No Quality Wins for Patriots = playoff fail?

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 12, 2012



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold, Hard Football Facts Forensic Specialist


“Who have they beaten?”
 
It’s a common phrase uttered by fans throughout the football season, whether it’s trying to make sense of the BCS (BS) system in college, or sizing up the NFL playoff matchups this week.
 
The game guaranteed to draw the biggest ratings will be played in New England on Saturday night, as the Patriots host the Denver Broncos, and yes, Tim Tebow, in a rematch.
 
One thing these teams have in common is that they represent the two worst teams left in this playoff field when it comes to winning percentage over quality opponents (QO) – defined as teams that had a winning record in the regular season. The Patriots were just 0-2, becoming only the fourth team ever to play two or fewer games against QO’s in a 16-game season. Denver was 1-4, already with a loss at home to New England.
 
Meanwhile in the other AFC matchup, Baltimore will put their 6-1 record against QO’s on the line against Houston (4-3). It was the lesser competition this season that Baltimore struggled with, and on the road at that.
 
So who is “battle-tested”, and who is a fraud that fattened their record against the little sisters of the poor? Does any of it even matter come playoff time?
 

The Results

We looked at all 442 playoff teams and 401 playoff games from 1970-2010 to see how teams did against QO’s. That provided the basis for comparisons between how these teams did against each other in the postseason, and how the Super Bowl winners fared.
 
The results for just how important to postseason success it has been to be battle tested and have a collection of quality wins are mixed to say the least. You can always thank the "one and done" style for that. We’ll highlight key facts.
 
Fact #1: In the 401 playoff games, the winning playoff teams combined to win 56.4% of their regular season games against QO’s, while the losing playoff teams combined to win 51.3%. That difference of 5.1% is worth about 0.32 more quality wins (QW) per team.
 
Fact #2: The team with the higher winning percentage against QO’s won 55.1% of the playoff games since 1970. 34 games (8.5%) involved teams with the same winning percentage, while 36.4% of games were won by the team with the lower winning percentage against QO’s.
 
The following table shows the 442 playoff teams sorted into groups based on their winning percentage against QO’s in the regular season (QO Win%). The “RS Win%” the cumulative record the teams had in the regular season against all opponents. Next to that is the average number of regular season wins over teams with a winning record. That is followed by the teams’ record in the playoffs. Finally, the number of Super Bowl winners is listed in the last column.
 
Playoff Teams 1970-2010 - Winning % vs. Quality Opponents
QO Win % Teams RS Win% Avg. # QW's PO W PO L PO Win% SB Wins
1.000 8 0.880 4.5 13 5 0.722 3
.750-.875 50 0.805 4.7 77 36 0.681 14
.545-.714 140 0.712 4.1 123 129 0.488 11
0.500 76 0.680 3.2 68 70 0.493 6
.286-.455 135 0.650 2.4 89 131 0.405 4
.167-.250 26 0.629 1.2 26 24 0.520 2
0.000 7 0.648 0.0 5 6 0.455 1
 
Fact #3: Only eight teams went undefeated against their QO’s, and they unsurprisingly won a very high percentage of their overall games (88.0% in the regular season, 72.2% in the playoffs). It’s also the highest rate of Super Bowl winners (3/8).
 
The 2003 Patriots and 2007 Patriots were 7-0, which is the best record of any team. One of those New England teams won the Super Bowl, while the other lost in a dramatic upset to a Giants’ team that was just 1-5 in the regular season against QO’s.
 
Fact #4: The seven teams to go winless against QO’s still won 64.8% of their regular season games, but were 5-6 in the playoffs. However, three of those wins belong to the 1999 St. Louis Rams, who are the only team since 1970 to play just one game all season against a QO. The other three teams to play just one or two QO’s in a 16-game season are the 1998 Cardinals, 1999 Jaguars and the aforementioned 2011 Patriots.
 
In 1999, the Rams lost to Tennessee in their only game against a QO. The Jaguars would claim the top seed in the AFC, but lost their only two games of the season to Tennessee. In the playoffs, things would come full circle as the Titans defeated Jacksonville in the AFC Championship for the 3-0 sweep, but the Rams would extract their revenge with a thrilling win in Super Bowl XXXIV.
 
Fact #5: Perhaps the most interesting group includes the 135 teams that won more than a quarter, but less than half of their games against QO’s. Though they won 65% of their regular season games, they won only 40.5% of their playoff games, which is the worst of the seven splits. Just 3.0% of these teams won a Super Bowl (4/135).
 
Fact #6: Of the 41 Super Bowl winners since 1970, 68.3% had a winning record against QO’s. Only 17.1% of Super Bowl winners had a losing record against QO’s. Overall, 14.1% of the teams with a winning record against QO’s won a Super Bowl, compared to 5.3% of the teams that were .500 at best.
 
When grouping teams by win percentage, you are treating a team that is 1-0 the same as a team that is 7-0. Obviously it’s more impressive to be 7-0, just as a team that’s 0-5 struggled more than one that’s 0-1. With that in mind, here’s a similar table, but this time the teams are grouped by the number of QW’s they had in the regular season.
 
Playoff Teams 1970-2010 - Quality Wins vs. Quality Opponents
# QW's Teams RS Win% QO Win % PO W PO L PO Win% SB Wins
0 8 0.660 0.023 8 6 0.571 2
1 36 0.664 0.268 30 33 0.476 3
2 99 0.656 0.379 79 94 0.457 5
3 108 0.696 0.494 93 103 0.474 5
4 110 0.704 0.572 104 96 0.520 14
5 52 0.699 0.650 45 46 0.495 6
6 17 0.721 0.708 23 14 0.622 3
7 12 0.776 0.824 19 9 0.679 3
 
Fact #7: The reason the eight teams without a QW still have a .023 QO Win % is because that group includes the 1974 Steelers, who went 0-1-1 against QO’s. Rather than break out halves for ties, they were kept at 0. By including the first ever Pittsburgh team to win the Super Bowl, it raises the playoff record for teams without any QW’s to 8-6.
 
Fact #8: As you can see, the teams that had 1-3 QW’s in the regular season were just under .500 in the postseason. Once moving up to 4 QW’s, the teams start to reach the 70% mark in the regular season, and have a winning record against QO’s. Also, 12.7% of the teams with 4 QW’s won a Super Bowl, or in other words, 34.1% of Super Bowl winners had exactly 4 QW’s in a season.
 
Fact #9: Of the 41 Super Bowl winners since 1970, 63.4% had at least 4 QW’s during the regular season. Just 12.2% (5/41) had 0-1 QW’s.
 
Fact #10: In the 401 playoff games, the winning playoff team had more QW’s than their opponent 44.1% of the time, which is 11% lower than the 55.1% that won with a higher QO winning percentage. 19.7% of the time they had the same amount, while 36.2% of the time the team with fewer QW’s won the game (nearly identical to the 36.4% that won with a lower QO winning percentage).
 

“Battle-Tested” Teams

People say that a team that’s played a tough schedule is battle tested, and will be better ready for the playoffs. Statistically, you’re still better off just being a good team.
 
Fact #11: The average playoff team (1970-2010) played 6.26 games in the regular season against QO’s. For the winning playoff teams, they averaged 3.44 wins and 2.65 losses against QO’s (6.11 games). The losing playoff teams averaged 3.22 wins and 3.06 losses against QO’s (6.31 games).
 
Fact #12: The team that was more “battle tested” (i.e. played more games against QO’s during the regular season) only won 37.7% of the playoff games. 17.7% of the games were played by teams with the same amount of QO’s, and the team that was least “battle tested” (played fewer games against QO’s), well they won 44.6% of the playoff games.
 
Eleven teams have played 10 or 11 games against QO’s in a season. They went 11-10 (.524) in the playoffs. Meanwhile our group of 7 teams that played only one or two games against QO’s, they went 14-3 (.824) in the playoffs and won four Super Bowls. That includes teams like the perfect 1972 Dolphins, 1987 Redskins, 1999 Rams and 1974 Steelers. Maybe playing an easy schedule isn’t so bad?
 
As history has shown us, it’s not good for your health to be involved in a lot of battles.

Super Bowl Winners (1970-2010)

 
Here is a table showing the Super Bowl winners since 1970 and how they fared in games against QO’s.
 
Super Bowl Winners vs. Quality Opponents
Team Year QO W L T QO Win%
Green Bay Packers 2010 7 4 3 0 0.571
New Orleans Saints 2009 6 5 1 0 0.833
Pittsburgh Steelers 2008 8 4 4 0 0.500
New York Giants 2007 6 1 5 0 0.167
Indianapolis Colts 2006 5 4 1 0 0.800
Pittsburgh Steelers 2005 8 4 4 0 0.500
New England Patriots 2004 8 7 1 0 0.875
New England Patriots 2003 7 7 0 0 1.000
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2002 8 4 4 0 0.500
New England Patriots 2001 5 2 3 0 0.400
Baltimore Ravens 2000 6 3 3 0 0.500
St. Louis Rams 1999 1 0 1 0 0.000
Denver Broncos 1998 4 3 1 0 0.750
Denver Broncos 1997 5 2 3 0 0.400
Green Bay Packers 1996 7 4 3 0 0.571
Dallas Cowboys 1995 7 5 2 0 0.714
San Francisco 49ers 1994 6 4 2 0 0.667
Dallas Cowboys 1993 7 5 2 0 0.714
Dallas Cowboys 1992 5 3 2 0 0.600
Washington Redskins 1991 8 6 2 0 0.750
New York Giants 1990 7 4 3 0 0.571
San Francisco 49ers 1989 8 6 2 0 0.750
San Francisco 49ers 1988 8 6 2 0 0.750
Washington Redskins 1987 2 1 1 0 0.500
New York Giants 1986 6 5 1 0 0.833
Chicago Bears 1985 6 5 1 0 0.833
San Francisco 49ers 1984 5 4 1 0 0.800
Los Angeles Raiders 1983 8 4 4 0 0.500
Washington Redskins 1982 4 3 1 0 0.750
San Francisco 49ers 1981 3 3 0 0 1.000
Oakland Raiders 1980 6 2 4 0 0.333
Pittsburgh Steelers 1979 10 7 3 0 0.700
Pittsburgh Steelers 1978 6 4 2 0 0.667
Dallas Cowboys 1977 5 4 1 0 0.800
Oakland Raiders 1976 5 4 1 0 0.800
Pittsburgh Steelers 1975 6 4 2 0 0.667
Pittsburgh Steelers 1974 2 0 1 1 0.250
Miami Dolphins 1973 6 5 1 0 0.833
Miami Dolphins 1972 2 2 0 0 1.000
Dallas Cowboys 1971 3 2 1 0 0.667
Baltimore Colts 1970 3 1 2 0 0.333
 
Overall, the Super Bowl winners were 153-81-1 (.653) against QO’s, with an average of 5.73 games against QO’s (3.73 wins, 1.98 losses).
 

The 2011 Playoff Field

Where do our dirty dozen playoff teams from this season fit in historically? Here is the table for their records against QO’s.
 
Team QO QW QL Pct.
Detroit 5 0 5 0.000
New England 2 0 2 0.000
Cincinnati 7 1 6 0.143
Denver 5 1 4 0.200
NY Giants 4 1 3 0.250
Atlanta 6 2 4 0.333
Pittsburgh 8 4 4 0.500
Houston 7 4 3 0.571
San Francisco 5 4 1 0.800
New Orleans 7 6 1 0.857
Baltimore 7 6 1 0.857
Green Bay 5 5 0 1.000
 
The Lions were 0-5, which tied the 1991 Jets for the worst record against QO’s by a playoff team. Detroit started with a competitive showing, but it was still a quick exit in New Orleans last week. They were the only other winless team besides New England, who lost consecutive games with the Steelers and Giants.
 
The Bengals were 1-6, and also found themselves losing by three scores last week. Neither the Giants or Falcons really impressed here, but the home team came away with that victory. Then it was Pittsburgh, just 4-4 this year against QO’s, dropping the stunner in Denver in overtime.
 
Obviously some of these teams (especially Detroit and New England) were able to beat their share of 8-8 teams, keeping them at .500 and preventing them from being QO’s. But that does happen every season.
 

What About the Patriots?

New England doesn’t have the QW’s you’d expect from a 13-3 No. 1 seed, but there is precedent with the 1999 Rams. It’s been four calendar years to the day (1/12/2008) since Tom Brady had a good playoff game. They are getting Denver this week, a team that’s technically not even a QO, and one they’ve already beaten 41-23 this year (though recent New England playoff history says that might mean nothing as well). The Patriots have been slow starters lately, and we know what kind of finisher Tebow is.
 
We’ve seen New England collect 7 QW’s in four different seasons. Twice they won the Super Bowl (2003, 2004), twice they lost games that were huge upsets (2007, 2010). Last year the Jets were 2-4 vs. QO’s, but won at the 7-1 Patriots. 0-2 is a much different spot for the Pats, but will it matter?
 
The Ravens are 6-1, which gives them a big statistical advantage over 0-2 New England. In fact, should the teams meet in the AFC Championship, that +.857 advantage in QO Win % is the second largest in the playoffs since 1970 (actually ties Lions/Saints from last week). Only the 1998 Vikings (1.000) over the Cardinals (.000) was bigger.
 
Of course, the only other time a team won a game with more than a 75% difference was Super Bowl XLII: Giants (1-5; .167) over New England (7-0; 1.000). Overall, teams are 9-4 when they are at least +5 in QW’s. The last two losses have been by New England (again, 2007 & 2010). The one before that was Denver beating Green Bay in the Super Bowl (uh-oh, #TebowSign).
 
Would it be historic for New England to win the Super Bowl this year? Yes, but we could find historically bizarre traits for the rest of the field too should they win.
 
Maybe the Patriots can rewrite their recent history with a big QO-upset of their own. That’s if we’re not watching a Tebow/Yates AFC Championship instead.
 

Conclusion

What did we learn here?
 
There appears to be just a slight advantage for the team that does better in the regular season against QO’s, but it’s akin to the type of advantage one would get from having home field (upper 50% range).
 
Generally, the best teams are the ones that win most games, regular season and postseason, no matter who the opponent is. But the teams that have been Super Bowl winners, they usually have winning records against QO’s and at least 4 QW’s on the season. It has not been common for a team with a losing record against QO’s and 0-1 QW’s to go the distance.
 
Being “battle-tested” is largely a myth, at least when defined by playing against teams with winning records. Still, the results here are interesting, as people always thought the teams that get through the tougher schedules are better suited to win in the playoffs. Not true.
 
But as we’ve seen way too often, the one and done creates that “anything can happen” environment, which leads to unexpected results, upsets, or chokes (depending on your fan affiliation).
 
That’s the nature of the playoffs. Didn’t get your quality wins earlier this season? What’s stopping you from getting them now? Everyone’s a good team at this stage of the game.
 
Scott Kacsmar is a football researcher/writer who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. Going 4-1 against QO’s seems good enough for success. You can send any questions or comments to Scott at smk_42@yahoo.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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