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31 Dec 2005

Win and You're In -- But Does It Matter?

A Mad Dash for the Playoffs Doesn't Produce a Champion

by Michael David Smith

With half the playoff spots in the NFC up for grabs in Week 17, the NFL and FOX will call this the biggest weekend of the regular season. In reality, Week 17 is more like a weekend of exhibition games before the playoffs. History has repeatedly shown that teams still scrambling to make the playoffs aren't really title contenders, meaning any team that needs a win this weekend to get into the playoffs isn't good enough to get to the Super Bowl.

Since the NFL expanded the playoffs to 12 teams in 1990, no team that needed to win its last game to reach the postseason has made the Super Bowl. And while fans and the media will scrutinize every imaginable tiebreaker scenario, those scenarios are probably irrelevant to the question of who will win the championship. Only two of the 78 teams that have played in the 39 previous Super Bowls entered the playoffs on a tiebreaker.

So although the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina Panthers, Dallas Cowboys, and Washington Redskins will fight to make the playoffs this weekend, the real Super Bowl contenders from the NFC are the three teams that have already made the playoffs -- the New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks, and Chicago Bears.

The AFC race is even less interesting, with all four division winners and the top wild-card spot already determined. In the AFC, Cincinnati visits Kansas City on Sunday in a game that, at first glance, looks important: The Chiefs are fighting to earn a wild-card spot against the AFC North champion Bengals. But don't expect much of an effort out of the Bengals, whose goal will be to avoid injuries. And no matter what Kansas City does, the playoffs are probably out of reach: The Chiefs need to catch the Pittsburgh Steelers in the standings, which would require the 5-10 Detroit Lions to win at Pittsburgh.

Whether Kansas City or Pittsburgh nabs that sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC, the Steelers and Chiefs aren't battling for a chance to play in the Super Bowl -- they're battling for a chance to lose in the playoffs. The Steelers or the Chiefs would have to win three consecutive games, all on the road, to reach the Super Bowl. A likely scenario would be games at Cincinnati in the first round, at a well-rested Indianapolis in the second round, and at Denver in the AFC Championship. The Steelers and Chiefs are good enough to beat any of those teams on any given Sunday, but they're not good enough to beat all three of them on three straight Sundays.

Since the NFL added a sixth playoff team in each conference in 1990, the sixth seed has never gotten to the conference championship game, let alone the Super Bowl. And when the sixth seed loses, it usually loses a blowout: Sixth seeds have a record of 9-30, and those 30 losses have come by an average margin of 17 points.

The true Super Bowl contenders are the teams that have already clinched a playoff spot -- Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Denver, New England, Jacksonville, Seattle, Chicago, and the Giants. Teams that clinch this weekend are essentially playing for the right to lose to one of those teams.

If Week 17 is less important than most fans think at the bottom of the playoff race, it's utterly irrelevant at the top. The top two teams in each conference -- Indianapolis and Denver in the AFC, Seattle and Chicago in the NFC -- have secured their spots, meaning they'll treat the season finale like a preseason game and rest many of their top players. Only a few years ago, NFL teams wouldn't dream of treating a regular season game like an exhibition - the Broncos had sewn up home field advantage throughout the 1998 playoffs, but John Elway still played the entire game and threw 36 passes in the final week of the regular season.

But that was the end of an era. The next season, the St. Louis Rams clinched home-field advantage early, then rested their starters and lost the final game to the 4-11 Eagles. With all their starters healthy, the Rams won the Super Bowl. Since then, teams that have already locked up playoff spots have realized that the end of the regular season can go from meaningless to downright harmful if a key player is injured. Though some teams believe they need to win in Week 17 because they want to keep momentum going into the playoffs, the 1999 Rams showed that staying healthy is more important than having momentum.

During Week 17 last year, the strategy of resting starters in the final week of the season reached new levels. Six teams that knew their playoff positions were secure -- Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Atlanta -- either benched their top players completely or played them for only a few series.

Some commentators have suggested that eliminating the wild card and allowing only the four division champions into the playoffs would make the end of the regular season more exciting. (That argument was voiced in many circles when Major League Baseball expanded its playoffs in 1994. George W. Bush, then owner of the Texas Rangers, was the only baseball owner who voted against expanding the playoffs.) But there's too much network television money in those first round playoff games for the league to consider such a concept.

So the current playoff format is here to stay, even with Super Bowl contenders looking past Week 17 to the postseason. That makes the most important game this weekend the one between the two worst teams: The Houston Texans take on the San Francisco 49ers in a game that could determine which team gets the first pick in next year's draft. As fans in Dallas and Washington dream of the playoffs, fans in Houston and San Francisco dream of Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush.

Game Previews: Finding an Upset

by Aaron Schatz

When the NFL sets its schedule, there's no way to know which teams will still be in the hunt for a playoff spot come December. In the penultimate week of 2005, everything worked out for maximum drama, with multiple games pitting two teams on the postseason bubble against each other.

The final week of the season, however, will not be so dramatic. Only four playoff spots remain open, and four teams can get those spots simply by beating a non-playoff opponent. Only one game features two possible playoff teams, Cincinnati at Kansas City, but the Bengals are already AFC North champions and the game only matters to the Chiefs if Pittsburgh is upset by hapless Detroit.

Since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990, as noted above, no team which needed a win in the final week to make the postseason has even reached the Super Bowl. Still, hope springs eternal, and fans would rather see their favorite team in the playoffs than not in the playoffs.

Is there any reason to believe that one of these postseason bubble teams could possible blow its shot at the playoffs by falling to an inferior opponent? Here's a look, from the least likely upset to the most likely. Capsules may reference Football Outsiders' DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) system, which breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent.

NEW ORLEANS (3-12) at TAMPA BAY (10-5)

Even if they lose, the Bucs can only miss the playoffs through a complicated series of wins and losses by other teams that would end in the NFL's convoluted "strength of victory" tiebreaker. And not only does DVOA rank New Orleans among the ten worst teams in every single facet of the game, but the Saints also want to lose. If Houston beats San Francisco, it creates a logjam of 3-13 teams that could also include the Saints, Jets, and/or Packers, leaving the top pick in the 2006 draft to be decided by strength of schedule. Though the final week could change things, right now this scenario would end up giving New Orleans the number one pick and the right to choose highly-touted USC running back Reggie Bush.

DETROIT (5-10) at PITTSBURGH (10-5)

Sure, the Lions have five wins, but the best team they beat was Baltimore (6-9), and that was three months ago. The Lions have only one advantage over the Steelers: thanks to defensive tackles Shaun Rogers and Dan Wilkinson, they are the best team in the league preventing runs up the middle, which should limit Pittsburgh's ability to use Jerome Bettis. But that's fine with the Steelers, who will instead win by running Willie Parker to the outside, or passing the ball to Hines Ward and Heath Miller. Or perhaps the Steelers defense -- ranked second in DVOA behind Chicago -- will just harass Lions quarterback Joey Harrington into turnover after turnover.

NEW YORK GIANTS (10-5) at OAKLAND (4-11)

The Giants are actually not on the playoff bubble. They've clinched at least a wild card, but a win would get them the NFC East title and bring the NFL playoffs to the Meadowlands for the first time since the Jets hosted Indianapolis in the 2002 wild card round.

Can Oakland exploit the Giants' weaknesses? Eli Manning is still inaccurate, and that can lead to interceptions -- except the Raiders have just five interceptions this year, last in the league. The generally strong Giants run defense is extremely susceptible to runs around left end, giving up 7.1 yards per carry, 31st in the league. Opponents are starting to take advantage: the Giants have faced more left end runs in their last three games (35) than they did in their first 12 games (33). But the Oakland running back will be Zach Crockett, usually a straight-ahead goal-line specialist, instead of injured starter LaMont Jordan.

That leaves Jay Feely's second-half case of the yips and the fact that Oakland has the hardest warm-weather stadium in the NFL for kicking field goals. From 2000-2004, visiting field goal kickers scored 11.5 points fewer than the league average from similar distances, only Green Bay and New England were harder places to kick. But Feely would have to get a planet-sized case of the yips and ten field goal chances to blow this game on his own.

ST. LOUIS (5-10) at DALLAS (10-5)

This is the final game of the season, but Dallas only has a shot at the playoffs if Washington or Carolina loses. St. Louis has the league's most consistent offense because, while both the passing game and running game have been inconsistent, one has always been good when the other was bad. Since stopping the run has been Dallas' Achilles' heel for the entire season, the Rams have a chance to win if running back Steven Jackson is having one of his good days. They also need a few bounces of the ball to go their way, which could happen considering that Drew Bledsoe has been sacked 47 times, the fourth-highest total in the league, and sacks often lead to fumbles. Of course, the Rams have the same problems: their quarterbacks have been sacked 44 times and their offense has 21 fumbles, only two fewer than Dallas. And while the Dallas defense can't stop the run, the St. Louis defense can't stop anything.


Washington is in with a win; if the Giants lose, they could be division champions as well. Quarterback Mark Brunell is listed as probable with a sprained knee, and Washington's chances of being upset become much higher if he cannot play. Brunell's resurgence is a key reason behind Washington's winning record, and the drop to backup Patrick Ramsey is substantial. The Redskins will have a hard time depending on running back Clinton Portis to win this game, because while everything else has gone wrong for the Eagles this year, one asset remains: their run defense, ranked third in the league by DVOA. Of course, the Eagles still have to somehow score. Since Donovan McNabb's season ended with an injury seven weeks ago, the Eagles have the lowest offensive DVOA in the league, including less than four net yards per pass attempt.

CAROLINA (10-5) at ATLANTA (8-7)

If they lose, the Panthers still make the playoffs as long as Dallas or Washington loses as well. That's good news for them, because while the Falcons are a mediocre team, they are also a division rival playing at home with something to prove: that they they can post two straight winning seasons, something this franchise has never done. Atlanta's offense is built around the run, and while the Panthers have been a top run defense for most of the season, they were completely trampled by Dallas last week -- especially tackle Jordan Carstens, who was pushed five yards backwards by Dallas guard Larry Allen on nearly every play.

Atlanta will need to run the ball to keep their terrible defense off the field. Steve Smith, this year's most valuable wide receiver, is licking his chops at the prospect of facing an Atlanta secondary playing without its best cornerback, the injured DeAngelo Hall. But it will be tough for the Panthers, ranked 30th in run offense, to take advantage of the Falcons run defense, ranked last.

These articles appeared earlier this week in the New York Sun.

Posted by: admin on 31 Dec 2005

57 comments, Last at 03 Jan 2006, 1:42pm by judolphin


by Vash (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 1:07am

Question: If the Chargers lose on Saturday, therefore preventing Pittsburgh from needing a win to make the playoffs, does that improve their odds of winning the Super Bowl?

by Kevo (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 1:11am

And yet Carl Peterson wants to ADD a playoff team.

by Vash (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 1:13am

Also, basing support of resting starters the final week versus playing to win in order to gain momentum is extremely flawed. You cannot base this conclusion on one team.

Allow me to give a counterexample: the 2004 New England Patriots.
The 2004 Patriots had clinched the AFC's second seed by Week 17, but they played their starters, going for the win. They won the game and proceeded to run through the playoffs to a Super Bowl victory.

by Kibbles (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 1:22am

Re #1: Was that a serious question?

Nothing that any team could do would improve Pittsburgh's odds of winning a superbowl. Arizona could win by 900 points, and San Diego could lose by a million, but Pittsburgh would still be exactly the same team they were before.

by Basilicus (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 1:39am

I think Vash meant statistically, as in Pittsburgh needing a win (i.e. the Chargers win) means that statistically they have less of a chance of winning the Super Bowl vs. Pittsburgh not needing a win (i.e. the Chargers lose) means that statistically they have a greater chance. This does not mean they actually have a better chance, but because of the logic statistics work on the Steelers can still at this point shift categories, and since each category designates a different chance of winning the Super Bowl to a given team, the statistics can therefore falsely say the Steelers have a better chance at the Super Bowl if the Chargers lose. It's just a logical fallibility that #1 is pointing out.

by Steven Cummings (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 1:42am

(Sigh) Harsh reality.

But fans (me included) can't let go of every last shred of hope because the prospect of waiting out the offseason is bleak.

For Chiefs fans the prospects for next year could be bleak too if this is true:
"Next year’s Chiefs may look familiar" (the link is on my name)

by Steve Z (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 1:57am

Re: #5
Yep, what significantly dampens the Steelers’ Super Bowl prospects is not their needing to win their last game of the season in order to get into the playoffs, it’s their having to win three straight games on the road just to get to the Super Bowl. They can’t avoid taking this road. And, the AFC playoffs are stacked with strong teams, a fact that only decreases further the Steelers’ chances of making it to the Super Bowl.

by thad (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 2:08am

i think if both the Giants and Bucs lose and dallas wins Dallas is in

by Vash (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 2:08am

#4: No, I was pointing out through sarcasm that a team's chances don't change at all based on whether they have to win the final week. The Pittsburgh Steelers will still be the Pittsburgh Steelers regardless of whether they have to win. Needing to win the final week determines nothing; therefore, the notion that it doesn't matter whether the Steelers win and make the playoffs or lose and are out is absurd.

by PerlStalker (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 3:04am

Speaking of the playoffs (and who isn't these days), what if they added two more wild card teams per conference? The league could eliminate the bye for the top seeds putting all the teams on a slightly more level field. One problem I see is that the top teams would be more willing to ignore their final, meaningless games.

What do the rest of you think?

by Billy Bob (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 3:32am

RE #1, 5

The Steelers need the Chargers to win - not lose - to clinch a playoff spot before their game Sunday. Playoff scenarios are linked.

by DJ Any Reason (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 4:24am

Re: 7

While you are, of course correct, the article we're all replying to suggests thant "win and you're in" means "win and you get to lose another day". Methinks perhaps Vash was questioning the particular importance of the "win and you're in" factor in the equation, in a somewhat ironic manner.

Arguing that teams who still need to win to make the playoffs in week 17 are simply weak teams makes more sense than some curse of "win and you're in". I'm sure MDS agrees, but he doesn't really make that point apparent in this piece.

by Nuk (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 4:34am

I think squeaking into the playoffs in the last week of the season is clearly better than not making the playoffs, even if you have no real chance of winning it all. In the '95 season, when the 9-7 Colts got into the playoffs, made it to the AFC championship game, and lost to Pittsburgh, I was thrilled. It was so much better than those 3-13 or 1-15 seasons.
The superbowl is not the entire point of the league. Every game is a chance to cheer and curse.

by Vash (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 4:48am

11: Typo >.>

12: Correct. I was simply pointing out that he fails to say anything about why last-week qualifiers don't do well in the playoffs and therefore leaves the impression that he's just talking about some curse. And I still can't really tell whether he thinks that's because they're weak teams or because they have to play all-out in the final week (as you see, he also made the (flawed) point that teams that rest Week 17 do better; for details on how it is flawed, see #3).

by Vash (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 5:23am

#7: Aren't the Steelers one of the teams that was calculated to have a strongly negative home-field advantage, and can anyone link me to the article? I can't seem to find it.

by Potomac Drainage Basin Indigenous Person (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 7:10am

Aaron: Some of us aren't used to winning 3 out of 4 Super Bowls and thus have slightly lower standards about what constitutes a good season! I am personally thrilled about being in a "win and you're in" situation. Until this year, I was convinced that winning wasn't even the goal in Washington, as winning and then ceasing to win later might hurt total profits.

by Bob (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 9:22am

Well although obviously the Steelers are the same team whether San Diego wins or loses, I do think SD winning improves the Steelers' chances in the playoffs. It means they can rest players this week.

by GBS (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 10:31am

As I was reading through the comments, I was about to post the same thing Bob just beat me to. If Pittsburgh doesn't have to play to win, they're chances of winning the Super Bowl improve because they can better prepare for the playoffs in their last game. Of course, if you believe Bill Cowher will make the wrong choices with those options, it may actually DECREASE their chances...... ;)

by Andrew (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 11:20am

#2 and #10:

Adding more teams to the playoff mix simply erodes the chances of the #1 team, and thus increases the chances of everyone down the pole, with most of the benefit flowing to the #2, #3, and #4 seeds for advancement. That is what happened after adding a 6th wild card in 1990 - winning percentages went down in the Championship game, but up in the Divisional round, making home field through the playoffs mean less.

by Clod (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 12:46pm

Have 2 10 win teams ever been left out of the playoffs before?

I don't see SD losing, and KC has as good a chance as anyone...that would give them both 10-6 records, and solidify the AFC West as the best league maybe EVER? But neither of them getting a wild card. Now THAT is wild.

by JMM (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 12:53pm

RE; #13 Nuk
"Every game is a chance to cheer and curse."

Very well put. All I ever want the Steelers to do is win the next game (or the one they are currently playing.) I would love for the opportunity for the Steelers to play 3 road playoff games, and if NE can be in the mix, with Cinci and Indy, so much the better.

by Tom Kelso (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 1:09pm


All other commentaries aside, it would remove the Steelers from the pool for this particular analysis, so whatever wins Pittsburgh gets afterwards are immaterial.

Playing three road games is desirable only if the alternative is no games -- DUUUHHH! But that's not always the case -- there have been situations where a team's play in the last week is the difference between #'s 3 & $ vs. 5 & 6 (where 5 does have a chance for a home game, it's very small, and has never occurred in the history of the NFL to date).

by hector (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 1:26pm

I think the key is this - if you're fighting for a 5 or 6 seed, you're just getting a trip to the slaughterhouse anyway. But teams still in the mix for a 3 or a 4 can do damage. I wouldn't look past Carolina or Tampa Bay even as they need to TCOB this weekend.

Oversimplifying, it's always seemed to me that 1 and 2 seeds have a great chance in the tournament, 3 and 4 seeds have some chance, 5 has a remote chance and 6 has no chance (oh, if Hakim hadn't fumbled back in Jan. 2001). I need to check the actual results before I spew that out, I suppose, but that's for tomorrow.

by hector (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 1:29pm

I also wonder to what extent "make playoffs, lose in round one" constitutes a successful year with some franchises. I know this would be a very relative thing - certainly it's not playing in Denver any more, or Indianapolis. In other spots, I guess it could be seen as a building block towards future success. I'm curious to see where Cincinnati might be in 12 months (or the non-playoff bound Chargers, who I'm still semi-obsessed over. They have to be better than a 9-6 team, right?)

by navin (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 2:03pm

Re: 20,
I believe two were left out in 1991 when San Fran and Philly both had 10 wins.

by Kibbles (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 2:44pm

Re #25: Correct. The only other 10-win team to miss the playoffs since they expanded was the 2003 Dolphins.

That said, I believe it's still possible for THREE 10-win teams to miss the playoffs this year. That's not happened before.

Even then, they don't really have a reason to complain (although that certainly won't stop Chiefs president Carl Peterson from getting back up on his soapbox and trying desperately to reward mediocrity). The NFL record for the best team left out of the playoffs is the 1985 11-5 Denver Broncos.

by Steve Z (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 2:55pm

Re: #12
While you are, of course correct, the article we’re all replying to suggests thant “win and you’re in� means “win and you get to lose another day�. Methinks perhaps Vash was questioning the particular importance of the “win and you’re in� factor in the equation, in a somewhat ironic manner.
Since I interpreted the MDS’ original argument as being a bit ambiguous about specifying what causes a team that must win its final game to reach the playoffs to then go on and fail to make it to the Super Bowl. I believed the original argument to be ambiguous because it seems to suggest that having to win on the final weekend causes subsequent playoff failures while it’d have been better to indicate that needing to win that last game points to more intractable problems those teams will face. The problem for MDS’ original argument issues from the following sentence:
Whether Kansas City or Pittsburgh nabs that sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC, the Steelers and Chiefs aren’t battling for a chance to play in the Super Bowl — they’re battling for a chance to lose in the playoffs.
As a matter of fact, the Steelers and the Chiefs are battling for place in a seeded tournament, which is to say that they are ‘battling for a chance to play in the Super Bowl.’ Making it into the playoffs necessarily implies having an opportunity to play in the Super Bowl, But, because the playoffs are a seeded tournament, the low seeds face handicaps relative to their opponents while the high seeds are given competitive advantages relative to their opponents. Thus, it’s improbable — but not impossible — for the lower seeds to make it to the Super Bowl. As MDS noted:
The Steelers or the Chiefs would have to win three consecutive games, all on the road, to reach the Super Bowl. A likely scenario would be games at Cincinnati in the first round, at a well-rested Indianapolis in the second round, and at Denver in the AFC Championship. The Steelers and Chiefs are good enough to beat any of those teams on any given Sunday, but they’re not good enough to beat all three of them on three straight Sundays.
Are the Steelers and Chiefs ‘not good enough to beat’ their likely opponents ‘on three straight Sundays’? Probably!
Re: #17
Aren’t the Steelers one of the teams that was calculated to have a strongly negative home-field advantage, and can anyone link me to the article?
I don’t have the article but, for this season, the Steelers have played well on the road. Moreover, Roethlisberger seems to be returning to his early season form, although one might wonder about the competition he’s recently faced. The Steelers could easily be considered much better than the record even though their record is likely to be 11-5. So, assuming for the moment that the Steelers are not a weak 6th seed but a legitimate division winner that has overcome adversity, made the playoffs, plays well on the road and is peaking when entering the postseason, it follows that the (hypothetical) probability we might assign to the Steelers this postseason should be different than the probability we would assign to most 6th seeds. For the Steelers, we would look at ceiling set by their talent, their coaches, the schedule they face, etc. For many — if not most — 6th seeds, we might say that their chances of making it to the Super Bowl approach 0.0. The 2005 Steelers, on the other hand, should have a better than 0.0 chance of making it to the Super Bowl. How much better and how much better than most 6th seeds? That might be impossible to determine with any confidence.

by Steve Z (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 2:57pm

Sorry about the misformatted post: #27. Not enough coffee, I guess.

by Ron Mexico (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 3:53pm


Aiiiieeee!!! The goggles... they do nothing!

by Vash (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 4:05pm

#18: The extra week of preparation is somewhat less than useful when you don't know who your playoff opponent is (which the Steelers don't, thanks to Cincy losing last week and now resting Palmer this week). So being in before Week 17 doesn't necessarily offer the advantage of an extra week to prepare for the team you face.

The "week of rest" theory also has no real support. MDS uses the example of the '99 Rams, who rested their starters the final week and won the Super Bowl, but what about the '04 Patriots, who played their starters the final week despite being locked in their seed and went on to win the Super Bowl?
There seems to be no real evidence that the ability to rest your starters Week 17 provides any significant advantage.

Additionally, MDS says only two of the 78 Super Bowl teams had to win in the last week... that's not very useful in itself. What percentage of SB teams were wildcards? How does regular-season record predict a team's chances of making the Super Bowl? Is having to win Week 17 merely a function of having a weak regular-season record, or is there, as MDS suspects but does not prove, another factor at work?

by Chris (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 5:27pm

It is a certainty that the Colts or Broncos will be the AFC champion. Nobody is going to win AT Denver in the 2nd round. Pencil Denver in to the AFC championship game. If anybody beats the Colts in the 2nd round, which is possible, they will go on to Denver and lose. If Indy wins in round 2 and hosts Denver, they will probably win but not neccessarily. Therefore, IND or DEN = AFC champions. It is a lock.

If you think that the Redskins or Panthers or Cowboys or Buccaneers can't get through the NFC playoffs because of some 'win-and-in historical prespective' you are just a clown. There is no favorite in the NFC. The AFC is layered by talent, Colts and Broncos, Jaguars Patriots and Bengals, Steelers and Chiefs, and so on. That supports his argument. But look at the NFC. Is anyone certain that the Seahawks and Bears are better than the Panthers and Redskins? The Giants might be the best team in there. Or the Bucs might be. Who knows. These teams are all remarkably equal in talent, and the difference in record reflects nothing more than schedules, injuries, and lucky bounces. To write an article basically counting 4 NFC teams out, after seeing the intense parity between all 6 teams that will represent that conference, seems extremely questionable.

by charles (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 6:25pm

yeah, yeah philly is 3rd in rushing defensive dvoa, you know who is 4th, carolina, that's right the carolina who julius jones sh***ed on last week. Also doesn't philly stink at defending number one wideouts? And who is the redskins number one wideout? HMMMMM....

by charles (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 6:25pm

But to be fair philly held portis to 67 yards on 21 carries in the first meeting.

by Sara (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 6:41pm

Chris, to answer your question - yes, I am certain that the Bears are bettter than Carolina. And I feel pretty good about saying the Seahawks are as well.

by Ryan Mc (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 7:41pm

I haven't read all the comments so apologies if somebody has pointed this out already: I'm pretty sure the 1985 Patriots had to win their final game to make the playoffs. They beat Cincy on the final weekend to finish 11-5 and make the playoffs as a wildcard, and Denver finished 11-5 and missed the playoffs. The 85 Pats, of course, then won 3 road playoff games to reach the Superbowl, so it's certainly not impossible, although obviously not very common.

by Dennis (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 8:05pm

Re 16 & 24: It totally depends on what your expectations are. I'm a Jets fan, so to me, a first-round playoff loss is a successful season. And when if they win a playoff game, that's a major bonus.

It also depends on how the regular season goes. If you start out 8-2, you're thinking Super Bowl and a first round loss would be a disappointment. Conversely, if you start out 2-5, making the playoffs is a great turnaround.

I think the bottom line for most fans is they want to extend the season as long as possible, even if it's just having a chance of making the playoffs with a win in week 17 if 4 other teams lose.

by Chris M (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 9:15pm

Can you imagine the NFC playoffs from last year if they'd included 8 teams?

Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that would have put a sub .500 team in the playoffs, which doesn't seem like a great idea to me.

by DJ Any Reason (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 10:12pm

I'd like to answer the titular question of this article, if I may (kinda late in the thread for that, I know):

"Does it matter?" - Yes

Whoever does not receive the final playoff spots will have a 0% chance of reaching or winning the Super Bowl. The odds of those who do may be very small, but certainly, MDS, you don't mean to suggest they are, in fact, 0. Historically, they have been, but that is unlikely to continue indefinately.

As we may all remember, before 2000, no Wild Card team had ever won a Super Bowl. Then Baltimore did it.

by Andrew (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 10:16pm


Denver won the Super Bowl as a Wild Card in 1997. Oakland won the Super Bowl as a Wild Card in 1980. 2000 Ravens were the 3rd time this had occurred, and the 7th Wild Card to make it to the Super Bowl (1979 Rams, 1985 Patriots, 1992 Bills, 1999 Titans all lost).

by Andrew (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 10:26pm

Two 10+ win teams were left out of the playoffs in 1985 (Broncos-11 wins and Redskins), 1986 (Seahawks and Bengals), 1988 (Saints and Giants), 1989 (Redskins and Packers), and 1991 (Eagles and 49ers). The frequency of the occurance in the late 1980's was what drove the creation of the 6th seed and the elimination of the bye week but institution of a home game for the #3 seed in 1990. Since 1991, this has not been a real problem, instead, the league has often had 8 win teams in the playoffs.

by Paul (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 11:45pm

I wanted to say hours ago, but I'm moving in 3 days and it was hard to convince my wife that it was more important than packing: Assuming that the Steelers and Skins are the 6 seeds, and seeing as how well they are playing, I have to believe that neither of them will get beat by anything close to 17 points. I think at least one of them wins a game... I would not be at all surprised if they win 4 between them

by GBS (not verified) :: Sun, 01/01/2006 - 12:46am

#30. I was referring to the opportunity to hold players out and not game planning for a specific opponent. While I'd agree that resting perfectly healthy players probably has minimal value, I think the opportunity to sit players with minor injuries is a big advantage.

by Tom Kelso (not verified) :: Sun, 01/01/2006 - 1:05am

Add to that list the 1969 Chiefs, who won Super Bowl IV despite finishing second in their division. They then beat the Jets and Oakland on the road to get to SB IV, where they began the long tradition of making Minnesotans glad for icefishing in January.

by andrew (not verified) :: Sun, 01/01/2006 - 2:54am

The 69 chiefs were second, but I don't think it was called "wild card" back then.

#39 - The 1979 Rams were not a wild card, they won their division with a 9-7 record.

Dallas in 1975 was the other wild card to make a superbowl, they finished behind the St. Louis Cardinals but were a wild card, where they upset Minnesota on the Drew Pearson Hail Mary game and then destroyed the Rams before losing to Pittsburgh in the SB.

by andrew (not verified) :: Sun, 01/01/2006 - 3:06am

I should also add that the 1979 Rams team was 5-6 and had to win 4 out of its last 5 games just to win the division.... but did in fact have it clinched the last weekend (a loss to the 8-8 Saints) so I guess they don't qualify as a team facing must win in its last game.

The 1980 Raiders team that won a superbowl from its wild card spot had to beat the Giants in the final regular season game to make the playoffs...

by Kris (not verified) :: Sun, 01/01/2006 - 8:23am

The best team to not make the playoffs was the 1967 Baltimore Colts. They finished with a 11-1-2 record because the Rams won the tiebreaker for head-to-head point differential. That's because they had a four 4 team divisions without any wildcards. (courtesy of Fox Sports article.)
The '85 Pats are the only team that I know of that posted three road playoff wins. Certainly it's not impossible, but highly improbable.
Lastly, we'll see more 10+ win teams not make the playoffs. The team this year in particular that I feel blew it was the San Diego Chargers. Their depressing losses to Dallas (late 4th QTR endzone INT) and Philadelphia (late 4th QTR FG blocked turns into TD return) made them press against Miami (who they lost to also.) That could have been a 12-win wildcard team.

by Levente, Hungary (not verified) :: Sun, 01/01/2006 - 10:16am

Sorry for my ignorance, I am just a dumb European (however avid football fan). Wouldn't it make more sense to decide the No1 draft spot by lottery between the bottom 3-5 teams? There is not much difference in their strength anyway and this could eliminate the play-for-the-loss attitude / suspicion at the end of the season.

by ernie cohen (not verified) :: Sun, 01/01/2006 - 12:34pm

I don't understand MDS's argument. Whoever wins in the AFC divisional round has to probably win at DEN and IND. So CIN's chances are not much better than PIT's.

If we put some faith in public perception, the current betting odds confirm this. PIT's odds for winning the SB are comparable to CIN and NYG.

by andrew (not verified) :: Sun, 01/01/2006 - 1:51pm

Three road playoff wins?

Lessee (quick review of wild cards that made it):

Baltimore in 2000 was a wild card... but if I recall right they won their first wild card game at home over Denver, before winning at Tennessee and Oakland.

Ditto for the '92 Bills... '99 Titans... '97 Broncos... '80 Raiders... the '75 Cowboys didn't have a home playoff game but the playoffs were only 2 games till the superbowl back then.

A couple other teams had three road playoff games but didn't win their third, like the '87 Vikings.

#47 - Some years ago the NBA switched to a lottery to prevent teams from throwing games late for the top pick, as many thought the Houston Rockets did (which netted them Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon in back-to-back years). It would probably take an incident like that to make it happen in the NFL. It hasn't been a big deal... Besides, the NBA method produces constant fodder for conspiracy buffs, who are convinced the NBA riggs it for their big market teams (the first NBA lottery for example, gave a #1 pick to New York).

by Levente, Hungary (not verified) :: Sun, 01/01/2006 - 2:20pm


"It would probably take an incident like that to make it happen in the NFL."

The only thing I hear the past 1 month is how eager teams are to be No1. Granted, these are not allegations about throwing games, just stories on how the fans would like the top pick.
So it might only be the usual media hype.

by TonyD (not verified) :: Sun, 01/01/2006 - 10:59pm

Yeah, the odds of a team like Pittsburgh or Washington making it to the Super Bowl are long, indeed, but a team like Pittsburgh is an unsual breed in this year's postseason. When was the last time a 6th seed in either conference was a strong as the Pittsburgh Steelers are heading into this postseason? Maybe I'm biased, but I can't remember any. Number 6 seeds are usually 9-7, and generally a joke and a sacrificial lamb for the number 3 seed. Pittsburgh might actually be favored over the Bengals in next week's opening round. I'm not saying the Steelers are going to the Super Bowl or are even going to win next weekend, but this year might be the year that a team scratching and clawing their way to the postseason actually has a legitimate shot at the Super Bowl. Not because Pittsburgh is hot going into the postseason, but because they were one of the pre-season favorites to win the whole thing. Hell, they were still in the top five favorites as recently as November. A number 6 seed actually getting to the Super Bowl would take a big effort, but 11-5 is a pretty impressive record. Some years, it's good enough to earn a team a bye. I look for a lot of upsets and unusual happenings in this year's postseason. Especially in the AFC. I can't remember a conference as stacked as that one. Looks like the Colts picked the wrong year to go 14-2. It might not be good enough to earn them a trip to Detroit.

by andrew (not verified) :: Mon, 01/02/2006 - 1:39am

#46 - that Colts team had been unbeaten (with two ties) going into the last game of the season, which they lost at LA, 34-10. They tied their earlier meeting.

Other teams that missed the playoffs worth mentioning are the '63 Packers, who were 11-2-1 (Bears were 11-1-2).

by TonyD (not verified) :: Mon, 01/02/2006 - 10:29am

First of all, there is no way the NFL would ever downsize their playoff format. Playoffs=money. Should the NFL go with a 4-team playoff format in each conference? Well, no. There are only 16 weeks in the NFL. If you go from 12 teams to 8, there will be a lot of very good teams missing the playoffs. You had a situation this year where the Chiefs and Bolts missed the playoffs and they're probably better than half the playoff teams in the NFC. If anything, the NFL will expand to a 14 or 16 team format. I don't necessarily like that. I think the 6-team format in each conference is perfect. It's inevitable, though. It will probably happen after the new tv deal is up. Probably 4 or 5 years from now. The main reason I don't like it is because an 8 team conference playoff format would eliminate the bye week for the top 2 seeds. I think there should be some incentive for having the 2 best records in each conference. People say it would even up the playing field, that's true, but it would make the regular season even less important. The only incentive teams would have then would be homefield advantage all the way through the playoffs. And let's hope they don't ever go with the idea of playing conference championship games on neutral sites. That would render the regular season even more meaningless. Hell, what point would there even be having seeds? Anyway, as a fan of the 6th seeded Pittsburgh Steelers, I'm very excited about next week's game against the Bengals. As I suspected, the Steelers are actually a 3 point favorite. The oddsmakers are usually right and I expect this to be a close, nail-biting affair. There is nothing like the excitement of the postseason. Especially in the playoffs with the win or go home format. It gives fans hope for another week; something to get excited about. It's what being a fan is all about. Would I like my Steelers to have a bye and homefield advantage? Sure, history proves that it's the path of least resistence to the Super Bowl, but this is still just as fun. In years like last year when the Steelers were the top dog in the AFC going into the playoffs, all you worry about is will they make it to the Super Bowl. This year, it's different, all I'm wondering is will they beat the Bengals next week and live for another day. Who will come out on top in that one game? Which team will give their fans one more week of hope? That's what being a fan is all about.

by Jerry (not verified) :: Mon, 01/02/2006 - 8:38pm

Re #51:

The good news for the Steelers is that they're the first 11-5 team to be a sixth seed. The bad news is that the only 11-win wild card to go to the Super Bowl was the '92 Bills, in a year where the AFC division champs were all 11-5.

While I have to favor the Colts in this year's AFC, no playoff result in the conference would surprise me.

by Scott de B. (not verified) :: Tue, 01/03/2006 - 11:26am

Sorry for my ignorance, I am just a dumb European (however avid football fan). Wouldn’t it make more sense to decide the No1 draft spot by lottery between the bottom 3-5 teams? There is not much difference in their strength anyway and this could eliminate the play-for-the-loss attitude / suspicion at the end of the season.

Then you can get a situation like the NBA had years ago, when Orlando got two #1 picks in consecutive years despite not being the worst team either year, drafting Shaq and Hardaway, while other perennial losers got relatively low picks.

by TonyD (not verified) :: Tue, 01/03/2006 - 11:47am

Yeah, no result would surprise me. When a conference is this strong, anything can happen. I guess you can say the same thing about the NFC but for different reasons. No way are the Bears a 2nd seed. I'd put them behind the Giants and maybe even the Redskins right now. Sure, they have a tough defense, but what happened the second they went up against an elite AFC team? The Steelers running game shredded their defense for like 200 yards or something close. This isn't an indictment of the NFC. After all, there was like a decade and a half when the NFC was superior to the AFC and won every Super Bowl. It's cyclical. 5 years from now, the situation might be completely reversed. The winner of the Super Bowl is coming out of the AFC this year, no matter who wins the conference. Well, except for maybe the Jaguars. They're a nice team with an impressive record, but I think everyone would agree that they're the weakest link in the AFC. Of course, there is very little chance they'll make it out of the first round although, I'll be rooting for that because I want someone to end Brady's playoff run.

by judolphin (not verified) :: Tue, 01/03/2006 - 1:42pm

As a Steeler homer, I couldn't agree more that Pittsburgh is not a normal #6 seed. Although they have a tough hill to climb, and most likely will get bounced in the first two rounds, no one should be shocked if they make some noise.

Humor me in recounting the Pittsburgh losses:

1. Patriots: Adam Viniateri kicks winning field goal with :01 remaining after nearly a minute is inadvertently added to the game clock.

2. Jaguars: Tommy Maddox fumbles at the Jacksonville 25 in OT, then throws a a pick-6 on the next drive.

3. Ravens: Tommy Maddox throws interception in OT (sound familiar?). Ravens take ball at midfield and kick winning FG.

4. Bengals: Steelers lose by 7 in a game in which they fumble four times, throw three picks, and give up a 94-yard kickoff return.

5. Colts: Steelers get shellacked by superior Colts team in Ben Roethlisberger's first game back from injury.

Pittsburgh is a different team with a comfortable Roethlisberger; I wouldn't want to play them if I were an opposing coach. And judging from the Bengals & Patriots games, Bill Belichick & Marvin Lewis agree.