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NFL's intricate tiebreaking system like 'putting a puzzle together'

By now, serious Buffalo Bills fans can recite what their team must do Sunday to reach the playoffs.

The Bills, of course must win. They also need games on each coast and in the middle of the country to fall their way and break any ties.

"When you're in your last game and dependent on other people out of your control," Bills Wall of Famer Joe Ferguson said, "it's just a helpless feeling."

As helpless as it can be trying to navigate the NFL's intricate tiebreaking procedures.

Buffalo has failed to make the playoffs 17 years in a row and last needed a tiebreaker to get in 36 years ago, when Ferguson was the quarterback.

The Bills can satisfy their postseason yearning Sunday if they defeat the Miami Dolphins in Hard Rock Stadium and catch some tiebreaker help.

The Bills also would need either the Baltimore Ravens to lose to the Cincinnati Bengals, or the Los Angeles Chargers to lose to/tie the Oakland Raiders and the Tennessee Titans tie/lose to the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Bills also could get in if they tie the Dolphins while the Chargers and Titans lose.

All the games kick off at 4:25 p.m. All the teams that must win for Buffalo are on the road and have nothing to play for. The Bills are betting favorites, while the other three teams they're rooting for are underdogs.

"The biggest problem is it's not in your control," Ferguson said from his home in Fayetteville, Ark. "And if you're counting on teams that are fighting themselves losing to teams that are out of the mix, then you don't have a whole lot of hope.

"That will be a tough scenario with all four games going on at the same time. You just have to be mature enough and disciplined enough to concentrate."

Four teams can finish 9-7, and that would be bad for Buffalo.

You could take our word for it and stop reading here.

Or you can stay with us to learn how the NFL's intricate tiebreaking system was conceived 50 years ago, what the heck "strength of victory" means and what the difference is between "common opponents" and "common games."

The NFL's tiebreaking procedures can be difficult to comprehend because they deal with mathematical analysis and are written with legal specificity.

"You've got to cover all the bases just in case, so everybody knows exactly what a tiebreaker means," said Santo Labombarda, the man responsible for deciphering the NFL's playoff scenarios.

"The rules have to be worded so there aren't multiple interpretations."

Fans take for granted the playoff scenarios the NFL releases throughout December. Labombarda, 52, is a researcher for the Elias Sports Bureau who has been doing the job essentially by himself for two decades.

"What people don't realize is it's almost entirely done by hand, just paper and pencil," Labombarda said. "The common belief out there is it's done on a computer. A computer helps in certain aspects, like when you get down to a common-opponent tiebreaker; a program spits out those records.

"But it's really putting a puzzle together. It's a tedious process."

NFL tiebreakers are tedious to read, let alone execute.

Division tiebreakers have 12 steps.

Wild-card tiebreakers have 11 steps, 12 if three or more teams have the same record.

The flow chart involves head-to-head matchups, division games, conference games, strength of victory (win percentage of opponents defeated), strength of schedule (win percentage of all opponents) and various crunchings of points scored and points given up.

"The worst part is when you have to factor in ties," Labombarda said. "That's what makes it the most difficult. Even though there aren't a lot of ties in the NFL, there's a possibility of a tie. What happens if?

"There are some times I'm pulling my hair out if it gets really complicated."

That would be called a Labombartomy, something fans might request after trying to decode the tiebreak system.

Thankfully, an edge is found within the first four or five steps.

NFL research done before its 2002 realignment showed 92 percent of ties were broken within four steps. Joel Bussert, the league's former senior vice president of player personnel and football operations, ventures the number is even higher in the current format.

Still, the NFL has to be prepared for any mathematical eventuality.

"When there were three divisions you had more of a likelihood of a two- or three-team tie in each division," said Bussert, the man who wrote rules, ran competition committee meetings and made trades and waiver claims official for 40 years.

"With four divisions you now have only two wild-card berths. Teams more often emerge with clear-cut priority."

The NFL instituted tiebreakers in 1967, when it went from two divisions to four. Commissioner Pete Rozelle asked Pittsburgh Steelers personnel director Dan Rooney and Dallas Cowboys GM Tex Schramm to devise the system.

Their mission: "You want what happened on the field of play to decide who went to the playoffs," Bussert said.

Procedures only have been tweaked over the decades, usually when there has been expansion. But the concept has remained constant.

And complicated.

"Most players don't even pay attention to it, to be honest with you," Ferguson said. "If you got the same record as another team, you just trust they must have a scenario to make a call."

Ties that grind

The Bills made the postseason on a tiebreaker once.

In 1981, they and the Denver Broncos entered the final game 10-5. The Broncos lost their 1 o'clock kickoff against the Chicago Bears, 35-24, rendering the Bills' 4 o'clock game in the Orange Bowl moot.

"It's an emotional roller coaster because you can't sit there and watch the game," said Ferguson, recalling that day in present tense, "and if you did it probably wouldn't be good for your concentration.

"With the pregame meal four hours before the game, short meetings before the game and preparing to play, you don't have time to sit down and watch it. But you are checking the score."

Buffalo lost to Miami that afternoon, but advanced to the playoffs because it beat Denver head-to-head in Week 8. Nick Mike-Mayer kicked three field goals for what turned out to be a crucial 9-7 victory.

Four years later, the Broncos became one of only two 11-5 teams not good enough to qualify for the playoffs. At inside linebacker for those Broncos was current Bills offensive coordinator Rick Dennison.

But Dennison wasn't among those who played for both the '81 and '85 Broncos. He was a rookie in '82, and would play in 11 postseason games, including three Super Bowls.

Tiebreakers have been far crueler to others.

Former Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick led the New York Jets to a 10-6 record two years ago, but a loss in Orchard Park in the regular-season finale subjected them to a tiebreaker. The Steelers owned a better record -- by one victory -- against common opponents.

Tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. and safety Sean Jones were teammates on the 2007 Cleveland Browns and 2010 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who each went 10-6 and failed on tiebreakers. Winslow never played in the postseason. Jones got one game.

Ex-Bills offensive lineman Seth McKinney never made the playoffs despite starting for a pair of 10-6 teams, the 2003 Dolphins and 2007 Browns.

Tiebreakers are the lone reason why the New England Patriots have missed the postseason since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady joined forces in 2001.

No AFC East team has won more games since then, but New England missed the playoffs in 2002 because 9-7 New York posted a better record in common games and in 2008 because 11-5 Miami had a better conference record.

Dennison must've solemnly nodded his head when that happened.

From a tie to a noose

Perhaps the most ruthless way not to qualify for the playoffs came in 1967, the NFL's very first year of tiebreakers.

The Baltimore Colts went into the regular-season finale undefeated, but weren't good enough to qualify for the postseason. The Los Angeles Rams beat the Colts, and both finished 11-1-2 in the Western Conference's Coastal Division.

The first step in the original tiebreaking procedure was head-to-head point differential. The Rams and Colts tied in Week 5, leaving their rematch essentially a play-in. So the Colts stayed home and watched a team they'd beaten in November, the Green Bay Packers, win Super Bowl II.

One of the strangest finales with tiebreaker implications was in 1980. The Philadelphia Eagles and Cowboys had clinched playoff spots, but the NFC's Eastern Division still was on the line when they met in Texas Stadium.

Back then, the fourth and fifth tiebreakers in play were net points in division games (Philly ahead by 50 points) and net points in all games (Philly ahead by 35 points).

So the Cowboys needed to not only win, but also do it by 25 points (raising their margin 25 points, while lowering the Eagles' margin 25 points to make up the 50-point difference).

The problem for Dallas was Philadelphia hadn't give up more than 24 points all year.

A few minutes into the fourth quarter, Danny White had thrown four touchdown passes and run for another to put Dallas up, 35-10. Philly running back Wilbert Montgomery was limping, and top receiver Harold Carmichael had been knocked out of the game, ending his NFL-record receptions streak at 127 games.

"Incredibly, the Cowboys are on the verge of achieving it!" Bussert said. "They're now tied in net points in division games, and Dallas is winning on net points."

But Philadelphia closed with 17 unanswered points.

"Philadelphia made a late -- quote, unquote -- comeback," Bussert said. "They're celebrating, jumping up and down, hugging each other, and they were on their way to getting whipped."

The Eagles popped Dom Perignon in the visitors' locker room to celebrate their first division title in 20 years, "but their success," the Washington Post wrote, "raised serious questions about the playoff qualifying system because they backed into the title."

Today, that formula would be a combined ranking, described succinctly by the NFL here: "To determine the best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed, add a team's position in the two categories, and the lowest score wins. For example, if Team A is first in points scored and second in points allowed, its combined ranking is 3. If Team B is third in points scored and first in points allowed, its combined ranking is 4. Team A then wins the tiebreaker."

There will be a quiz later. If you don't have a pencil, Labombarda might lend you one of his.

Bills tiebreaker history

Aside from 1981, the only other time the Bills encountered an in-or-out "tiebreaker" was in 1963.

The Bills and Boston Patriots tied for the AFL's Eastern Division title at 7-6-1. Back then, a one-game playoff determined who would advance to the title game. The Patriots won, 26-8.

On a couple occasions, tiebreakers have decided Buffalo's tournament seed and whether it would play home or away.

In 1992, four AFC clubs finished 11-5. The Steelers earned the top seed because of conference record. The Dolphins won the division also because of a better conference record. That made the Bills a wild-card entry, but they hosted the 10-6 Houston Oilers for their first-round game, aka The Comeback.

In 1998, the Bills and Dolphins finished 10-6, two games behind the New York Jets. The Dolphins were awarded second place on "better net division points," forcing the Bills to travel to Miami Gardens for a 24-17 defeat.

No flippin' way

Tiebreakers are most excruciating when it comes to the playoff cut, but they're used for more mundane purposes, too.

Teams that don't make the playoffs are nonetheless subjected to tiebreakers for the upcoming draft order and next season's schedule. A regular-season schedule is comprised of six division games, four games against a common division within the conference, four games against a common cross-conference division and two games against conference opponents that finished in the corresponding place in the division standings.

Rules to sift the standings aren't the same as for the draft order. Standings first are weighted toward a division competition of four teams, then a conference competition of 16.

The draft is a 32-team pool, which is why we occasionally see a coin toss settle the order between two clubs.

A flip was necessary to sort out a three-way tie among the Atlanta Falcons, Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs for the third overall pick in 2008. The Falcons won and selected eventual MVP quarterback Matt Ryan. The Raiders took running back Darren McFadden, the Chiefs defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey.

That's a monumental pivot.

Now imagine a franchise's postseason fate -- a chance to reach the Super Bowl -- hinging on a silver coin.

The final step listed in all the NFL playoff tiebreakers is a coin flip.

Just in case the first 10 or 11 stages are deadlocked.

"We feel pretty comfortable we aren't going to get to a coin flip," Bussert said with a laugh. "Strength of victory, strength of schedule, combined ranking in points for and points allowed, net points in common games, net points in all games ...

"These things make it likely somewhere along the line you're going to break the tie with what happened on the field of play. It's unlikely you'll be tied in all 11 categories."

While Bussert diplomatically answered the dubious hypothetical, Labombarda sounded aghast at the prospect of a coin flip ever being a factor.

"To be tied in all that?" Labombarda said. "I can't even tell you. It's got to be a zillion-to-one chance."

He paused for a moment to catch his breath.

"Imagine," Labombarda said, "having your playoff fate determined by a flip of a coin."

If that ever were to happen, the least the NFL could do is reward Labombarda for all of his anonymous toiling by letting him be the one who flips the coin.

"I don't think I want that kind of pressure, though," Labombarda said. "People would be mad I didn't flip the coin the right way or something."

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