NFL Playoffs: The stats that matter, and those that don’t

Mahomes at Super Bowl 2020
Will the Kansas City Chiefs win the Super Bowl again? Photo from Sports Illustrated.

As we march towards the NFL Playoffs in January, we begin to see the number-crunching that projects – or claims to – teams’ chances of success. Some statisticians, such as FiveThirtyEight, are very detailed, and they provide information that, at least, looks very impressive on paper.

But what do they look at? And which statistics do they deem important? What are the pitfalls when weighing up a team’s chances? Below we look at some of the more intriguing patterns leading up to the 2021 Playoffs and Super Bowl LV, asking whether they matter.

NFL Playoffs: No.1 seed

An interesting study by TheStatsZone looked at the Big 4 US sports between 2002 and 2017, and found that being the top seed in NFL matters more than other sports.

Across those years, the AFC/NFC top seed made the Super Bowl on 53% of occasions, a much higher figure than NBA (32%), MLB (29%) or NHL (19%). Post-2017, that pattern continued with teams like the Patriots and Eagles (top seeds in 2018), and the 49ers (No 1. Seed in 2020) all reaching the Super Bowl.

Does it matter? Most definitely.

Home-field advantage

The Chiefs were backed to secure home-field advantage in the AFC, and duly did so just after Christmas.

Of course, they are also the No. 1 Seeds in the AFC, and there is a lot of overlap between the two stats. However, we want to make a distinction between the two. An interesting report by the Washington Post this year called home field advantage “a lie” this season.

It pointed out that NFL bettors usually see having home field equating to a three-point advantage when two evenly matched teams meet, but that advantage has disappeared this season. The lack of home fans in the stadium for most games is the likely culprit.


Does it matter? Usually, but be wary in this outlier season.

Preseason favourites

Going back to the brilliant FiveThirtyEight, who ran an article a couple of years ago, titled: “The Preseason Favorite Is a Good Bet Not to win the Super Bowl”. The piece crunched numbers from 2001-2018, finding that the sportsbooks preseason market leader triumphed just twice.

Since then, the Patriots (winners of Super Bowl LIII) can be added to that list, making it three wins in 20 years for the bookies’ top selection. So, we can say that the sportsbooks get it right just 15% of the time. The Chiefs were the preseason favourites for Super Bowl LV, and they remain the favourites today.

Does it matter? This is always a difficult one to parse. Teams can start off as favourites, and then stink the place out during the regular season, with their odds dropping as a result. What tends to matter is consistency of placement at the top of the betting markets. The Chiefs, who have been our example, throughout this piece, have been at the top from Day 1, and stayed there. In a nutshell, their chances are much, much greater than the 15% statistic borne out over the last couple of decades.

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