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Thoughts on the 2016 NFL Playoffs

The cherry on top of a boring dessert

There were really only three notable games in this year’s playoffs. The Super Bowl, of course, was a classic game, if not necessarily a good one to watch from start to finish. The Patriots completed a historic comeback and won in overtime, 34-28.

And there were two upsets: the Packers went into Dallas and won, 34-31, in what was the best game of the playoffs. And the Steelers went into Kansas City and won in a sloppy game, 18-16, where Pittsburgh kicked six field goals.

The other 8 games? All were won by the favorites, and all were won by at least 13 points. That matched the number of times the favorite won by over 10 points in the three previous years combined.

Since 1990, the favorites have won 7.6 of 11 games, on average, in the postseason. With 9 wins by favorites in 2016, that matches the most times the favorite has won in the playoffs, but it happened six other times, too. So 2016 wasn’t all that notable in that regard.

And since 1990, teams have won by over 10 points in just over half of all playoff games. With 8 such wins, that is the most ever, but it happened four other times, too (although not since 2002). But what makes the 2016 playoffs stand out is the combination of the two factors: 8 times the favorite won and won by over 10 points, compared to just 4.4 times on average. The only other time that happened was in 1996.1

The table below shows the average results (from the perspective of the winning team) in every playoff year since 1990:

YearHomeAvg PFAvg PADiffFav WonWon by Over 10Fav Won By Over 10
2016832.517.614.8988
2015626.615.111.5842
2014829.518.011.5964
2013629.618.511.2742
2012630.521.59.0854
2011830.117.512.6654
2010429.720.39.5632
2009731.816.615.2675
2008526.516.79.8653
2007526.417.39.1644
2006827.518.59.0944
2005425.912.113.8675
2004630.317.013.3876
2003627.017.79.3832
2002834.016.917.1885
2001728.015.312.7764
2000826.58.817.7584
1999727.915.012.9854
1998829.016.612.4965
1997623.613.89.8855
1996830.014.315.7888
1995732.619.513.1775
1994830.216.513.7954
1993830.917.513.5955
1992530.712.518.2785
1991825.812.813.0955
1990827.512.215.4854
Avg6.828.916.212.87.65.74.4

The most comparable year would be 1996, which can be summarized succinctly: other than the miracle Jaguars who produced two stirring upsets as big underdogs, every game was decided by over 10 points, with the favorite winning nine of the ten.

  1. And 8 of the 10 times, the home team won, which is high, but also not particularly unusual (the home team won 6.8 games on average). []
  • Adam

    I find it surprising that the lowest point differential for any recent playoff year was 9.0. You’d think that a set of games featuring only the best teams would result in some years with a very low PD, but that hasn’t been the case. I expected at least a couple years would have PD’s under a touchdown due to random clustering of results.