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Week 13

Last Week’s Question

In last week’s column, I posed two questions (and delivered my own opinion) about the relationship between skill and luck in fantasy football. To my mind, the way you answer the question of whether to play in a head-to-head league or whether to play in a cumulative points/breakdown league is a fair indication of how much of a role luck should play in fantasy football.

Some readers took offense at my remarks. As Dale wrote:

Just because you play in a head-to-head league doesn’t mean you value luck over skill. All my leagues are head-to-head, and I can definitely tell a difference between the [skill levels] of the players involved.

I received other responses in this vein that weren’t quite as civil as Dale’s. I’ll offer my apologies to readers whose sensibilities I offended, as I never meant to suggest that head-to-head leagues value luck to the exclusion of skill. I only meant that the nature of such leagues is to introduce an element of luck into the equation of fantasy football that doesn’t exist in leagues based on cumulative points.

I wasn’t trying to advocate some kind of hierarchical system that would place skill ahead of luck (or vice versa). I simply believed last week (and continue to believe) that even the most skilled players of fantasy football often like the fact that there is an element of luck in the game. The fact that a good team can lose to a terrible team (under the right circumstances) is part of what makes fantasy football almost as much fun as the NFL—at least for some of us. But I’ll acknowledge here that I can speak only for myself, particularly in light of this note from Brad:

You seem to suggest that there is some kind of connection between luck and fun. That sounds like something a little kid would say. Fun is winning. Winning is about skill. The fun is in winning because of your skill. Luck is irrelevant.

Luck is everywhere. Bad luck can make a team’s private jet blow up en route to a game. If that team is the Chargers and you had LaDainian Tomlinson, then you were unlucky to get the first pick in the draft.

But there’s nothing fun about good or bad luck; it’s just a fact of life. The point of a game like fantasy football should be to eliminate luck from the equation as much as possible.

I suspect there are a lot of people who embrace Brad’s thinking on this one. I happen to disagree, but I never meant to suggest that my way of looking at the skill/luck equation is the best or only way.

Although I’m perfectly comfortable with luck playing a role in determining which teams make the playoffs, I can easily understand the thinking of readers such as Lance, who wrote:

I definitely prefer to remove as much luck as reasonable from the equation. I like to see good teams rewarded rather than lucky ones. Head to head matchups are great for talking smack, viewing historical league records, and having something specific to look at each week to measure your team's performance. But in my opinion, head to head records have no place in deciding playoff seeds, much less a champion.

I've broken this down to get a closer look. I've generated multiple headto head schedules for the same teams and the same season. When comparing the resulting W-L records for each using each schedule, I've seen those records vary by up to 4 games. For example, a team went 10-3 with one schedule but 6-7 with another. We know the scheduling is random so this kind of swing makes the results partially random as well. There's enough luck involved with injuries and coaching decisions in the NFL games themselves. I'd rather not see it skewed further by luck in scheduling.

I can’t dispute anything Lance says, but a number of readers wrote in to suggest that they don’t think the head-to-head format makes “much of a difference” when it comes to which teams will end up making the cut for the fantasy playoffs. I’m particularly grateful to Mike for writing in to explain precisely how much of a difference the head-to-head format has made in his league this year:

I think we use the head-to-head method because of the little bit of luck involved. In reality though, teams basically finish real close to where they should finish when you do head-to-head vs. a "breakdown" type of schedule. Here's just the example for my league of teams "real record" vs. their "Breakdown record":

Real Breakdown
Team 1: 10-1 79-42
Team 2: 8-3 81-37-3
Team 3: 6-4-1 64-53-4
Team 4: 6-5 76-43-2
Team 5: 6-5 70-50-1
Team 6: 6-5 65-55-1
Team 7: 6-5 57-62-2
Team 8: 5-6 55-65-1
Team 9: 4-6-1 59-61-1
Team 10: 3-8 29-90-2
Team 11: 3-8 47-74
Team 12: 2-9 35-85-1

As you can see, most teams are right about where they should be percentage wise for real wins vs. breakdown wins. The few exceptions are Team 1 who has probably won a few too many games based on his breakdown and Team 4 who probably hasn't won as many as he should have. Otherwise every other team is about where it should be. Team 4 can kind of be explained too because he had Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson, and Ronnie Brown on his team which made him score a record number of points in a week on two separate occasions this year (170 and 179) while the previous record in the six-year history of our league was 163 points in a week. So obviously he has some really good weeks and then really bad weeks.

I really think that having a head-to-head record vs. using the breakdown doesn't matter that much as teams will generally finish about where they would no matter what you use. If you use a strict head-to-head method, there may be one or two teams that finish a little better or a little worse, but not that much.

I think Mike illustrates his point about the head-to-head format making “a little bit of a difference” beautifully. I can’t improve on it, so I’ll leave it at that.

This Week’s Question

Mike’s report on head-to-head vs. breakdown scoring ends with a question about playoff structure that is closely related to a question from another reader, so I’ll share both:

In our league with 12 teams, we actually break our teams down into 4 Divisions and 2 Conferences. For the playoffs, we take the winner of each division and then a wild card team from each conference. It works out really nice scheduling wise as we have each team play their division opponents twice and every other team once. Playoffs start in week 14 as one team in each conference gets a bye. Our Superbowl then takes place in week 16. I was wondering if most other leagues do Divisions or Conferences, or just take like the top 6 teams into the playoffs. The reason I ask is that the last 2 years, our conferences have been very "lopsided" with all the good teams on one side, and all the bad teams on the other side. To give you an idea from above, Teams 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, and 9 are in once conference and teams 4, 7, 8, 10, 11, and 12 are in the other conference. This means if playoffs were to start next week, two 6-5 teams would miss the playoffs on one side, while a 5-6 team makes the playoffs on the other side. Just curious how most other leagues break down as far as divisions/conferences go. It makes for great rivalries and scheduling, but also means some good teams can miss out on the playoffs.

A reader named Jeff contacted me this week with a similar question that he has concerning divisional structure and playoff seeding:

I am wondering how other leagues seed their playoffs. My 12 team league has 3 divisions of 4 teams each, with division champs taking the top 3 seeds, and the top 2 seeds getting a first round playoff bye. The only problem is that we play every team in the league once (plus 2 extra games versus random teams). This year, the top 3 teams are all in the same division, and I am sitting in the dubious position of 2nd place, which equals 4th seed in the playoffs. This rule has never come into effect before in this league until now, and seems like a rule without much basis, seeing as you play everyone in the league once, with no emphasis on divisional foes. How do other leagues handle this?

Obviously, Jeff’s league appears to imitate the NFL in terms of its playoff structure. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the Colts finish this season 12-4, the Jaguars finish 11-5, and the Titans finish 10-6. Then let’s say that the Broncos win the AFC West with a 9-7 record. As divisional champs, the Broncos will advance to the playoffs. The Jags would be likely to earn a wildcard spot, and the Titans could very easily end up out of the playoff picture despite finishing a game ahead of Denver.

Jeff points out that his league places no particular emphasis on divisional games (since the “2 extra games” played in his league are against “random teams”), so there may be something to his desire to steer clear of the NFL formula. I’ll hold my tongue on this one (and avoid alienating readers out of the gate), but I’ll welcome feedback on how playoff seeding works in your league (particularly with regard to divisional structure).

Last Man Standing (Courtesy of Matthew and Paul)

Matthew’s Picks

Trap Game: 49ers at Carolina

Carolina is favored at home versus a team that until last week had an 8-game losing streak. The 49ers outgunned the Cardinals and finally showed the offense that everyone expected. With that in mind, Vinny Testaverde and the Panthers offense is nowhere near what the Cardinals offense is and shouldn’t pose the same threat as last week.

#3: Philadelphia over Seattle (9-3)

Everyone is talking about how the Eagles almost pulled off the upset of the year against the Patriots last week. So how hard could it be to beat the Seahawks at home when they have key injuries to Shaun Alexander and DJ Hackett? If Donovan McNabb is under center, that may be harder than what most people think. AJ Feeley is better suited for Marty Morninwig’s version of the West Coast offense, and most people think that at the end of the season McNabb will be gone. McNabb is less mobile now than he has ever been in his career, and that does not bode well for an offense that still is giving up a ton of sacks. Jimmy Johnson should blitz Matt Hasselback a lot, but short controlled passes are what you need to beat the Eagles. Look for the game to be really close.

#2: Miami over NY Jets (7-5)

Stop the presses. The Dolphins are favored at home this week against their division rivals, the Jets. That said, how many offensive players can you name on the Dolphins? One? Two? Probably Ted Ginn, Jr and Jesse Chatman. No, Ricky Williams doesn’t count since he only played one game and is now on injured reserve. So why are they favored? Well, the Jet defense is ranked 30th overall in yards allowed and 28th overall for points allowed while the Dolphins are 16th and 27th respectively. Put that together with the home field advantage and that is how Miami gets the nod here. This is going to be an UGLY game, but if you need to gamble with your pick this week, this may not be a bad choice (remember those who picked Arizona over the 49ers last week).

#1: Minnesota over Detroit (10-2)

The Vikings and Lions both need this game—and whoever does win it will have the edge come playoff time. Adrian Petersen should be back in the lineup, but I wouldn’t expect Brad Childress to run him exclusively this week. Jon Kitna’s timing has been off over the last three weeks, and the Lions are going to need him to be perfect since the Viking run defense will prevent Kevin Jones from gaining ground through the running game. However, if the Minnesota secondary has anywhere near the day that it had against the Giants last week, this game could be over in the first quarter.

Paul’s Picks

Ouch, last week was not good. I’ve got a nice three-game losing streak on my first pick and the missed field goal by the Cardinals gave me my first loss on the third pick. Non-division home favorites continue to roll (8-1 last week and 63-18 overall).

#1. CAR over SFO (9-3, Used SEA, CHI, BAL, IND, DAL, SDC, WAS, NEP, TBB, nos, pit, nyg )
This is a match up of two bad teams, which usually spells disaster, but it’s getting late in the season, and the pickings are getting slim. The Niners upset the Cardinals last week against the rival Cardinals, but are 0-5 in non divisional games. The
Panthers still haven’t won a home game and are winless in their last 5 games. Here’s hoping that Vinny can play and the Panthers win one at home. Quite the ringing endorsement, huh?

#2. WAS over BUF (10-2 Used IND, DEN, NEP, sdc, TEN, sea, DAL, NYG, ATL, PIT, GBP, JAX)
The Bills are trying to shake things up and will go back to Trent Edwards under center. On the flip side, this will be an emotional game for the
Redskins after losing Sean Taylor in a shooting this past weekend. The Redskins are 3-0 at home against non-divisional teams while the Bill are 0-2 on the road outside the division. Look for Washington to defend their home turf and win one for their lost teammate.

#3. PHI over SEA (11-1 Used SDC, JAX, PIT, NEP, HOU, GBP, NYG, IND, WAS, SEA, DAL, ari)
The Eagles gave the Patriots a run for their money last week. Why haven’t they played like that more often? A.J. Feeley filled in quite well in McNabb’s absence. Whichever quarterback is playing, the Eagles should take care of the road-challenged Seahawks.

For responses to this week's fantasy question or to share your LMS picks, please email me no later than 10 a.m. EST on Wednesdays during the football season.

Readers who want to have their fantasy questions answered live, on the air, by Mike Davis are invited to tune into FFEXradio on Friday afternoons at 5:00 p.m. EST. Archived programs are also available.