Solving the Seventh-Seed Steelers Situation

Pittsburgh Steeler fan
Pittsburgh Steeler fan
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Divisional -  

Andrew: Hello and welcome to another edition of Scramble for the Ball, where the postseason got underway with a decent game before quickly devolving into a series of blowouts and calamitous performances. Who would have thought that the Raiders would make the most dignified exit of any of our wild-card losers?

Bryan: And calling the Raiders' exit "dignified" when they kept forcing themselves into worse and worse situations at the end of the game is a bit of a stretch in itself! In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, and in the land of Super Wild Card Weekend, the only slightly incompetent is lauded.

Andrew: Are we contractually obligated to call it that? 'Cause "super" is not the adjective I would use to describe what we witnessed on Saturday and Sunday, and I'm pretty sure the weekend is over well before Monday night.

Bryan: I mean, it could have been worse. We got to see some historic performances—the Buffalo blowout was fascinating and one of the better routs you'll ever see. We got tight finishes in a pair of games, and two close finishes on wild-card weekend is in the neighborhood of par, if only for the fact that they historically had anywhere from two to four games and not six. And hey, we got to see the Dallas Cowboys lose to their biggest rivals, the Dallas Cowboys. The 1990s kid in me really enjoyed that!

Andrew: I will admit, seeing the Patriots and Cowboys lose badly (in varying definitions of badly) and Ben Roethlisberger go out in a blowout defeat did help offset the complete lack of competition in most of the games. Even the Cowboys contest didn't really feel that competitive until the very last drive (though I suspect your view of that was quite different from mine), and the Raiders kept making bad decisions at inopportune moments to stymie their comeback aspirations. Not one game was decided by fewer than six points, and not one team that trailed entering the fourth quarter came back to win. That's a disappointing return from around 20 hours of football.

Bryan: I don't know, I'm slightly less than disappointed, though again, my view of the outcomes this weekend was quite different from yours.

But your general point certainly stands, in that all things considered, close football games are better than not-close football games, and we had too many of the latter. It has been suggested, by some, that the inclusion of the seventh seed is to blame—that adding two teams from the bottom of the playoff race leads to uncompetitive and uninteresting matchups on what should be a super weekend. Allow us to be the first to talk about that.

… Wait, what? OK.

Allow us to be the 17,248th to talk about that.

Andrew: Certainly, this year's representatives from Pennsylvania didn't help the cause. I'd like to say that they aren't typical of the prospective seventh seeds from most years, but I'm not sure that would be accurate. This year's Eagles don't strike me as all that different from last year's Bears, who also exited at this stage as a seventh seed playing on the road against a team from the NFC South. This year's Steelers had no business making the playoffs in the first place, but that's easy for me to say as a man who is highly in favor of calling a tie a tie. Well, we call them draws, but that's by the by. One more tie instead of overtime to finish out the season and we get Justin Herbert instead of Ben Roethlisberger, and we really might be looking at a super weekend.

Bryan: As usual, you have hit the nail on the head. In Audibles, commenter Pat noted that it was odd that we talked about the seventh seed conundrum during the Eagles-Buccaneers game rather than the Steelers-Chiefs game, but that's because our abilities to comment are sadly limited by the flow of linear time, and the Eagles game happened to occur first. But you're right—the Eagles were an OK team who ended up being outmatched by a very good team, and that's not the end of the world in a postseason situation. The Steelers were a terrible team that had no business in any kind of championship discussion, and only got into the playoffs because their terrible result was a tie (against Detroit), as opposed to losses by the Chargers and Colts.

The larger point, though, is that we have now had four of these seventh-seed games. Three of them have been noncompetitive, at best, and the fourth (Colts-Bills a year ago) wasn't as close as the final score indicated, all things considered. The argument, then, is why do we have these seventh seeds if they're just going to get washed out in the first round anyway?

Andrew: Well, the answer to that is easy, and measured in bills, but even that will surely produce diminishing returns at some point. We're already close to saturation point for both teams and slots, and this is two years in a row that I have felt there were simply too many games.

Even before they started, we had guys who are such big fans of this sport that they write about it for this website deciding how to divide their time so that they didn't spend the entire weekend in front of the TV, but every game was covered for Audibles. Sure, if the games were better, that might help, but as the guy who compiles and edits Audibles, I was pretty darn washed out by Monday night. Regrettably, some of that is probably coming through in this article introduction. I really thought we had the right balance with six teams. I don't really see what adding another team that scraped a barely above-average record does to enhance the tournament.

Bryan: I'm glad we have some disagreement here, as I didn't feel there was too much football at all this past weekend. The quality left something to be desired, though I think that generally falls more into the category of "sometimes the football is bad" rather than "sometimes, teams don't deserve to be in the postseason." No one's arguing we should get rid of fifth seeds because Arizona laid an egg on Monday. I mean, during the regular season, plenty of people watch an NFL game on Thursday, a full slate of NCAA games on Saturday, a full slate of NFL games on Sunday, and then an NFL game on Monday. This just replaces those NCAA games with a superior product. Sure, if you only watch one or the other, then having games on both weekend days is a bit of a culture shock, but it happens.

Andrew: Eh, I guess. It also probably helps that you're not staying up until 5 a.m. to watch the games. (Yes, I know, you stay up until 5 a.m. for other reasons entirely.)

Bryan: I will during the Winter Olympics, so if I'm delirious during Super Bowl weekend, you'll understand why.

But, OK, let's step back for a moment. You said that you feel adding teams that scraped barely above-average records doesn't add anything. I suppose the big question we have to tackle before we talk about seventh seeds is—what's the point of the playoffs? Why do we have them, and not just declare the team with the best record in the regular season the champion, like we did before 1932?

Andrew: *Casts a glance over the national leagues of pretty much every major European sport.* Beats me.

Or more seriously, because of schedule inequality. You can't take a team that gets a 13-4 record in a division with the Lions, Matt Nagy Bears, and what remains of Mike Zimmer's Vikings and definitively crown them champions over a team with a 12-5 record that played the Cardinals, 49ers, and Seahawks. (Admittedly, that's not the best example this year, given that the Packers swept the NFC West.) And that's before you get into the lack of parity between conferences. We can't have teams playing 62 games in a calendar year to play every opponent home-and-away. At least, not without 200-player rosters.

Bryan: You're right, of course, but the point stands a little more generally, I think. If the goal of the playoffs was to crown the best team as champion, the NFL is going about it all wrong. They should take the top four teams—this year, the Packers, Buccaneers, Titans, and Chiefs—and have them play a three-week round-robin tournament. And then maybe you can have a final Super Bowl to determine the grand champion or something if you really need an outlet for your halftime show.

But of course, that's not the point of the playoffs, nor should it be. It's good for the sport to occasionally have a year when the 2011 Giants, at 9-7 with a negative point differential, shock the world by beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Or for Jerome Bettis' sixth-seed Steelers to go on a tear late on their way to Detroit (where Bettis is from, in case you hadn't heard). Underdogs winning occasionally is exciting, and letting in teams that were good, but not great, and seeing if they can't prove themselves against teams with stronger resumes is a good thing, in my book.

And, if we're going to do that, it's OK if we occasionally get teams like the Eagles or last year's Colts sneaking in. Yes, they ended up not doing a great job, as you would expect—if lower seeds won all the time, then the playoffs would feel entirely random. You want to get a nice ratio where the best teams win most of the time. The problem is when you get teams like the Steelers or last year's Bears—and yes, I'd group 2020 Chicago in more with the Pittsburgh contingent than the Philadelphia contingent—who flopped into the postseason on the back of a mediocre record against an easy schedule when other, better teams slipped up late, and then showed up only to get properly pulverized against a more professional side. That's not good for anyone.

Andrew: Sounds like you're saying we should have some kind of quality control for the playoffs, where it takes more than just finishing inside an arbitrary cutoff to get you in.

Bryan: The issue the NFL has here is that there aren't always seven good teams in a conference, yeah. Some years there are only five or six. Some years, there would be seven or eight. If the goal of the NFL was simply to make sure that every qualified team, and only qualified teams, made the playoffs in a given year, they would have to go to some kind of variable-sized postseason. That would be awkward, and controversial, and potentially unbalanced, and it would be the kind of thing I'd love.

Andrew: You sure do love things that are awkward and controversial. Nobody would dare dispute that.

Alright, then let's take a look at how that could work. What are some basic requirements we could place on playoff teams? First up, teams should have a positive point differential. That seems like a very basic, fundamental requirement. Score more points than you allow.

Bryan: We'll need more requirements than that, however. Ignoring division-winning teams (we're just going to assume division-winners get in no matter what we do here), there are 386 teams since 1990 (when the NFL expanded to 12 playoff teams) with positive point differentials, or an average of 12 wild-card teams per year. That may be too large.

Andrew: Oh, yes, I'm on record with my belief that division-winners should always make the postseason, and I'm still in favor of them hosting games. See that schedule inequality thing again. So yes, winning your division trumps all, even at 7-9 with a negative point differential.

Alright, so we need to whittle that down some more. Wild-card teams should have a winning record, not just scrape .500.

Bryan: That would whittle us down to 297 teams since 1990, or a little over nine wild-card teams per year. You're making strong arguments for the playoffs being too small!

Andrew: Alright, then let's use the Rivers (McCown) Reckoning. In Audibles, Rivers suggested that teams should make the playoffs if they are at least two games above .500, so at least 10-6-1 in the current standings.

Bryan: Ah, now we're being selective. There have only been 13 teams since 1990 to fit that criteria and miss the postseason, most recently the 2020 Dolphins. Here, have a convenient table!

Two Games Over .500 or Bust
Year Team Record DVOA Seed WC Game
1991 Philadelphia Eagles 10-6 17.8% 8 14-2 Washington
1991 San Francisco 49ers 10-6 26.1% 7 12-4 Lions
2003 Miami Dolphins 10-6 11.9% 7 13-3 Chiefs
2005 Kansas City Chiefs 10-6 23.9% 7 13-3 Broncos
2007 Cleveland Browns 10-6 8.8% 7 13-3 Colts
2008 New England Patriots 11-5 11.6% 7 12-4 Steelers
2010 New York Giants 10-6 11.8% 7 11-5 Bears
2010 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 10-6 2.8% 8 13-3 Falcons
2012 Chicago Bears 10-6 20.1% 7 11-4-1 49ers
2013 Arizona Cardinals 10-6 12.6% 7 12-4 Panthers
2014 Philadelphia Eagles 10-6 12.5% 7 12-4 Packers
2015 New York Jets 10-6 11.7% 7 12-4 Patriots
2020 Miami Dolphins 10-6 4.6% 8 14-2 Chiefs

For the most part, these are teams that probably deserved to play some playoff games. Last year's Dolphins aren't a great example because they were lucky to get to 10-6, and my life has not been lessened by the Derek Anderson Browns or the Josh Freeman Buccaneers not getting to play extra football, but in general, that's a good list of joes there.

Andrew: It's also good to see that no individual conference would have had more than eight playoff teams in a single season. That suggests it's a functional measure of who the top teams are: it may let in one or two fluke sides, but it's not just letting in everybody like the previous requirements.

Bryan: Ah, but there is a catch. You see, those seeds in that table are listed as they would be if the six (or seven) teams that actually did make the playoffs still got there. But if we're creating a 10-6 requirement to make the postseason, there are a lot of teams that qualified that shouldn't have—50, to be precise, since 1990. That includes some teams that probably shouldn't have made it, like the Eagles and Steelers this year or the Bears the year before. But it would also eliminate teams such as the 2008 Eagles, who had a DVOA of 30.6% and made it all the way to the conference championship game, despite only having a 9-6-1 record in the regular season. The 1995 Colts, the 1996 Jaguars, the 2009 Jets, the 2019 Titans—all made championship games despite not hitting the magical 10-6 mark, and 14 other teams at least won their wild-card game. I really think the 10-6 mark is too restrictive; you'd end up with some years (like 2006) where you'd have no wild-card teams at all in a conference.

Andrew: The 1996 Jaguars are already eliminated by the positive point differential criteria, and the 1995 Colts were one of the weakest playoff teams ever. I don't think we should let their performance in the postseason trump how bad they were in the regular season. If we want the 2008 Eagles, 2009 Jets, and 2019 Titans, then we can let in 9-7 teams who have at least a +70 point differential, or upping that to +100 keeps just the Jets and Eagles. So either two games above .500 or a point differential of +100.

However, you seem to be suggesting that we should let in teams who fall outside our wins and point differential cutoffs, as long as they meet some other mystical criteria. Or is there something else we can find that the 2008 Eagles and 2019 Titans all have in common? (I really would not have missed the 2009 Jets.)

Bryan: Part of the problem we're having here is that point differential is a really bad way of determining a team's quality. It's better than straight up wins and losses, but this isn't 1972 anymore. If only we had some kind of, I don't know, system that allowed us to determine how good a team was on any given play, perhaps even adjusting it to take into account the quality of opposing defenses.

They say that football isn't played on paper, but maybe we can change that with the power of DVOA!

Obviously, the NFL is never going to turn to DVOA over on-field results to determine their playoff teams, but frankly, that's a lack of vision on their part. Here in mystical Scramble land, we could create the twin criteria of needing to finish above .500 AND having a DVOA above 0.0%, so a team would have to be officially certified as above average in two different ways if they wanted one of those wild-card berths. When Aaron Schatz becomes commissioner of the league, I'm sure this will happen.

If we applied those twin criteria, we would have added 63 wild-card teams since 1990 and removed 28. That's an average of 1.09 extra playoff teams per season, meeting the NFL's desire for more playoff games to market and meeting our desire of not having to watch Ben Roethlisberger shambling through one final game.

This year would have been one of the more expansive years, actually. The Steelers would have been out, but three teams would have slid into the playoffs instead. Instead of Pittsburgh-Kansas City, we would have seen the Colts take on the Chiefs. Justin Herbert's Chargers would have gotten a first-round game against Ryan Tannehill and the Titans. And in the NFC, the Packers would have tried to avenge their Week 1 debacle by taking on the Saints. Maybe upsets there are unlikely, but I think all three would have been better games than PIT-KC, and those are the sorts of games I'm fine with seeing on wild-card weekend. A Trevor Simeian postseason start is less than ideal, but the storyline there would be worth watching, and more Justin Herbert in prime time is a good thing for the NFL's growth (plus, he's fun to watch, which helps). Because that's the problem, especially with the AFC this year—it's not that seven teams were too many, it was that the wrong seventh team got in. People wouldn't be complaining about the seventh seed if we got to see more Jonathan Taylor or Justin Herbert. It's just that in a sample size of four, we have gotten unlucky twice. It happens! It will be fine. We will survive.

Andrew: I'm certainly in favor of any system that places Justin Herbert in the postseason ahead of Ben Roethlisberger in the year 2022. Frankly, in light of the TV revenues, it's a wonder we haven't just gone to a selection committee in the first place. If the college game has shown us anything, it's that letting a computer and a committee pick your playoff teams removes almost all of the controversy, guaranteeing the strongest possible playoff field.

Bryan: Honestly, my biggest problem right now with the playoff field? Seven is such a stupid, unwieldy number, and having one team earn a bye just feels wrong to me.

Andrew: Yeah, we're back to that seven-team playoff in a 17-game season thing. All those odd numbers, and prime numbers especially, give the full season the feel of a stepping stone on the path to something else.

Bryan: The NFL has had some awkward formats before, but I think this one takes the cake. There was a period of time in the 1970s where they had three division-winners and two wild card teams for five playoff teams per conference, but at least then you could make an argument that the non-division-winners having to play a play-in game to "earn" a playoff spot made a certain degree of sense, even if created a weird runt week—it's basically what MLB does right now with the play-in game. And then you had six playoff teams out of three divisions, which meant only one division-winner didn't get a bye, which was a little head-scratching, but we have all seen division-winners which, uh, aren't of the same quality as their colleagues, so OK. Maybe we just got so used to the 2002-2019 system that any change would feel weird, but it really felt like they had nailed it in terms of fairness, if not necessarily letting all the best teams in.

Andrew: As we have seen, the previous system also had its fair share of bad teams get in and good teams miss out. I'm just yet to be convinced that adding a seventh team in each conference enhances the tournament. Maybe next season, that seventh seed will be a Saints team that got unlucky with injuries, but with everybody healthy, they'll go on a postseason tear and make me very happy the seventh spot was added. I guess. At least it keeps more teams interested later in the year.

Bryan: Of course, we could extend that to its maximum possibility, and go to all 32 teams in the playoffs! Imagine SUPER DUPER CRAZY WILD CARD WEEKEND. Chiefs-Texans! Rams-Bears! Buccaneers-Giants! 49ers … Seahawks.

OK, it's vitally important that we keep the postseason as small as possible, OK, thank you, goodbye.

Andrew: Yeah, let's not completely invalidate the regular season. Not even to see the look of panic on your face whenever Russell Wilson takes a snap in the fourth quarter.

And with all that said, we don't need to think about those seventh seeds again for the entire postseason. We have some pretty tasty matchups next weekend, all featuring teams we can be absolutely certain deserve to be here. Let's hope the games live up to the potential! We leave you with our usual awards, and absolutely no reference whatsoever to the staff fantasy ... drat.

Playoff Fantasy Update

Bryan: For the first time, we had seven players playing in the staff league. But is the seventh seed really necessary after all? Sorry, Dave.

2021 Staff Playoff Fantasy Challenge
  Bryan Rivers Scott Vince Andrew Aaron Dave
QB Patrick
41.1 Josh Allen 42 Tom Brady 21.55 Matthew Stafford 26.3 Dak Prescott 23.4 Aaron Rodgers 0 Kyler Murray 3.45
RB Derrick Henry 0 Elijah Mitchell 15.5 Aaron Jones 0 Joe Mixon 11.6 Leonard Fournette 0 A.J. Dillon 0 Damien Harris 4.7
RB Darrel Williams -1.6 James Conner 9.4 Josh Jacobs 16.7 Sony Michel 5.8 Ezekiel Elliott 4.1 Devin Singletary 24 Tony Pollard 4.6
WR Amari Cooper 18.4 Stefon Diggs 9 A.J. Brown 0 Cooper Kupp 17.1 Tee Higgins 2 Mike Evans 26.7 Davante Adams 0
WR Van Jefferson 5.1 Ja'Marr Chase 22.9 Julio Jones 0 Odell Beckham 17.4 Cedrick Wilsom 11.2 Allen Lazard 0 Tyreek Hill 16.7
WR Jakobi Meyers 10 Deebo Samuel 20 Breshad Perriman 1.5 Tyler Boyd 12.9 Mecole Hardman 8.9 Byron Pringle 20.7 CeeDee Lamb 3.6
TE Dalton Schultz 15.9 Dawson Knox 25.9 George Kittle 2.8 Travis Kelce 25.9 Rob Gronkowski 14.1 Tyler Higbee 7.6 Zach Ertz 5.1
K Harrison Butker 6 Evan McPherson 15 Ryan Succop 7 Matt Gay 11 Greg Zuerlein 8 Mason Crosby 0 Matt Prater 6
DEF Chiefs 2 Bills 5 Titans 0 Rams 5 Cowboys -1 Packers 0 Buccaneers 6
TOT 96.9 164.7 49.55 133 70.7 79 50.15

So, Rivers' strategy of loading up on Bills seems to be working out well so far—a historic offensive performance will tend to do that for you. Back-to-back touchdowns from Josh Allen to Dawson Knox to open the Bills ledger had him practically glowing and jumping out to a massive early lead. Having a pair of double-digit-scoring 49ers in Deebo Samuel and Elijah Mitchell is icing on the cake, especially as they earned a second outing.

Vince is at least giving him a charge, however, with his near-all-Rams select making short work of Arizona on Monday night. His ringers performed well, too, with Travis Kelce and Joe Mixon adding double digits of their own. And unlike Rivers, Vince still has his whole team remaining. Is Rivers losing James Conner worse than the 31.7-point deficit Vince faces? Your mileage may vary there; I'd expect Rivers to be in better position with Bills rather than Rams, but at least it's decently tight at the top.

I'd call Aaron in the next best spot, even if he is only in fourth place at the moment. 79 points without a quarterback is a damn nice score; 79 points with only four players going is fantastic, and he didn't lose a single slot. Aaron traditionally leans heavy on bye-week teams, a strategy that has paid off well for him in the past. As long as the Packers don't get upset this week, he's in good form, if a bit off the pace of people who had great wild-card days.

They may be nearly 50 points apart on the scoreboard, but Scott and Bryan are in very similar situations, as they both lost all their non-quarterback double-digit scorers. Three-quarters of Bryan's receiving corps ducked out early, but at least Amari Cooper, Jakobi Meyers, and Dalton Schultz had the courtesy of putting up some numbers before they left. He's basically down to Patrick Mahomes and the hope that Derrick Henry exists (he picked the wrong Chiefs running back!), while Scott wants the Buccaneers' passing attack to pick it up a little and for his bye week stars to do as well as Bryan's wild-card dropouts.

Andrew is still alive! Sure, the Cowboys losing is a massive blow, but at least he still has the Leonard Fournette-Rob Gronkowski combination, and Scott does not have a Buccaneers stack to go with Tom Brady. Andrew basically needs a strict set of results this weekend—49ers over Packers, Buccaneers over Rams, Bengals over Titans, and Chiefs over Bills—but at least you can sketch out a path to competitiveness there, if a shaky one.

And then there's Dave. Dave is on record now saying his goal is to get the lowest score in staff playoff history and, I must say, he's off to a very good start. It's safe to say he's doomed, breathing his last when the Kyler Murray-to-Zach Ertz connection did not result in six touchdowns on Monday night.

Best of the Rest
Bryan: The best teams to this point are often not the best going forward, and such is the case this year.

Our leader in the clubhouse is JW124164, with a Raiders- and Patriots-heavy lineup that pushed him to 111.3 points. He had big numbers out of Derek Carr (17.5), Hunter Renfrow (13.8), Brandon Aiyuk (11.6), Kendrick Bourne (28.1), Darren Waller (14.6), and Daniel Carlson (14.0) on his way to the early lead; it was difficult (though not impossible) to pick a better first-week lineup than that even with perfect clairvoyance.

Of course, the problem is that Carr, Renfrow, Bourne, Waller, and Carlson are now out, as is Brandon Bolden. The trio of Aiyuk, Jeff Wilson, and the 49ers defense isn't terrible, but isn't overly likely to keep him in first place going forwards. Our second-place player, Vrao81, is in a similar boat, though at least he still has Joe Burrow available.

I'd argue that third-place Alec B is doing the best right now. He's at a very credible 101.9 points, running with Joe Burrow (20.0), Ke'Shaun Vaughn (14.2), Brandon Aiyuk (11.6), Diontae Johnson (14.4), C.J. Uzomah (18.4), and Robbie Gould (18.0). More importantly, only Johnson is out in that group, and with no one having a full nine-man roster left, that's as good as anyone at the moment. Gambling on the Bengals seemed to be the wisest strategy—after our leader, our next five highest-scorers all ran with Burrow, and Cincinnati gets to play another day. And with two of those Burrow-havers in the top five (JGov joined Alec B), and several more lurking within 40 points of the overall lead so far (notably Fizz and Friends, StMedard, and JCYPess, to name just three), I'd expect one of those Cincinnati-lovers to have the best path going forward.

We had 27 entries this year. Twenty-six still have players available (one entry went basically all Steelers, which was a brave choice), but only 19 still have a chance to win; the other seven are "covered" by a team ahead of them in the standings who has all their players remaining. Sure, sometimes those chances are "this is the year Josiah Deguara takes over as the best player in the league", but a chance is a chance!

Your top 5, through one week

  1. JW124164: 111.3 points (Jeff Wilson, Brandon Aiyuk and 49ers DEF remaining)
  2. Vrao81: 106.1 points (Joe Burrow, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Robbie Gould and Bengals DEF remaining)
  3. Alec B: 101.9 points (Joe Burrow, Derrick Gore, Ke'Shaun Vaughn, Brandon Aiyuk, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, CJ Uzomah, Robbie Gould and Bengals DEF remaining)
  4. ARandom: 98.0 points (Joe Burrow, Cam Akers and Brandon Aiyuk remaining)
  5. JGov: 96.8 points (Joe Burrow, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Cam Akers, Gabriel Davis, Brandon Aiyuk, Tyler Johnson, Robbie Gould and 49ers DEF remaining)

Weekly Awards (Brought to You by Michael J. McCarthy)

Keep Choppin' Wood
The wild-card games brought us an alarming number of candidates for this week's KCW. In the very first game, we saw Raiders backup Peyton Barber attempt to establish himself out of bounds to gain a free trip to the 40-yard line on a mishit kickoff , but mistakenly field the ball before he stepped out, forcing his team to start at the 2 instead.

We saw the league assign Jerome Boger to a playoff game, and the inevitable disaster ensue. Boger's crew whistled a play dead early while Joe Burrow's pass attempt was in midair traveling toward Tyler Boyd. Boger then ignored the rulebook and awarded the touchdown, much to the consternation of Terry McAulay on the NBC broadcast. Senior VP of officiating Walt Anderson didn't help matters, passing on a version of events after the game that defied the reality we had all clearly witnessed.

We saw four separate teams put up almost no resistance, losing by at least 16 points in games that were largely over by halftime.

However, whether players or officials, backroom staff or on-field crew, nobody was more united in their pursuit of not just defeat, but painful, comical, and unsporting defeat than the Dallas Cowboys. Consider:

  • The Cowboys committed no fewer than 14 accepted penalties, tying the record for accepted penalties in a playoff game.
  • They built a shiny new football stadium that actively hinders teams from playing football in it. Sunlight streaming through the giant window in JerryWorld, as it is affectionately/mockingly known, blinded their own players as they attempted to catch passes. One of their punts hit the scoreboard, forcing the down to be replayed.
  • The entire fake punt/next play kerfuffle, helpfully expounded below.
  • With 14 seconds remaining and no timeouts, the Cowboys ran a quarterback draw, then failed to get lined up quickly enough to spike the ball with time remaining. The final play was a spike as time expired, the first time we can ever remember that happening in a playoff game.
  • Quarterback Dak Prescott then praised fans for throwing garbage at the officials after the game, which might be the starkest example of a sore loser in recent playoff memory.
  • They kept playing star running back Ezekiel Elliott even though he had a partial tear (i.e., grade II sprain) in his posterior cruciate ligament. The injury occurred against the Panthers in Week 4; had they allowed him to recover, he would likely have been fully healthy for the postseason.

The sole home team to lose on wild-card weekend did so in the most haphazard, poorly coached, poorly prepared performance of the weekend. Which is mighty impressive in its own way, considering the aforementioned blowouts.

John Fox Award for Conservatism
We implicitly praised Mike McCarthy above for the fake punt that the Cowboys ran on fourth-and-5 near midfield in the fourth quarter, trailing 23-7. However, what made the fake so believable is McCarthy's awful conservatism on fourth downs in general, including the previous occasion in that very game. Late in the third quarter, again with the score 23-7, the Cowboys faced fourth-and-2 from their own 33. They punted, virtually guaranteeing that they would enter the fourth quarter still down by at least two touchdowns against a team who had outplayed them all game. Then, when they did score next, it was a 51-yard field goal on fourth-and-7, turning a two-touchdown deficit into ... er, a slightly smaller two-touchdown deficit.

Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
Zac Taylor made plenty of conservative calls against the Raiders, including a very, very conservative late field goal on fourth-and-1 with a chance to take a two-touchdown lead, but we loved his call on fourth-and-1 in makeable field goal range with a seven-point lead and 3:33 remaining in the second quarter. Rather than attempt the 48-yard field goal, Taylor got the ball in the hands of his best playmaker: a Ja'Marr Chase sweep gained 15 yards and got the Bengals a first down in the red zone. Three plays later, the Bengals led by 14, and the Raiders didn't get the ball again in a position to tie until the very last drive of the game.

Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching
The Dallas Cowboys ran a fake punt in the fourth quarter against the 49ers to near-perfection. One could quibble about running a play with your special teams unit instead of your offense in a comeback try, but we're not here to knock what worked. We're here to knock what happened afterwards.

The Cowboys left their punt unit on the field, lining them up as if they were going to run another play against the 49ers' punt return unit. They were attempting to catch the 49ers subbing their regular defense back onto the field, snapping the ball with San Francisco having 12 men (and maybe getting a free shot at a deep pass or something). But it didn't work—partially because San Francisco switched quickly, and partially because they didn't take into account the actual mechanics of refereeing. See, the refs had to switch out the kicking K-ball for the regular football used on standard plays, which gave the 49ers time to swap players. And then the umpire stood over the ball, which is where Dallas fans have some beef—if the Cowboys didn't substitute (which they didn't), the umpire should have gotten out of the way after the ball had been switched. But because that exchange took a moment longer than anticipated, the Cowboys panicked and rushed their regular offense back on the field. That means the refs had to delay the snap again, to see if San Francisco wanted to substitute anyone of their own. And by the time all that was done, the play clock had expired and the Cowboys took a delay of game.

An intriguing trick play that resulted in a positive outcome, only to end up hurting the Cowboys because they didn't take into account the mechanics of refereeing? Well, at least that's the type of thing that could only hurt Mike McCarthy and company once a game. And I will say, calling a series of plays that require a quick-snap when the refs need to change the physical football out is … shall we say an optimistic endeavor, as referees are not, in fact, automatons, and are usually pretty old men. Hence why it's a Confusing award, and not a KCW award, but man, that was bad.

'Bourne to Run' Fantasy Player of the Week

Per Scramble tradition, we give this award to the highest-scoring fantasy player who was not selected in the staff draft. That means it's Kendrick Bourne, arguably the best skill position player the Patriots signed in their free-agent spending spree last offseason. Bourne brought his San Francisco skillset of YAC and tough blocking to New England all year long and ended up leading all receivers (min. 50 targets) in DVOA. He was one of the few Patriots to come out of this weekend with his reputation unscathed. Bourne had seven receptions for 77 yards and a pair of touchdowns and added in a carry for another 14 yards. He'll have a key role on whatever iteration of the Patriots we see next season.

Garbage-Time Performer of the Week

With a number of blowouts this week, we have a wide selection to choose from, but the proper answer is Kendrick Bourne again. Once the game got out of hand somewhere in the second quarter, Bourne kept producing—six receptions for 68 yards from that point on, including both of New England's touchdowns. Ben Roethlisberger, Mac Jones, Jalen Hurts, and Kenneth Gainwell all have arguments (again, there were quite a few blowouts to deal with!) but we'd be picking them just for the sake of variety, not because they actually won the award.

Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week
It sure didn't count for much in the largest defeat of wild-card weekend, but Patriots rookie Mac Jones had the highest DVOA of any rookie quarterback this season, and the fifth highest of any passer in the AFC. If he can improve on that performance by making the sophomore quarterback jump, the Patriots appear set for the long term at quarterback for the first time since before we all learned that Tom Brady is a cyborg.

Game-Changing Play of the Week
There are a couple plays we could go with here, but we are forced to follow the Official Scramble Guidelines: when a play in the closing seconds of the game gives a franchise their first playoff win in over three decades, it has to win.

Derek Carr had to force that pass because the Raiders spiked the ball on first down—they only had three shots at the end zone rather than four, so this was "force the ball and hope for a miracle" time, with the Bengals covering everything. They also had to force that pass on a fourth-and-9 because they had opted to kick a field goal on fourth-and-3 just a few moments earlier. The Raiders put themselves in a more difficult position because of play-calling errors.

Not that the Bengals will mind. It's hard to say a wild-card play will go down in franchise history or anything (or, at least, it would be depressing if a wild-card play went down in franchise history), but a lot of demons were exorcised on this play right here.

Also, Las Vegas, um, maybe have your best receivers (Darren Waller, 83, and Hunter Renfrow, 13) go into the end zone on your fourth-and-season play next time? Just a thought.

Weekly Predictions

Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week
All picks are made without reference to the FO+ picks, while all lines are courtesy of Bovada and were accurate as of time of writing.

Records to Date:
Andrew: 8-11
Bryan: 7-12

Andrew: Of all this weekend's playoff games, I find the specific matchups between the Rams and the Buccaneers the most intriguing. Jalen Ramsey versus Mike Evans. Aaron Donald, Leonard Floyd, and Von Miller versus a line that might be missing Ryan Jensen and Tristan Wirfs. Rob Gronkowski versus the Rams linebackers and/or Taylor Rapp. The Rams run offense versus the Buccaneers pass defense. Cooper Kupp versus the Buccaneers secondary. While I think the Buccaneers are the stronger overall team, I really like how the Rams match up to those strengths. Tom Brady is the X-factor, so bet against him at your peril. My bets have been in peril all season. L.A. Rams (+3) at Tampa Bay.

Bryan: The 49ers and the Packers played to a very tight finish back in Week 3, despite Green Bay putting up a significantly higher single-game DVOA than San Francisco did. "Well," you might say, "the 49ers were lucky to be in that game, so the rematch should see the Packers winning by a wider margin." Or "well," you could say, "the 49ers very nearly beat the Packers despite not playing their A game, so the rematch should see the 49ers come out on top." I'll split the difference there and say things will end up about the same, which means I'm taking San Francisco (+6). I really believe the 49ers, when they're playing as good as they can, are better than the Packers. The problem is, the Packers usually play somewhere near "as good as they can," while the 49ers have moments like the fourth quarter against the Cowboys frequently enough that it's hard to pick them for the upset. But hey, that's why they play the games and all that.


65 comments, Last at 22 Jan 2022, 9:09pm

#1 by Pat // Jan 19, 2022 - 11:04am

The Staff Playoff Draft Kiss of Death (SPD KOD) is now 6/6 for the past 7 years or so (because I'm lazy and didn't go any farther back). No team has ever won a playoff game with no players picked (this year was PHI/PIT).

That's... pretty impressive so far.

Points: 0

#8 by Bryan Knowles // Jan 19, 2022 - 12:28pm

We may be bad at identifying the teams that will be GOOD, but we're experts at identifying the teams that will be BAD.

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#2 by AFCNFCBowl // Jan 19, 2022 - 11:12am

Bad teams sneaking into the playoffs on the basis of luck or schedule strength is nothing new. Here are all the playoff teams since 2002 with DVOA worse than PIT this year:

SEA 2010, -24.3% (7-9)

STL 2004, -23.7% (8-8)

HOU 2016, -19.5% (9-7)

IND 2012, -16.2% (11-5)

SEA 2006, -14.1% (9-7)

DEN 2011, -13.1% (8-8)

DET 2016, -11.2% (9-7)

BUF 2017, -10.7% (9-7)

PIT 2021, -10.4% (9-7-1)

Of those teams, STL 2004, IND 2012, DET 2016, and BUF 2017 were wildcards when only 6 teams from each conference made the playoffs. STL 2004 even won their first playoff game against SEA.

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#15 by robbbbbb // Jan 19, 2022 - 2:03pm

The 2010 Seahawks were not good, but they gave us an indelible playoff moment: The Beast Quake.  That Marshawn Lynch run to essentially salt the wild card game away against the Saints was great fun.

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#3 by KnotMe // Jan 19, 2022 - 11:27am

Not sure division winners should ALWAYS get in. There are basicly 2 interesting cases.

1)Entire division is weak and SOMEONE has to win it
2)Entire division is strong and they depress each others records a bit.

I would suggest there be some case where a non-division winner can get in over a division winner. Maybe if the non winner has a better record, better points differential and better record outside their division. 

Can't see anything variable ever happening due to TV rights and the like but it's neat to think about.  If we are going "crazy and never happen", it would be interesting to reduce the playoffs to 4 teams per conference and have some sort of "losers tornament" for the ones who just missed. Maybe pick an additional 2 teams from each conference and have 2 additional draft picks between rounds 1 and 2, and let the winners of the loser tournament get those 2.  This would help encourage middle teams to make the jump and give them something to play for. 


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#29 by RickD // Jan 19, 2022 - 5:12pm

If you have divisions, and don't include divisional champions in the playoffs, you've made the divisions pretty much worthless.  Then they're nothing more than a scheduling oddity.  

The playoffs are not hurt by including all the divisional champions.  Remember that the purpose is to find the best team, not to find the best set of playoff teams.  

With an unbalanced schedule, I'm very leery of using W-L records to compare teams from different divisions to the point of excluding an entire division from the playoffs.  

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#31 by LyleNM // Jan 19, 2022 - 5:34pm

The purpose is not to find the best team - the purpose is to determine a champion. The two are not always equivalent.

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#58 by LionInAZ // Jan 20, 2022 - 11:04pm

Of course, but the NFL championship is the least determinate of all sports championships because they play so few games. The MLB, NBA, and NHL championships are way more meaningful because every team plays each other multiple times throughout a season.

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#4 by superglucose // Jan 19, 2022 - 11:42am

What about 8 teams in the wildcard, and an extra playoff weekend?  4 games per weekend with week 1 being wildcard vs wildcard, week2 being wildcard winners vs b-tier division winners, then the next weekend vs a-tier winners, then conference championship, then superb owl?

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#6 by reddwarf // Jan 19, 2022 - 12:24pm

Giving the top 2 seeds in each conference two weeks off to get healthy while the rest beat up on each other pretty much guarantees that the top 2 seeds end up in the conference championship.

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#12 by El Muneco // Jan 19, 2022 - 1:27pm

Look to the AFL Finals brackets.

All eight teams play in the first round, and the winners of the high-seed game on each side get a _second_ round bye, while the loser of that game plays the winner of the low-seed game.

So in an NFL context, you might have the first week be 1/4, 2/3, 5/8, and 6/7 (or another way, the division champs play off and the wild cards play off). The winners of 1/4 and 2/3 go straight to the semis. The losers of 1/4 and 2/3 and the winners of 5/8 and 6/7 get reseeded (e.g. 3/6 and 4/5) for Week 2. Week 2 winners go to play the Week 1 winners. Probably another reseeding there so that even if 4 beat 1 the first time around, they wouldn't host the rematch.

Some similarities to current structure: #1 still gets a bye and plays 2 games if chalk wins out. Wild card teams still play 3 games on the road (in fact, it's guaranteed, while it's just extremely probable today).

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#5 by DGL // Jan 19, 2022 - 12:08pm

The problem is when you get teams like the Steelers or last year's Bears ... who flopped into the postseason on the back of a mediocre record against an easy schedule...

You know, there's this website that calculates strength-of-schedule (among other things) that shows the Steelers as having the fourth-hardest schedule this season.  Maybe you should check it out.


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#19 by NYChem // Jan 19, 2022 - 2:28pm

The Steelers had a weird season - they went 1-3 against the AFC West, 1-2-1 against the NFC North, 1-0 against their interconference (SEA), 2-0 against their 1st seed compatriots (BUF AND TN), and 4-2 in their division with both losses against Cincy (and both really bad!). Definitely didn't get in because of an easy schedule. Crazy that they got in at all!

For a Steelers fan it was fun to see them in while everyone hated it so much. Almost wish they'd broke out the Bumblebee uniforms just to really piss everyone off!

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#36 by ddoubleday // Jan 19, 2022 - 7:14pm

In reply to by NYChem

The wins over Buffalo and Tennessee are astounding. (Tennessee less so because they didn't have Brown, Jones, and Henry for the game.)

But poor Justin Herbert, who everyone wanted to see in the playoffs, should have just won more. Sorry about that.

As another Steelers fan, I do kinda wish the Raiders had just run out the clock, though. That was an embarrassing loss.

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#45 by galerus // Jan 19, 2022 - 11:55pm

Give it 5 years and you'll forget this loss (and it was not THAT embarassing, just look up last Dan Marino game). But you will never forget Ben's last game at Heinz and MT Bank and how they snuck into the playoffs. I know I will.

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#56 by jheidelberg // Jan 20, 2022 - 4:18pm

I wanted the Ravens to make the playoffs knowing that the result would likely have been similar to the Steelers.

You will remember the great last Ben attempt, a great era that continues under Tomlin.  I want the same for Harbaugh, clearly these are the two coaches that do the most with the least.

Tomlin will be remember for his SB championship and other playoff runs, but his 8-8 Hodges/Rudolph season and this year may be his best job yet. 

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#30 by RickD // Jan 19, 2022 - 5:16pm

you get teams like (the Steelers) or (last year's Bears ... who flopped into the postseason on the back of a mediocre record against an easy schedule...)


you get teams like (the Steelers or last year's Bears) ... who flopped into the postseason on the back of a mediocre record against an easy schedule...

English doesn't always keep track of conjunctions well.  I assume the latter is implied in this case.

See also...the need for the Oxford commas

"FDR travelled to Europe to see two queens, Churchill, and Stalin" vs

"FDR travelled to Europe to see two queens, Churchill and Stalin" :smile:



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#41 by DGL // Jan 19, 2022 - 9:27pm

I'd group 2020 Chicago in more with the Pittsburgh contingent than the Philadelphia contingent

which implies the latter parsing.


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#59 by LionInAZ // Jan 20, 2022 - 11:48pm

And some people think grammar doesn't matter. Hence the confusion between gender and sex.

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#7 by IlluminatusUIUC // Jan 19, 2022 - 12:25pm

It's hard to say a wild-card play will go down in franchise history or anything (or, at least, it would be depressing if a wild-card play went down in franchise history)

As a Bills fan, I feel extremely triggered by this sentence.

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#9 by Pat // Jan 19, 2022 - 12:36pm

In Audibles, commenter Pat noted that it was odd that we talked about the seventh seed conundrum during the Eagles-Buccaneers game rather than the Steelers-Chiefs game, but that's because our abilities to comment are sadly limited by the flow of linear time, and the Eagles game happened to occur first. 

Just to be clear, I said it was funny - as in, it was like the universe said "oh, you thought this was a bad 2-7 matchup? Let me show you what a bad 2-7 matchup actually looks like." If someone would've come in during the first half of Eagles-Bucs and been like "y'know, this is going to be one of the better games this weekend" I think half the football fans on the East Coast would've gone to sleep before 10 (definitely half in Pennsylvania).

That being said I totally appreciated the Steelers getting into the playoffs because it just adds more anecdotal evidence that ties are worth more than half a win in terms of playoff chances. :)

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#10 by TI // Jan 19, 2022 - 12:42pm

because it increases the value of being first in the conference, rather than second, giving more opportunity for high stakes (a top team w something to play for in the final weeks of the season).  This way, the prize for being first is homefield advantage AND the bye.

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#11 by jheidelberg // Jan 19, 2022 - 12:50pm

Quarterback Dak Prescott then praised fans for throwing garbage at the officials after the game, which might be the starkest example of a sore loser in recent playoff memory.

What would Dak say about this thrown on the field?  Well I know that Dak is not reading this post, so fellow fans, please have your say.

The Bills fans have done this multiple times previously when the Patriots were in town.

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#13 by Lost Ti-Cats Fan // Jan 19, 2022 - 1:35pm

One consideration in setting a playoff format is to minimize the average amount of time, league wide, that team fans spend in either "guaranteed to make the playoffs" and "guaranteed to miss the playoffs" mode.  Mathematically, I believe that's minimized with 50% of teams making the playoffs.  In a 32 team league, it's reasonable to expect the NFL to want to work towards a playoff format involving 16 teams. 

The league then cleverly uses bye weeks to maintain interest at the top of the standings.  So I do believe an 8 team per conference format is coming, with two teams getting a bye and the other six playing on "super wildcard" weekend.

At the bottom of the standings,  I guess draft pick order maintains some modest degree of interest for some team fans, although with perverse incentives of those fans hoping for their teams to lose.  A relegation system for teams at the bottom would work much better, and I'm here to say that making JAX and DET play in the CFL next year while their spots are taken by Winnipeg and Hamilton is such a wacky idea I really wish it were feasible.

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#18 by andeux // Jan 19, 2022 - 2:27pm

I don't think you've thought this through:

So I do believe an 8 team per conference format is coming, with two teams getting a bye and the other six playing on "super wildcard" weekend.

So you start with 8 teams (a power of 2), and in the first week play three games, reducing that to 5.

And then in the second week do you:

  1. Only play 1 game, reducing from 5 to 4?; or
  2. Play 2 games reducing from 5 to 3, and then 1 game the week after that reducing from 3 to 2, giving the #1 seed three byes all the way through to the conference championship?

Besides ending up with multiple byes for some teams, either option also adds a week to the playoffs (which I guess the league might consider a feature, not a bug).

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#21 by jheidelberg // Jan 19, 2022 - 2:33pm

I also hate agreeing with you.  A 16 team format has no bye, little incentive to excel.  It makes the regular season like the NBA and NHL, a long 80-82 game journey of snooze fest. 

We would be so happy to end the 17-18 game regular season and move on to the playoffs where we would have been treated to GB-NO and TEN-INDY.

Lets take that scenario, Indy wins, and why did we play 17 game regular season?  Meanwhile we fall asleep watching the Saints play and hopefully wake up in time for the next game.

Oh wait, you have 2 teams getting a bye, now I agree with the post above.  

However, I do agree with your thought that we head to 16 team playoff format, just without your byes.

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#14 by muscle417 // Jan 19, 2022 - 1:41pm

Interesting fact that just occurred to me: last weekend saw the 3 franchises with the most Super Bowl appearances all lose (NE, PIT, DAL}

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#16 by turbohappy // Jan 19, 2022 - 2:14pm

This year's Colts didn't deserve to get in after that absolute stinker against the Jags. But imagine an alternate universe where they narrowly lost to the Cardinals when everyone had COVID and narrowly lost to the Raiders the next week when they still had several out, then they go blow out the Jags by 50. That's a team you'd hate to see miss the playoffs in favor of the Steelers.

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#17 by JMM // Jan 19, 2022 - 2:24pm

To make the playoffs, the Steelers beat who they needed to beat. They went 7-2-1 against teams that didn't make the playoffs. Against playoff teams the Steelers' record was 2-5 with 4 of the losses coming against teams still in the tourney. So they beat teams who didn't make the playoffs and lost to teams in the championship round. Sounds like a team who should get in the tourney and then get beat.

One of the wins against non-playoff teams, the Chargers, is what kept the Chargers out of the playoffs. The fact that a tie in the Chargers-Raiders game would have put the Chargers in the playoffs with an identical record as the team they bumped, after having lost in a head to head with them is an indictment of the tie breaking procedures of the NFL and a reason why some of us favor the elimination of overtime in the regular season. As I had posted previously in another thread, giving ties to all teams instead of playing OT would have eliminated the Steelers from the playoffs. And as others have observed, converting 6 consecutive 4th and longs requires 2 preconditions: 1st, 2nd and 3rd down failures prior to each, and the creation of a desperate game situation where any other decision is a game concession. It's a non-repeatable event. The Raiders beat the Steelers in the regular season and made the playoffs. The Chargers lost and sat home. There are a bunch of reasons to look to change the current playoff setup. Lamenting the Chargers being home and not seeing a repeat of a once in lifetime event repeat should not be among them.

As to DVOA predicting the Steelers should be out, perhaps DVOA is being fooled by the current overtime format and the associated luck, which again, favored the Steelers not in their game against the Lions, but in their OT wins.


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#20 by NYChem // Jan 19, 2022 - 2:33pm

chargers beat the steelers. 41-37. I remember. Exciting game. Ben looked a bit like his old self in the second half. 

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#22 by JMM // Jan 19, 2022 - 2:46pm

In reply to by NYChem

Opps. My bad. I even looked at the schedule as I tallied the results. 

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#33 by AFCNFCBowl // Jan 19, 2022 - 6:27pm

While all this is true, the stats were not kind to the Steelers. They were outgained by 0.7 yards per play, tied with the Lions for 3rd worst in the league. Their offense was essentially the worst in football in the 1st halves of games - for perspective, after the Chargers game, they scored 1 first half offensive touchdown. They were 9-2-1 in games with a 4QC/GWD opportunity - the most close wins in the league and only LAR had a better winning percentage in those games - and the only 2 close losses were to LAC (trailed by 17 at start of 4th quarter, outgained in yards per play 7.2 to 4.1) and to MIN (trailed by 29 late in 3rd quarter).

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#47 by coboney // Jan 20, 2022 - 5:17am

If the Steelers had 'beat who they needed to beat' they wouldn't have been relying on Jacksonville upsetting the Colts, and then getting nervous when LAC-LV nearly went to a tie. They would have had a better record

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#23 by Sifter // Jan 19, 2022 - 3:18pm

Two thoughts: 

1) I kinda like 7 teams, and it's because I like the #1 seed getting a reward - I think that keeps a lot to play for all the way through and is a great achievement for your #1 conference team.  

2) On the fatigue that builds over the weekend - some might it sacreligious to do this for playoff games, but they should play both of the 2 v 7 games at 1pm on Sunday, so that we can switch between them as viewers.  Then you'll get more people focused on the closer of those 2 v 7 games, and you could then cut the Monday night game to keep the schedule fairer (as far as recovery days go etc.), and to reduce the fan fatigue.  Hope you're reading Roger G!  


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#24 by MJK // Jan 19, 2022 - 4:11pm

One idea that I've had for ranking teams and replacing tiebreaking procedures is this.  Use a points system where every team starts with some set number of points (say 0, or 50, or 100), and then:

* Gets +1 for every win that every team you beat ends up with

* Lose -1 point for every loss that every team you lose to ends up with

* Gain (or lose) the difference in the win-loss record for every team you tie.

So you get only 1 point for beating a team that goes 1-16, but get 16 points for handing a 16-1 team their only loss.  You get 0 points for tying with a team that goes 8-8-1.  

This system is relatively simple to calculate (much more so than calculating Maximum Likliehood Estimates or beatpaths, or anything like that), would mainly rank teams by wins and losses but give a concrete way of breaking ties, would override wins and losses in extreme cases of mismatched strength of schedule, and would give fans a tangible rooting interest in games not involving their team (because if a team your team played was playing against a team your team didn't play, you have a swing on your teams point total on the line).  

It has the added benefit that if you finish above your starting number, it generally means you are "above average"... and you could use that as a playoff criteria...

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#26 by Pat // Jan 19, 2022 - 4:36pm

That's pretty functionally similar to something like "average winning percentage of teams you beat minus average losing percentage of teams you lost to" (less the ties).

Although the NFL tiebreaker combination of strength of victory + strength of schedule basically works pretty similar, except what you have would allow a team with more "good losses" to get in over a team with more "good wins."

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#38 by MJK // Jan 19, 2022 - 8:04pm

Yes, but the advantage of using an integer number of points is that it's simple and easy for the stereotypical "Joe Sixpack" to root for.  Saying "I hope the Jaguars beat the Panthers because that will raise the average winning percentage of teams we beat" is less tangible and less easy for non-math-inclined people than "if the Jags win, the Jets get another point!"

As for the NFL SoV + SoS tiebreaker... I don't think any casual (and even some hardcore) fans understands how those work.  They just wait for ESPN to magically tell them the playoff scenarios that result.  



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#48 by Pat // Jan 20, 2022 - 7:49am

After the past years, my opinion of what math Joe Sixpack is capable of has been radically altered.

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#25 by MJK // Jan 19, 2022 - 4:13pm

One thing that would even things out (in some years, not necessarily this one) would be to move away from the requirement that each conference have the same number of teams in the playoffs.  Give the division winners playoff births, and then give the other six spots to the next six ranked teams regardless of conference.  That would avoid problems where one conference has a weak 8-8 or 9-7 wildcard sneak in while the other conference has one or two 11-5 teams stay home.  (Yes, that happened once).

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#34 by Eddo // Jan 19, 2022 - 6:53pm

"That would avoid problems where one conference has a weak 8-8 or 9-7 wildcard sneak in while the other conference has one or two 11-5 teams stay home.  (Yes, that happened once)."

I might be parsing your last two sentences incorrectly, but it hasn't happened.  There's a table in the article that shows all the teams with 10+ wins to miss the playoffs since they expanded to 6+ teams, and only one 11-5 team (the 2008 Patriots) has ever missed the playoffs.  That year, an 8-8 team (the Chargers) did make the playoffs, but as a division winner in the same conference.  A 9-6-1 team (the Eagles) made the playoffs in the other conference, but they were far from weak (the article says they had a +30% DVOA).

In 1991, two 10-6 teams (Eagles and 49ers) missed the playoffs, and an 8-8 team (the Jets, with a -6% DVOA) did make the playoffs in the other conference as a wild card.  So one of those two teams could have made it in your proposed system, but not both.  (In 2010, two 10-6 teams (Giants and Buccaneers) missed, but every playoff team had 10+ wins.)

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#37 by MJK // Jan 19, 2022 - 8:01pm

No, you're right.  I should have looked it up before posting.  I vaguely remembered a year when two strong teams missed the playoffs while a weak wildcard made it in in the other conference... I guess I was thinking of 1991... and I convolved it with 2008.  I'm a Pats fan and I knew that the Pats missed the playoffs at 11-5 while a less than 10-win team got in in the NFC...but I thought a second AFC team had also missed it at 11-5.  There were three other 11-5 teams that made the playoffs that year.  Just jumbling up records without taking time to look it up.

Still, I stand by my opinion that it seems wrong to let in a weak wild card when you make a stronger wildcard in the other conference stay home.  It's not like baseball where the AL and NL never (or rather, now, hardly ever) play each other and actually use different rules.  The two conferences are historical artifacts, and I'd actually be more OK with getting rid of the conferences than getting rid of divisions.

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#39 by reddwarf // Jan 19, 2022 - 8:05pm

1985 Denver Broncos went 11-5.  Raiders won the division at 12-4. Three teams went 11-5, including Denver.  Tiebreakers worked out to send the Jets and Patriots to the playoffs as wild cards, and Denver went home.  You don't see them in the table in the article because the authors stopped at 1991.

Not that I'm old and bitter, or anything. 

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#46 by occams_pointed… // Jan 20, 2022 - 1:35am

and those Bengals sat at home. Regular season losses to the Steelers (twice),  to the SB Champion Raiders (in Oakland), and a one-point loss to the playoff-bound Colts (in Baltimore). That Bengals team had six Pro Bowlers: QB Ken Anderson DE Coy Bacon S Tommy Casanova WR Isaac Curtis LB Jim LeClair CB Lemar Parrish

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#60 by Eddo // Jan 21, 2022 - 11:50am

They stopped where they did because that was when the added the sixth playoff team to each conference.

Even if you do go back to the five-team era, what MJK described didn't happen in 1985.  Yes, an 11-5 team (the Broncos) missed the playoffs, but (a) just one did and (b) the worst record to make the playoffs in the other conference was 10-6 (the defending champion 49ers).

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#63 by KaosTheory // Jan 21, 2022 - 3:33pm

Eliminate conferences altogether. I honestly think this would be a good idea that would be more likely to end up with the two best teams meeting in the Super Bowl. 

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#64 by KaosTheory // Jan 21, 2022 - 3:33pm

Eliminate conferences altogether. I honestly think this would be a good idea that would be more likely to end up with the two best teams meeting in the Super Bowl. 

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#27 by IlluminatusUIUC // Jan 19, 2022 - 4:48pm

One possibility I've heard would allow the #2 and #3 seeds to pick their opponent for WC weekend. In a lot of cases (like this year) it would be pretty straightforward for the 2 to pick the 7, but in last year's AFC all the wild cards were 11-5 so there would be a real incentive to pick your best match up, and then the games come with the built in drama of choosing your contender. 

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#32 by jgov // Jan 19, 2022 - 5:41pm

I like this idea, and I think it should be extended to the 1 seed getting to choose which of the two weaker seeds it wants to play in the divisional round. This year, TEN definitely would have selected CIN, but it would be interesting to see who GB would have picked - I assume they would prefer to be playing LA to SF given their recent histories against those teams. 

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#40 by MJK // Jan 19, 2022 - 8:10pm

I've thought this before as well, and I love the idea.  Think how much great bulletin board material and drama for the fans it would be.  The NFL could have a special TV slot where the coaches of the teams would choose their opponents.  They probably could milk that for a full half hour if not a full hour of hype and coverage, and it would likely have high ratings.  And it would give the underdog great bulletin board material... "they better be careful what they wish for!"

Coaches like Belichick would hate it (or at least hate being forced to publicly indicate who they feel is the weaker team), which would make it even more fun.

I would go even further and allow the #2 seed to pick the #3 seed or #4 seed if they so desire (or the #3 seed to pick the #4 seed).  (And in many years, the worst division winner is markedly worse than the worst wildcard, so that likely would happen occasionally).  So winning your division doesn't guarantee you a home playoff game (a long pet peeve of mine).  It would add a lot of drama late in the season because seeding would really matter... the difference between being the 3 seed and 4 seed might be huge... if you're team is viewed as weak or flawed, it could be the difference between getting to pick your opponent and having a home playoff game versus being picked by the 3 seed and having to go on the road.

I also would extend it to the divisional round, and let the 1 seed choose their opponents from the remaining seeds.  


Points: 0

#43 by Darren // Jan 19, 2022 - 10:05pm

I like this idea.

It provides more content, debating which team should pick which opponent.

It's a big change, therefore unlikely, but what the NFL wants is more games that matter. Making a 3 vs. 4 seed significant makes more games meaningful.

One defense of the 7-team playoff it makes the last weekend of reg. season more dramatic by keeping the top teams trying to win and the average teams striving for a playoff spot. If we had 6 playoff teams more teams are eliminated sooner. Also, remember the endless arguments over sitting starters in the last week(s) of the season? That has dropped off significantly. Only a couple of teams mailed it in the last week (which made the Eagles look worse than they were). If this keeps up, maybe fantasy championships should move to week 18 (not yet tho).

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#61 by Eddo // Jan 21, 2022 - 11:56am

It's super interesting to me, too, but I think there's no way it would get implemented due to the risk-averse nature of NFL coaching staffs and front offices.  Now an upset loss wouldn't have merely the normal amount of criticism leveled at the losing coach, but also tons of questions about their choice of opponent.  I can't imagine many coaches would be willing to take on that risk.

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#65 by ImNewAroundThe… // Jan 22, 2022 - 9:09pm

that doesn't care for such an idea. Not super interesting like in the NBA All Star draft either or what it was like for the Pro Bowl those few years. 

I get nothing from such silly drama. 

NFL playoffs are fine. Just stop allowing division winners get home games (allow them in but 7-9 Washington shouldn't be hosting the eventual champs because they played in a horrible division) and sort them by record.

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#35 by Junoballs // Jan 19, 2022 - 7:02pm

The problem is, the Packers usually play somewhere near "as good as they can," while the 49ers have moments like the fourth quarter against the Cowboys frequently enough that it's hard to pick them for the upset.

How does this align with the 49ers #2 variance versus the Packers' #15 ranking? Wouldn't the 49ers consistently dealing with an interception or conservative 4th down playcalling be baked into their performance this year?

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#49 by AFCNFCBowl // Jan 20, 2022 - 8:08am

49ers have not had a whole game this year where they really played bad (their worst games by DVOA were against IND and TEN, games that were close the whole way). Of course they have played several bad quarters.

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#62 by Eddo // Jan 21, 2022 - 11:57am

I can't really comment on which team is more consistent by various measures, but FO's variance measure is based on game-to-game DVOA, not consistency within games.  So if the 49ers were consistently having three good quarters along with one awful one, their game-to-game variance would be low while their in-game variance would be high.

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#44 by dmstorm22 // Jan 19, 2022 - 11:16pm

Bryan mentions that the one 2v7 game that was close wasn't as close as the score... what?

The Colts were leading through the 2 minute warning of the first half. Granted, Buffalo went up 24-10, but the Colts immediately scored a TD after that and it was a 3 point game with six minutes to go. The Colts were driving into Buffalo territory down three when the game ended. I mean, if that isn't close then I guess I have bad news that not every postseason is going to have a 2006 AFC Championship type game in it.

You can make an argument that was the closest, or second behind maybe the NFC Title Game, playoff game of the year last season. 

Points: 0

#50 by thok // Jan 20, 2022 - 8:21am

I feel like the Steelers are taking a bit too much criticism for the 2 vs 7 game not being great; it'a not their fault that other teams threw away chances to make the postseason, and we probably would have the exact same number of good playoff games if there was a Chargers-Raiders tie in week 18 (KC-Oakland wouldn't be that much more competitive than KC-Pittsburgh was).

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#51 by ddoubleday // Jan 20, 2022 - 11:14am

I feel certain the Raiders would have put up more than 34 yards offense in the first half.

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#52 by Lomn // Jan 20, 2022 - 11:26am

The one thing missed in the discussion of where the Cowboys played themselves on the fake punt thing is that the refs reset the play clock for Dallas.

  • with :27 left on the play clock, the ref gets to the K-ball to swap it. Delay, in part, because the Cowboys have spotted them ball themselves instead of handing it to the umpire. Foreshadowing!
  • Ump is still standing over the ball for a while. Making sure the K-ball is gone? Not sure. Center is counting 49ers players on the field as this happens, presumably seeing if there's a too-many-men penalty available.
  • Time passes. Multiple Cowboys are in motion; the line never comes set. At no point is a snap a legal option, even if the ump hasn't yet moved.
  • We're zoomed in on Anger and can't see if anybody is set, but with :10 on the play clock, the officials reset to :25. Probably accounting for the ball switch. The Cowboys now have :55 to get their stuff together
  • :24 on the revised play clock and everybody is still wandering. At no point yet have the Cowboys been legally in position to snap the ball.
  • :20 left. Oh, hey, let's sub everybody! #29 on the far side is staring towards the 49ers sideline. 0:35 since the previous play ended, with the Cowboys not in a position to snap the ball at any point in that period.
  • :17 left. Massive sub in progress, #29 starts sprinting.
  • :13 left. The offense is within the hash marks. Somewhere around :15 to go is where the ref permits the 49ers a "reasonable time" to complete substitutions, depending on exactly how things work with #29 being a very late withdrawing player.
  • :06 left. The offense is finally set. 49ers #3 is between the hash marks coming over to the far slot for his coverage assignment. 0:49 since the previous play ended. Umpire is looking back to the ref for a cue to move off the ball, which comes at :02 left as 49ers #3 settles into position.

That right there is why it's 100% KCW. 50 seconds to get set for a play when the only possible playcall scenario for your offense was "hey, it's 1st and 10"? All the time-wasting to get there was 100% on the Cowboys and whatever plans involved keeping the punt unit on the field and sort of in formation but not set to snap for over 30 seconds.

I'll acknowledge that the delay of game (snap comes less than a half second after the play clock hits 0) is the fastest I've seen all year and is not in keeping with the established standard. But as with the final play, if you've decided that your plan is dependent on split-second performance by a third party with no vested interest in your well-being, well. That's a choice.

Points: 0

#53 by Travis // Jan 20, 2022 - 12:21pm

Ump is still standing over the ball for a while. Making sure the K-ball is gone? Not sure. Center is counting 49ers players on the field as this happens, presumably seeing if there's a too-many-men penalty available.

After the successful fake punt, at least one of the Cowboys on the sideline stepped on the field to celebrate, and the officials felt this was enough to count as a (simulated) substitution and so stopped the Cowboys from running a quick play with the punt personnel.

Points: 0

#54 by Pat // Jan 20, 2022 - 1:30pm

Honestly, the explanations coming out of Dallas are hilarious. Yes, I totally buy that the officials held up the next play to allow for a substitution. But it totally didn't matter. It's utter garbage that they actually wanted to run a friggin' play with the punt team by the point that the official held it up. They were trying to catch them with too many men, and forgot to tell the officials not to change the K-ball.

After the play, you can see Dallas quick line up, and then the long snapper starts counting, and it's obvious that he realizes the 49ers have the right number of guys, so he turns back over to the Dallas sideline basically being like "uh, what do we do"? And Fassel holds his hands up like stay, stay. If I had to guess, he's probably saying to McCarthy "we don't have enough time to substitute."

This is the point where the original poster says "ump is still standing over the ball." Yes, he's still standing over the ball... because there's no reason for him not to, there's no one there to snap! Then the long snapper comes back, for like a hot second, before going back over to the sidelines - at which point, the umpire has already retreated back. But the long snapper's clearly confused as to what the heck to do.

Then they reset the play clock (because of the ball switch) and Fassel points up to the play clock - at which point, a moment later they swap in the team. Like, you can imagine Fassel going "wait, they changed the clock! Swap 'em in!" and McCarthy goes with it.

The Cowboys never looked ready to run a play after about 25 seconds on the original play clock. The friggin' punter went in motion then, that's clearly when they were trying to run it. But they couldn't, because the ball was still being swapped out.

I mean, just watch the long snapper - he's clearly in a "uh... WTF do we do now?" mode even while the ball's still being swapped out.

Points: 0

#55 by Jackson87 // Jan 20, 2022 - 3:07pm

But with about a minute left in Dallas-SF something I could not understand happened. SF had the ball and was trying to run out the clock. For some reason that I do not remember, there was a stoppage of play, and then the refs added 4 seconds back on the clock, but subtracted 4 seconds from the play clock. This had the effect of giving Dallas 8 more seconds, and it makes no sense to me how that was correct.

Points: 0

#57 by MJK // Jan 20, 2022 - 4:31pm

I was confused about that too. 

Why didn’t they have the full 40 second play clock to run off the game clock?

Points: 0

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