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How the West Was Won: The Importance of 3-0

Fooch's Note: Don't forget to head over to our open thread for today's game.

Since the Falcons debacle, doom and gloom seems to be cropping up more and more on our threads. So I figured now would be a good time to inject a little optimism to Niners Nation (NN), and talk some of us down off the ledge...

A few weeks ago, I posted an article about the meaning of being 2-0 overall and within the NFC West. Just to remind you, here was my bottom line:

So, to sum up...By virtue of their 2-0 record both overall and within their division, the 49ers

  • are about 30 times more likely to win the NFC West than if they started 0-2 in the division
  • can expect to win about 10 games this season
  • are about 5 times more likely to make the playoffs than if they started 0-2 overall

That sounded pretty good at the time, especially the part about being 2-0 in the division. Obviously, as much as I'd like to be telling you what 5-0 overall means right now, the 49ers have lost 2 of their past 3 games, which puts them at a pretty-much-meaningless 3-2 overall. Therefore, today's report from Optimismland will focus solely on the meaning of being 3-0 in the division. As you'll find out, it actually means quite a bit.

After the jump, I'll show you just how meaningful it is, and even give you some optimism were the Niners to end up not winning the division...


Based on the 2002-2008 NFL seasons*, here's a table showing how likely a team was to win their division when they started 0-3, 1-1, or 2-1, or 3-0 in division games:

Div Champ?

Div Record Through

3 Div Games















From this table, we can clearly see the implications of SF's 3-0 start within their division: 30 of the 40 teams since 2002 that have started 3-0 in their division have gone on to win the division. Furthermore, by virtue of their 3-0 division record, the 49ers are 10 times more likely to win the NFC West than the Seahawks, who are 1-2 in the division right now. The Cardinals are currently 1-1, so losing their next division game (Week 10 vs. SEA), will put them in the same probability boat that SEA's in right now. However, even if ARI wins that game, the 49ers would still be about 3 times more likely the Cardinals to "Win the West" (75.0% vs. 26.9%).

For the skeptics out there, who still won't come down off the ledge, I'll add two little tidbits of stat geek optimism. First, the 49ers' relevant percentage (75.0%) is 3 times higher than what you'd expect just by chance, and the likelihood of 3-0 being absolutely meaningless for predicting division championships is about 3 in 10 billion. Second, the likelihood that all percentages in the above table have occurred by chance alone - aka the last 7 years of NFL football have been unlike normal NFL football - are about 1 in 10,000,000,000,000,000, which I think translates into 100 one-trillionths of 1%. So basically, it's beyond any shadow of even the biggest doubter's doubt that (a) winning an NFL division is dependent on what a team's record is through 3 division games, and (b) the success of previous 3-0 teams is unbelievably unlikely to be a totally random phenomenon.

Finally, in case you're wondering, 10 of the 14 Super Bowl participants since 2002 started 3-0 in their division, including 4 of the 7 NFL champions. This isn't statistically meaningful because of the small sample size, but we're trying to be optimistic, so love it if it cheers you up.


OK, so let's say you're somehow still out on the ledge. You're saying to your pessimist self, "Hey! Ten of those 3-0 teams didn't win the division!" Well, for you guys, here's another stat: Of the 10 teams who choked away their division, 6 still made the playoffs. So that leaves only 4 teams who were unbeaten through 3 division games, and yet didn't even make the playoffs that season. Here are some details about those 4 teams:

  • 2003 Minnesota Vikings - This team played 3 division games right out of the gate in Weeks 1-3, got to 6-0 overall, and then collapsed; losing 7 of their last 10 games - including 2 of their last 3 in the division - for a 9-7 non-playoff finish.
  • 2006 Denver Broncos - This team played 2 of their first 3 division games against a Raiders team that ultimately finished 2-14, so you could say that they lucked into 3-0 by virtue of a creampuff division schedule early in the season. Nevertheless, the 2006 Broncos got to 7-2 overall, and then collapsed; losing 5 of their last 7 games - including all 3 remaining division games -- to finish 9-7 overall and out of the playoffs.
  • 2007 Detroit Lions - This team was simply the mother of all chokers (a motherchoker?). Through 8 games, they were 6-2 overall and 3-0 in the NFC North; well on their way to Jon Kitna's predicted 10-6 finish. Unfortunately, they went 1-7 in their last 8 games - including an 0-3 finish within the division - and ended up 7-9 for the season.
  • 2008 Chicago Bears - This team resembles the 2006 Broncos in that they lucked into a 3-0 division record via a scheduling quirk that gave them 2 early games against the ultimately winless Lions. Furthermore, this team was actually 2-3 outside the NFC North at the point in time that they got to 3-0 within the NFC North. Over their final 8 games, they went 4-4, but only 1-2 in their last 3 division games, with both division losses coming on the road.

This is waaaaay too small of a sample size to draw any real conclusions. However, I do notice 2 trends among these 4 teams. First, it sure seems like the NFC North has been a magnet for monumental 2nd-half collapses within the division. Last time I checked, the 49ers play in the NFC West, so we probably don't have to worry about this "Curse of the Norris."

Second, from 2004 to 2006 - and 2008 for that matter - DEN kind of perfected the magic trick of making division titles disappear. In 2004, they started 3-0 in the AFC West, but didn't end up winning the division. In 2005, they started 3-0 in the division, won the division, but then choked in the playoffs to a team I'll talk about in a second. In 2006, well, I've detailed that team above: started 3-0, but no division championship, and no playoff appearance. So, given that our favorite team isn't the "Denver 49ers," and that the Niners don't seem to have developed a penchant for meaningless 3-0 starts within their division, we probably don't have to worry about them being like the 2006 Broncos either.

I'll wrap things up with the ultimate "glass is half full" anecdote from my analysis. As I mentioned previously, 6 of the 10 teams that started 3-0 in their division made the playoffs that season as wild cards rather than division champions. One of these 6 teams stands head and shoulders above the rest. They started 3-0 in the division, but ended up narrowly missing the division crown because of a tiebreaker. The finished the season 11-5, but all that got them was a #6 seed, which pitted them in the Wild Card Round against the same team that beat won their division on tiebreakers. They beat that team, then beat one of those motherchoking DEN teams, and ended their season with a Super Bowl championship.

So even if the 49ers somehow buck the trend and fail to win the NFC West, they're still more likely than not to make the playoffs. And if they make the playoffs, they have a Super Bowl champion to model themselves after. I'd say that's about as optimistic as I can possibly envision things. Oh, and in case you still haven't figured out which 3-0, non-division-winning team they'd be OK to model themselves after, here's a hint:


Enjoy today's game against the Texans. And remember, even if the 49ers lose, they're still a 3-to-1 favorite to win the NFC West.

*Just in case you're wondering, I constantly use 2002-2008 as my data set because 2002 is when the NFL went to its current 8-division alignment. Going back farther in time than that would be like comparing apples to oranges.