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Good Riddance To One Of The Worst Wild-Card Weekends In NFL History

If you’re like me, the start of the NFL playoffs is always a source of excitement — until you remember that the two best teams in each conference have bye weeks, leaving the dregs of the postseason field to play games that aren’t much better than the league’s standard regular-season fare. Sometimes wild-card games can rise above all that, producing classic games in spite of themselves, but those games are the exception to the rule.

Even by those low standards, this weekend’s wild-card action was full of duds. Texans-Raiders was one of the ugliest on-paper playoff matchups in recent memory — and it ended up being arguably the weekend’s most exciting game. Every matchup was decided by double digits, only one featured an above-average amount of scoring,1 and there was only one upset in the bunch (if you even could call it that — our Elo ratings gave Oakland a slight edge over Houston, though Elo didn’t know about Oakland’s mess at QB). Add it all up, and it was one of the worst wild-card rounds since the NFL playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990.

We can measure the quality of each playoff game using a metric similar to the one I used to grade college football bowls. To rate the NFL games, I graded each postseason matchup since 1990 by summing up four different five-point ratings2: how good the teams were, how close the game was, how many points were scored, and how much upset potential the game had.3

Once we have those ratings, we can add them up to get an overall score for each playoff game. Unsurprisingly, wild-card games have the lowest average score, followed by divisional games, conference championships and the Super Bowl. (Hey! It works!) But this year’s opening weekend scored lower than the typical wild-card round in three of four categories; total scoring was the only metric in which it didn’t underperform, and even then, these games were basically average by wild-card standards. Pittsburgh’s 30-12 blowout over Miami was the eighth-lowest-rated wild-card game since 1990, and the rest of the opening weekend’s slate didn’t fare much better.4

Overall, it was the fourth-worst wild-card weekend since 1990 according to my measure of game quality:

AVERAGE SCORE OF GAMES IN ROUND
PLAYOFF YEAR GOOD TEAMS CLOSE GAMES HI SCORING UPSET CHANCE TOTAL SCORE
2013 2.3 3.6 3.4 3.9 13.3
1992 2.9 3.6 2.9 3.8 13.2
2009 2.7 2.6 3.5 3.9 12.7
2002 2.0 3.2 3.4 3.9 12.6
2000 2.5 3.3 2.6 4.1 12.5
2010 2.3 3.2 3.0 3.9 12.4
2014 2.5 3.4 2.9 3.6 12.4
1993 1.9 3.5 3.2 3.6 12.2
2008 2.5 3.2 2.9 3.5 12.1
2015 2.8 3.2 2.4 3.5 12.0
2004 2.1 2.8 3.3 3.7 11.9
2007 2.2 3.1 2.9 3.7 11.9
2005 2.6 2.9 2.3 4.0 11.8
1995 1.9 2.5 3.9 3.2 11.6
1998 2.2 3.1 2.8 3.5 11.5
2011 2.1 3.1 3.1 3.2 11.5
2001 2.7 2.9 2.8 3.0 11.4
1990 2.3 3.1 2.4 3.4 11.2
2003 2.3 2.9 3.1 2.9 11.2
1991 2.2 3.3 2.2 3.5 11.2
1994 2.1 3.2 2.8 3.2 11.1
2012 2.5 3.2 2.5 3.0 11.1
2006 2.1 3.2 2.9 2.7 10.9
2016 2.1 2.7 2.9 3.0 10.7
1999 2.1 3.1 2.7 2.6 10.4
1997 2.1 3.2 2.6 2.5 10.3
1996 1.9 2.8 2.9 2.6 10.3
Wild card avg. 2.3 3.1 2.9 3.4 11.7
Divisional 3.1 3.0 3.0 3.0 12.0
Conf. champ. 3.6 3.1 3.0 3.1 12.8
Super Bowl 4.1 3.0 3.2 3.3 13.6
The best NFL wild-card weekends (1990-present)

Each game is graded on a five-point scale in four categories: how good the teams were, how close the score was throughout the game, how many points were scored and the chances of an upset throughout the game.

Based on data from Pro-Football-Reference.com

The good news is that things should get much better from here. Although New England is a massive favorite over Houston, the rest of the divisional round is filled with high-quality teams who should be relatively closely matched. That’s not always a guarantee of great football — looking back at my college-bowl grades, how about the barn-burner that was my highest-rated matchup? (Clemson trounced Ohio State 31-0 … oops.) — but it can’t hurt, particularly after the relative snoozefest that opened the playoffs.

Footnotes

  1. Relative to the NFL’s regular-season average of 46 total points per game.
  2. Where the average is 3, the maximum is 5, and the lowest possible score is 1.
  3. Here’s how each is defined in more detail:

    • How good the teams were. This is based on the harmonic mean of the two teams’ pregame Elo ratings. Better matchups, like Super Bowl XLIX between the Patriots and Seahawks, get a 5; worse ones, such as 1999’s Cardinals-Cowboys wild-card tilt, get a 1.
    • How close the game was. For this, I estimated the average margin of the game at any given moment, from the perspective of the eventual winner. Higher grades are given to great comebacks — see the Bills’ epic 1993 victory over the Oilers — and to nail-biters like the Giants’ last-second win over Buffalo in Super Bowl XXV. Lower grades go to laughers like the Jaguars’ 62-7 demolition of Miami in 2000.
    • How much scoring the teams did. This is just the total number of points scored in the game. (High-scoring games aren’t always exciting, but they tend to be more watchable than grind-it-out defensive struggles.) The Cardinals’ 51-45 win over the Packers in 2010 gets a 5; the Steelers’ inelegant 7-6 victory over the Patriots in 1998 gets a 1.
    • How much upset potential the game had. All else being equal, possible upsets make for interesting games. So for this category, I estimated the underdog’s average win probability at any given moment in the game. Games where the underdog dominates, such as when Baltimore thrashed New England in 2010, score highest; ones where the favorite’s victory was never in doubt, like when Tim Tebow’s Broncos never had a chance against the Pats in 2012, score lowest.

  4. The highest-rated game of the weekend was, remarkably, Houston-Oakland, which ranked 43rd among the 108 wild-card games played since 1990.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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