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Making the NFL Playoffs as a Darkhorse

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The current NFL playoff system resides somewhere in between the highly restrictive system used by major league baseball, and the all-inclusive 2.5 month playoff seasons that define both the NBA and the NHL.  The NFL is the only system that rewards it’s top seeds with first round byes.  This is more or less because they have to.  Byes are the only way that the NFL can ensure that the best regular season teams are around deep in the playoffs, without the benefit of a 7-game series to iron out the random variance in single game outcomes.

Due to the division-based playoff system, the same group of dominant teams go to the postseason every year, or almost every year.  In the six seasons since 2004, the following teams have made the postseason four or more times: Indianapolis, New England, San Diego, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York (Giants), and Seattle.  A few other teams have been there three times: Dallas, Minnesota, Green Bay, and New York (Jets).  Right there, you have two-thirds of all playoff teams since 2004 represented by just over 1/3 of the NFL, 48 playoff berths among just 11 franchises.  Then there have been a couple of the more fortunate “struggling” franchises that have managed two playoff berths in the last six years: Tennessee, Jacksonville, Cincinnati, Denver, Washington, the entire NFC South (where parity still lives, unlike the rest of the league), Chicago, and Arizona.  Why are these considered the “fortunate” franchises?  Because even with questionable management decisions over the last six years, these 11 teams have managed to combine for 22 playoff berths.  The ten remaining franchises have only 3 playoff berths between them: Miami has one, as does St. Louis, and Kansas City has the other.

Still, it’s telling that 2/3 of the NFL has been unable to make any sort of push for the playoffs over the better part of the last half-decade.  In the last three years, the AFC has produced a single darkhorse candidate in the playoff field every year.  The NFC, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to produce any real darkhorses, rather, the trend is that the strongest franchises tend to eat those playoff berths even in down years.  It doesn’t really make too much sense: the AFC has all the dominant teams with San Diego, Indianapolis, and New England in every year, and usually two teams out of the AFC North as well (Pittsburgh and Baltimore, more often than not).  It would seem like there’s little room for someone else to crash the AFC postseason party.

Instead, what usually occurs in the NFC is far more restrictive: the NFC East has taken three playoff spots in two out of the last five years.  In the other three years, the 5th seed has won 11 games.  That means that the last wild card team to come out of one of the NFC off-divisions with 6 losses or more: the 2004 St. Louis Rams and Minnesota Vikings, both 8-8.  In other words, the standards for being an NFC playoff team in the last five years have been quite high.  Either win 9 or 10 games in the conferences toughest division, or win 11 games to make the postseason.  Sure, any team in the NFC North, South, or West can become the dominant team in their division in any given season, and make the postseason that way, but on the whole, the wild cards are quite restrictive in that conference.

Whether it’s the Bengals, the Dolphins, or Jaguars, the AFC is much more susceptible to allowing a darkhorse into the postseason in any given year.  Take, for example, the case of the New York Jets.  The Jets, in the minds of many, can contend for a super bowl this year.  However, last year they lost to the Dolphins twice and the Patriots once.  That’s 25% of their upcoming schedule that they took losses against last year (they also lost to Buffalo once last year, though that was a 5 INT fluke).  Easily, the Jets could be looking at another 9-7 season, and a dangerous playoff team if they can make it.  Not to degrade the Jets chances, but just to point out that this contender might not be able to hold off the AFC Darkhorses that run to a schedule induced 10 wins in a different division.

If you’re the Bears, Lions, 49ers, or Seahawks, you know right about now that the best chance you have to make the postseason is to win your division games, and win the division.  Suppose in the AFC, we can project the four division winners as New England, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and San Diego.  There’s no other team out there like the Cowboys/Eagles or Falcons/Saints that you can say will be in the division race long enough where, worst case scenario, they’ll win the wild card.  That’s an NFC dynamic.  The Jets, Dolphins, Titans, Texans, and Ravens are all more likely to make the postseason than the Raiders, Broncos, Bengals, Browns, or Jags, but not so much more likely that external factors can’t make a postseason participant of the latter group.

In the NFC, darkhorses have to win divisions to be relevant.  But in the AFC, they can come from anywhere, which is what makes the adopted conference so much harder to project.

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