Thursday, January 9, 2014

Expanding the Playoffs Part I: Recent History

The NFL recently announced that they are considering expanding the pool of playoff teams to include another Wild Card in each conference. The plan would mean that four division champions and three wild cards would make up the postseason field. Only the top team in each conference would earn a bye under this plan. The NFL has been operating under its current 8-division 12-team playoff model since 2002 when the Houston Texans were added to the league as an expansion franchise. In Part I of a series examining the impact of expanding the playoffs, I take a look back at how the NFL playoffs would have been different (and the impact on the relative "excitement" of Week 17) if an extra Wild Card spot had been in play since 2002. Part II of the series will examine some of the data and statistical trends that would have been changed by the addition of an extra team from each conference to the postseason.


The first season that the NFL used the 8-division format had a wild playoff chase in the AFC. As it was, 5 teams finished with 9-7 records and 3 more finished 8-8. Entering Week 17, Miami led the AFC East at 9-6, followed by the Patriots and Jets at 8-7. Cleveland, Denver, San Diego and Kansas City were also 8-7. On Saturday, the Raiders beat the Chiefs and knocked them out. On a wild Sunday, the Patriots stormed back from an 11-point 4th quarter deficit against the Dolphins and won on an Adam Vinatieri field goal in overtime. Meanwhile the Browns overcame a 6-point deficit with 14 4th quarter points and a broken leg to quarterback Tim Couch to finish 9-7. Both the Patriots and Dolphins were eliminated when the Jets beat the Packers in the afternoon and won the division. Elsewhere, the Chargers (who had started the season 6-1) blew a 14-point lead in the last 8 1/2 minutes against Seattle and lost in overtime. The Broncos also won to finish 9-7. The AFC East 3-way tie was won by the Jets with the Patriots finishing second. The Browns got #6 seed, which led to one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history as Tommy Maddox led the Steelers back against the Browns.

If there had been an extra team, the Broncos, Patriots and Dolphins would have faced a tiebreaker. Despite Miami having the better conference record and having beaten the Broncos head-to-head and split with the Patriots, the Dolphins would have been eliminated from contention based on the division tiebreaker with New England. The Broncos would have been awarded the 7th playoff spot based on their head-to-head win over the Patriots and would have faced Tennessee in the first round.

In the NFC, the eventual Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers wouldn't have gotten a first round bye and would have had to face the New Orleans Saints in the first round. The Saints were the 3rd highest scoring team in the league that year and had already beaten the Bucs twice that season. New Orleans missing the playoffs was really their own fault. They were 9-4 on December 8. From there they lost their last 3 games, all to teams with losing records (6-10 Minnesota, 2-14 Cincinnati, 7-9 Carolina) and missed the playoffs by a half game to the 9-6-1 Falcons.


The 2003 playoff race was a bit less exciting than the 2002 version. In the AFC, the Broncos won 4 of their last 5 to finish at 10-6 and earn a playoff spot over the 10-6 Dolphins based on finishing 2 games better in conference play. The Broncos already had the 6th seed wrapped up heading into Week 17 so this wasn't very exciting. Had the Dolphins made the playoffs, they would have faced the Kansas City Chiefs.

In the NFC, a last second touchdown pass from Josh McCown (yes, same one) led the 4-12 Arizona Cardinals to a shocking upset of the Minnesota Vikings, knocking Minnesota out of the playoffs. Had the Vikings won, they would have topped the Packers for the NFC North title with both teams finishing at 10-6. Had the Vikings won, the Packers would have missed the playoffs by finishing with worse conference record than Seattle and Dallas. As it was, the Packers won the division and hosted the Seahawks in the first round of the playoffs, which set the stage for this memorable moment.

As a secondary result of the Cardinals last-second win, the San Diego Chargers got the #1 pick in the draft, which led to the Eli Manning fiasco. The Cardinals fell to #3 and took Larry Fitzgerald. Steelers fans owe a bit of thanks to Josh McCown and Nathan Poole that things fell the way they did which enabled Ben Roethlisberger to be available at #11 for the Steelers.


The 2004 season also provided for an exciting Week 17. In the AFC the Broncos and Bills entered the final week of the season at 9-6 with the Bills needing to only beat the Steelers JV team to reach the playoffs. Instead, Willie Parker went wild and the Bills lost, enabling the Broncos (who handled the Colts who were resting their starters) to reach the playoffs as the 6th seed. The Bills tumbled to a 3-way tie with Jacksonville and Baltimore at 9-7. If there had been an extra team, the Bills would have lost out based on head-to-head losses to the Jaguars and Ravens. The Jags edged the Ravens in the common opponents tiebreaker, which would have sent them to New England.

In the NFC, Minnesota entered Week 17 at 8-7 with St Louis, New Orleans and Carolina battling for the last Wild Card spot at 7-8. The Saints beat the Panthers to eliminate Carolina but were themselves eliminated when the Rams beat the Jets in overtime. A Vikings loss to a bad Redskins team complicated the playoff picture with the Vikings, Rams and Saints all finishing at 8-8. The Rams got the #5 seed based on conference record and the Vikings the #6 seed due to a head-to-head victory over New Orleans. With an extra team, the Saints also would have made the playoffs and faced the Atlanta Falcons, who they had just beat in Week 16. In reality, the Saints had dug their own grave with a 4-8 record at the beginning of December and only a 4-game winning streak to close out the season brought them close to playoff contention.


The 2005 season was a rarity that saw every team in the postseason have double-digit wins in the regular season. The Steelers closed on a 4-game winning streak to earn the 6th seed in the AFC at 11-5, edging the Chiefs by one game. The Chiefs also closed the season with back-to-back wins but it was two early-December losses that enabled the Steelers to hurdle them in the playoff chase. With a 7th team, the Chiefs would have traveled to Denver in the first round of the playoffs (the teams split their regular season meetings). Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil retired following the 2005 season.

In the NFC, the Cowboys and Redskins entered Week 17 tied at 9-6 but the Redskins had already swept the season series. When Washington beat Philadelphia in the afternoon, it rendered Dallas' night game with St Louis meaningless. However, with an extra team in the playoffs, Dallas would have had something to play for as they would have needed a win to top Minnesota for the 7th seed. As it was, the Vikings finished in 7th based on a better conference record than the Cowboys and would have traveled to Chicago in the opening round to face a Bears team they had just beat 34-10 in Week 17 (granted, the Bears rested many of their starters). A secondary effect here was that the Vikings fired coach Mike Tice after the season, though that could have been because of his inability to control his locker room and the boat party scandal that made waves during the Vikings bye week. Perhaps Tice still gets fired if the Vikings make the playoffs, but this is the first instance where we see the #7 team firing a coach, so it is worth noting.


Week 17 in 2006 provided for high drama in the AFC. The Jets and Broncos entered with 9-6 records with the Chiefs, Bengals, Titans and Jaguars all lurking at 8-7. The Titans were on a miracle run of 6 straight wins before falling to New England in Week 17. The Steelers traded shots with the Bengals in the 4th quarter and ultimately won in overtime on a Santonio Holmes touchdown to send Bill Cowher out with a win and knock the Bengals from playoff contention. The Bengals seemingly controlled their destiny at 8-5 but dropped their final 3 games to miss the playoffs. The Chiefs rode a monster effort (33 carries, 138 yards, 3 TDs) from Larry Johnson to a victory over Jacksonville then earned the 6th seed when Denver lost to the 49ers in overtime later in the day. With a 7th team in the playoffs, Denver would have already had a playoff berth wrapped up when the Bengals, Titans and Jaguars lost so their loss would not have changed anything. The Broncos would have faced the Ravens in the opening round, who they beat early in the season.

The NFC race was also exciting as 4 teams finished tied for the last playoff spot. The Giants, Packers, Panthers, Rams and Falcons all entered the final week of the season at 7-8. The Falcons lost while the other four teams won, creating a 4-way tie that was won by the Giants based on conference record over St Louis and Carolina and Strength of Victory over Green Bay. The Packers would have earned the 7th seed based on a better conference record than St Louis and Carolina, which would have marked an incredible comeback from a 4-8 record. They would have traveled to New Orleans to face the feel-good story of the season in a resurgent Saints team that bounced back from the Katrina wreckage in 2005 and returned to the Superdome in 2006.


For the third time in 5 years, a 10-win team missed the playoffs. This time it was the 10-6 Cleveland Browns. Entering Week 17 the Steelers already had the division crown locked up after beating the Rams in Week 16 and rested most of their starters, which enabled the Browns to finish tied for first place in the North with 10 wins. The two teams appeared to be going in opposite directions as the Steelers had dropped 3 of their last 4 while the Browns had won 3 of 4, but the Browns are the Browns after all. The Steelers had swept the head-to-head and the Browns were eliminated from the playoffs when the Titans beat the Colts in the Sunday Night game thanks to three Rod Bironas field goals in the second half with the Colts starters resting. The win propelled the Titans into the playoffs and sent the Browns home. With an extra team in the bracket, the Browns would have faced the Colts and Peyton Manning in the opening round.

In the NFC, Washington and Minnesota entered Week 17 with 8-7 records. The Vikings mounted a furious comeback attempt against Denver, scoring 16 points in the last 5:18 of the fourth quarter (including two two point conversions!) to tie the game and force overtime. The Vikings got the ball first in overtime, but a Tavaris Jackson fumble gave the ball back to the Broncos and enabled them to kick the game-winning field goal and eliminate Minnesota. The Redskins beat the Cowboys later, capping an emotional close to the season where the won 4 straight games in the wake of Sean Taylor's death and reached the playoffs. One of those four victories was a win over Minnesota, so even if the two had ended the season tied the Redskins would have reached the playoffs. This marked the third time in 5 years that the Vikings finished 7th in the conference standings and they would have faced the Packers (who had beaten them twice that season) in the first round.


Seven teams in the playoffs would have been a nightmare scenario for Steelers fans in 2008. The New England Patriots, on the back of Matt Cassel who was filling in for the injured Brady, finished with an 11-5 record but missed the playoffs because of their conference record. The Patriots lost the tiebreaker to the Dolphins for the division title and the tiebreaker to the Ravens for the 6th seed because of their conference record. With 7 teams, this would have sent the Patriots to Pittsburgh in the opening round, a scenario no one in Steeler Nation wants to see, regardless of who their quarterback was. As it happened, the Steelers had the #2 seed and the 6th seeded Ravens beat up on the Dolphins and Titans to set up one of the best AFC Championship Games in history. This was also the first year that discussion about reseeding started to enter the conversation as both Wild Card teams (the 12-4 Colts and the 11-5 Ravens) had better records than the AFC West Champ, the 8-8 Chargers. The Colts lost to San Diego in the Wild Card round when Darren Sproles went nuts and had 105 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner in overtime.

In the NFC, the Eagles mid-season tie against the Bengals (made famous by Donovan McNabb's press conference where he revealed he didn't know that games could end in a tie)
The Eagles won 3 of their last 4, including a Week 17 thrashing of the Cowboys in a casket match that propelled the winner into the playoffs. The 7th seed would have gone to Tampa Bay, whose 0-4 finish to the season paved the way for the winner of the Cowboys-Eagles game to reach the playoffs. With an extra spot available, the Bucs would have faced the NFC South Champion Panthers. The 0-4 finish by the Bucs prompted the firing of John Gruden, the second fired coach who would have made the playoffs if an extra wild card spot was available.


The 2009 season saw another wild Week 17 in the AFC with the Jets, Ravens, Texans, Steelers and Broncos all entering with 8-7 records and with two wild card spots available. The Steelers beat the Dolphins. The Texans stormed back from 14 points down against New England's reserves in the 4th quarter, scoring 21 points in the final 10 minutes to also get to 9-7. The Steelers playoff hopes were dashed later in the afternoon when Willis McGahee ran for 167 yards and 3 touchdowns to lead the Ravens over the Raiders and into the playoffs. On Sunday Night, the Texans were also eliminated when the Jets and rookie Mark Sanchez crushed the Bengals to put the Jets into the playoffs. If there was an extra spot available, the Texans would have earned the first playoff berth in franchise history based on the Common Games tiebreaker over the Steelers. Houston would have gone to San Diego in the first round on a hot streak after winning their last 4 games.

While the AFC playoff hunt was wild, the NFC chase was significantly less exciting. For the first time since the NFL went to 8 divisions, the 7th place team missed the playoffs by more than 1 game. The Falcons finished a respectable 9-7, but two games behind the 6th-seeded Eagles. The Falcons also finished a game ahead of Carolina and San Francsico (a lead they held over the last 3 weeks of the season) so the excitement would have been minimal in the NFC. The Falcons would have gone to Minnesota to face Brett Favre, making this the second time a Favre-led team would have had to play an opening round game (2007 Packers) rather than getting a bye as the #2 seed.


Much like the 2009 NFC playoff race, the 2010 AFC race was a bit of a dud. The Chargers won 3 of their last 4 games but still finished two games behind the 11-5 Jets for the #6 seed. San Diego edged the 8-8 Jaguars and Raiders for the 7th spot by one game and would have traveled to Pittsburgh in the opening round. Steelers fans should be thankful the extra team wasn't in place this season as the less we see of Philip Rivers, the better.

On the other hand, the NFC provided a thrilling chase in 2010. The Packers topped the Giants in Week 16 and the Bears in Week 17 to earn the last playoff spot which propelled them on a run to the Super Bowl (over the Steelers). The Packers won a 3-way tie with the Giants and Buccaneers for the last wild card spot based on Strength of Victory. The Giants would have edged the Bucs for the 7th spot and taken on the Bears in the first round. The 2010 playoff chase was also notable for the NFC West race, which was won by the Seahawks at 7-9, the first team with a losing record to reach the postseason. The Seahawks edged the Rams in a Sunday Night Casket Match to win the division. The topic of reseeding was brought up again this year as it seemed "unfair" to many that the 11-5 Saints had to travel to Seattle in the opening round of the playoffs. You know what was unfair? This:


The 2011 season saw the Titans surge to the finish, winning 4 of their last 6 games and tie the Bengals (who went 3-5 in the second half) for the 6th spot. However, a midseason victory by the Bengals over the Titans (their only win in 2011 against a team with a winning record) was enough to give the Bengals the edge for the last playoff spot. With an extra team in the playoffs, Week 17 would have been even more exciting as Tennessee, Denver, Oakland and the Jets all entered at 8-7 with San Diego lurking at 7-8. The Chargers beat the Raiders, which gave Denver and Tim Tebow the division title and sent Pittsburgh to the Mile High city in the opening round of the playoffs. Tennessee played a thrilling game against Houston's backups and needed a defensive stop on a 2-point conversion with 14 seconds left to top the Texans. Elsewhere, the Dolphins scored 13 fourth quarter points and took advantage of 3 Mark Sanchez interceptions to knock the Jets from the playoff race. With another team in the postseason, this would have given Tennessee a 1-game edge over the Raiders, Jets and Chargers and sent them to Baltimore (who they beat early in the season) in the opening round. The 8-8 Broncos division title also sparked conversation about re-seeding as they hosted (and beat) the 12-4 Steelers. This was the third time the "re-seeding" conversation was part of the playoff dialogue and all 3 times the home team won the game.

The NFC race was significantly less exciting in reality as everything except the NFC East Champion was locked in stone for a few weeks before the end of the season. The Giants toppled the Cowboys in a Sunday Night Casket Match, cementing Romo's reputation as a late-season choker and sending the Giants on a run that resulted in a Lombardi Trophy. Both NFC Wild Card teams finished at 10-6, two games better than the Bears, Cardinals (who rebounded from a 1-6 start), Eagles and Cowboys.The Bears would have been the beneficiaries of an extra Wild Card, despite losing 5 in a row to fall from 7-3 to 7-8 before winning the season finale. The Cowboys would have been eliminated from the 4-way tie based on head-to-head against the Eagles and the Eagles would have been eliminated due to head-to-head losses to both the Cardinals and Bears. The Bears finally would have topped the Cardinals based on Common Games and gone to San Francisco in the opening round of the playoffs.


The 2012 season saw the Steelers blow a 6-3 start and lose 5 of 6 between mid-November and Christmas to eliminate themselves from playoff contention. An Overtime loss to Dallas in Week 15 and a final second field goal by the Bengals in Week 16 (both of which were set up by Ben Roethlisberger interceptions) knocked the Steelers out. The Steelers did win a meaningless Week 17 game against the Browns to finish at 8-8, which would have been good enough for the 7th seed in the AFC. The Steelers would have edged the 7-9 Dolphins and Chargers for the last playoff spot, which would have sent them to New England and Tom Brady's House of Nightmares in the opening round of the playoffs.

2012 was more of the same for the Chicago Bears. They ran out to a 7-1 start but lost 5 of their next 6 before rebounding at the end of the season. In an exciting Week 17, the Bears held on to beat the Lions but Adrian Peterson ran wild on the Packers, lifting the Vikings to an improbable playoff berth and sending the Bears home for the second straight year. The Bears finished a game better than the Giants and would have earned the 7th seed which would have sent them (once again) to San Francisco. This second-straight mid-season collapse prompted the Bears to fire Lovie Smith. You have to wonder if there were 7 playoff spots and the Bears had reached the postseason both of these years if Lovie would still have a job in Chicago. Lovie was the third coaching casualty suffered by a 7th place team since 2002 when the NFL went to 8 divisions.


As we well know, 2013 provided another exciting conclusion to the AFC playoff race with the Ravens, Dolphins and Chargers entering Week 17 at 8-7 and the Steelers and Jets at 7-8. Things seemed all set up for a 5-way tie that would have sent the Steelers to the playoffs as the #6 seed at 8-8, but officiating errors and Ryan Succop's foot in the Kansas City-San Diego game prevented that from happening. The Steelers would have been only the 3rd team in 12 years to earn a Wild Card with just 8 wins. As it happened, the Chargers won and finished the season at 9-7. The Steelers would have been the beneficiaries of a 7th playoff spot once again and would have, for the second year in a row, had to travel to New England in the opening round of the playoffs. Week 17 would have actually lost a little of its luster as the Steelers would have had a playoff spot secured (whether it would have been the 6th or 7th seed) after the results of the 1pm games and would not have needed a San Diego loss to send them to the postseason.

The NFC standings brought up the "re-seeding" discussion for the 4th time in 12 years as the NFC North Champion Packers (8-7-1) finished with a worse record than both Wild Card teams (and the 7th place Cardinals). The Packers became the first of the four home teams to lose when the 49ers toppled them last weekend. The Cardinals missed out on the playoffs by a game and finished two games ahead of the 8th place Bears. There was some excitement in the last week of the season for the NFC as both the NFC East (Eagles-Cowboys) and NFC North (Packers-Bears) came down to Casket Matches. The Cardinals had an outside chance to make the playoffs in Week 17 if they had beaten the 49ers and the Saints had lost to Tampa Bay, but neither happened. If the Cardinals had been the 7th seed, they would have traveled to Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series where I examine some of the data on the impact of the NFL's proposed playoff expansion.

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