It's Never Too Early for Tiebreakers

We won’t get into a full discussion about the Wild Card, but I want to look at the tiebreakers strictly with the Steelers in the event they are tied with the Ravens for the division lead at season’s end. In doing so, we are ignoring the Cincinnati Bengals. That would be dangerous to say the least, but if we can address just 1 tiebreaker issue per week, this is the one I’m choosing for week 8. First, a look at upcoming opponents is useful:

Ravens (5-2): @ Pit, @ Sea, Cin, SF, @ Cle, Ind, @ SD, Cle, @ CIn (1-0 in Div, 1-0 vs. non-common opp, 3-2 in Conf, 2-0 vs. NFC)
Steelers (6-2): Bal, @ Cin, Bye, @ KC, Cin, Cle, @ SF, StL, @ Cle (0-1 in Div, 1-0 vs. non-common opp, 4-2 in Conf, 2-0 vs. NFC)

By tiebreaker:

Head –to-Head: It’s the first tiebreaker, and can be secured by the Ravens with a win Sunday. The Steelers can’t win the HTH. As we’ll see later, this is by far the easiest road to a division title for the Ravens, who would lead the division b 1 ½ games if they can win Sunday.

Division Record: It’s the 2nd tiebreaker and the strength of the division as a whole makes it interesting. It will only matter if the Ravens lose in Pittsburgh Sunday, so we’ll begin with that assumption (Steelers are 7-2, Ravens 5-3, and both are 1-1 in division). If the Ravens win 1 more game than the Steelers in division of 4 to be played with Cincinnati/Cleveland, the Ravens would both catch up in the lost column and secure the divisional tiebreaker. To make it count, the Ravens would have to have the same number of losses in their other 4 games (@Sea, SF, Ind, @SD) as the Steelers have in their other 3 (@KC, @SF, StL). That’s certainly plausible.

Common Opponents: The chance of the division falling to a common opponent tiebreaker is dependent on all of the following:

• The Steelers beat the Ravens Sunday
• Both teams finish with the same divisional record
• Both teams have to finish tied in the standings

Let me start by saying the best way to determine who has or can win common opponents is by looking at the non-common opponents (2 games only). To win the common opponent tiebreaker, a team must lose the non-common opponent comparison, since their overall records must be equal. The Ravens can go 1-1 with a loss at SD. The Steelers can go 2-0 with a win at KC. Were that to happen, however, the Ravens would be 2 games back in the loss column with only 2 games unresolved for the Steelers (@SF, StL). So the only way the Ravens can win the common opponent tiebreaker is with the exact following outcomes of non-division games:

W @ Sea
W Ind
L @ SD

W @ KC
L @ SF

That’s an exceedingly low probability outcome. It is much more likely the common opponents goes to the Steelers if the Ravens win at SD and the Steelers lose @ KC, because those would be the only individual games with required outcomes and neither is highly unlikely.

To summarize: The Ravens have what I would say is approximately a 1% chance to win the common opponent tiebreaker (with the 3 preconditions above assumed) and more than a 10% chance to lose it.

Conference: For this tiebreaker to come into play, all of the following must occur:

• The Steelers beat the Ravens Sunday
• Both teams finish with the same divisional record
• Both teams finish with equivalent common (and non-common) opponent records (so Bal vs. SD and Pit vs. KC must either both be losses or both wins)
• Both teams finish with the same overall records

Similar to common opponents, there is a shortcut to this tiebreaker. Look at out-of-conference games. If both teams have the same non-conference record, the tiebreaker does not resolve the tie. The team with the worse non-conference record wins the conference tiebreaker. So far both teams are 2-0 vs. the NFC. For the Ravens to win the conference tiebreaker they need to go 1-1 vs the NFC while the Steelers go 2-0. That would put the Ravens 2 full games behind the Steelers with only 1 other game unacounted (KC). After just 7 games, the Ravens are mathematically eliminated from winning the conference tiebreaker.

Can the Steelers win the conference tiebreaker. The simple answer is yes. If the 4 bulleted preconditions occur, the Steelers would lead the Ravens by a game in the lost column and the season would boil down to just 5 games, the Ravens matchup with Indy and the 4 NFC West games. If the Steelers lose exactly 1 NFC West game more than the Ravens and the Ravens beat Indy, then the Steelers win this tiebreaker.

To Summarize: It’s a longshot that the division will not be determined by a previous tiebreaker, but if it falls to conference record, the Steelers have a chance to win it and the Ravens have none.

At this point, further tiebreakers such as strength of victory or strength of schedule are so unlikely that they are not worthy of discussion.

The Bengals remain a factor, but the winner of this Sunday’s game will take a big step forwards to a division championship.

The opinions posted here are those of the administrator of this blog and his loyal readers. They are in no way official comments from the team, and should not be misconstued as such, even though he thinks he could do just as well or even a better job!

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