The Three-Game Playoff Myth

There are three Week 17 rematches in the playoffs this week, and of those three, only Dallas and Philly share a division. The Cowboys and Eagles will play each other three times this year, and the Cowboys will be aiming to make it a clean 3-0 sweep. If you know football, you know that this potential occurrence will cause any number of prognosticators and experts to tell you that beating the same team three times in a single season is really hard. Just the other night, I heard Doug Gottlieb of ESPN echo that sentiment on the radio.

It’s an odd point to make. If you beat a team twice during the season, that probably means you’re, you know, BETTER than the team you’re playing for Round 3. But there’s this accepted notion that the team swept during the regular season is somehow crazy mad about that sweep, and will stop at nothing to prevent an 0-3 skunking.

The truth of the matter is that beating a team three times in a season isn’t that hard at all. In fact, it’s the most likely outcome in that situation. Last year, the AP did a quick study on teams that were facing an opponent for the third time in the playoffs after sweeping the regular season series. Here are the results. The team poised to sweep went 11-7. Twelve and seven if you count last year’s AFC title game between the Steelers and Ravens.

Now, there is one wrinkle to this. In their history, the Cowboys have had two opportunities to complete 3-0 sweeps in the postseason. They lost both times, including the 2007 outfit that blew its top seed to the New York Giants. Does that mean the Cowboys are an exception to the rule? I don’t think so. The Cowboys have played the Eagles twice this year. Both times, they were clearly the better team. The better team doesn’t always win, but I’d rather bet on them than on a bit of conventional wisdom that’s pure hokum.

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