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Now that there are three wildcard spots up for grabs in each conference, could one division hoard them all?
I was recently asked on a podcast about the probability of a single division having every team make the postseason now that the NFL has expanded their playoffs to seven teams per conference. It was such an intriguing question, we waited a week in order to dedicate part of a show to the answer. After diving into the numbers, the answer is simply “possible, but not probable.”
To determine the likelihood of the last place team in a division still being able to grab a wild-card spot, it comes down to three questions. What record would be required to earn the final playoff spot? How often does the last place team in a division meet this record? Looking back at previous seasons, would this have already happened?
In order to get to the conclusion, let’s look at these questions individually. First, it was in 2002 when the NFL went to four divisions of four teams in each conference. Since this is the case, we will only be looking back through the 2002 season.
What record would be required to earn the final playoff spot?
Although we can simply look at the final playoff position in each conference over the last 18 seasons, it would be much more beneficial to look at the teams who would have earned the final playoff position had there been three wild cards available. We know the Steelers would have been the final team in the playoffs in 2019 with an 8-8 record under the new rules. With no team ever possibly earning the wildcard with a losing record during this time period, 8-8 is the lowest record which would have made the playoffs over the last 18 years.
Although the mark of eight 8-8 is the floor for making the playoffs, even expanding to an extra team per division, it would have happened almost 25% of the time. Of the 36 teams who would have made the playoffs had they’ve been expanded to seven in 2002, eight of those teams would have held a record of .500 on the season. For reference sake, the Steelers would have been three of those eight teams who would have made the playoffs at 8-8 in 2019, 2013, and 2012. The other five instances all came from the NFC.
How often does the last place team in a division meet this record?
So now that the standard of a .500 record has been established to reasonably make the playoffs as a number seven seed, are there any cases where a team finished last in their division with a record of 8-8? With 10 games for each team being out of the division, it’s possible for a team to lose every divisional game and still go .500 on the season. Although this is possible, what is more likely is the division is split very evenly with not much difference between the first place and last place finisher.
Going back to 2002, The team finishing the last in the division yet having an 8-8 record has happened five times. What is extremely interesting about these instances is, first, it has not happened in over 10 years. The last team to go 8-8 and finished in last place in their division was the 2008 Washington Redskins. The other interesting fact about teams finishing 8–8 and coming in last place in their division is the four remaining times happened in years where it occurred twice. In 2007, the Houston Texans finished 8-8 in the AFC South yet came in fourth place in the division while the Philadelphia Eagles did the same in the NFC East. The other two cases came in 2002 both in the AFC as Buffalo and Kansas City each finished .500 and yet finished in last place in the AFC East and AFC West respectively.
Looking back at previous seasons, would this have already happened?
Although I could have answered this question first, all of the other interesting information would have been an afterthought. So, cutting right to the chase—no, none of the teams since 2002 who finished last place in their division would have made the playoffs had they been using the new format for 2020.
Of the five teams highlighted who came in last in their division with an 8-8 record, none would have made the playoffs although one came extremely close. First of all, the 2008 Redskins along with the 2002 Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs were all .500 in last place in their divisions. None of these teams were even close as the third place finisher in their division did not make the playoffs either. As for the Houston Texans and Philadelphia Eagles in 2007, this was a very interesting year when it came to the playoffs.
In order for all four teams to make the playoffs from a division, it would first have to be a year in which both wildcard positions went to the same division. This has happened seven times since 2002. The AFC North sent three teams to the playoffs in 2014 and 2011. Most recently, it was the NFC South who was represented with both wildcard spots in 2017. But in 2007, which happens to be a year two last-place finishers of a division finished 8-8, both of their divisions sent three teams to the postseason. The Houston Texans were two games out of grabbing the seventh seed as the Cleveland Browns finished the season 10-6 and yet did not make the playoffs.
The closest an NFL team has ever come to finishing last in their division and placing seventh in the conference was the 2007 Philadelphia Eagles. At 8-8, they were in a three-way tie with the Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals when it came to the seventh seed. After applying all the tiebreakers, the Vikings finished just ahead of the Eagles due to their conference winning percentage tiebreaker.
So is it possible for a division to have every team make the playoffs with the new format? Absolutely. Is it very likely this will occur? Not at all. In fact, it would be another statistic which has yet to happen had the playoffs been expanded in this form in 2002. But much like the Pittsburgh Steelers winning the Super Bowl in 2005 as a sixth seed, it has never happened until somebody does it.
Although this is an interesting talking point, Steelers’ Nation should have a little to fear. The Steelers have not finished in last place in their division since 1988. So, if a team is fighting for the postseason while at the bottom of their division, hopefully it is not the Steelers who are in the conversation.