MMW: Anatomy Of A Surprise Playoff Run

By Luis DeLoureiro
August 08, 2011 12:55 pm
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What do the Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders, Denver Broncos, Washington Redskins, Detroit Lions, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, St. Louis Rams and San Francisco 49ers have in common?
 
No, Randy Moss did not play for all of these teams in 2010. (pausing briefly so readers can laugh at the witty joke)
 
The answer is that none of these 11 teams has made the playoffs in the last three seasons (2008 – 2010). Every other team has made at least one appearance in this time.
 
Also, it is a near certainty that at least one - and probably two or more - of these teams will still be playing when the 2011 postseason begins.
 
We know what you’re thinking, “Normally the guys at Cold, Hard, Football Facts are much smarter than the competition – but, surely, they must be mistaken this time.”
 
No, we’re not mistaken.
 
We’ve done the research and it will leave you….well, not quite breathless…..but, certainly, breathlessness will seem imminent.
 
Consider that in every season since 2002 – when the league expanded to 32 teams - at least one team has made the playoffs following an absence of at least three years. In fact, in that time period, an average of 2.3 teams per year – 21 total - has qualified for the postseason under such circumstances.
 
In today’s Waterboy, we are going to attempt to identify common characteristics among the aforementioned 21 teams.
 
Further, we will look at the dozen teams – listed in the opening paragraph - that will be entering the 2011 season with a playoff absence of at least three seasons. Do these twelve teams share any characteristics with the 21?
 
The table below shows the 21 teams that, since 2002, have qualified for the playoffs following an absence of at least three years. The table also shows each team’s total wins in the three seasons prior to the season of interest.
 
 
 

 
The above list shows a fairly eclectic set of circumstances.
 
There are teams on the list that had been knocking on the door and finally broke through. The 2010 Chicago Bears fit into this category – having won 23 games in the three prior seasons. The 2008 Vikings (23 victories in the prior three years), 2003 Seahawks (22) and 2003 Chiefs (21) also fit into this category.

There are the teams on the list that were reaping the benefits of a recently installed high profile front office. The 2010 Chiefs and 2008 Dolphins matched this description.
 
There are teams on the list that were riding high with a newly installed franchise quarterback. The 2006 Saints, 2008 Cardinals and 2008 Falcons would seem to fit this description to some degree.
 
But, there’s one characteristic that most stood out across many of the 21 teams: an easy schedule.
 
A Brief Lesson on the NFL Schedule
Before we show how the schedule greatly aided many of the 21 teams, we need to first explain how the NFL’s scheduling process works.
There’s a misconception among many fans that an NFL team’s non-divisional (should that actually say non-division? Out of division? Ahh…who cares…) schedule is a function of a team’s record the previous season. That’s not the case.
 
It used to be.
 
Until 2002, teams with inferior records were given an easier non-divisional schedule the following season.
 
However, when the league went to 32 teams, the process was changed to the following:
·        Each team plays the teams in their division twice, once at home and once on the road. That's a total of six games.
·        Each team in a division will play the four teams in another division within their conference. For example, in 2010 each team in the NFC South played each team in the NFC West. This is on a rotating schedule every 3 years. That's another 4 games.
·        Each team in a division will play the four teams in a division in the other conference.
So, in 2010, each team in the AFC East played each team in the NFC North. This is on a 4-year rotating schedule. That's another 4 games.
·        These 14 games (six in the division, four against a division within the same conference and four against a division in the other conference) make up the fixed portion of the schedule – which is set several years in advance.
·        The final two games are based on the team’s record the previous season – with each team playing two games against teams from within their conference that finished in the same position within their respective divisions. Clear as mud – we know. So, because the Patriots won the AFC East in 2009, they played the San Diego Chargers (AFC West champs in 2009) and Inidianapolis Colts (AFC South champs in 2009). They were already playing the NFC North Champion Bengals because of the fixed portion of their schedule.
 
The Impact of the Schedule on our “21 Teams”
Why did we use up three minutes of your life (three minutes you can never have back) to explain how the NFL schedule works? Because without that explanation, we couldn’t show you the role that the schedule played on the 21 teams that qualified for the playoffs following a three year absence.
 
When we dug into the schedules of the 21 teams, we found that:
ONE - a stunning 15 of the 21 (71%) played four of the games from their fixed non-divisional schedule against either the worst division (based on overall record) in their own conference or the worst division in the other conference.

(Keep in mind that our Waterboy is typically incapable of any kind of descriptive dialogue, so his use of the word “stunning” should be taken very seriously.)
 
If four games seem insignificant, consider that it could mean the difference between 6-8 wins and 9-11 wins.
 
TWO – Nine of the 21 played four of the games from their fixed non-divisional schedule against the overall worst division in the NFL.
 
THREE – Five teams actually benefitted from playing four games each against the worst division in the AFC and the worst division in the NFC.
 
In no way are we suggesting that the 21 teams analyzed were mediocre teams that made the playoffs only because of an easy schedule. We are an open minded bunch who doesn’t get off on being critical (pausing briefly – again – to allow the laughter to subside).
 
But, many of these teams certainly used an easier schedule to help take the next step.
 
Recent Examples of Scheduling Good Fortune
Below are a few recent examples of teams that have ridden an easier schedule to playoff glory:
·        The 2010 Chiefs took advantage of scheduling to make their first playoff appearance since 2006. They played four games each against the NFC West – the league’s worst division with an average of 6.25 wins per team - and the AFC South – the worst in the AFC (7.5 wins per team).

Although we didn’t look at divisional games to do our analysis, the Chiefs also played six games in their own AFC West – the third worst division in football (7.75 wins per team).
 
·        The 2008 Dolphins rebounded from a 1-15 season to win their division.  While the recovery was impressive, the schedule (as well as Bernard Pollard’s hit on Tom Brady in the season opener) played a major role.

That season, the AFC East played its non-divisional schedule against the NFC West (with an average of 5.5 wins per team, the 2008 NFC West was the worst division in the time period analyzed) and the AFC West (with an average of 5.75 wins per team, the 2008 AFC West was the second worst division in the time period analyzed).
 
Attempting to Predict 2011
As we stated at the beginning of this post, one – and, more likely, two or more - of the following teams will almost certainly make the playoffs:
 
Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders, Denver Broncos, Washington Redskins, Detroit Lions, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, St. Louis Rams and San Francisco 49ers.
 
As we stated above, teams that manage to break through come in all flavors.
·        Some, like the 2010 Bears, finally broke through after knocking on the door for a few years.  The Texans, Bucs and 49ers would be the most likely to fit this category in 2011.
·        Some started to reap the benefits of a new front office – likely in the second or third year of the new administration.  Many teams – including the Redskins, Browns, Bills, Rams and Lions – fit this criteria.
 
However, the single biggest common trait among the 21 teams has been a favorable schedule. 
 
Do any teams appear to be ready to ride a favorable schedule to an unexpected playoff berth?  It’s very difficult to answer this question since division quality varies greatly from year to year.
 
With that said, it’s probably a pretty safe bet that the NFC West will continue its incredible run of mediocrity.  The NFC West is in the midst of a seven year run as the worst division in all of football.  Not since 2003 season has another division (AFC North) managed fewer total wins than the NFC West.
 
If form holds, and the NFC West continues to struggle, then the Cleveland Browns or Washington Redskins could make a surprise run.
 
However, the Redskins not only have to navigate through the always competitive NFC East, but they also play the tough AFC East (tied with the NFC South for best division in 2010).  We’ll guess the Redskins won’t be the surprise team.
 
So, that leaves the Browns as the most likely to benefit from a favorable schedule and earn a playoff berth in 2011.  The argument gains strength when you figure that the Browns will also play all four teams from the AFC South – the second worst division in football.  And they play the Bengals twice.
 
We’re not saying it will happen. No scribe who wants to be taken seriously – not even a hack like our Waterboy – would ever pin his hopes on the Cleveland Browns.  But, with the Browns entering the second year of Holmgren/McCoy and the easy schedule, a couple of favorable bounces and…..nahhhh.
 
But, then again, nobody saw the Chiefs coming.
 
If you have any questions, comments or death threats for the Monday Morning Waterboy, please feel free to contact him on Twitter at @deloureiro

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By Luis DeLoureiro
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Previous Comments (3)

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2 years ago
The Lions are the only team in the NFC to not make the playoffs since the 2002 expansion. Their schedule this year is tough, but not one that they can't compete with.
2 years ago
I really liked the details that you scoured up. However, everyone saw the Chiefs coming. That team has been building like an offensive juggernaut comparable to the Priest Holmes days. If the defense can improve, they will be there again. It will be the Lions who are the team to surprise this year...but again, what is the surprise. They are being built much like the Cowboys were from the early nineties. Remember what a horrible 1-15 they were in 89? The Lions have been drafting like sorcerers. The defensive line could be the filthiest in the NFL. They have a stud, undervalued back, like Emmitt Smith once was, and if Stafford can be kept on his feet long enough to get the ball to Megatron, the Lions are a team no one wants to mess with.
2 years ago
Jerry - agreed. I think the Lions are building a nice team (can't say I saw the Chiefs coming though). But, I was trying to find empirical trends...not form an opinion. And, since my point was that schedule has played a major role, I looked for teams w an easy schedule in 2011.
I think the Lions will not only make the playoffs either this year or next, but I think they'll be regulars at the party with a pretty strong foundation.

LOVE Stafford

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