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Tough schedules, lucky teams, and Simpson’s paradox

Posted by Doug on May 29, 2006

These two posts gave me occasion to whip up a program that tells me what every team's record was against playoff teams and against non-playoff teams. Lots of interesting tidbits in there.

For example, the 1998 Cardinals were one of 16 teams since the merger to make the playoffs without having any wins over playoff teams. They were 0-2 against playoff teams. But perhaps more shameful are the 2004 Vikings, who made the playoffs despite going 0-5 against playoff teams. Like the Cardinals, though, they somehow managed to win an actual playoff game.

The 1998 Cardinals and the 1998 Saints provide a very nice example of Simpson's paradox. Check out this table:

Cards Saints Better Record
vs playoff teams 0-2 1- 9 Saints
vs non-playoff teams 9-5 5- 1 Saints
Total 9-7 6-10 Cards

The Saints had a better record (percentage-wise) than the Cardinals against playoff teams. The Saints had a better record than the Cardinals against non-playoff teams. But the Cardinals had an overall record that was three games better. In case you're curious, there have been 42 instances like this since 1970. Where else are you going to get info like that?

More trivia:

  • The 1999 Jaguars were winless (0-2) against playoff teams and undefeated (14-0) against non-playoff teams. They are the only team to hold that distinction.
  • The 1989 Browns were 5-1 against playoff teams and 4-5 against non-playoff teams.
  • Ten teams have been undefeated against playoff teams, with the 2003 Patriots having the most wins (5) among those teams.
  • The 1993 Bucs are the only team to play against 11 playoff teams. Four years later, the 1997 Bucs became one of only two teams to make the playoffs despite playing against 10 playoff teams. The 1994 Lions were the other.
  • With the schedule set up as it currently is, every team is guaranteed to play at least two playoff teams each year. Back in the old days, four teams played against just one: the 1970 Cowboys, the 1974 Steelers, the 1976 Rams, and the 1987 Redskins. I don't know enough about historical scheduling practices to know if it was ever theoretically possible to get through a season without playing a playoff team. In any case, no team ever did. [CORRECTION: the 1976 Rams, 1975 Vikings, and 1972 Dolphins did.]
  • The 1997 Packers and 1998 Jets were 7-1 against playoff teams.
  • Two Super Bowl winners, the 1974 Steelers and 1999 Rams, did not beat a playoff team during the regular season. [CORRECTION: add the 1972 Dolphins to the list.]
  • Among Super Bowl winners, the worst record against non-playoff teams belongs to the 1988 San Francisco 49ers, who were 7-4.