This is probably the most uneventful time of the offseason as teams are generally not making moves so fans turn to speculation about the results of the next season. I’d imagine if you took a poll of most fans and insiders they already have the 49’ers and Seahawks penciled in as the NFC Conference Championship game while the Broncos and Patriots will likely be battling it out for the AFC crown. We almost always base our predictions on results from the year before and expectations on a handful of changes teams make in the offseason.
With that in mind I wanted to look over playoff data since the NFL went to the 4 division format in 2002 and see just how well teams are faring year after year based on elimination round.
The teams that lose in the wildcard round are often considered either the teams that are expected to take the leap the next year or the teams on the last legs that just couldn’t get one more run in them. How do they fare in the future? Not too well. Over 50% of the teams eliminated in the wildcard round have failed to make the playoffs the following season , with 2009 being the only year where more than 2 teams who have lost in the wildcard round the year before actually made the playoffs the following year. 7.5% did win the Super Bowl the next year and 12.5% at least made the Super Bowl making it a high reward position for investment.
The teams that lose in the divisional rounds actually have the lowest success rates of any playoff round in the league. Nearly 58% of those who lose in the divisional rounds fail to make the playoffs the following season and 85% fail to improve on the playoff finish. With only 7.5% advancing to the Super Bowl this has become a chasing a dream position. With the Packers, Broncos, and Seahawks all being eliminated in this round in 2012 and all expected to be dominant next year its setting up a scenario where at least 1 is going to be disappointed in 2013. Only twice in 10 years have more than 1 team advanced on their position from the year before.
This has been a relatively productive round of elimination. 40% of those eliminated miss the playoffs but 25% have advanced to the Super Bowl and 35% have made it at least back to the championship game. Due to the high success rates this is the one round where teams can justify overspending to improve their chances the following year.
Super Bowl Runner-Up
This has basically been a disaster position for the future. Not one team in the new playoff format has advanced to the Super Bowl in the following year and 70% have been eliminated by the Wildcard round the following year. Last years Patriots were the only team to even advance as far as the conference championships following a Super Bowl loss. So for those penciling in the 49’ers for the Super Bowl, past history indicates that they will have an incredibly tough time even coming close to the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl Champion
The 2004 Patriots are the only repeat champion in the last 10 years and, in fact, the only team to advance beyond the Divisional round of the playoffs. So much like the runner up category there is a high probability that teams simply don’t fire the following season.
Didn’t Qualify For the Playoffs
I wanted to save this for last. 68% of teams that did not qualify for the playoffs failed to qualify again the following season, but some of the results beyond that are interesting. 18 teams who failed in the Divisional round did not make the playoffs the year before which is only 4 shy of the teams who made the playoffs the year before. 50% of the teams that lose in the Conference Championship failed to qualify for the playoffs the season before. 30% made up the Super Bowl participants (split equally between winners and losers) making it most likely that the Super Bowl contenders will come from last years playoff field, but it certainly leaves a very strong chance for the unexpected to occur.
The breakdown of Super Bowl runner up is 30% non-qualifiers, 30% Conference losers, 20% Wildcard losers, and 20% Divisional losers. The winners have been 30% non-qualifiers, 30% Wildcard losers, 20% Conference losers, 10% Divisional losers, and 10% Super Bowl champs. So just playing the percentages Id bet the field that there will be a Super Bowl participant that did not make the playoffs in 2012.
As for a winner and loser? Who knows. Looking back at the Wildcard teams that won it were Eli Manning coming of age in 2006, Ben Roethlisberger making his real statement in 2007, and then Aaron Rodgers becoming elite in 2010. The teams who advanced and lost were the Seahawks and Colts both of whom were more veteran squads with playoff experience. By no means is this a scientific way to do it but I cant see Christian Ponder or Andy Dalton making that leap and Andrew Luck and RG III are far too young, so Id eliminate the wildcard losers from contention.
The one divisional loser that won a Super Bowl was Peyton Manning who was pretty well established by that point. The comparison there would be Aaron Rodgers of the Packers. The runner ups who made it were the defensive minded fluky Bears and the ultra established Patriots. I’d say the Broncos would be the closest team that resembles New England and the Texans would be the Bears, but neither of those really fit the bill. Manning is a lot older than Tom Brady and Houston has probably seen the window close. I think I would have bought the Tyler Yates Texans being closer to the Grossman/Orton Bears.
The teams that won that came from the title round and won were the Steelers, who were a dominant defense with a young QB, and the Ravens last season. Of those who advanced to the SB and lost, you had the “never get over the hump” Eagles, the established Patriots, and last years 49’ers. I could see both the Falcons and Patriots fitting that bill.
Of the non-qualifiers who made it only the Panthers finished under 0.500 the year before (7-9) while the Saints and Cardinals both had 0.500 records. So these are teams that were not bad teams the year before. That would be the Dolphins, Steelers, Chargers, Giants, Cowboys, Bears, Saints, Panthers, Buccaneers, and Rams. Outside of the shocking Panthers, who had a new QB (and not a good one) and a record that kind of defied logic, the teams who made it were the already champion Patriots, Kurt Warner Cardinals, Drew Brees Saints, Big Ben Steelers, and Eli Manning led Giants. This is pretty much a list of terrific QB’s most of whom have been to the dance before. Only Brees had limited playoff success before that with a 1-2 record and a loss in the conference championship. What would be your most likely teams just based on the prior QB success criteria? The Steelers, Chargers, Giants, Saints, and (don’t kill me) Cowboys. I guess you can throw Jay Cutler in there as well.
All things considered I’d say that you can make a strong case for any of those teams based on history. Id probably move the Chargers down a notch due to changes at head coach as well as the Bears if you consider Cutler good enough (all these teams had continuity). Id probably lean towards the Steelers or Giants being the most likely from this group.
So after all of that who does that leave? Probably some combination of the Giants/Falcons vs Steelers/Patriots with the Packers being the most likely to displace one of those squads. Just food for thought as we all start making our predictions and pencil in a number of teams that history says probably do not have a great chance of getting there.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.