By John Acton
Because the NFL has a small sample size and football games are too physically draining to schedule extra tiebreakers, hard-core NFL fans are well-accustomed to accounting for tiebreaking procedures before and during Week 17 games. Normally these tiebreakers are fairly straightforward factors such as head-to-head record or record in common games. But occasionally two teams will go through so many tiebreakers that it’s unclear what exactly a given team needs to be rooting for in football’s final week. This year is particularly difficult for Colts fans. They have to root for many low-probability events in order to have a chance of making the playoffs, and should enough of those events happen they might end up needing to root for very complicated scenarios that are difficult to even comprehend, much less keep track of.
The gist of what the Colts need is covered by Jeremy Mills of ESPN. Should the Colts win Sunday and the Texans lose, both teams will be 8-8 and will stay tied on the first four NFL tiebreakers. This triggers the fifth tiebreaker, strength of victory. The Colts cannot beat the Texans on the strength of victory tiebreaker, but they could force a tie. This requires the Broncos winning twice, the Falcons beating the Saints, the Bills beating the Jets, the Ravens beating the Bengals, and the Dolphins beating the Patriots.
If the above eight games go the Colts’ way, then the Colts trigger the sixth tiebreaker: strength of schedule. They can win this tiebreaker if the Browns beat the Steelers and the Raiders beat the Chiefs. But this isn’t the only way the Colts could make the playoffs. If one of the Browns and Raiders wins and the other ties, the Colts are automatically in. And if one of the Browns or Raiders won while the other lost (or if both teams tied) then it would trigger the seventh tiebreaker: Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed.
This tiebreaker is where things start to get really complicated. According to NFL.com, the tiebreaker works by simply adding the two team’s conference ranking in total points scored and total points allowed and saying whoever has the lower total number wins the tiebreaker. Unfortunately for Colts fans, the Texans are currently winning in both categories, with the relevant portions of the rankings posted below:
These differentials are daunting for Colts fans, but not as daunting as they might initially seem. The difference between the Colts and Texans in points allowed is 77 points. This gap is more or less insurmountable. But somewhat plausibly, the Colts could chip away at the Texans lead in points allowed by shutting down the Jaguars offense while the Dolphins, Ravens, Raiders, and Chargers allow their opponents to score. This could leave the Texans with a 2-spot lead over the Colts in points allowed, meaning the Colts would have to have a 2+ spot lead over the Texans in points scored.
The Colts are currently 2 spots behind the Texans in points scored, and they’ll only be one spot behind the Texans if the Broncos score any points tonight. This gives them two distinct ways to create the 2+ spot lead over the Texans. The first is to score sizeably more points than the Ravens and Broncos/Raiders. But in order for this scenario to be relevent, the Ravens, Broncos, and Raiders all have to win their games, so that scenario has limited potential. The second, easier scenario is for the Colts to pass the Texans while the Chargers, Dolphins, and maybe even Titans also pass the Texans, but without passing the Colts. Between these two scenarios, the Colts could lead the Texans by 3 or 4 spots in points scored, enough to overcome a two spot deficit in points allowed.
It’s also possible that the Colts and Texans could have the same combined ranking in conference points scored and points allowed. This, combined with all of the other results above, would trigger the eighth NFL tiebreaker: combined ranking in league-wide points scored and points allowed. On the one-hand, the whole leaue gives the Colts more teams who have scored more points than the Texans who the Colts could pass by scoring points, such as the Bears and Falcons. On the other hand, looking at the whole league gives the Texans a much bigger buffer on points allowed, with 8 NFC teams having allowed fewer points than the Colts and more points than the Texans. This extra buffer means that the eighth tiebreaker would favor the Texans, although it’s conceivable that incredible defensive performances by the Rams, Falcons, and Cowboys combined with mediocre defensive performances by the Lions, Buccaneers, Bears, and 49ers would allow the gap between the Texans and Colts to close enough for the Colts to either win the eighth tiebreaker or force the ninth tiebreaker.
Should the ninth tiebreaker be forced, that tiebreaker is best net points in common games between the teams. The Colts have scored a net -45 points in common games with the Texans the Texans have scored a net +5 points in common games. In order for the Colts to overcome this tiebreaker, they would have to outscore the Texans by a net 50 points. While that is a large number, it would be satisfied by something as simple as the Colts winning 27-0 and the Texans losing 24-0. It’s actually somewhat difficult to imagine a scenario where the ninth tiebreaker is even reached without the Colts beating the Texans by more than 50 net points on Sunday.
But, given that we’ve come this far, we should establish what would happen if the Colts beat the Texans on Sunday by exactly 50 net points. This would trigger the tenth tiebreaker, which is net points in all games. The Colts currently trail the Texans by a net 83 points in all games. Thus, if the Colts beat the Texans by exactly 50 points on Sunday, they would still trail the Texans by 33 net points overall. So if the tenth tiebreaker is triggered, the Texans are guaranteed a playoff spot.
The fact that the eleventh tiebreaker literally cannot be triggered likely only frustrates Colts fans and fans of complete chaos, as the NFL only has one more tiebreaker (net touchdowns) before having to resort to a coin toss. And while it’s more likely that a coin toss would end in Twilight Zone style drama than that one will ever actually be necessary to determine a playoff spot, it would also lead to quite possibly the most indignant fans in the history of sports, something we can all be happily spared of in 2015.