Friday, July 17, 2015

Should the NFL Playoffs Expand From 12 to 14 Teams? A Year-by-Year Analysis



            As you should know by now, the National Football League currently operates the best playoff seeding system out of all the major sports: 12 total teams, consisting of four division champs, awarded #1-4 seeds on the basis of regular season win-loss records, plus two wild-card teams as #5 and #6.  Of course, there have been historical hiccups, such as this year’s NFC Wild Card game which featured a 7-win 4 seed (Carolina Panthers) and a 5 seed which not only lost five of its last seven games, but did so without scoring over 18 points in any of them. 
            But sometimes those historical hiccups have provided us with tremendous games.  The 2011 Broncos finished 8-8, were led by Tim Tebow, and had no business hosting a playoff game against the defending AFC champions . . . and the rest was history.  Same with the 2010 Seahawks and the 2008 Cardinals.  Maybe instead of saying that the NFL operates the best playoff system, it would be more accurate to say that the NFL uses the least flawed method, compared to the NBA (where more than half the league’s teams make the postseason and the playoffs last two months), the NHL (ditto), and the MLB (where homefield advantage in the World Series is determined by a meaningless, frivolous unofficial game in July).
            Anyway, for the last several months, the NFL has thrown around the idea of expanding the playoffs from 12 teams to 14.  Instead of the top two teams in each conference getting an extra week off, only the top seeded team would receive a bye, while the 2 seed would be forced to host a Wild Card game against the conference’s 7th-seeded team.  The advantages of this system are obviously mostly monetary (this is Roger Goodell we are talking about): The NFL receives revenues from two additional playoff games, as well as hypothetically more competitive (read: must-see) games in the final weeks of the regular season.  While many defenders of this expansion laud the fact that it doesn’t really change too much about what already makes the NFL playoffs great (still fewer than half the league’s teams make the playoffs, still only four weekends of postseason football), no one really seems to be talking about why it would actually improve the playoff system.  And those who actually examine that argument in depth tend to fall in the “con” rather than “pro” camp.
Even fewer people are seriously looking at the question of whether the 7th best team in each conference deserves to make the playoffs in the first place.  Therefore, I have broken down each season of the playoffs since the NFL readjusted its seeding system in 2002, and have determined whether the 7 seeds from each of those seasons deserved to make the playoffs.  Furthermore, I consider what their hypothetical matchup with the conference’s 2 seed would have looked like, and whether they would have had a chance of moving on to the Divisional Round.  No, I don’t use statistical analysis or metadata, but I do use a programming system more advanced than any computer: My own memory of each team.  I award subjective grades to each team on the basis of whether their playoff birth as a 7 seed was truly justified or not. If I find that more than half of the 26 7 seeds since 2002 merited a playoff appearance, I will begrudgingly agree with the commissioner and encourage playoff expansion to 14 teams.

2014


AFC 7 Seed: Houston Texans (9-7-0)
Would have played at: Denver Broncos (12-4-0)
Deserved Playoff Birth? YES

Could They Have Advanced? YES

NFC 7 Seed: Philadelphia Eagles (10-6-0)
Would have played at: Green Bay Packers (12-4-0)
Deserved Playoff Birth? NO



Let's begin our analysis with this past postseason. 2014 was one of the few years where everyone (at least, everyone who runs this website) agrees that the Patriots and Seahawks were the two best teams in their conferences, so its unlikely that the 7 seeds would have had a significant impact on the playoff outcomes. In the AFC, however, the Texans had the best player in the league (J.J. Watt) in the midst of having the best season of his career, and finished the season having won four of its final five games. One of those wins was a 12-point victory over the AFC's 6 seed, the Baltimore Ravens. Remembering how underwhelming Peyton Manning played in the latter half of the 2014 regular season and the eventual AFC Divisional matchup against the Colts (the NFL's 19th-ranked scoring defense), the Broncos would have been an optimal matchup for Houston -- and would have made for the premier game of Wild Card weekend. The Texans absolutely deserved a postseason birth. Final Grade: A

In the NFC, the Eagles stormed out to a 5-1 start before Nick Foles was injured and replaced by Mark Sanchez. The Sanchize played OK and actually had a better QB rating than Foles, but blew three straight December games for Philadelphia -- against Seattle, Dallas, and most inexcusably of all, the Washington Football Team. The 2014 Eagles also had one of the flukiest statistics of recent years: They scored eight touchdowns on defense or special teams. Tellingly, most of those touchdowns came in the first half of the season. It is tempting to believe they could have had a shot against the injured Aaron Rodgers . . . but then again, they lost to the Packers in a Week 11 game at Lambeau Stadium by a ridiculous score of 53-20. So despite the fact they won more games than the Texans, the Eagles were less deserving. Final Grade: C

2013

 



AFC 7 Seed: Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8-0)
Would have played at: New England Patriots (12-4-0)
Deserved Playoff Birth? NO

NFC 7 Seed: Arizona Cardinals (10-6-0)
Would have played at: Carolina Panthers (12-4-0)
Deserved Playoff Birth? YES
Could They Have Advanced? YES



The Steelers started the 2013 season 2-6, but finished 6-2 down the stretch, which prompted many of the initial rumblings about expanding the playoffs to 14 teams. Pittsburgh's offense played the second half of 2013 like they did for the entirety of 2014 -- mostly spectacularly, with Ben Roethlisburger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown being virtually unstoppable on the field. So why didn't they deserve a playoff birth (besides the fact I hate the Steelers)? Look at who they beat in those final six victories: Buffalo, Detroit, Cincinnati, Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay, and Cleveland twice. Meanwhile, they dropped November/December games to the Patriots, Ravens, and Dolphins -- any one of which would have clinched a playoff spot under the current system. The Patriots game was particularly egregious, with the Steel Curtain defense giving up 55 points in a 24-point loss at Foxboro. And guess who they would have played in the Wild Card round? This doesn't exactly bolster their playoff credentials. Final Grade: C-



Like the Steelers, the Cardinals also finished the season white-hot, winning seven of its final games, including key wins against Indianapolis, St. Louis, and most impressive of all, in Seattle against the eventual Super Bowl champs. Had they taken care of business by beating the 49ers at home in Week 17, they would have clinched a playoff birth outright; instead, they gave up a game-winning drive to Colin Kaepernick with only 29 seconds left. That makes me think that they didn't truly deserve a playoff spot -- a true playoff team should win home games with their season on the line. But the Seahawks game was so impressive, the NFC West was so competitive in 2013, and the Cardinals had beat the 2nd-seeded Panthers by 16 points in Week 5. Arizona's home loss to the 49ers does stick out, but you know who else also lost to San Francisco at home? Carolina, in the eventual NFC Divisional Playoff. Case closed. Final Grade: B+

2012


AFC 7 Seed: Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8-0)
Would have played at: New England Patriots (12-4-0)
Deserved Playoff Birth? NO

NFC 7 Seed: Chicago Bears (10-6-0)
Would have played at: San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1)
Deserved Playoff Birth? YES
Could They Have Advanced? NO


Huh, this sounds familiar: The 8-8 Steelers as the AFC's 7 seed, having to travel to Foxboro to play the 12-4 Patriots. Don't say they NFL isn't predictable. Then again, there are some important differences between the 2013 and 2012 Steelers: While the former finished the season strong down the stretch, the 2012 team collapsed after a 6-3 start, with particularly inexcusable losses to Cleveland and at home to San Diego and Cincinnati. And the Bengals loss -- their third straight December loss -- occurred on the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception! And while Pittsburgh did not play New England in the 2012 regular season, the Steelers finished only 3-5 on the road and had a -10 turnover ratio on the season. They did beat the eventual Super Bowl Champion Ravens in Week 13... but so did five other teams during the regular season. To merit a playoff spot as a 7 seed, you need more impressive credentials than this. Final Grade: C-

The 2012 Bears suffered one of the most remarkable collapses in NFL history: They missed the playoffs after beginning the season 7-1. Only the 1993 Dolphins -- a team which began its season 9-2 through 11 games -- suffered a more agonizing collapse in the regular season's second half. The case of the 2012 Bears begs the question of whether one of the league's best teams through the first two months of the season should be punished because of bad luck and injuries in the final two months. But here's the thing: The Bears didn't really suffer that many injuries, nor did they really have bad luck. Their final five losses (which occurred over a six-week stretch) all came at the hands of playoff teams. Had they made it into the postseason as the 7 seed, they would have traveled to Chicago -- the site of their Week 11 loss to 49ers, in which they were defeated 32-7 (ironically, it was also Colin Kaepernick's first start). Like the 2014 Eagles, the Bears scored a ton of TDs by defense and special teams (nine in total) and when that scoring began to cease, so did Chicago's winning ways. I tend to give the Bears the benefit of the doubt because 10 wins is the same number as the season's eventual Super Bowl champion (the Ravens) and because the Bears were unequivocally better than the NFC's 6 seed, the Joe Webb-led Vikings. But playoff heavyweights, Chicago was probably not. Final Grade: B-

2011


AFC 7 Seed: Tennessee Titans (9-7-0)
Would have played at: Baltimore Ravens (12-4-0)
Deserved Playoff Birth? NO

NFC 7 Seed: Chicago Bears (8-8-0)
Would have played at: San Francisco 49ers (13-3-0)
Deserved Playoff Birth? NO


The first of our "Wow, this team would have made the playoffs?" moment occurs with the 2011 Titans, a team about as unmemorable and unremarkable as any mediocre team in NFL history. The Titans won nine games primarily as a result of having the league's third-easiest schedule in 2011, playing in a division sans Peyton Manning for the first time in 14 years, and a meaningless Week 17 win against the Houston Texans' subs. The Titans didn't boast a single Pro Bowler, altered between 36-year-old Matt Hasselbeck and rookie Jake Locker at QB, and even Chris Johnson barely cracked 1,000 yards. Intriguingly, they did somehow manage to beat the Ravens during the regular season . . . in a Week 2 game in Nashville. The 2011 Titans are Exhibit A in the argument to retain the current NFL Playoff format at 12 teams. Final Grade: F

Once again, the Bears, like the Steelers, were left on the outside looking in. They were a talented defensive-minded team that played in the same division as two of 2011's best offenses (Green Bay and Detroit) and they did beat the Lions by 24 in Week 10. But after a 7-3 start under Jay Cutler, Chicago collapsed down the stretch (sounds familiar?) after Cutler's season-ending thumb injury. Under Caleb Hanie and Josh McCown, Chicago lost five straight games in the month of December, with its offense averaging 13 points per game. Had they made the playoffs in 2011, they would have probably looked similar to the 2014 Cardinals -- a strong defense undermined by an atrocious offense -- and their playoff fortunes would have resembled the 2014 Cardinals too. Final Grade: D

2010



AFC 7 Seed: San Diego Chargers (9-7-0)
Would have played at: Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4-0)
Deserved Playoff Birth? YES
Could They Have Advanced? YES Probably not

NFC 7 Seed: New York Giants (10-6-0)
Would have played at: Chicago Bears (11-5-0)
Deserved Playoff Birth? YES
Could They Have Advanced? YES

2010 is probably the strongest historical case for opening the NFL's playoff field to 14 teams. In the AFC, the San Diego Chargers accomplished an amazing feat no other team had achieved in a 16-game regular season: They finished #1 in offense and defense in terms of yardage. Philip Rivers led the league in passing yards, and in the Bolts' first season without LaDanian Tomlinson, San Diego still finished third in rushing touchdowns. They finished second in the league in sacks (47) and allowed the fewest first downs. So how did they muster only nine wins? They had horrible special teams (bottom-five in both punt and kickoff return yardage surrendered), had a -6 turnover ratio, and could not overcome a 2-5 start. They lost the AFC West title to the Matt Cassel-led Chiefs(!). Yikes. Still, the yardage statistic lends me to believe they could have kept pace with any team in the league. They would have faced a tremendously tough challenge in Pittsburgh, the #1 defense in points allowed and the eventual AFC Champions. It's worth remembering that between 1995 and 2012, San Diego was 0-6 in games played in Pittsburgh, so while the upset is a promising thought, realistically it would have been unlikely. Final Grade: B+


We all know about the 2010 Giants -- even if you have no recollection of 15 of the 16 games they played. The only relevant game came in Week 15 at home. You know the scenario. After blowing a 21-point 4th quarter lead, there's 14 seconds left, 4th down for the Giants, Desean Jackson to return the punt. The rest is history. What's less remembered is that New York finished with the same win total (10) as Philadelphia, but lost the tiebreaker due to that game. Like the Chargers, the 2010 Giants finished in the top ten of both offense and defense, led the league in takeaways (42), and were only one season away from winning their second title in five years. But like the 2013 Cardinals, playoff teams don't blow 21-point leads at home with the playoffs on the line. Still, 10 wins is still undeniable, particularly since it's the same total as the eventual Super Bowl champion Packers (as well as the 10-win Buccaneers, another team that somehow missed the playoffs). They would have had a very realistic shot against the Bears -- a team they beat by two touchdowns in the regular season -- but perhaps an event like the Desean Jackson punt is devastating enough to quell any momentum you would have had going into the postseason. As a Patriots fan, I often ponder the question: If only the Giants had finished out of the playoffs in 2011...  Final Grade: A-

2009



AFC 7 Seed: Houston Texans (9-7-0)
Would have played at: San Diego Chargers (13-3-0)
Deserved Playoff Birth? NO

NFC 7 Seed: Atlanta Falcons (9-7-0)
Would have played at: Minnesota Vikings (12-4-0)
Deserved Playoff Birth? NO

It's hard to believe that either of the 7 seeds would have caused major disruption in the 2009 playoffs -- a postseason which saw two #1 seeds reach the Super Bowl for the first time in 16 seasons. In the AFC, the Texans benefited from the AFC's second easiest schedule (behind the Chargers) and beat only two teams with a winning record all season. One of those games was in Week 17 when the Texans defeated the Patriots -- an inexplicable game where the Patriots starters played the first three quarters, New England built a 14 point lead, and blew it when the subs came in (it was also the game where Wes Welker was injured for the playoffs, a particularly hard pill to swallow since it was a meaningless game for New England). That makes me believe the Texans were really an 8-8 team, which is appropriate since their offense was spectacular and their defense stunk. Still, the Texans did win four straight to end the season and played the AFC Champion Colts respectably in both games. It's a close call -- especially because the Schaub-to-Johnson passing connection was at its apex -- but since the Texans didn't really demonstrate in the regular season they could stack up against more talented teams, I can't really merit a playoff birth. Final Grade: C

The Falcons made the playoffs in every season from 2008-2012, except for 2009. Like the Texans, they were mediocre team who played the NFC (and Super Bowl) Champion Saints respectably, but unlike the Texans, the Falcons had a very tough schedule -- third toughest in the league, in fact. They were 6-7 before finishing with three straight wins. But by that point of the season, Michael Turner was lost to an ankle injury, and the Falcons had only beat one team with a winning record all season. Remembering the Falcons playoff record in the Smith/Ryan era (1-4), it's hard for me to believe they could have gone into Minnesota and given Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson a serious challenge -- particularly since the 12-4 Cowboys lost by 31 to the Vikes in the Divisional Round and we all remember how close they were to beating the Saints in New Orleans. Like many of the teams so far on this list, the 2009 Falcons were a good team, but an even better argument as to why 14 teams in the playoffs is two too many. Final Grade: D+

2008



AFC 7 Seed: New England Patriots (11-5-0)
Would have played at: Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4-0)
Deserved Playoff Birth? HELL YEAH
Could They Have Advanced? UH...

NFC 7 Seed: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7-0)
Would have played at: Carolina Panthers (12-4-0)
Deserved Playoff Birth? YES
Could They Have Advanced? YES

2008 was one of the flukiest years in NFL history: Tom Brady lost for the season after 7 minutes, Brett Favre on the Jets, Kerry Collins leading the Titans to a 1 seed, the Broncos blowing a three game division lead with three weeks remaining, and the Arizona Cardinals coming within two minutes of winning the Super Bowl. And then there's the 2008 Patriots, one of only two teams to win 11 games and miss the playoffs (the other was the 1986 Broncos). Sure, they didn't have Tom Brady, but Matt Cassel exceeded all expectations as his replacement, leading a top-five offense with four straight December wins. Their late season surge was capped by a 40-point win over the eventual NFC Champion Cardinals in Week 16. There's almost no question that any 11-win team merits a playoff spot (for the sake of argument, just ignore the 2014 Cardinals). Unfortunately, the 2008 Patriots would have gotten a bad draw with Pittsburgh, the eventual Super Bowl champions and a team which annihilated the Pats by 23 in Foxboro in Week 13. More bad luck for the unluckiest team in NFL history. Final Grade: A

The 2008 NFC Championship game featured two nine-win teams (the Cardinals and Eagles), so it's understandable to believe the Bucs could have been competitive in the postseason. In Jon Gruden's final season as coach, Tampa Bay was the exact opposite of the Patriots, finishing the season with four straight losses after a 9-3 start. But they played in a division where all four teams finished .500 or above, and of course played strong defense all season. They would have played the Panthers, who the Bucs had split their season series with; but of course this was the same Carolina team that ultimately did lose their home playoff game to a 9-win team they had defeated earlier in the season. In most other years, the 2008 Buccaneers would have gone unnoticed as just another mediocre near-.500 team that would have been overmatched in the postseason, but given the wacky circumstances of 2008, I suppose anything could have been possible. Final Grade: B

2007



        AFC 7 Seed: Cleveland Browns (10-6-0)
Would have played at: Indianapolis Colts (13-3-0)
Deserved Playoff Birth? YES
Could They Have Advanced? NO

NFC 7 Seed: Minnesota Vikings (8-8-0)
Would have played at: Green Bay Packers (13-3-0)
Deserved Playoff Birth? NO


The Browns were certainly a sentimental darling in 2007, but beneath the facade, did a Derek Anderson-led, Romeo Crennel-coach team truly merit a playoff appearance? Anderson undoubtedly enjoyed his best season as a starter, with Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow combining for 2,400 yards and 16 touchdowns, and Jamal Lewis enjoyed a superb comeback season. But five of the Browns' six losses came on the road, including an inexcusable Week 16 loss in Cincinnati which would have wrapped up a playoff birth, if not the AFC North division (won by 10-win Pittsburgh, who beat the Browns twice). Those losses hurt. The Browns had a pretty easy schedule and really only had one impressive victory all season -- an overtime victory against the Seahawks. I give them the benefit of the doubt because the AFC's 6 seed (Tennessee) wasn't significantly better than the Browns and because 10 wins is the most the Browns have had in any season since 1994. Really, it's just another case of bad luck for the city of Cleveland. Although I don't think they would have been a serious threat to the Patriots or Colts, I can't really imagine any NFL fan in 2007 feeling happy that a 10-win Browns team failed to make the postseason. Final Grade: B


The 2007 Vikings were an unremarkable team except for its running game: They led the league in rushing yards, and gave up the fewest rushing yards to opponents. 296 of Minnesota's rushing yards came courtesy of Adrian Peterson's record-breaking performance against the Chargers in Week 9. They also had an extremely impressive game against the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants in Week 12, when they won in the Meadowlands 41-17. Still, Tavaris Jackson was horrific at quarterback, the passing defense was statistically the league's worst, and they dropped their Week 16 home matchup to the Redskins -- the team which eventually clinched the NFC's 6 seed. Like I've repeated throughout this article, true playoff teams don't blow home games in the final weeks of the regular season when the playoffs are on the line. It's hard to imagine rewarding the Vikings with a playoff birth as a reward for their subpar play in the season's final weeks. This is the kind of scenario I worry about if the league does expand to 14 playoff teams. Additionally, as 7 seed they would have traveled to Green Bay, where they lost 34-0 earlier in the season. Thus, unfortunately for long-suffering Vikings fans, this one's a pretty easy call. Final Grade: D-


2006


AFC 7 Seed: Denver Broncos (9-7-0)
Would have played at: Baltimore Ravens (13-3-0)
Deserved Playoff Birth? NO
Could They Have Advanced? YES*


NFC 7 Seed: Green Bay Packers (8-8-0)
Would have played at: New Orleans Saints (10-6-0)
Deserved Playoff Birth? NO
Could They Have Advanced? NO


Like many teams on this list, the 2006 Broncos was a tale of two seasons: One which saw Denver shoot out to a 7-3 start with impressive wins at New England and Pittsburgh, and the other when they decided to bench Jake Plummer and start rookie Jay Cutler in his place, with the Broncos subsequently finishing 2-4 down the stretch. Oddly enough, I don't recall many Broncos fans being upset with that decision; 32-year-old Plummer definitely had a "ceiling" fans knew he could not get past, and his subpar stats (11 TDs, 13 Ints, 55% completions) demonstrated that Denver was winning in spite of him rather than because of him. Strangely, when Cutler took the helm at QB and the offense dramatically improved, the defense declined; it was also the tough part of Denver's schedule. Still, all the 9-6 Broncos needed to do Week 17 was beat the lowly 49ers at home. Favored by 10 points, they lost in overtime, enabling the 9-7 Chiefs to take what should have been their 6 seed. Thus, the 2006 Broncos represent a quirky anomaly on this list: A team which did not deserve to make the playoffs, but had they done so, could have proved competitive -- especially against a Ravens team which only mustered 6 points at home to the Colts. Final Grade: C


Coming off a 4-12 season in 2005, the 2006 Packers started the season 1-4 and 4-8 before eventually winning their final four games. Three of those games came against sub-.500 teams and the fourth came against the NFC's top-seeded Bears in Week 17, a game in which Chicago spent most of the time resting its starters (and yet somehow Rex Grossman managed to throw three interceptions). So far in this article, I've been highly skeptical of awarding a "YES" grade to 8-8 teams clinching a 7 seed, and the 2006 Packers are no different. They finished the season nicely, and maybe even offered a preview of their much more successful 2007 campaign, but Green Bay had no impressive wins on the season, turned the ball over a lot (Favre had 18 TDs and 18 Ints) and were the product of one of the weakest-ever seasons in the NFC. Final Grade: D-


2005



AFC 7 Seed: Kansas City Chiefs (10-6-0)

Would have played at: Denver Broncos (13-3-0)
Deserved Playoff Birth? YES
Could They Have Advanced? PROBABLY NOT

NFC 7 Seed: Minnesota Vikings (9-7-0)

Would have played at: Chicago Bears (11-5-0)
Deserved Playoff Birth? NO

Like the 2007 Vikings and 2006 Rams, the 2005 Chiefs were led by a powerful young runningback who carried his team on his back in the season's final games. But like the 2007 Browns, the Chiefs played poorly on the road (where five of its six losses occurred) and played in a season where 10 wins simply was not enough. But if you watched football in 2005, you probably remember how unprecedented and dominant Larry Johnson was; in the nine games he started as a replacement for the injured Priest Holmes, Johnson ran wild for 1,351 yards and 16 TDs. In nine games. Kansas City did lose three games during that stretch -- all on the road -- but it's hard to believe that anyone in the AFC would have wanted to face the Chiefs as a 7 seed. KC would have traveled to Denver, who Johnson torched for 140 yards in Week 12, but who also went 8-0 during the regular season and owned the league's second-best rush defense. That would have been a great game. The Chiefs didn't play particularly great defense that season so I suspect Denver probably would have had the edge, but this would have been a scenario when seven playoff teams would have been fun. It's also worth remembering that Kansas City's win total matched the Super Bowl Champion Steelers'.  Final Grade: A


The 2005 Minnesota Vikings are remembered for one thing: the Love Boat Scandal. What no one remembers is that once the air was finally cleared after a 2-5 start, the Vikes actually played really well, finishing 7-2 with Brad Johnson taking over Daunte Culpepper's job at QB. No Randy Moss, no Fred Smoot, no Moe Williams. Go figure. They actually finished one game better than their historically great offensive team of the year before. To me, however, the 2006 Vikings are not a whole lot different than the 2006 Packers: They quietly rebounded after an uncharacteristically weak start, didn't really beat anyone all that impressive until beating up on division champion Chicago in a meaningless Week 17 game. The Vikes did have a six-game winning streak which did feature a commendable Week 10 win against the NFC East champion Giants at the Meadowlands. I suppose the best thing you could say about them is that they were the ultimate Tyson Zone team, while the worst thing you could say is they got what they deserved: Staying home in January. Final Grade: D+


2004



AFC 7 Seed: Jacksonville Jaguars (9-7-0)
Would have played at: New England Patriots (14-2-0)
Deserved Playoff Birth? NO


NFC 7 Seed: New Orleans Saints (8-8-0)
Would have played at: Atlanta Falcons (11-5-0)
Deserved Playoff Birth? NO


The 2004 Jaguars were mediocre in virtually every respect and only had three victories over teams with winning records: Two occurred in the first two weeks of the season, and the third was a massive upset over the Colts in Indianapolis in Week 7. They rallied in the final four games of the season, winning three of its final four, but its one loss during that stretch was costly: An inexcusable Week 16 21-0 shutout at home at the hands of David Carr and the Texans -- their second loss of the season to Houston. All they needed to clinch a playoff birth was a home victory over David Carr, and they couldn't score a point? The Jaguars were a competitive, defensively sound team during the Jack Del Rio era and even won a playoff game in 2007. The 2004 season showed the promise of things to come (they finished 12-4 next season), but by no means did they deserve a trip to New England to be annihilated by the eventual Super Bowl champs. Final Grade: D-


The Saints started 2004 with a 4-8 record until winning their final four games, capped off by a victory over the NFC South champion Falcons, who were resting Michael Vick for the playoffs. They lost every game they were supposed to lose, won most of the games they were supposed to win, went 1-5 against playoff teams with their starters intact, and were largely the beneficiaries of an extremely weak NFC. How weak? Had the Saints made the playoffs, they would have been the third 8-8 team from the NFC to clinch a playoff birth. Even more dumbfounding was the fact that both of those 8-8 teams (the Vikings and Rams) won their Wild Card playoff games. Does that mean the Saints had a chance of going into Atlanta and putting up a fight against the Falcons? Maybe. But that doesn't mean they deserved to be in the playoffs in the first place. Final Grade: D


2003



AFC 7 Seed: Miami Dolphins (10-6-0)
Would have played at: Kansas City Chiefs (13-3-0)
Deserved Playoff Birth? YES
Could They Have Advanced? NO


NFC 7 Seed: Minnesota Vikings (9-7-0)
Would have played at: St. Louis Rams (12-4-0)
Deserved Playoff Birth? NO


You could have made the case that the Dolphins had one of the NFL's two or three best defenses in 2003. They held eight of its opponents to 12 points or fewer. All but one of Miami's losses came to teams with 12 or more wins, and all but two of its losses were by a touchdown or less. They took the 14-2 Patriots to overtime. They went 6-2 on the road, and had the league's best runningback (Ricky Williams) and linebacker (Zach Thomas). They should have made the playoffs. But they did not, due mostly to their weak passing game and 34 turnovers on the season. It's possible that Miami's defense would have been talented enough to slow down the Chiefs -- a team which lost its Divisional Round game -- but their sluggish offense (which scored 28 points or more only once) would have been its Achilles' heel. They deserved to be in the postseason, but I don't exactly lose sleep thinking about the possibilities of Jay Fiedler in January. Final Grade: B+

Question: Name the only NFL team since 1990 to start 6-0 and miss the playoffs. The answer? You guessed it -- the 2003 Vikings, a team probably talented enough to contend with Marc Bulger's Rams and Quincy Carter's Cowboys, but whose stunning collapse made their case for a playoff birth fairly indefensible. The 2003 Vikings were somewhat the football equivalent of the 2011 Red Sox -- a team that gave up a ton of points and could only win games when their offense could manage to score a few more points. And then it culminated in one of the more improbable single-game collapses in sports history: The last second TD pass from Josh McCown to Nate Poole (and the second appearance on this list by the inimitable voice of Paul Allen). But if we're being honest here, Minnesota didn't even deserve to be that close to a playoff birth, having finished the season 3-7 and losing its final four road games. The stats look pretty, to be sure; but in a 14-team playoff, we lose the unbelievable impact of that Nate Poole YouTube clip forever. Final Grade: D

2002


AFC 7 Seed: Miami Dolphins (9-7-0)
Would have played at: Tennessee Titans (11-5-0)
Deserved Playoff Birth? NO

NFC 7 Seed: New Orleans Saints (9-7-0)
Would have played at: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-4-0)
Deserved Playoff Birth? NO

Basically, the same story with the 2002 Dolphins as with the '03 team: Strong defense, great running game, competitive division (no AFC East team finished under .500), and complete and utter ineptitude on the road. The Dolphins went 2-6 away from home which included losses in its final two games, three-point defeats at the hands of the Vikings and Patriots. If they had played all their games at home, the Dolphins would have been a surefire Super Bowl contender -- they had impressive victories over the Jets, Patriots, and AFC Champion Raiders. But the last I checked, 7 seeds would not receive the luxury of homefield advantage. Once again, no sleep lost here. Final Grade: C-

The 2002 Saints were a different story. Possessing arguably the league's most explosive offense, the Saints leaped to a 6-1 start, possessed a 9-4 record heading into December with the 1 and 2 seeds still in play, and promptly lost its final three games. Amazingly, they swept their season series with the eventual Super Bowl Champion Buccaneers, the same team they would have hypothetically matched up with in the Wild Card round. That sounds intriguing on paper, but once again, we're faced with the question of whether a team that suffered a second half collapse should have been rewarded by backing into the postseason. New Orleans blew three straight games, any one of which could have granted them the 6 seed. Instead, the Falcons earned the playoff spot -- a Falcons team which swept the Saints. A rematch with the Buccaneers would have undoubtedly been interesting, but in all likelihood would not have changed the playoff results. Final Grade: C+ 


FINAL VERDICT 


So for those of you keeping track at home, I concluded that only 10 of the 26 7-seeds merited a playoff birth. And of those 10 teams, only four of them had a reasonable chance of advancing, although it may be worth noting that all four of them occurred within the last seven years. And out of those four teams, I don't really believe any of them could have seriously advanced to the Super Bowl. But of course, there's more than just "likelihood": The extra playoff game between the 2 and 7 seeds could have seen season-ending injuries during the games, like Carson Palmer's or Rob Gronkowski's. It could have motivated previously stagnant teams to go on deep playoff runs and play their best football of the season. As an NFL fan, I can't help but wonder if we could have seen another Music City Miracle or Jacoby Jones catch in those nonexistent games (and as a Patriots fan, I'm still bitter about that 2008 team). And it is perhaps significant that none of the 26 teams on this list finished worse than .500.

But conversely, if 10 of those teams deserved a playoff spot, that means 16 of them did not. For every 2008 Patriots and 2010 Giants, there's an '02 Dolphins, '05 Vikings, and '09 Falcons lurking in the distance. Additionally, teams seeded second which won the Super Bowl (such as the 2002 Buccaneers, 2004 Patriots and 2008 Steelers) would have been forced to play an extra game in exchange for surrendering an extra week of rest. And while the NFL playoffs have certainly had its share of unpredictability and upsets featuring lower-seeded teams, the arguments I presented here honestly don't do a whole lot in convincing me that a 14-team playoff is the optimal direction for the league to go in. Of course, the opinions above are not written in the language of dollars and cents, but as a fan who knows that nothing in sports is better than the current format of the NFL playoffs.

Thoughts? Disagreements? Write them in the comments below!

2 comments:

  1. Why not, in the NFL playoffs anything could happen. Besides they would pick the best teams with a winning record. I hate seeing coaches get fired because they missed the playoffs with a winning record

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