: Without going to SoV, the Steelers have only 2 possible paths to beating the Ravens by tiebreaker:
- Sweep the Ravens
- Split with the Ravens, go 3-0 against other division opponents, and hope the Ravens lose to the Bengals in the finale
Again ignoring the outside chance of a SoV decision and from the Ravens perspective, they need to do one of the following to guarantee a tiebreaker win:
- Sweep the Steelers
- Split with the Steelers and have 2 of the following 4 games go their way (Bal @Cin, Pit @Cle, Cle @Pit, or Cin @ Pit)
- Split with the Steelers, tie for the division, and forge any tie where either the Steelers win @Dal or the Ravens lose either against NYG or @Was
While there is still a real possibility the Ravens could lose the division outright, if the Ravens can avoid the Steelers’ 2 paths, they are essentially another half game up in the standings.