The Playoffs Don’t Need Fixing

Like most of you, I’ve been hearing an awful lot the last few weeks about how a 7-9 division winner hosting a playoff game means the NFL’s playoff system is horribly broken and must be fixed as soon as possible.  The ideas I’ve heard detailing how the league should run things in the future range from seeding the playoffs based solely on record, thereby taking away the guaranteed home game for divisional champions, to more extreme solutions like awarding playoff berths by win-loss records alone, which would make winning a division title virtually meaningless.

But is the NFL’s playoff scheme really broken?  I don’t know about the rest of you, but in all the media noise on the subject I haven’t heard many opinions that were backed up by numbers or research of any sort, and most of those that were only used win/loss stats from this season.  So, I’d say it’s time to take a look at some cold, hard data, ’cause there are few things more fun than shutting up angry, uninformed bloviating by slapping it upside the head with some actual evidence1.

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This year, five teams missed the playoffs despite posting better records than our 7-9 NFC West champions.  Questions of home field advantage aside, this seems to be the real concern of many fans, football analysts, and sportswriters, that teams with better records are left sitting at home while teams who lost more games are given a chance to play their way to the Super Bowl.  How dare the Seahawks host a Wild Card matchup while the 10-6 Buccaneers, 10-6 Giants, 9-7 Chargers, 8-8 Jaguars, and 8-8 Raiders are eliminated from contention?

Well, because this is hardly the first time a division winner went to the postseason while teams with better records didn’t.  True, more teams with better win-loss stats than the worst division champs’ record were denied postseason berths this season than in any other year in NFL history, but one season does not a trend make.  You’d need to take a look at multiple years and count up how many teams missed the playoffs while division winners with inferior records made it in, and in order to have a big enough sample to make any meaningful conclusions you’d need to go back to at least 1970, the first year after the NFL-AFL merger.

I counted them up dating back to 1933, the first year the NFL split its teams up into divisions.  Might as well go all in, right?

As you might have guessed, teams being left out of championship contention in favor of division champs with worse records is hardly a recent occurrence for the NFL.  In 78 years of divisional play, no less than 40 teams2 have been left out in the cold, the very first being in 1934 when the 8-5 East division champion Giants were invited to face the 13-0 West division champs the Bears for the league title while the 10-3 Lions had to stay home (in case you’re wondering, the Giants won the game 30-13).  The Seahawks found themselves in this situation back in 1978, when they were 9-7 and the NFC Central champion Vikings were 8-7-1.  In addition, 39 teams with win-loss records identical to the worst divisional champ’s record also missed the postseason3 (the Seahawks were in this particular boat on three different occasions: ’79, ’85, and ’90). 

To look at it another way, teams were denied postseason contention in this manner in 22 different seasons (multiple teams were denied in 11 of those years), meaning that 28% of those 78 seasons I mentioned were affected in this way.  Of course, that also means that 56 seasons, or 72%, didn’t have this problem.  Slightly more than one affected season out of every four isn’t an ideal ratio, perhaps, but again it’s been part of the NFL postseason landscape dating back to 1934 — if this is really a problem destined to cripple to the NFL, it’s sure taking its sweet time about it.

The other chief concern I’ve heard seems to be a general sense of revulsion that a team with a losing record is in the playoffs.  Because, y’know, it’s wrong and gross and, like, ewww and stuff.  Well, okay, but do rules need to be drawn up to keep it from happening again?  Of the 264 teams that have won NFL and AFL division titles since 1933, the 2010 Seahawks are the very first one to do so with a losing record4 — as a percentage, that means 0.38% of all teams to win their division did so with a losing record.

0.38% isn’t a problem, it’s a statistical anomaly — and a largely self-correcting one at that.  Of 567 teams to make it to the playoffs since ’33, only 11 of those did not post winning records5, and only three of those teams were in the playoffs because they won their respective divisions.  Of those 11, only the 2004 Vikings and 2008 Chargers managed to win a playoff game, both winning wild card games before losing in the divisional round.  It isn’t like any of these teams have been poaching Super Bowls after stumbling in to the playoffs.

I could go on, but I’m starting to go cross-eyed from staring at all these spreadsheets6.  Basically, the next time you hear someone start in on how the NFL needs to fix the playoffs, feel free to tell them that I said they’re an idiot.


1 Okay, so I can think of a great many things that are more fun than that, but most of them can’t be mentioned on a family-friendly website like this.

2 Including AFL teams.  It also happened once to the 49ers back when they were part of the AAFC, but no one cares about the AAFC.

3 However, I didn’t compare win-loss records within a given division or conference, which would’ve helped differentiate which 9-7 stat line trumped the others, I just looked at basic win-loss stats.  I like you guys, but at some point today I’d like to be able to get up from my desk chair (after which I’ll probably just go sit on the couch in the next room and play a video game or something, but at least the scenery will be slightly different).

4 I feel that I should point out that the 1982 season with its screwy 16-team playoff is not included in any of the stats in this article on the grounds that that whole year of football was too ridiculous to be taken seriously.  I mean, I’m actually a big fan of NFL kickers, but when you name one MVP you know something went horribly wrong with that season.

5 The 1969 Oilers (6-6-2), 1985 AFC Central champion Browns (8-8), 1990 Saints (8-8), 1991 Jets (8-8), 1999 Lions (8-8), 1999 Cowboys (8-8), 2004 Rams (8-8), 2004 Vikings (8-8), 2006 Giants (8-8), 2008 AFC West champion Chargers (8-8), and now the 2010 NFC West champion Seahawks (7-9).

6 Including some regarding Hasselbeck, since a couple of you asked me to do a stat analysis piece on him a while ago.  It’ll be a while before that one’s done, though — 4,000+ passing attempts makes for a lot of plays to examine.  Like I said before, it’s a good thing I like you people.