Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

08 Sep 2008

Do Division Games Feature More Upsets?

The first ESPN MNF feature of the season finds that, no, division games don't feature more upsets than other games, even if it sometimes seems that way when Oakland plays Denver or Green Bay plays Minnesota. Also, some small sample size fun with a look at which rivalry most often goes to the better team, and which big NFC East rivalry is actually won the majority of the time by the team with fewer wins overall.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 08 Sep 2008

16 comments, Last at 11 Sep 2008, 7:27pm by El Nino Meon


by RobinFiveWords (not verified) :: Mon, 09/08/2008 - 6:11pm

A couple reasons why people perceive this to be true, even if Aaron's numbers say otherwise:

1. Division opponents play twice a year, so there is something like a 45% chance that the team with a worse record will win at least one of the two games, as opposed to the 28% chance of winning a one-off game with a non-division opponent. So the upset is more likely to have occurred over the course of the year, even if it's less likely to occur in a single game. Of course, there are 3 division opponents and 10 non-division opponents, so that doesn't cover it entirely...

2. Division games are the only ones that don't require any thinking to remember. I know that over any 4-year span, the Bears will face each team in the league at least once. I have no idea, off the top of my head, which non-division opponents the Bears faced in 1999. But I know for sure that they played Detroit, Green Bay, and Minnesota twice each. Something really special would have to happen in a non-division game for me to remember it for years to come, but memories of individual games against a division opponent get blended in with all the rest for easy recall.

by Temo (not verified) :: Mon, 09/08/2008 - 8:47pm

Without opening the article, I'm going to say Skins-'boys is the NFC east matchup.

by Temo (not verified) :: Mon, 09/08/2008 - 8:51pm

Woot, I was right. Although to be fair, most Skins and 'Boys fans would know this to be true. Even going back to Jimmie Johnson's first year when the cowboys went 1-15 and the Skins won the Super Bowl, guess who the cowboys got their 1 win against?

by Yaguar (not verified) :: Mon, 09/08/2008 - 11:33pm

I guessed the Skins Boys thing too. I live in the Washington area, and I swear that it seems to happen every year.

by Bobman (not verified) :: Tue, 09/09/2008 - 3:03am

But if you go back 15-20 years or so and think AFC East, do you come up with Colts/Jets? I recall living in NYC and if the Colts won just 1 or 2 or 3 games a year, my year was tolerable because some of those were against the Jets. I call it the SB III effect.

by ammek (not verified) :: Tue, 09/09/2008 - 4:39am

I know this piece is a little fun (small sample size, etc), and it is a good read, but there are a couple issues to address to take it further. One: home-field advantage. Home teams win roughly six games out of ten. So to get a more illustrative idea of what is an "upset", you should probably adjust for the venue. If 3-7 Oakland had beaten 7-3 Denver at home, it would have been a minor upset. Over the course of a season, home advantage represents roughly 3 games; so a 7-9 team at home should actually be favored against a 9-7 visitor.

The second question is, of course, the retroactive nature of your comparison. At the end of the 2007, Detroit's Week 10 loss in Arizona looked perfectly natural: a 7-9 team losing to an 8-8 on the road. In context, however, it was one of the upsets of the season: Detroit was 6-2, coming off a victory at NFC champion Chicago and a whupping of Denver, while the Cards were a feeble 3-5.

It would be nice to see a history of the biggest DVOA upsets, adjusted for home/road and 'context'.

by Kevo (not verified) :: Tue, 09/09/2008 - 4:41am

Interesting to see that the Eagles and Giants have faced each other more times than any other pairing, yet both fanbases tend to hate on the Cowboys more than anyone else.

As a lifelong Philadelphian and therefore an Eagles fan, my feeling is that there's more of a mutual respect between Birds and Gints fans, because as we all know, Cowboy fans are front-running nancies who are pompous and dispassionate.

by big_adventure (not verified) :: Tue, 09/09/2008 - 8:45am

Whereas I was convinced that Dolphins-Jets would show up, and it equally did. Being a 'fins fan, even crappy Jets teams have always concerned me, plus every Jets fan I know says they are happy for 2-14, as long as the 2 are against Miami. Then there was the Monday Night Massacre - UM boy Vinny (Et tu, Vinny?) leading the best MNF comeback against the worst MNF collapse, including at least 2 patented crunch-time Jay Fiedler FUs. I was in Tahoe, and, adding significant injury to the insult was a sizable betting slip getting ripped up in disgust and EATEN as the final whistle sounded.


by Irish Boy (not verified) :: Tue, 09/09/2008 - 11:28am

Favorites (defined as teams that were favored by Vegas) since 1997 have gone 393-198-1 (66%) in their first divisional matchup against a team (there was one tie and a few push games, so the numbers aren't exactly even), 392-208-0 (65%) in their second matchups and 1020-513 in non-divisional games (66.5%), so it's pretyt much roughly even.

by liquidanthropoid (not verified) :: Tue, 09/09/2008 - 11:36am

Don't confuse delaware valley Cowboys fans with the real deal.

by Hummingbird Cyborg (not verified) :: Tue, 09/09/2008 - 1:44pm

7: I hear you about the Giants vs. Eagles respecting each other.

I'm a Broncos fan and I HATE the Raiders and I like to kick the Chief's ass, but I love to beat the Chiefs and I want them to be a good team for division bragging rights. I want the Raiders to finish in the cellar every year though.

I don't like the Chargers because they are good now, but they don't have a glorious history at all, so I don't have the same hatred for them as the Chiefs or Raiders.

After the Raiders, I hate the Cowboys more than even the Chiefs or the Chargers.

Part of this is because my family is from northern New Mexico. And New Mexico is a place whether either you're a diehard Broncos fan who hates the Cowboys or you're a Cowboy's fan who hates the Broncos.

But I hate every team in the AFC East but the Eagles. I hate that the team in the nation's capital is allowed to have a racist name. And I just kind of don't like the Giants, so I end up rooting for the Eagles to win that division.

Of course, it doesn't help that the Broncos have some Superbowl history with the AFC East.

by Yaguar (not verified) :: Tue, 09/09/2008 - 1:46pm

5: Bobman, you are a much older man than I.

by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Wed, 09/10/2008 - 11:41am

This seems like a really strange idea. It seems to me like the study is being done backwards.

This one particularly sticks out to me:

Colts-Patriots 90 % 22

I would think that atleast a sizeable percentage of the time, the reason one team is the better team, is because they beat the other one.

IE, its not "The team with the better record wins" but "the team who wins this game ends up with the better record".

Seems like a huge selection bias/criteria issue to me.

by FireMillen (not verified) :: Wed, 09/10/2008 - 5:31pm

I think a big part of this is the fear of losing to division teams. It's embarrassing to lose to your rivals, it costs you more since you're competing with them for the division, and as the roiginal replier said since you play the team twice there's more likely to be an upset over the course of 2 gmaes than one.

by Lance (not verified) :: Wed, 09/10/2008 - 7:42pm

Since my earliest football memory was the game featuring "The Catch", the team I've hated the most as a Cowboys fan has always been the 49ers, curiously enough. After growing up in OK and going to college in Philadelphia, though, I learned a new sort of hatred for the rest of the NFC East (sans Phoenix/Arizona, who thankfully moved). So all is right with the world. (Though the world did stand still recently when I was cheering my heart out for the Giants in a certain game. I hope I never have to do that again...)

by El Nino Meon (not verified) :: Thu, 09/11/2008 - 7:27pm

I've noticed in many sports that rivalry games seem to be closer than they should be, and with more frequent upsets. I would imagine that the better team/player still wins more often than not but perhaps not as often as would be normal. Psychologically I guess this could be a case of both parties playing their "rivals" instead of the actual team in front of them. That the team with the better record still wins more often in division games tells us little. Are the games closer in general?

It would be interesting however to look a bit deeper into something like this. Perhaps seeing if divisional rivalries produce underdogs beating the spread a disproportionate amount of time - if it exists, not a bad correlation to be aware of. That the better team usually wins doesnt mean the games aren't closer.