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 Sports pundits: how hard is it to sweep?
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Cuneiformist
The Imperfectionist

USA
4954 Posts

Posted - 01/14/2009 :  17:14:43  Show Profile Send Cuneiformist a Private Message  Reply with Quote
For those that follow American football and the NFL, you know that the regular season has ended, and the post-season play-offs have begun.

After two weeks and some exciting games, we're down to the final four teams. One particularly interesting match-up is Sunday's late game, a 6:30 contest that features Pittsburgh hosting division rival Baltimore.

The fact that they're division rivals-- both play in the AFC North-- is noteworthy because it means that they've already played twice this season. (Teams within a division play each other twice, once at home and once away.) Pittsburgh won both of those earlier games-- on Sept 29 they won 23-20 at home in overtime, and a month ago on Dec 14, they won in Baltimore 13-9.

As this weekend's big game (the winner goes to the Super Bowl) draws closer, one thing is often repeated among the talking heads of the sports world: It's hard to beat a team three times in a season.

I've heard it on ESPN radio all week. Former NFL coach Brian Billick said as much on Mike and Mike yesterday. Michele Tafoya, subbing for Scott van Pelt on his eponymous program said the same thing this afternoon-- even noting that statistics backed the notion.

In today's USA Today, sports writer Gary Mihoces begins his story with the observation that "there is a familiar NFL notion that it is especially tough to beat a team for the third time in the same season."

But is this true?

It took me about an hour to go through the past seasons since 1970, when the NFL and AFL merged, over at PFR. What I found was that since 1970 (and not counting the odd strike-shortened 1982 season, which I couldn't be bothered to work through), teams played for a third time a total of 49 times. Most of those times-- 32, to be exact-- they had split during the regular season.

This isn't entirely surprising. After all, only the best teams qualify for the play offs. If two teams are meeting in the play offs, it means that they're both likely pretty good. And so it seems normal to expect that if two pretty good teams play in a home-and-away series, the outcome will be split.

In 17 of the 49 third-time meetings, though, that wasn't the case. In those instances, one team has swept the other in both regular season games. According to sports punditry, we should expect that in the third meeting in these 17 games, the 'loser'-- the team that lost both regular season match-ups-- would be the winner. After all, it is especially tough to beat a team for the third time in the same season.

Unfortunately, this isn't true. Of the 17 times we've seen this, the 2-0 team went on to win ten of those times. The 0-2 team won only seven times. Of course, the latter event happened last year, when my beloved Cowboys lost to eventual champs New York after sweeping them in the regular season. The last sweep happened in 2004, when St. Louis (remember when they were good?) beat Seattle twice in the regular season, and then got the hat trick in the play offs. (Note: in that same year, Minnesota beat Green Bay in the play offs even though they were swept by the Packers during the regular season!)

Of course, the sample size here is really small, and 10 out of 17 (ca. 58.8%) isn't exactly eye-opening. But it does clearly refute the notion that winning that third game is unusually hard.

HalfMooner
Dingaling

Philippines
15831 Posts

Posted - 01/14/2009 :  18:19:40   [Permalink]  Show Profile Send HalfMooner a Private Message  Reply with Quote
Nice analysis, Cune! You've taken a popular sports example and have shown how unreliable the repeated pronouncements of the so-called gurus of the field can be.

(I'd have been inclined to accept the sports commentators' statements, which just goes to show how pervasive a habit "appeal to authority" can be, especially in lazy laymen.)

Simple research could have shown any one of them that the adage is nonsense, but none of them bothered.

A fine case of using critical thinking to overthrow conventional "wisdom."


Biology is just physics that has begun to smell bad.” —HalfMooner
Here's a link to Moonscape News, and one to its Archive.
Edited by - HalfMooner on 01/14/2009 18:20:21
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The Rat
SFN Regular

Canada
1342 Posts

Posted - 02/04/2009 :  14:28:00   [Permalink]  Show Profile  Visit The Rat's Homepage Send The Rat a Private Message  Reply with Quote
Well, I've done with the older floppy brooms, and... Oh, sorry, I thought this post was about curling.

Bailey's second law; There is no relationship between the three virtues of intelligence, education, and wisdom.

You fiend! Never have I encountered such corrupt and foul-minded perversity! Have you ever considered a career in the Church? - The Bishop of Bath and Wells, Blackadder II

Baculum's page: http://www.bebo.com/Profile.jsp?MemberId=3947338590
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filthy
SFN Die Hard

USA
14408 Posts

Posted - 02/04/2009 :  16:50:22   [Permalink]  Show Profile Send filthy a Private Message  Reply with Quote
Originally posted by The Rat

Well, I've done with the older floppy brooms, and... Oh, sorry, I thought this post was about curling.
I rather like to watch curling -- comes from all those years of living in northern VT, I suppose. On the rare occasions I watch football, like last wekend, I do it with the sound muted and some music on. With curling, muting the sound is not necessary. John Madden doesn't do curling....




"What luck for rulers that men do not think." -- Adolf Hitler (1889 - 1945)

"If only we could impeach on the basis of criminal stupidity, 90% of the Rethuglicans and half of the Democrats would be thrown out of office." ~~ P.Z. Myres


"The default position of human nature is to punch the other guy in the face and take his stuff." ~~ Dude

Brother Boot Knife of Warm Humanitarianism,

and Crypto-Communist!

Edited by - filthy on 02/04/2009 16:51:28
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The Rat
SFN Regular

Canada
1342 Posts

Posted - 02/08/2009 :  11:38:15   [Permalink]  Show Profile  Visit The Rat's Homepage Send The Rat a Private Message  Reply with Quote
It can be a fun sport, but to up the excitement level they really should go to an overhand throw.

Bailey's second law; There is no relationship between the three virtues of intelligence, education, and wisdom.

You fiend! Never have I encountered such corrupt and foul-minded perversity! Have you ever considered a career in the Church? - The Bishop of Bath and Wells, Blackadder II

Baculum's page: http://www.bebo.com/Profile.jsp?MemberId=3947338590
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astropin
SFN Regular

USA
970 Posts

Posted - 02/08/2009 :  15:03:47   [Permalink]  Show Profile Send astropin a Private Message  Reply with Quote
Cune...looks like the stats played out pretty much how I thought they would.

To play three times both teams must be decent. So a split during the regular season should happen fairly often....my bet being the home team is the winning team most often when a split occurs.

Occasionally one team wins both regular season games.....this tells me that while both teams are good one is probably measurably better....or simply has some sort of favorable match up against that particular team....either way I would expect the 2-0 team to have an edge in the third match up.

I would rather face a cold reality than delude myself with comforting fantasies.

You are free to believe what you want to believe and I am free to ridicule you for it.

Atheism:
The result of an unbiased and rational search for the truth.

Infinitus est numerus stultorum
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Cuneiformist
The Imperfectionist

USA
4954 Posts

Posted - 02/08/2009 :  19:49:21   [Permalink]  Show Profile Send Cuneiformist a Private Message  Reply with Quote
Originally posted by astropin

Cune...looks like the stats played out pretty much how I thought they would.

To play three times both teams must be decent. So a split during the regular season should happen fairly often....my bet being the home team is the winning team most often when a split occurs.

Occasionally one team wins both regular season games.....this tells me that while both teams are good one is probably measurably better....or simply has some sort of favorable match up against that particular team....either way I would expect the 2-0 team to have an edge in the third match up.
I hadn't thought about that-- and when I compiled my list, I didn't look-- but I bet you're right that most of the time, the team that went 2-0 was also hosting the third game, which makes sense and suggests that they're more likely to win that last game. When I have more time, I'd like to confirm that, but thanks for bringing it up!
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