Assuming there is a season, the NFL playoffs will expand to 14 teams — seven from each conference. That means 43.75% of the league will have a playoff berth, the highest percentage since the NFL’s 1990 postseason expansion when 12 of its then-28 teams (42.9%) made it from six total divisions. And since the 2002 division realignment, only 12-of-32 teams have had the luxury of playing after the regular season.
Reactions to the expanded field have been mixed. Many are excited for an extra game on Wild Card Weekend while others have been less enthusiastic. The latter group has expressed concerns about diminishing the value of the regular season and allowing sub .500 teams into the postseason. However, that concern might not hold much water based on the past 30 seasons.
I looked back at every season since 1990, working through records for bubble teams and tiebreaker scenarios to determine which teams would’ve clinched the additional playoff spot in each conference. Let’s run through my findings then break down why the Broncos and Browns could make valuable Super Bowl bets as a result.
The Hypothetical No. 7 Seeds of the Past 30 NFL Seasons
The hypothetical No. 7 seed of each of the past 30 seasons won an average of 8.9 games and had double-digit wins a total of 10 times. And 44 of the 60 teams (73.3%) had a winning record compared to only one (1.67%) with a losing record.
As you can see, only one seven-win team and one 11-win team would have received the extra postseason spot.
The lone seven-win team that would have made the hypothetical cut was the 1990 Dallas Cowboys. That team — led by Hall of Famers Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin — finished 7-9 a season after going 1-15. Not a single team since then would have received the extra spot with a losing record, though there have been two division winners with losing records over the same span.
The 2010 Seattle Seahawks and 2014 Carolina Panthers were the only two teams in NFL history to make the playoffs with a losing record in a non-strike shortened season. Both actually hosted and won their first playoff game as division-winning No. 4 seeds before bowing out.
For comparison, the 36 final wild cards (No. 6 seeds) since division realignment in 2002 have averaged 9.7 wins with only two (5.5%) getting the last wild card spot with eight wins. Zero had a losing record.
The Biggest Snubs Of the 12-Team Format
Since 1990, the Steelers would’ve had the most additional playoff appearances under the new expanded format with five — that includes four over the past decade, half of which were in each of the past two seasons.
However, I have a difficult time feeling sorry for Steelers fans. First of all, they already have six Super Bowl rings. Secondly, and most importantly, I’m a Ravens fan.
The fanbase that everyone should feel sorry for is the Vikings. Minnesota has the second-most hypothetical playoff appearances with four — the same number of Super Bowls the Vikings lost in the 1970s. They rank sixth in all-time NFL win percentage but have yet to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in 30 playoff appearances.
Including the Vikings and Steelers, there were 17 total teams that would have enjoyed two or more additional postseason appearances since 1990.
There were 13 franchises that would’ve had one additional postseason berth: The Ravens, Colts, Browns, Jaguars, Patriots, Chargers, Raiders, Rams, 49ers, Cardinals, Cowboys, Panthers and Lions.
That leaves only two teams that wouldn’t have benefited from a single additional playoff appearances over that span, and the answer shouldn’t surprise you: The Bengals and Bills — teams that haven’t won a playoff game since 1990 and 1995, respectively.
Now let’s go to the other end of the success spectrum.
Since 1990, the 2008 Patriots are the lone team with 11 or more wins to miss the playoffs. They would have secured the hypothetical seventh seed that season, which means they would be on a streak of 17 straight playoff appearances.
The 2010 Bucs are the only double-digit win team that would’ve still been left out of the playoffs in a seven-team format.
Speaking of teams to miss the playoffs with 10-plus victories, many would argue the 1991 49ers were the best team to ever miss the NFL playoffs. In Steve Young’s first season as a starter after a Joe Montana injury, San Francisco won its last six games to finish 10-6 but lost out on a wild-card tiebreaker to fall short of the postseason for the first time since 1982.
This sample size of hypothetical No. 7 seed of the past 30 seasons isn’t the biggest, with only 60 conference schedules playing out. It’s also worth noting that the playoff dynamic could have been different at the end of certain seasons with an extra spot on the line. As a result, I played around with different sets of power ratings and some Monte Carlo simulations, which actually had fairly similar results to what we’ve seen over the past 30 years.
I expect No. 7 seeds to have eight wins between 25% and 30% of the time. That rate would’ve been 28.33% in our sample of hypothetical No. 7 seeds since 1990. And the expected frequency for a No. 7 seed to have a losing record was between 1% and 2%, which is right in line with the one team that would’ve clinched the extra seed with a losing record over the past 60 instances (1.67%) studied.
Therefore, No. 7 seeds should get in with seven or eight wins about 30% of the time over a significant sample size.
So, what does that mean?
Well, the NFL isn’t the NBA. If you get in the dance, you have a shot — just ask the five wild-card teams that have won the Super Bowl since playoff expansion in 1990:
Wild-card teams have made up five of the past 30 Super Bowl champions (16.6%), although we’re currently in the midst of the longest drought without a wild card champ over that span, so don’t be surprised if we see a wild-card team make a deep Super Bowl run sometime soon. Maybe it ends up being one of the two new No. 7 seeds.
With the potential for no or reduced crowds this season, the significance of home-field advantage for the higher seeds will decrease, which means this could be the year of the next wild-card champion.
In the current 2020 Super Bowl futures market, I’d look to target either the Browns or Broncos. Both are in tough divisions with the two best teams in the league — the Chiefs and Ravens — as heavy favorites. The Browns and Broncos also have to deal with other formidable competition in their respective divisions.
The AFC’s final wild card spot could end up being the golden ticket for Denver or Cleveland.
Both teams also have high upside. The coaching changes in Cleveland should pay huge dividends and Denver had a strong offseason. If Baker Mayfield can thrive in a new offensive system and Drew Lock can take a big step forward in his second year, the Browns and/or Broncos could be peaking toward the end of the season in what is now obviously a quarterback-driven league.
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