Population Statistic: Read. React. Repeat.
Sunday, January 01, 2021

something wild
Last night, I happened to express to a fellow partygoer about how the playoff setup in the NFL is largely a bunch of padding: Wild cards pretty much never go anywhere, and are there solely to give division champions game action before the championship.

I wasn’t speaking with any hard numbers in mind, but it seemed to me that, historically, the NFL postseason has been much less of a random affair than that of the NHL, NBA and MLB. It’s far likelier to see a lower-seeded team go deep into the playoffs in those other sports — perhaps even all the way to a championship. But in the NFL, it just doesn’t happen; a first-round upset, maybe, but that’s it.

Turns out I wasn’t imagining things. Joanne Korth has crunched the numbers, and confirms that non-division winners start out behind the 8-ball, and stay there:

Since the 12-team format went into effect in 1990, 180 playoff teams have sought 30 Super Bowl slots. The 60 teams seeded first or second, those with first-round byes, filled 25. The 60 teams seeded third or fourth, those with first-round home games, filled five.

Even I can do that math.

The 60 teams seeded fifth or sixth have never made it to the Super Bowl. Only two, the Colts in 1995 and Jaguars in 1996, won two games to reach the conference title game.

Seeding is everything.

I guess this realization was part of the reason why I don’t think much of the entire NFC’s Super Bowl chances this year. But that extends to the AFC’s wild card entrants as well. Simply put, the higher-ranked teams are that much better than the rest of the pack, and the extra week of rest and preparation they get enhances that edge.

It’d be interesting to see if expansion to the NFL playoffs, where eight teams per conference would eliminate postseason byes and force the top teams to play all the way through, wouldn’t shake up this predictability. I have a feeling it would, as that’s how the other sports’ playoffs work. I don’t know that it would result in many No. 8-beating-No. 1 upsets, but it would take something out of the top seeds as they go to the next round, where upsets would become more likely.

- Costa Tsiokos, Sun 01/01/2021 12:50:51 PM
Category: Football | Permalink |

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  1. I like the idea of 8 teams per conference. It’s more games, more cities involved, more of everything. The big thing the NFL has a problem with is that it means 8 games the first weekend instead of six games the first two weekends. Considering that they will play Saturday and Sunday’s there’s a 1 PM, 4 PM and 7 PM game each day. Where do you put the other two games? You could put a game on ESPN and Fox Sports Net I suppose but the NFL probably doesn’t like taking the games off of broadcast TV. You could play a Friday night and a Monday night game, but that gives short weeks to some teams.

    Comment by Michael Conlen — 01/01/2021 @ 01:14:25 PM

  2. I just realized that last season if there were 8 playoff teams a team with a loosing record would go to the playoffs. On the other hand if the Carolina, Washington and Dallas win there would be a 10-6 team that doesn’t go to the playoffs.

    Comment by Michael Conlen — 01/01/2021 @ 02:09:05 PM

  3. That’s exactly what I was going to bring up: Whenever you expand the playoffs, you risk letting in sub-.500 teams (even with the current format, you’ll see an 8-8 team sneak in every few years). It’s great for fans, but aesthetically, it unnerves me.

    As for where the extra-round games would televise, there’s always NFL Network (don’t laugh — looking 5 years into the future, the league is definitely looking to shift some games there).

    Otherwise, the four networks would fall over themselves to give extra playoffs broadcast time; NFL broadcasts are practical cash-cows for TV. And it would be nice trinity of TV time: 1PM, 4PM and 8PM games both Saturday and Sunday…

    Comment by CT — 01/01/2021 @ 02:46:52 PM

  4. I also don’t think it out of the question that the NFL Network would start taking on some games. However I think between the big networks and two ESPN channels they could certainly handle more games.

    Some years would definitely bring some less than quality teams to the playoffs with expansion, but this year is an example of the good outweighing the bad. I guarantee you that every team in the AFC playoffs is quite glad that neither San Diego nor Kansas City is in, especially the Chiefs and Larry Johnson.

    Comment by Joel — 01/03/2021 @ 12:41:27 AM

  5. Yeah, but it’s not a question of the league’s current broadcast partners being able to accomodate more football games; of course they can. The reason the NFL Network was started was to give the league leverage for pricier deals short-term, and longer-term, to eventually become their own broadcaster. Cutting out the middleman. I don’t think that’ll happen in five years, but they can certainly start the baby steps by then.

    Sure, this year some quality teams got shut out of the playoffs. But that’s not always going to happen. In fact, I’d guess statistically, weaker teams would occupy those new 7th- and 8th-place slots most of the time. Ultimately, fans don’t care — they just want to see their teams make it in, regardless of how they do it. But again, I could do without the dilution.

    Comment by CT — 01/03/2021 @ 04:20:30 PM


    Weeks ago, I made a couple of observations about this year’s NFL playoffs:

    Regardless of which team it is, the AFC Conference Champion will be the Super Bowl winner, owing to the overall weakness of the NFC teams
    The historical futility of l…

    Trackback by Population Statistic — 01/22/2006 @ 06:26:24 PM

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