Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

05 Jan 2018

FiveThirtyEight: 12 Playoff Teams Are Enough for the NFL

At FiveThirtyEight, we looked at what kind of teams would make the playoffs if the field was expanded to include seventh and eighth seeds. While this year had some better than normal contenders, the typical result is a marginal 9-7 team that unlikely would have did any damage in the tournament. If the NFL wants to reconsider how it does the playoffs, maybe it should look into making sure teams who were outscored (Titans and Bills) don't get in over teams with the same record who outscored their opponents by 80-plus points (Ravens and Chargers).

Posted by: Scott Kacsmar on 05 Jan 2018

43 comments, Last at 13 Jan 2018, 1:26am by RickD


by White Rose Duelist :: Fri, 01/05/2018 - 11:09pm

The first thing I would change is guaranteeing division winners a home game. The chart makes it pretty clear that the weakest division winner is usually worse than either or both of the wild cards. Getting in is enough reward for winning the division.

by Scott Kacsmar :: Sat, 01/06/2018 - 12:20am

Yes, I'm all for that. I don't want to see a 12-4 team going on the road to face an 8-8 team. Already happened in 2008 (IND/SD) and 2011 (PIT/DEN). Same thing with the Saints having to go to 7-9 Seattle in 2010. Doubt those upsets happen if home-field advantage is flipped.

by Will Allen :: Sat, 01/06/2018 - 6:48am

I'm kinda' agnostic about it, but I really don't mind a significant penalty for failure to win your division. I mean, if we are going to have divisions, and think they are important enough to devote 3/8 of the schedule to them, should not failing to win it incur a real cost, even if you still win enough to get in the tournament? What's the point? Maybe we should just get rid of the home and homes, and play 15 different opponents.

by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Sat, 01/06/2018 - 9:10am

I do kind of agree with you as far as the importance of being a division champion. However, it still bothers me when a crappy team wins a weak division. What I would like to see, in order to reduce the chances of that, is for the NFL to go back to 3 divisions and 3 wildcard spots per conference (like pre-2002). Fewer divisions with more teams wouldn’t completely eliminate the 8-8 division winner (Cleveland won the AFC Central that way in 1985), but it would make it far more rare, while also making it really hard for a truly good team stuck in a good division to miss the playoffs on an obscure tiebreaker.

by Will Allen :: Sat, 01/06/2018 - 9:48am

I'd sign on to that.

by dbostedo :: Sat, 01/06/2018 - 9:12pm

Unfortunately, you can't divide 32 teams in 6 same-sized divisions. I always really hated some divisions having more teams. The way the divisions are now and the scheduling it creates is wonderful.

by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Sun, 01/07/2018 - 8:53am

from 1976-1994, the NFC West and AFC Central had 4 teams, while every other division had 5. The earth kept spinning on it’s axis, and few people complained about it. Sure, there were some screwy things with the schedule (the 5th place teams played a home and home with the other 5th place team in there conference and also played against the 5the place teams in the other conference), but I never thought unbalanced divisions were a league-breaking problem.

by dbostedo :: Sun, 01/07/2018 - 2:01pm

I'm probably in the minority, but I always hated it. I seem to recall some of the other teams complaining as well, that the conference game schedules were unbalanced, and they had to compete with more teams for a division crown in a 5 team division, than the divisions that had 4 teams.

by Steve in WI :: Sat, 01/06/2018 - 10:30pm

The problem I have with wanting to penalize teams for not winning their division is that while most of the time, the division winner was clearly superior, that’s not always true. And it ignores the overall quality of the team in relation to the rest of the playoff field. I don’t have that much sympathy for a 10-6 wild card who has to go on the road to a 9-7 division winner if the team that won their division won at least 12 games (and especially if their division winner swept them in the season). It’s a different story when you’re talking about a 12 win wild card. Heck, it’s unlikely, but you could have a 15-1 wild card. And if that 15-1 wild card split the season series with a 15-1 division winner, you wouldn’t even be able to argue that they were meaningfully worse than the winner.

The only advantage I’d want to keep for division winners is home field over wild cards with the same record.

It’ll never happen, but I would love it if they made a rule that you had to have a winning record to make the playoffs, even if you won the division. Any year with an 8-8 or 7-9 division winner would have 3 wild cards instead.

by Will Allen :: Sun, 01/07/2018 - 8:18am

Yeah, there is no perfect way to do this, but like I said, if you are going to devote 38% of the schedule to divisional games, my preference is to make failure to win the division a more costly proposition.

by JIPanick :: Sat, 01/06/2018 - 1:13am

I still want to see things changed so that the best remaining seed gets to host their choice of the remaining opponents, instead of being forced to play the lowest seed.

by PatsFan :: Sat, 01/06/2018 - 2:57am

That will never happen. But it would be glorious.

by Kulko :: Sat, 01/06/2018 - 9:20am

Well it happened here in the austrian hockey league and its rather boring. Unless you can point to reduced travel costs teams just choose the lowest seeded leftover opponent. Anything else just gives added motivation toyour opponent.

by The Ninjalectual :: Sat, 01/06/2018 - 3:31pm

I don't see why Australian hockey would have any kind of parallel to the NFL. That's an interesting anecdote though

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Sat, 01/06/2018 - 3:58pm
by Al Hirt Hologram :: Sat, 01/06/2018 - 8:57am

That's why I like it. Everybody likes a a good upset. Also makes division races more important, both in divisions with strong teams and weak teams.

by Lebo :: Sat, 01/06/2018 - 12:11pm


by justanothersteve :: Sat, 01/06/2018 - 1:03pm

I like a good upset. But upsets should be earned, not simply the result of a lucky home field advantage due to a crap division. I don't believe there are any home upsets except when an awful team beats a dominant team (e.g., the 1997 Colts beating the SB-bound Packers). Playoffs should be seeded by record and winning the division should be the first tie-breaker. If that means the two teams with a bye come from the same division, so be it. But rewarding mediocre season results with a home playoff game is enabling being lucky with a mediocre team.

If the regular season is not to reward the best teams, have a shorter season and put every team in the post-season like many HS basketball seasons. When your team and division is crap, I can see wanting any possible leveling of the field so your team has a chance.

by bravehoptoad :: Sat, 01/06/2018 - 3:41pm

Devil's advocate, here: there are more than crap divisions; there are also really strong ones. If division winners don't get a home game, you're penalizing the team with a poorer record that wins a tough division.

One reason to reward division winners is that divisions play pretty similar schedules, so when you're comparing them you're comparing apples to apples. A wildcard winner with an easy schedule shouldn't be rewarded over a team with a tougher schedule that won its division.

by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Sat, 01/06/2018 - 5:14pm

"A wildcard winner with an easy schedule shouldn't be rewarded over a team with a tougher schedule that won its division."

The counterpoint is that if your hypothetical wildcard team has a better record than your hypothetical division winner, then the wildcard team must be in a division with a team with an even better record. Wouldn't that mean that many times the wildcard team plays in a harder division, and thus has a harder schedule?

by justanothersteve :: Sat, 01/06/2018 - 5:36pm

When you start with a ridiculous premise it's easy to come to a false conclusion. Teams with mediocre records don't win tough divisions or the division wasn't that tough to start.

by ClavisRa :: Tue, 01/09/2018 - 5:59pm

Change I would rather make is, 10 wins required to be a division winner. If no team in the division gets 10 wins, there is no division winner that year, and there's a 3rd wild card team. That would naturally allow the best wildcard team to host a playoff game.

by RickD :: Sat, 01/13/2018 - 1:26am

The NFL has schedules that can be very unbalanced. If you want to set a rule to remove the possibility that a 12-4 team goes on the road to play an 8-8 team, you also open the door to the possibility that a 10-6 team from a softer division ends up hosting a 9-7 team that had a much harder schedule.

by Kulko :: Sat, 01/06/2018 - 9:34am

The reason for the current format is that it provides a bigger chance that W17 games matter. In a points differential driven format week 17 would have been over as soon as san diego was in control of its game.

But H2H or records in arbitary subsetscreate more possibilities and thus more scenarios are still realisticly in play.

Thats probably more important than finding the best team with a longshot to make it anyway.

I also believe that a similar argument is the main reason why Godell has left the current format alone for now. Currently the difference between First Second and Third seed is very relevant so even the bigshots have relevant games to play until week 16 in mosts cases. This keeps the regular season relevant and raises profits more than 2 or 4 marginal playoff games added.

by nat :: Sat, 01/06/2018 - 12:23pm

Since the current format started in 2002, fourth seeds have won their wild card round game more often than third seeds, despite facing the higher seeded wild card team.

In other words, there's no "here" here.

by Bryan Knowles :: Sat, 01/06/2018 - 2:53pm

Pre-2002, the NFL DID use different tiebreakers, and had point differential significantly higher. Here are the pre-'02 tiebreakers:

1. Head-to-head (I think we can all agree that's the best tiebreaker)
2. Division Record (for divisional ties only)
3. Conference Record
4. Common Games Record (Which, in the current system, has been moved ABOVE conference record)
5. Net Points in DIVISION/CONFERENCE Games (depending on if it's a division or wildcard tiebreaker)
6. Strength of Schedule
7. Best Net Touchdowns in All Games
8. Coin Toss

The strength of victory tiebreaker, which is how Buffalo got in, didn't exist. Under this format, the Titans would have still got the 5th and the Chargers would have still been last (thanks to their 8-4 and 6-6 conference records, respectively), but the Ravens would have slid above the Bills, with a 56 net conference points compared to -23.

This would put a more deserving team in the playoffs, although it would have sapped the Ravens/Bengals game of all excitement and meaning (Buffalo would have come into Week 17 needing to make up 89 points to steal a playoff spot, which, no.), and that's something the NFL wants to avoid. They also want to avoid teams running up the score on terrible teams just to help their own tiebreakers as much as possible. These both seem like relatively solid goals to have.

On the flipside, the old tiebreakers and use of points as a relevant thing made the 1980 season finale much more interesting. Dallas had to beat Philadelphia by 25+ points to win the NFC East. They were up 35-10 in the 4th quarter, but then Philly scored 17 unanswered points. The Eagles still lost, 35-27, but they salvaged enough of their divisional point differential to win the NFC East. Got 'em a first-round bye and a chance to play the 9-7 Vikings rather than the 12-4 Falcons, AND the home game in the conference title rematch with Dallas. That 4th quarter must have been something crazy to watch, with the Eagles desperately trying to score even in what was already clearly a loss.

by The Ninjalectual :: Sat, 01/06/2018 - 3:35pm

I was born in 1980 and I've never heard of that, but ut does sound awesome

by Jerry :: Sun, 01/07/2018 - 2:46am

Tiebreakers are necessarily arbitrary. In the process, there are two things the league is trying to avoid:

1. A coin flip.

2. Providing perverse incentives to teams, like losing by fewer than N points. Imagine the case where in Week 17, one team needs to win to get into the playoffs while the other has to lose by less than 10. It would make sense for both teams for the first team to score a touchdown, then have both teams kneel out the rest of the game. That would, of course, be horrible entertainment.

by DGL :: Mon, 01/08/2018 - 1:15am

It'd also screw up Tanier's "Kneel to Win" metric.

by BJR :: Sun, 01/07/2018 - 11:24am

I'd like to see overtime eliminated in regular season games. With more ties there would be less need for confusing and arbitrary tie-breakers.

Other than that I think the NFL schedule and playoff format is, more or less, perfect.

by Richie :: Mon, 01/08/2018 - 4:07pm

How are tiebreakers confusing?

by Travis :: Sun, 01/07/2018 - 1:22pm

4. Common Games Record (Which, in the current system, has been moved ABOVE conference record)

Only for the division tiebreaker. Conference record is above common games in the conference/wild card tiebreaker.

by Richie :: Mon, 01/08/2018 - 4:06pm

On the other hand, the old point differential tiebreaker brought us this scenario in 1999: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZ83nnODDjs

by dbostedo :: Sat, 01/06/2018 - 10:22pm

"...that unlikely would have did any damage in the tournament."

"have did" just hurts my ears/brain.

Putting on my grammar nazi hat, shouldn't it be "...that unlikely would have done any damage in the tournament."

Or better yet, "... that would have been unlikely to do any damage in the tournament."

by Steve in WI :: Sat, 01/06/2018 - 10:35pm

What’s insane to me, that I did not know until this year, is that the conference record tiebreaker comes into play before head to head for the wild card. That’s crazy - how can you say that conference record be considered more relevant to determining which team was better than head to head? Especially when it’s possible that each teams had almost totally different opponents. It’s not like within a division where they played almost the same exact teams.

by Jerry :: Sun, 01/07/2018 - 2:40am

Head-to-head always comes first.


by PatsFan :: Sun, 01/07/2018 - 10:58am

Though in a 3 (or more)-way tie, H2H only comes into play if one team beat all the others or one team lost to all the others. If not, the H2H tiebreaker is skipped.

by Steve in WI :: Sun, 01/07/2018 - 3:46pm

Right, that’s what I meant. It’s hard not to argue that the Chargers got screwed. They blew out the Bills by 30 points and both teams finished 9-7, so I don’t see any way to argue that the Bills were the better team. It helps that the rest of the stats support it, but even if point differential and DVOA favored the Bills I still think head to head results should be king.

by Bryan Knowles :: Mon, 01/08/2018 - 1:28pm

Well, two things.

By looking at just two teams and not all three, you get a bit of a circular logic thing going on there.

The Chargers were better than the Bills, thanks to their head-to-head victory.
The Bills were better than the Ravens, thanks to their strength of victory.
The Ravens were better than the Chargers, thanks to their conference record.

The Titans, meanwhile, would have beaten any of the other three teams in a one-on-one tiebreaker, so them ending up with the fifth seed is a little less controversial (plus, hey, they won!)

Now, you could argue that the only tiebreaker that really matters is head-to-head; and without a cycle THERE (i.e., without, say, Baltimore having beaten the Chargers and the Bills beating Baltimore), it should take precedent. But is that really fair to the Ravens? They'd say they only reason they didn't beat the Bills is they didn't get to play them. They'd be eliminated based on a game they didn't get to play, rather than the games they played in.

In the end, while I enjoy the tiebreakers a lot (obviously!), my ultimate advice to teams is, well, win another game and avoid the tie entirely. This isn't like the NFC, where the Lions, Cowboys and Seahawks all needed to win specific games if they wanted to pass the Falcons. Literally any other win by the Chargers or Ravens would have seen them through.

by Steve in WI :: Mon, 01/08/2018 - 2:28pm

Good points. I would say that in the end I am more upset that conference record is placed so high on the list than I am that head-to-head is ignored when there are 3 or more teams. Going by strength of victory or something wouldn't feel as wrong to me.

by eagle97a :: Sat, 01/06/2018 - 10:40pm

Current format is ok with me but I'm in favor of adding 2 more teams to the playoffs and having the 1st seed the only one with a bye. I also favor somewhat having the 4th seed play an away game if the the 5th seed has a better w-l record and strength of victory. Same with the 3rd seed but that is very rare occurrence with the lowest seeds having better records and strength of victory.

by Axe2Grind :: Thu, 01/11/2018 - 2:05pm

I don't think adding more teams would in the end make for better games. As the article showed, there have not been too many cases where a clearly superior team was left out. in the current format we often get wild card team which have made the cut but realistically are not contenders.
Expanding it could mean that a real contender has to play a game against a less deserving opponent and what if in that game their QB or other significant player(s) are injured. If they win they get to play the game they would likely have played in the current format but now have a much reduced chance.

Also, like this year, often there are at least a couple of teams that have good records but the team they are fielding is not the same team that got that record. They have lost key players due to injury.

I also think that adding more teams would be awkward to schedule without making viewers pick between games played at the same time. I like being able to view all the games live.

Jereme Brown

by Axe2Grind :: Thu, 01/11/2018 - 2:11pm

I also think they should have a rule that the division winner's record has to be at least .500 to host a home game. Yeah sometime it might mean a 10-6 team has to play on the road against an 8-8 team but if you finish 7-9, you should not have a home game no matter what.

If you wanted it to be above .500, I'd be ok with that too.

Jereme Brown