As NFL seasons go, 2007 is pretty quiet going into the final week. At this point, with eight teams locked into their seeds and 10 teams assured a playoff spot, there isn't much to do in the way of simulations over at ChanceBot.com.
That said, with nearly a full season of games in the books, the bot has a pretty good measure of the relative team strengths so this is the perfect time to set the bot loose on some 'what-if' scenarios.
Let's take a closer look at the Houston Texans and the Philadelphia Eagles. Both of these teams go into Week 17 with the possibility of earning the odd distinction of coming in last in their division without having a losing record (both can finish 8-8 with a win this weekend).
According to Zachary Levine of the Houston Chronicle, there have only been two teams since the NFL went to a 16 game schedule 30 years ago that finished alone in last place at 8-8. If the Redskins win their game on Sunday, that number could double.
Not surprisingly, with 8-8 only being good enough for last place, both of these divisions have beaten up on outside competition this year; and both have seen tough competition within the division.
It's worth noting that, aside from the second-place teams in these divisions having already locked up a wild-card spot, the third place teams control their own destiny going into the final week. So the Eagles and Texans have had more than their share of games against playoff-caliber teams this year.
But here are some questions to think about:
How would Houston and Philadelphia have fared if they played in a different (and weaker) division by switching places with another last place team? Would two games against the Chiefs raise their chances of making the postseason? What about swapping places (and schedules) with Atlanta or St. Louis? Did the toughness of their divisions really hurt their chances?
To answer these questions, I fired up the bot.
The first step in the process is to establish a baseline. To do this I simply had the simulator rerun the entire 2007 season 500,000 times. Over the course of the simulation, the Texans made the playoffs 26.3 percent of the time with an average of 7.95 wins and the Eagles made the playoffs 25.68 percent of the time with an average of 7.88 wins.
The next step was to run the swaps one by one. Each team swapped both divisions and schedules with Oakland, Atlanta, and St. Louis and after each swap the season was rerun 500,000 times. This gave some surprising results.
First, swapping Houston for other last place teams led to only a slight increase of their playoff chances—and in two of the three swaps, their average wins actually went down. On the other hand, swapping Philadelphia led to significant increases in both their playoff chances and average wins.
Here's how the different swaps worked out.
When Houston was swapped into the AFC West for Oakland, the Texans average number of wins went down to 7.77, but on the strength of improved chances at a division title, their playoff chances rose modestly to 29.8 percent. When placed in the NFC South by being swapped for Atlanta, the results were a bit worse—an average of 7.55 wins and a 28.3 percent chance of making the playoffs.
The only scenario that saw the Texans rise in both average number of wins and playoff chances was a swap with St. Louis of the NFC West. When placed there, the Texans averaged 8.27 wins and made the playoffs 35.5 percent of the time.
The Eagles fared much better than the Texans when swapped into a weaker division. All three swaps led to an increase in their average number of wins and a dramatic increase in their playoff chances.
Swapping spots with Oakland pushed the Eagles' average win value to 9.10 and their playoff chances to 55.1 percent. Trading places with Atlanta yielded similar results—8.77 wins per season and a playoff appearance 51.7 percent of the time.
Finally, swapping places with St. Louis turned the Eagles into a real contender. Their average of 9.64 wins per season put them in the playoffs a full 60.5 percent of the time with more than half of their playoff appearances coming as a result of division championships.
Of course, it's impossible to predict what would have happened if the 2007 season was replayed once under any of these alternative alignments. The old rule about any given Sunday would still apply and despite improved chances, both the Eagles and the Texans might still find themselves out of playoffs.
But running these 'what ifs' allows us to fully appreciate how difficult it is to get a wild card spot in the NFL. Not only have the number of wild card spots gone down since realignment, but teams near the middle of the pack are more likely to have their chances sunk or buoyed merely by the quality of the division they are in.
Mark Myers is the founder and primary developer at ChanceBot.com, a sports simulation and analysis website. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org