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What the "Pythagorean Win Theorem" says about the Broncos' playoff chances

Andre Simone Avatar
November 23, 2018

The AFC playoff race has become very interesting, especially in Denver, where the 4-6 Broncos suddenly have an outside shot at the sixth seed after a big Week 11 win against Los Angeles Chargers.

After that ‘W’, the Broncos are only a game out of the playoffs with five 5-5 teams ahead of them. With an especially easy schedule—more on that in a second—in their final six games, it’s not inconceivable to think the Broncos could sneak in. 

Given the situation, we applied our estimated win (or EW) figures, with the help of the Pythagorean Win Theorem to project the AFC playoff race and see where Denver falls in it all.

The favorites to make it in

After Week 11, the AFC race sees the Kansas City Chiefs, Pittsburgh Steelers, and New England Patriots all with strongholds on their divisions, with the Houston Texans two-games ahead of the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South. EW actually has the Colts projected to win more games (10) than the Texans (9) in the one heated division race.

At 7-and-3, the Los Angeles Chargers seem to be shoe-ins for that first wild-card spot with the 5-and-5 Baltimore Ravens, who have a head to head win on the Broncos, now slotted into the sixth seed.

However, the Ravens have lost four of their last six and are trying out rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson, which makes them an even harder team to project going forward.

Despite all that uncertainty, the Ravens are tied with the Colts among the sixth-seed contenders with the highest projected wins of the group, 10.

The Broncos are projected to win eight, ahead of the Tennessee Titans who are projected to win seven, while the Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals are lagging behind both with six projected wins.

The Pythagorean win projections come down to point differentials, an area in which the Broncos have done well despite their negative record, as they have a -7 point differential that should be even better if the team hadn’t left points on the board; with mismanaged field goals against the Texans, a penalty nullifying an Emmanuel Sanders almost touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams, or a two-point conversion not being challenged against the Chargers, all costing the Broncos close to 12 points.

That’s where the Colts with a +49 and Ravens with a +56 point differential have a clear advantage over Denver, regardless of the Broncos’ missed opportunities.

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Strength of schedule

With all of that said, the Broncos’ projections look even better when we consider their strength of schedule thus far, as only the Bengals have faced a tougher schedule, per the Pythagorean Win Theorem, among the 11 playoff contenders in the AFC. The opponents the Bengals have already faced sport an average EW record of 9.16 wins, while the Broncos opponents are just below that at 8.50.

No other teams have faced a strength of schedule with an average win total above eight, which bodes well for the Broncos’ record which could be even better had they faced a strength of schedule of 6.61 like the Colts have thus far.

Even more encouraging, the Broncos have the second easiest strength of schedule per the Pythagorean projections going forward, among the six sixth-seed contenders, with an average EW of 7.20, second only to the Dolphins’ 6.65. By comparison, the Chargers face a tough road ahead with their opponents in their final six games sporting an average EW of 8.22.

With that in mind, the Broncos are far from being the favorites to come out on top among the wild card hopefuls in the AFC but will have a better chance than their actual record or Pythagorean eight wins would suggest.

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Other notes

Surprisingly, the Chicago Bears have tied the New Orleans Saints with 12 Pythagorean wins atop the NFL, ahead of both the Chiefs and Rams who are projected to win 11. LA is almost certain to exceed those projections, but it could mean they’re due for some regression in 2019, while KC is also unlikely to go 2-and-3 in their final five games, though you never know.

A note that might only interest the faction of Broncos fans who still wish the 2017 coaching search would’ve seen Kyle Shanahan become the head coach over Vance Joseph, the 49ers are actually performing at the level of a seven-win team despite their 2-and-8 record.

Also, the surging Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks, who the Broncos beat earlier in the year, are both projected to win nine games which is better than three other NFC teams who would currently be slotted to make the playoffs; the Minnesota Vikings, Carolina Panthers, and Washington Redsinks who are all projected to win eight games.

Below are the EW standings.

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