A Place to Read and Get Read

How to Pick the NFL Playoffs? May the Power Rankings be Your Guide

In Sports on September 4, 2013 at 11:44 pm

By: J. Scott Smith 

One of my favorite things about the NFL preseason is listening to ESPN’s “experts” spout about what teams are going to win the division and make the playoffs.  Each year, it’s like watching President Barack Obama fill out an NCAA bracket, it’s all chalk.  But we know that’s not going to happen.  Unlike any other major professional sport, at the beginning of the season, each NFL team has a legitimate chance to make the playoffs.  As Grantland’s Bill Barnwell points out, “Better than one out of every four teams that finishes 6-10 makes the playoffs the following year.”  While Barnwell uses advanced metrics to predict 2013 NFL performances, I’m taking a less scientific approach by examining what ESPN’s preseason power rankings can tell us about which teams will make the 2013 playoffs.

Selecting the past five seasons from 2008-2012, I compared ESPN’s preseason power rankings with the eventual playoff teams.  At a cursory glance, a couple of things immediately stand out.  First, during this five-year period, three preseason number one ranked teams did not make the playoffs.  The 2008 Patriots who lost Tom Brady to an ACL tear, the 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers having the proverbial post-Superbowl hangover season, and the 2012 New York Giants having their own Superbowl hangover.  On the other hand, three teams ranked dead last coming into the season made the playoffs starting rookie quarterbacks. The 2008 Atlanta Falcons with Matt Ryan, the 2011 Cincinnati Bengals with Andy Dalton, and the 2012 Indianapolis Colts with Andrew Luck.  The NFL is predictably unpredictable and our task is to manufacture some logic behind picking playoff teams before the season starts.  So let’s first examine the 2008-2012 playoff teams and their preseason ESPN power ranking. Then, I’ll break down the number of teams that made the playoffs in each of the top, middle, and bottom thirds of ESPN’s preseason rankings.

2008 NFL Playoffs:

Seed

NFC

Preseason Power Ranking

1

New York Giants (East winner)

6

2

Carolina Panthers (South winner)

20

3

Minnesota Vikings (North winner)

11

4

Arizona Cardinals (West winner)

17

5

Atlanta Falcons (wild card)

32

6

Philadelphia Eagles (wild card)

13

  • Preseason ranking 1-10 teams making the playoffs: 4
  • Preseason ranking 11-21 teams making the playoffs: 6
  • Preseason ranking 22-32 teams making the playoffs: 2
  • Notable AFC teams that missed the playoffs: New England Patriots (#1 Preseason), Jacksonville Jaguars (#4 Preseason), Cleveland Browns (#10 Preseason)
  • Notable NFC teams that missed the playoffs: Dallas Cowboys (#4), Green Bay Packers (#8), Seattle Seahawks (#9), New Orleans Saints (#12).

2009 NFL Playoffs:

Seed

NFC

Preseason Power Ranking

1

New Orleans Saints (South winner)

19

2

Minnesota Vikings (North winner)

9

3

Dallas Cowboys (East winner)

14

4

Arizona Cardinals (West winner)

12

5

Green Bay Packers (wild card)

17

6

Philadelphia Eagles (wild card)

4

  • Preseason ranking 1-10 teams making the playoffs: 5
  • Preseason ranking 11-21 teams making the playoffs: 5
  • Preseason ranking 22-32 teams making the playoffs: 2
  • Notable AFC teams that missed the playoffs: Pittsburgh Steelers (#1), Tennessee Titans (#7)
  • Notable NFC teams that missed the playoffs: New York Giants (#3), Atlanta Falcons (#8), Carolina Panthers (#11), Chicago Bears (13)

2010 NFL Playoffs:

Seed

NFC

Preseason Power Ranking

1

Atlanta Falcons (South winner)

8

2

Chicago Bears (North winner)

21

3

Philadelphia Eagles (East winner)

17

4

Seattle Seahawks (West winner)

25

5

New Orleans Saints (wild card)

2

6

Green Bay Packers (wild card)

6

  • Preseason ranking 1-10 teams making the playoffs: 7
  • Preseason ranking 11-21 teams making the playoffs: 3
  • Preseason ranking 22-32 teams making the playoffs: 2
  • Notable AFC teams missing the playoffs: San Diego Chargers (#10), Cincinnati Bengals (#11), Miami Dolphins (#13), Houston Texans (#14)
  • Notable NFC teams missing the playoffs: Minnesota Vikings (#3), Dallas Cowboys (#4), San Francisco 49ers (#12)

2011 NFL Playoffs:

Seed

NFC

Preseason Power Ranking

1

Green Bay Packers (North winner)

1

2

San Francisco 49ers (West winner)

26

3

New Orleans Saints (South winner)

4

4

New York Giants (East winner)

11

5

Atlanta Falcons (wild card)

6

6

Detroit Lions (wild card)

18

  • Preseason ranking 1-10 teams making the playoffs: 6
  • Preseason ranking 11-21 teams making the playoffs: 3
  • Preseason ranking 22-32 teams making the playoffs: 3
  • Notable AFC teams missing the playoffs: New York Jets (#7), Indianapolis Colts (#8), San Diego Chargers (#10), Kansas City Chiefs (#14)
  • Notable NFC teams missing the playoffs: Philadelphia Eagles (#3), Tampa Bay Bucs (#12), Chicago Bears (#13)

2012 NFL Playoffs:

Seed

NFC

Preseason Power Ranking

1

Atlanta Falcons (South winner)

12

2

San Francisco 49ers (West winner)

5

3

Green Bay Packers (North winner)

3

4

Washington Redskins (East winner)

25

5

Seattle Seahawks (wild card)

22

6

Minnesota Vikings (wild card)

31

  • Preseason ranking 1-10 teams making the playoffs: 6
  • Preseason ranking 11-21 teams making the playoffs: 2
  • Preseason ranking 22-32 teams making the playoffs: 4
  • Notable AFC teams missing the playoffs: Pittsburgh Steelers (#8), San Diego Chargers (#15)
  • Notable NFC teams missing the playoffs: New York Giants (#1), Philadelphia Eagles (#7), Detroit Lions (#9), Chicago Bears (#11), New Orleans Saints (#13), Dallas Cowboys (#14)

So, if we look at the number of teams to have made the playoffs from each third of ESPN’s preseason power rankings, here are the averages for the five-year period:

  • Preseason ranking 1-10 teams making the playoffs: 5.6
  • Preseason ranking 11-21 teams making the playoffs: 3.8
  • Preseason ranking 22-32 teams making the playoffs: 2.6

After looking at the past five seasons, I feel comfortable making a couple of conclusions.  First, at least three teams ranked preseason top ten will not make the playoffs this season.  The highest number of top ten teams making the playoffs was seven in 2010.  Second, two teams ranked preseason 22nd or worse will make the playoffs in 2013.  Every year, at least two of them have made it, the trick is figuring out which two.   Third, if you pick chalk, you’re going to lose.  With half of the playoff teams coming from preseason rankings 11-32, you’ll have to figure out how to choose those bottom six teams (article forthcoming).  Here are the 2013 ESPN NFL preseason power rankings, what four top ten teams are you going to eliminate?  What teams from the bottom ten will make the playoffs?  Oh the unpredictable joy of the NFL season.  Happy hunting NFL fans.

Editor’s Note: To read J. Scott Smith’s AFC Playoff Picks, click here!

*           *           *

J. Scott Smith is a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri. He is a co-editor of Repairing the Athlete’s Image: Studies in Sports Image Restoration.

  1. […] of teams collapse, and another handful expected to inhabit the bottom of the standings rise up. J. Scott Smith of the Read Zone went through the last five years of ESPN Preseason Rankings to compare them to the eventual playoff […]

  2. […] previously detailed the how ESPN’s power rankings provide a guide for choosing playoff teams.  Based on the previous […]

  3. I’m not sure it’s fair to use the post-draft rankings (done in May) when they also have pre week 1 rankings from September. Last season NYG were #1 on May 16th, but by the start of the season, ESPN had GB at #1 and NYG at #3.

    “The high-powered Packers, who were No. 1 all of last season, enter Week 1 once again staring down at the competition. ”

    http://espn.go.com/nfl/powerrankings/_/year/2012/week/1

  4. […] NFC playoff teams as I could see all of my division winners possibly missing the playoffs.  My previous article using ESPN’s preseason power rankings illustrated the volatility of NFL playoff teams during the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 699 other followers

%d bloggers like this: