Cowboys Road To The 2011 NFL Playoffs: Wins Against Quality Opponents

On Sunday, the Cowboys lost a preseason game to the Chargers, a team that is widely considered to be a playoff contender in 2011. Sure, it was a preseason game, and as such, we like to tell ourselves that effort counts a lot more than wins.

But at some point, if the Cowboys want to make the playoffs this year, they'll have to win against quality teams. Many 16-game predictions are just as predictable as the name implies, or as JimmyK so eloquently phrased it on Blogging The Beast, predictions follow a typical formula: "Sweep the bad team in the division, split with the two good ones, beat all the bad teams handily except one (the wake-up call game), lose a heart-breaker to the great team (Pats), and in the end wind up with a completely unrealistic final record."

Quality teams are teams that have a winning record at the end of the season. Granted, it's pretty hard to figure out which teams will end up with a winning record at the end of the 2011 season, but going by last year's record, the Cowboys have seven games against opponents that could also end 2011 with a winning record: the Jets, Patriots, Buccaneers, Eagles and Giants. The Cowboys will probably need to win four of those games to make the playoffs.

After the break, we look at why the performance against quality teams is correlated with playoff success.

This is part two in a very loosely connected series of posts titled "The Cowboys road to the Playoffs" in which we'll look at different factors that will impact the Cowboys' playoff chances. In part one, we looked at the churn- and rebound factors for playoff participants, today we look at quality opponents.

Quality teams

ColdHardFootballFacts.com have been compiling 'Quality Standings' since 2004. Their rankings show the records of each team against quality opponents -teams that finished the season with a winning record. Here's their rationale for looking at that particular set of numbers:

Strip away the dead-weight detritus of games played against poor and mediocre opponents, and you get a much clearer picture of the true nature of a team. Quality Standings are more important than overall standings because every year there are teams that pad their records by beating up weak opponents. The Quality Wins Quotient tells you which teams have had cakewalk schedules and which teams are truly battle-tested.

Making the playoffs

CHFF now have seven years worth of data available on their site, and looking at their numbers reveals some interesting bits about the correlation between making the playoffs and quality opponents faced.

84 teams have made the playoffs in the last seven years. Only once did a team defeat every single quality opponent it faced in the regular season. That team were the 2007 Patriots, who posted a 7-0 record against quality opponents in the regular season. The Patriots went to the Super Bowl and lost to the Giants. Ironically, the Giants had a 1-5 (.167) regular season record against quality opponents, the second lowest winning percentage among all 84 teams in this analysis.

Those two teams are obviously taken from the extreme ends of the spectrum on both sides. If you take a look at all 84 playoff teams, you'll see their record against quality opponents is pretty evenly distributed:

Playoff Team records vs Quality Opponents, 2004-2010
Win %age
0.000-.299 .300-.399 .400-.499 .500 .501-.600 .601-.700 .700-1.000
No. of teams 13 10 13 11 13 12 12

Over the last seven years, the 84 playoff teams have combined for a pretty even 271-264 (.510) record against quality opponents. Does this mean looking at quality opponents is a waste of time? Not at all.

Quality opponents are called what they are for a reason: they're pretty good teams, and it's not easy to win against them. In fact, the fewer quality opponents a team faces during the regular season, the better its chances are of making the playoffs. Here's a look at the likelihood of making the playoffs based on how many quality opponents a team faced in the regular season:

Playoff success rate by no. of Quality Opponents faced, 2004-2010
Quality Opponents faced
3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11
Total no. of teams 7 10 20 39 55 39 37 14 3
No. of teams making the playoffs
7 8 10 17 21 12 7 2 0
Playoff success rate 100% 80% 50% 44% 38% 31% 19% 14% 0%

Over the last seven years, every single team that has faced only three quality opponents has made the playoffs. Most recently, the Chiefs managed this feat in 2010. So if you're looking for the Chiefs to repeat their playoff appearance again this year, don't. They'll be facing eight teams this year who had a winning record last year.

There's a school of thought arguing it's better to play tougher opponents, because your team will be battle tested entering the playoffs - you've beaten good teams, and as a result your team and individual players have improved and your overall confidence has increased. That may sound nice and all, but the reality is that the more good teams you play, the more likely you are to lose, and the less likely you are to make the playoffs.

The Eagles, Redskins and Giants all face only six teams that had a winning record in 2010, the Cowboys face seven. The full list for each NFL team, based on the 2010 records can be found at the bottom of a previous post, 'Digging Deeper Into The 2011 NFL Schedule'. With 'only ' a combined 25 teams with a winning record from 2010 on the schedule, plus the entire NFC West, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising if the NFC East once again features at least two playoff teams in 2011.

Playoff success

We've seen above that a soft schedule with few quality opponents significantly increases your odds of making the playoffs. But what about your chances once you're in the playoffs?

The table below shows the winning percentages against quality opponents split by playoff success. As could be expected, the 14 teams making the Super Bowl over the last seven years have the best aggregate record against quality opponents. Only three of those 14 teams have a losing record against quality opponents. The anomalies were the 1-5 Giants in 2007, the 2-6 Cardinals in 2008 and last year's 3-4 Steelers

The further down the totem pole of postseason success you go, the lower the winning percentage.

Records vs Quality Opponents, 2004-2010 regular seasons
Teams Number Avg. No. of Quality Opponents Avg. Wins Avg. Losses Avg. Winning Percentage
Super Bowl Teams 12 6.2 3.8 2.4 .610
Conf. Champ. Teams 28 6.2 3.6 2.6 .583
Division Winners 56 6.1 3.4 2.7 .559
Wildcard Teams 28 6.8 2.9 3.9 .424
Non-Playoff teams 140 7.6 1.7 5.9 .232

Schedule permitting, some teams might be able to take a shortcut to the playoffs by avoiding quality opponents. But once they're in the playoffs, they'll quickly find that there are no easy opponents left anymore.

If the Cowboys want to not only make the playoffs, but have some postseason success, they'd better start beating some quality opponents. After all, if you've beaten a lot of quality opponents in the regular season, you're probably a  pretty good team yourself and are likely to advance further in the playoffs.

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