There are just two weeks remaining in the NFL regular season — and, as expected, we’re getting much more clarity about which teams are most likely to make a run to the Super Bowl.Twelve teams will make the NFL playoffs. Four of them — New England, Denver, Indianapolis and Arizona — have clinched a position. Another seven — Seattle, Detroit, Green Bay, Dallas, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati — have at least an 80 percent chance of reaching the postseason. It’s more likely than not that one of these teams will be knocked out, but the playoffs aren’t as wide-open as they appeared a few weeks ago. The 12th spot will go to the winner of the NFC South.The real drama, however, will ensue once the playoffs begin. More than at earlier points in the season, there’s a clear top level of teams. It consists of the Patriots, Seahawks and Broncos.You could debate the order of these teams. FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings have the Patriots first, the Seahawks second and the Broncos third. Football Outsiders’ DVOA also has New England first, but the Broncos ahead of the Seahawks. Jeff Sagarin, of USAToday, has the teams in the same order as DVOA. Vegas point spreads imply that Seattle is the best team, followed by New England and Denver.But there’s reasonably clear separation between the top three and everyone else in the league. According to Elo, in fact, the gap between No. 3 Denver and No. 4 Arizona is wider than the gap between Arizona and No. 12 Philadelphia. Collectively, the Patriots, Seahawks and Broncos have a 62 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl.None of these teams is exactly a surprise. In fact, each one ranked in the top four in our preseason Elo ratings, which were based on the teams’ Elo ratings at the end of last year.More generally, this has been a year where the richer teams got richer and the poorer ones got poorer. If you take the preseason ratings and divide the teams into halves, 11 of the 16 teams in the top half of the ratings have seen their Elo ratings improve since the start of the year. But 10 of the 16 teams in the bottom half have seen their ratings decline.The Elo ratings generally haven’t behaved like this in past seasons. The way the system is designed, a team is about equally likely to see its rating improve or decline, whatever rating it starts with.It’s probably premature to decipher any long-term trends from this season’s results. But perhaps there are some factors nudging the NFL away from the parity we’ve grown used to in recent seasons. Rules changes have allowed great quarterbacks to be more dominant. Access to information, technology and analytics may be enabling teams with great coaching, scouting and management to maintain more of an edge even as player personnel turns over.As for the rest of the teams in the playoff hunt, we’ve reached the point where playoff outcomes are more deterministic and less probabilistic, with several opportunities for teams to clinch or eliminate themselves from playoff position with wins or losses this week. Mike Beouy and Reuben Fischer-Baum’s column on playoff implications has all the detail you’ll want on these, but here’s how Elo has the numbers:There are some subtle differences between the playoff odds that Elo assigns and the ones that Beouy and Fischer-Baum do. This is partly because they use different measures of team strength and partly because the Beouy/Fischer-Baum system has a more complete handling of the NFL’s complex tiebreaker rules. But the overall message is largely the same; each system has the 11 teams I mentioned before with an 80 percent chance or greater of making the postseason.However, it matters significantly how the teams are seeded. This is most acute in the case of the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals are currently one game ahead of the Seahawks in the NFC West, but Arizona lost to Seattle earlier this season, so Seattle would move ahead on the tiebreaker if they beat Arizona this weekend at University of Phoenix Stadium. Elo has Seattle as only narrow favorites in that game, but Vegas odds have the Seahawks favored by 8 points.If Arizona wins, it will clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Arizona holds the tiebreaker advantage over the rest of the conference, partly by virtue of having beaten Dallas and Detroit earlier this season. Uniquely, this advantage would also extend to the Super Bowl, which is being held in Glendale, Arizona, this year. The Cardinals would become the first team ever to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium (although the San Francisco 49ers came close when Super Bowl XIX was held in Stanford, California.)So even though they’ve clinched a playoff spot, this weekend’s game couldn’t be more important for Arizona. The Elo simulations give them a 37 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl if they win the NFC West, but just a 7 percent chance if they enter as a wild card team instead.Elo point spreadsRecord against point spread: 113-93-3 on season (8-7 in Week 15)Straight-up record: 156-67-1 on season (12-4 in Week 15)The dominance of teams like New England, Seattle and Denver has made it easier for Elo to “call” winners correctly this year; the team favored by the system has won about 70 percent of the time this season.Elo also has about a 55 percent winning percentage against closing Vegas point spreads. But as we’ve said every week, we still don’t think you should place bets using Elo, at least not without considering a lot of other information. Although we didn’t publish Elo ratings before this season, historically they would have picked only about 51 percent of games against the point spread.A 55 percent winning percentage sounds impressive, but there’s still a lot of noise in the sample of 206 games. (This total excludes games that ended in pushes and cases where the Elo and Vegas lines exactly matched one another.) If a system’s long-run winning percentage was 51 percent, there’s still a 12 percent chance it would finish with a 55 percent winning percentage or better in a sample of that size, according to a binomial distribution.Elo has mostly been right about the Cardinals, however — and it’s the Arizona-Seattle game that will tell us the most this weekend about who’s going to the Super Bowl.
This hands-on workshop will give you the tools to authentically connect with an increasingly skeptical online audience. Enroll Now for Free Brought to you by PCWorld 5 min read Free Workshop | August 28: Get Better Engagement and Build Trust With Customers Now Is the Apple iPhone 3G “twice as fast at half the price,” as Apple’s marketing boasts? Or is it a slow, faulty, overhyped device that drops calls and doesn’t reliably or consistently connect to AT&T’s network, as a consumer’s lawsuit claims?The truth lies somewhere between the two extremes, in my experience. I bought an iPhone 3G on July 18, one week after the smart phone became available in stores. ‘This week and next I’ll give you a recap of my experience using the device thus far. First up, a look at the e-mail challenges I’ve faced (and resolved). Next week, I’ll focus on the iPhone 3G’s battery life and other issues.Two Geniuses, One Phone CallThe first problem I encountered with my new iPhone 3G was trying to send and receive e-mail. The iPhone’s Mail program would work correctly for a day or two. Then, inexplicably, the spiral that appears at the bottom of the Mail program’s screen, next to “Checking for mail,” would spin endlessly.I decided to seek help at the Genius Bar in San Francisco’s Union Square Apple store. Apple’s Genius Bar is a free, by-appointment tech support service, located in its stores.I arrived early but had to wait about 10 minutes past my scheduled appointment time. I explained my problem to the Genius. He tinkered with my iPhone’s e-mail account settings, but the problem–which was now constant–remained. After about 10 minutes, he shrugged and suggested I call AT&T and check my iPhone 3G’s Mail settings for my e-mail with them.Before I proceed, a note of clarification is in order here. My primary ISP is AT&T, the landline phone company, not the AT&T wireless division that provides data and cell phone service to iPhones. I get my home-office DSL service and e-mail account from the AT&T landline/Internet division. I was trying to use my iPhone 3G to check e-mail sent to that account.I called AT&T’s tech support for DSL customers but they couldn’t help. So I made a second Genius Bar appointment, this time at San Francisco’s Chestnut Street store, which is smaller and less busy than the Union Square location.The second Genius suggested I go home and restore the iPhone through iTunes using backup. You have two options when restoring an iPhone: You can restore it to its previous state using the backup iTunes creates when you sync. Or you can restore the phone back to its default factory condition without using the backup. The second option wipes all your data off the phone, and you start over from scratch.If restoring using backup didn’t work (it didn’t), the Genius said I should restore the iPhone without the backup. And if that didn’t work, I could bring the phone back to the store for a swap.I tried restoring without backup, and still the problem persisted. I wasn’t keen on having to swap my iPhone for another unit. I couldn’t be sure they’d have a replacement in stock. And besides, the replacement would have been a refurbished iPhone, the Genius told me after I specifically asked him if I’d been given a new phone.My next move was to call Apple’s toll-free support line. The technician I spoke to understood my problem right away. He believed the iPhone’s Mail program wasn’t syncing correctly with Microsoft Outlook on my Vista PC, to which I had been syncing the iPhone’s e-mail settings, contacts, and calendar. I asked him to e-mail me the steps he recommended to resolve the problem. His solution worked.Here are the steps he suggested:On the iPhone, delete all e-mail accounts.Reset the iPhone’s network settings (Settings, General, Reset, Reset Network Settings).Disable Wi-Fi. (Some e-mail accounts don’t work properly if set up the first time with Wi-Fi in use, the technician explained).On the iPhone, manually re-add e-mail accounts. He suggested I select Yahoo from the ISP options when setting up my AT&T/Yahoo e-mail account on the iPhone.In iTunes, disable e-mail syncing with my iPhone.A Second E-Mail ChallengeFrom that point, I enjoyed several weeks without any further e-mail problems. However, another issue developed, this time relating to the passcode to my AT&T/Yahoo e-mail account.The passcode for that e-mail account contains six characters. During my initial iPhone setup, I had entered the passcode to my AT&T/Yahoo e-mail account. At that time, the iPhone validated the address and passcode; everything seemed fine. However, sometime after I had resolved the e-mail problem I described earlier, I received a warning that my e-mail passcode was incorrect.I went back to Settings, Mail, Contacts, Calendars and retyped the correct passcode for my e-mail account. The iPhone validated my address and passcode, and all was fine … until I received the incorrect password warning again, a day later. I returned to Settings, Mail, Contacts, Calendars again and noticed the iPhone had changed my passcode from 6 to 8 characters. I retyped the correct passcode, the e-mail flowed without problems, and then–you guessed it–I was told the passcode was incorrect. I installed Apple’s iPhone 2.0.2 software, hoping that might fix the bug, but it didn’t. Finally, I deleted this account from my iPhone and manually added it again. So far, I’ve had no further e-mail problems. September 10, 2008