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The Road to the NFL Playoffs: Wins vs Quality Opponents

This season, the Dallas Cowboys have the third toughest schedule in the NFL after the Texans and Titans. In recent discussions about the Cowboys' strength of schedule, opinions have been divided about whether a soft or a tough schedule is more conducive to playoff success.

Proponents of a soft schedule usually argue that being well rested and healthy as a result of a softer schedule is an advantage going into the playoffs. The Colts' Bill Polian and Jim Caldwell went down that route last year, much to the dismay of their fans.

And then there's a school of thought arguing it's better playing 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.

Our own Rafael Vela showed a flair for 19th century German philosophy when he argued that "anything which does not kill you, or cripple your roster in this case, does indeed make you stronger."

Today, we move beyond strength of schedule and look at quality opponents, and whether they have any bearing on playoff success.

"Winning" Divisions

Before moving to quality opponents, we need to review some work that KC Joyner did in his "Blindsided" book. KC compiled the win/loss marks for every division and reports that between 1977 and 2007

[...] 25 of the 30 world champions in that time hailed from one of the top three divisions based on win percentage. This trend stretched beyond Super Bowl champs, as 42 of the 72 conference champions since the merger came from the top three divisions.

Now, a higher win percentage doesn't necessarily mean a tougher division - you could have been lucky and drawn a cupcake division like, say, the 2009 NFC West as your divisional opponent. Playing against a division with the worst W/L record of all divisions over the last 5 years should boost your own W/L record.

But KC's point remains valid, it's tougher to make the playoffs in a highly competitive division than in a cupcake division, and once you do make the playoffs, you're more likely to go far.

Quality Opponents

Another way to look at how tough a given schedule really is, is to look at the number of quality opponents a team has had to face. Quality opponents are teams that had a winning record at the end of the season.

Since 2004, have compiled 'Quality Standings', a ranking which shows the record of every team in the league against quality opponents. Here's why they do that:

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

Digging deeper into the six seasons worth of Quality Standings numbers reveals some interesting stuff about the correlation between making the playoffs and quality opponents faced.

For example, did you know that of the 72 teams to make the playoffs in the last six years, only a single team won each one of its regular season games against quality opponents for a 7-0 record? That team made it all the way to the Super Bowl, where it met a team that had a 1-5 record against quality opponents in the regular season - that 1-5 record (.167) is the second worst regular season winning percentage of a playoff team against quality opponents in the last six years. So who won? The 1-5 Giants beat the 7-0 Patriots in the 2007 Super Bowl.

So is this normal or is it the exception that proves the rule? When you look at all 72 playoff teams, and their record against quality opponents, you see a fairly even distribution of winning percentages:

Playoff Team records vs Quality Opponents, 2004-2009
Win %age
0.000-.299 .300-.399 .400-.499 .500 .501-.600 .601-.700 .700-1.000
No. of teams 12 8 11 9 11 10 11

The 72 teams have a combined 231-224 (.508) record against quality opponents. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the quality opponent concept, is it? Well, they're called quality opponents for a reason: for the most part, these are pretty good teams and it's tough winning against them. At the end of the season, if you've accumulated 10 or 11 wins, you'll have likely made the playoffs, and it doesn't matter one bit who you've notched those wins against. Even if you lose all your games against quality opponents, you can still make the playoffs - provided you don't face too many of them.

In fact, the lower the number of quality teams you have to face in a season, the higher your chances of making the playoffs:

Playoff success rate by no. of Quality Opponents faced, 2004-2009
Quality Opponents faced
3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11
Total no. of teams 6 9 16 32 48 33 34 12 2
No. of teams making the playoffs
6 8 9 13 17 10 7 2 0
Playoff success rate 100% 89% 56% 41% 35% 30% 21% 17% 0%

The Cowboys, Redskins and Giants all face eight teams that had a winning record last year, the Eagles face seven. The full list for each NFL team, based on the 2009 records can be found at the bottom of a previous post, 'Digging Deeper Into The 2010 NFL Schedule'.

Playoff success

It's all well and good to make the playoffs with a losing record against quality opponents, or only having played a few of them. But once you're in the playoffs, there probably are no cupcake opponents anymore. The logic for advancing in the playoffs is fairly simple: If you've beaten a lot of quality opponents in the regular season your are most likely a pretty good team yourself, and are likely to advance further in the playoffs than a not so good team.

The table below shows the winning percentages against quality opponents. Not unsurprisingly, the 12 teams that made it to the Super Bowl in the last six years have the highest winning percentage against quality opponents in the regular season. And remember, this includes the 1-5 Giants anomaly. Only one other team playing in the Super Bowl had a losing record against quality opponents, the 2008 Cardinals were 2-6, the ten other teams had winning records.

Teams making it to the Conference Championships have a slightly lower percentage but also have a proven ability to beat quality opponents more often than not.

Going into the playoffs, division winners on average have a higher winning percentage than teams that get into the playoffs on a wildcard. And teams that don't make the playoffs have a hard time winning against quality opponents at all.

Records vs Quality Opponents, 2004-2009 regular seasons
Teams Number Avg. No. of Quality Opponents Avg. Wins Avg. Losses Avg. Winning Percentage
Non-Playoff teams 120 7.7 1.8 5.9 .232
Wildcard Teams 24 6.9 2.8 4.0 .412
Division Winners 48 6.0 3.4 2.6 .562
Conf. Champ. Teams 24 6.1 3.7 2.4 .605
Super Bowl Teams 12 6.1 3.8 2.3 .630

Looking only at quality opponents, a softer schedule appears to be better to get you into the playoffs. However, your chances of making it far in the playoffs are better if you're 'battle-hardened' against quality teams.

(Over the next couple of days we'll look at how historic strength of schedule has impacted a teams' playoff chances and whether the overused 'momentum' has anything to do with playoff success)

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