Calculating Browns Playoff Odds

This post tells of a seemingly plausible series of events in which the Browns make the playoffs. Plausible, yes, probable, no.

Just how unlikely are the Browns playoff chances at this point?

For the past two years I've been developing a quantitative power ranking system, mostly for my own amusement. I'm not sure how well it stacks up against really smart football analysts and charismatic journalists voting, to say nothing of more advanced quantitative systems that people actually make money off of, but in general these systems tend to agree. My system keeps track of only points, points allowed, and strength of schedule. Using Pythagorean expectation (a Bill James observation, Wikipedia has an OK article) it creates a "win percentage" for each team regardless of actual wins. Long story short, by looking at points and points allowed, one can better predict a team's future winning percentage than simply looking at a team's actual winning percentage. I than adjust for strength of schedule, multiple times. I'm not going to discuss the math here, but these are the results:

  1. SF 75.9%
  2. NE 74.6%
  3. SEA 71.1%
  4. NYG 70.2%
  5. DEN 68.9%
  6. CHI 68.5%
  7. HOU 65.1%
  8. GB 60.5%
  9. ATL 59.6%
  10. BAL 59.0%
  11. CIN 57.1%
  12. TB 56.3%
  13. WAS 55.3%
  14. DAL 51.8%
  15. MIN 51.0%
  16. PIT 50.2%
  17. SD 49.5%
  18. DET 47.4%
  19. NO 46.6%
  20. CAR 45.1%
  21. STL 44.4%
  22. CLE 44.1%
  23. MIA 40.4%
  24. NYJ 38.6%
  25. IND 37.7%
  26. BUF 35.3%
  27. ARI 30.7%
  28. PHI 30.6%
  29. TEN 30.1%
  30. OAK 24.5%
  31. JAX 24.4%
  32. KC 21.5%

There is plenty of room to gripe, but the rankings are at least objective and in the ballpark. Cleveland actually comes out better than a lot of people rank them.

Now, to predict which team is going to win a given game is pretty hard. Still, there is a pretty simple formula that Bill James published that looks at winning percentages to estimate the odds of one team beating another. The formula is called Log5. Once again, I won't go into the math here, but for the most part it gives reasonable odds for any given game.

So, what has to happen for the Browns to make it to the playoffs?

1) They have to win all three of their remaining games. Odds of this happening? 4.5%

Individually, all those games are winnable. Combined, it looks grim. Even if RGIII doesn't play, the Browns are probably still looking at most 1 in 10 odds of wining the remaining games. Odds of beating...

  • Washington, 39%
  • Denver, 26%
  • Pittsburgh, 44%

2) Cincinnati must lose their final two games. Odds of this happening? ~22%

Cincinnati just beat Philadelphia on Thursday night making them 8-8. They can't win any more games or they are a lock to get that 6th playoff spot ahead of the Browns. Odds of losing to...

  • Pittsburgh, 43%
  • Baltimore, 52%

3) Pittsburgh must go 1-2 in their remaining three games. Odds of this happening? 48%*

*OK, here's the deal with the Steelers. They have three games left, and we've already assumed they will lose to Cleveland and beat Cincinnati. Thus, in order to finish exactly 1-2, they must lose to Dallas this week. Odds of beating...

  • Dallas... 48%
  • Cincinnati, 43%
  • Cleveland, 56%

4) The New York Jets must not finish 3-0. Odds of this happening? 87.8%

Finally, something pretty plausible about the picture. However, the Jets have better odds of going 3-0 than the Browns do, and its another variable keeping the Browns out of the playoffs. Odds of beating...

  • Tennessee, 59%
  • San Diego, 39%
  • Buffalo, 53%

5) Buffalo Bills can't finish 3-0. Odds of this happening? 96.3%

Hmmm... I don't think this one is a threat. So, I'll ignore it. Adding it would make the math annoyingly more complicated since the Bills play the Jets and I'd have to figure multiple scenarios, and it won't change the final numbers much. Suffice it to say, that Buffalo has only an 18% chance of getting through Seattle.

So, when we add up all these situations, whats the final odds that the Browns makes the playoffs?

4.5% * 22% * 48% * 87.8% = .4%. Alternatively, a team in the Browns situation would only make the playoffs 1 in about 250 times. Sure, they might have better odds of beating Washington with RGIII still recovering from an injury, but the big picture changes very little when its all added up. I believe the Browns are a better team than a lot of analysts give them credit for and their records shows. Still, the NFL isn't the NBA, yet. Being better than awful doesn't cut it, you have to be either great, or good and lucky with how the tie breakers work.

Go Browns, beat Washington, and good luck, we're going to need it.

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