Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth

Mike Tyson

Two of our data scientists, Adrian Atkinson and Ben Bruning, put together this analysis of what your fantasy football record means for your chances of making the playoffs.

Fresh out of the draft room, your fantasy hopes are usually riding high. You’ve assembled a team with the star power, depth, and versatility to make a deep postseason run. All your bases are covered; you’ve got contingencies on top of your contingencies. But, as we know all too well, almost everyone will have some rough patches throughout a long fantasy campaign. It’s two weeks into the latest NFL season. With any luck, you’re the one doing the mouth-punching so far (to paraphrase warrior-poet Tyson). If you’re currently sitting at a cool 2-0, congratulations-your plan has been executed to perfection.

Based on 2013 Yahoo! data, the odds of your team extending that unbeaten start are as follows:

Chances of starting the fantasy season:

3-0: 1 in 7.6 | 4-0: 1 in 13 | 5-0: 1 in 23 | 6-0: 1 in 40 | 7-0: 1 in 71 | 8-0: 1 in 111 | 9-0: 1 in 203 | 10-0: 1 in 302 | 11-0: 1 in 441 | 12-0: 1 in 691

But, on the other hand, if your season’s off to a slow start, let’s crunch some numbers to determine how dire that 0-2 record really is. Table 1 shows the empirical playoff probabilities for the 2013 Yahoo! fantasy football season. That is, it illustrates the percentage of teams that ended up making the playoffs after starting the season with a given record through Week 1 or Week 2.

Ffootball Table1

Unlike the NFL (where 12 out of 32 teams, or 37.5%, make the playoffs every season), your fantasy playoffs odds can be heavily influenced by league-specific settings.The first two columns of Table 1 show the distribution of playoff settings across Yahoo! leagues.

%Playoffs is the percentage of teams which qualify for the main playoff bracket (excluding consolation brackets)-37.5% in the NFL’s case, or 50%, say, if you’re in a 12-team league with six playoffs slots (the most common scenario across all Yahoo! leagues). %Leagues is the percentage of leagues which have a given %Playoffs setting. As seen in the table, the range of options runs the gamut, with nearly 2% of leagues boasting 100% playoff participation and another 1% having no playoffs at all.

Most leagues, however, land in the range of 40-60% playoff participation (with 50%, used in 31% of all leagues, being the most popular setting). Assuming you’re in a 50% playoff league (e.g., six slots for 12 teams), a Week 1 victory will improve your playoff odds from 50% to 61.9%. Conversely, a Week 1 loss will decrease your likelihood from 50% to 38.1%. Borrowing the concept of “leverage” that FiveThirtyEight’s Benjamin Morris discusses here, the first week of the season has a 23.8% playoff-probability impact-the difference between a 1-0 and 0-1 start (61.9% – 38.1% = 23.8%).

Table 2 extends that analysis through Week 3 across all fantasy league settings.

Ffootball Table 2

As seen (and as expected), the leverage starts ramping up as it gets later and later in the season. For a 1-1 team in a league with a %Playoffs of 50%, leverage climbs to 27.6%. That is, there’s a 27.6% playoff-probability difference between starting the season 2-1 (63.8%) and 1-2 (36.2%).

Table 3 shows the matrix of playoff probabilities across all combinations of W-L record for a fantasy season, assuming a 50% playoff league.

Ffootball Table 3

As it gets deeper in the season, the games get more and more important for teams near 0.500 (though less and less important-at least in terms of playoff qualification- for teams that are either well-above or well-below average). For 0.500 teams, leverage increases as follows:

0-0: +23.8% | 1-1: +27.6% | 2-2: +27.6% | 3-3: +30.7% | 4-4: +35.5% | 5-5: +39.2% | 6-6: +58.1%

While this is admittedly a lot of data to ingest, the take-home messages can be summarized neatly as we enter Week 3:

If you’ve started 2-0: Feel great about your playoff chances.  Depending on your league settings, that quick start has increased your playoff probability anywhere from 15-to-25%.

If you’ve started 0-2: Don’t give up hope. In 50% playoff leagues, more than a quarter of 0-2 teams still recover to make the postseason. Although, be forewarned that that likelihood will drop to 15.5% if you lose again in Week 3.

If you’re sitting at 1-1: Week 3 could be the most important game you play this season-at least until you enter Week 7 at 3-3. Prepare accordingly!

While fantasy plans fall apart every single week (maybe an A.J. Green injury turned your potential 2-0 start into a 1-1 one), it is the managers who best handle adversity who ultimately make the most noise in the postseason. The right waiver-wire acquisition or start/sit decision can be the difference between starting 2-1 or 1-2. And, as the data overwhelmingly proves, that’s a very critical distinction.


Learn more about Wordsmith, the platform behind Yahoo! Fantasy Football automated recaps.