When is a 10-win season no better than an 8-win season?

[You know you've hit the big time in the blogosphere when someone who's written for retrosheet.org and baseballpastandpresent.com asks to fill a page on your blog. The contributor is my brother-in-law, and occasional commenter here, "BB". And, I must say that I like that I now have four posts up so far in this young year; so what that one was borrowed and this one given...]


Earlier this week, a post on this blog noted that the 2010 Giants’ then 9-6 record reflected who they are – a good, but not great, team. In fact the Giants added another victory and finished with a 10-6 record, and like their fans, they will be experiencing this year’s playoffs from the couch. Blame the players, blame the coaches, blame anyone else you care to for the Giants not making the playoffs this year, but don’t blame the schedule makers. They did their part. A closer look at the schedule the Giants played this year will put their 10-6 finish in perspective.

First a note about NFL scheduling: Beginning with the 2002 season, the NFL has been structured into 8 divisions, each consisting of 4 teams. With that reorganization came the current scheduling formula. Each team plays a schedule consisting of 6 games against its 3 division-mates, 4 games against the teams in one of the other divisions within the same conference, 4 games against the teams in one of the divisions in the other conference, and 2 games against the remaining conference teams that finished the previous year ranked similarly in their divisions. By this formula, the 2010 Giants played Dallas, Philadelphia, and Washington twice each (NFC East); Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay, and Minnesota (NFC North); Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, and Tennessee (AFC South); and Carolina and Seattle (like the Giants, third place finishers in 2009).

This method of scheduling has several consequences. One is that teams in the same division play very similar schedules (12 opponents in common with each division foe). Another is that every team plays no less than 2 games and no more than 12 games against teams that will end up in the playoffs. This might seem like a wide range (and it is), but the extreme values can come about only under extreme circumstances. Most teams play 4 to 8 games against playoff-bound opponents, with 6 being the average.

So, let’s have a look at the Giants’ 2010 schedule. Big Blue’s opponents were an aggregate 24 games below .500 in 2010, at 116-140 (that’s counting records of division teams twice, since the Giants played them twice). You might prefer to subtract the Giants’ contribution to that aggregate record. With this adjustment in place, the opponents still have a record of 110-130. While there might have been teams that played weaker schedules (check San Diego’s, for example), the poor showing of the Giants’ opponents raises serious questions about just what the G-Men accomplished in finishing 10-6.

The Giants posted 7 wins against teams that rightfully can be called lousy: 6 against teams that finished 6-10 (Houston, Detroit, Dallas, Minnesota, and Washington twice) and one against the 2-14 Carolina Panthers. There’s nothing wrong with beating up on lousy opponents. That’s a necessary part of a successful season – necessary, but not sufficient. The Giants’ other wins came against 8-8 Jacksonville (ho-hum), 7-9 and playoff-bound Seattle (also ho-hum), and 11-5 Chicago (hey, one good victory in 16 games!). Ironically, I was very slow to come around to believing that the Bears were a legitimate team this year, so it’s only recently that the Giants have gained my respect for having earned that Week-4 win. In fact, a week later, I considered the effort against Houston to be a better win. No doubt I was too heavily swayed by the pre-season hype of the Texans as the latest team to challenge the Colts for the AFC South title, as well as the prognostications that the Bears would finish behind Green Bay and Minnesota (not necessarily in that order) in the NFC North. I was enthusiastic about the win against Houston at the time, but seeing that they went on to a 6-10 finish, my enthusiasm has faded. As for Giants’ losses, they came against a couple more lousy teams (6-10 Tennessee, 6-10 Dallas), as well as the more respectable Indianapolis, Green Bay, and Philadelphia twice (all went 10-6, all are in the playoffs). In all, the Giants played 6 games against playoff teams, posting a respectable 2-4 record. I say respectable, because let’s remember that playoff teams win about two-thirds of their games. Oh, but let’s also remember that one of those wins was against Seattle, who won considerably less than two-thirds of their games.

For contrast, let’s look at last season. The 2009 Giants finished a middle-of-the-road 8-8 in 2009, but they played a very difficult schedule. Their opponents (division foes plus NFC South, AFC West, Arizona, and Minnesota) were 137-119, or 18 games above the .500 mark. The Giants played 8 games against playoff-bound opponents, winning two (both against 11-5 Dallas). So, weigh this: in 2009, 8-8 against a +18 schedule with two good wins; in 2010, 10-6 against a -24 schedule with one good win. From this perspective, 8-8 looks better than 10-6, much better. Strange, especially since all season long we heard (seemingly from all directions and from all manner of experts) how the Giants were so much better this year than last.

I can’t resist one more comparison – to the 2007 season. Like 2010, the Giants were 10-6 in 2007, but unlike 2010, they played a difficult schedule. Their opponents were 8 games above .500 (12 games above if you factor out the wins and losses contributed by the Giants). Only one of the Giants’ wins in 2007 came against any of the 6 playoff-bound teams they played, and that was against the 9-7 Redskins, so really, you could say that there were no good wins that year. That is, no good wins until the playoffs, when Big Blue (wearing their road Whites) strung together four in a row.

That’s the problem comparing to the 2007 season. That was the year that provided exceptions to all the rules, including the one that says that a 10-6 team should be sitting on the couch on Super Bowl Sunday.

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