Starting in 2005, playoff byes became far less meaningful

In the good, old post-merger days of the NFL, when the league had two conferences with three divisions in each one, there was no wild-card round.  Instead, in each conference there was a wild-card team — the best second-place team played the best first-place team in the divisional round.

Unless, of course, the best first-place team came from the same division as the best second-place team, since the NFL in those days avoided (for reasons that never were completely clear) pitting two teams from the same division against each other in the divisional round.

Then came the wild-card round in 1978, which created a No. 5 seed in each conference, scheduled the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds for a pair of games on what was called Wild-Card Sunday, and gave all six division winners a week off.

It changed again in 1990, when the NFL added a third wild-card team for each conference.  And the expansion to 12 teams was immediately criticized, given that the Saints qualified for the postseason in the NFC with an 8-8 record.

Over the first 15 years of the current process, it didn’t matter whether the No. 6 seed was 8-8 or 12-4.  The wild-card winners ended up being tackling dummies for the two teams per conference who earned byes, with 81.7 percent of the divisional-round home teams winning.  81.7 percent.

In 2005, something happened.  The reasons for it aren’t entirely clear.  Maybe more than 10 years of the salary cap and free agency had smoothed out the talent at the top of the league.  Maybe the week off made it harder for a team that coasted through December to fend off a team that scratched and clawed its way to the postseason through a parity-driven wilderness, and then won a hard-fought game in the wild-card round.

Regardless, the success rate of the teams that earned byes has dropped from 81.7 percent from 1990 through 2004 to 56.3 percent from 2005 through 2012.  More specifically, teams hosting divisional-round games have gone 18-14 over the last eight years.

Like the annual playoff turnover of roughly 50 percent, that’s a stat the NFL surely loves.  For teams that didn’t make the playoffs in any given year, there’s plausible hope they’ll make it to the postseason the next year.  For teams that make it to the playoffs in any given year, there’s plausible hope they’ll make it to the Super Bowl.

The obvious message for now?  Anything can happen when the Saints visit the Seahawks, the Colts travel to New England, the 49ers head to Charlotte, and the Chargers return to Denver one month to the day after winning there.

And the NFL surely loves that, too.

51 responses to “Starting in 2005, playoff byes became far less meaningful

  1. They will never be happy until the golden goose is dead.

    They might as well just change the rules so defense is illegal in the postseason and every team makes it.


  2. I loved the format of the wild-card face-off round in 1978. Two wildcards per conference.

    Winning the division meant something a week off, and only one wild card advanced. Only strong teams made the playoffs.

    I hate the way NHL and NBA play tons of regular season games that are, effectively meaningless, because of the slew of teams that make the playoffs. Blechhhh, rewarding mediocrity and chasing a buck at the expenes of excellence.

  3. You may want to look at when they did the division re-alignments and had the Top 3 teams from the previous years play each other. Therefore, the best teams in the league beat each other up, you end up having 11-5 and 12-4 Wildcard Teams (See 49ers this year, Ravens/Steelers previous years), that finish second in their division, On the flip side you have them playing weaker division winners who may have gotten the benefit of playing weaker opponents the previous year due to a poorer record (cough, Philadelphia, cough).

    So you have battle tested, playoff experienced teams, going in and playing Division winners who took advantage of a lighter schedule by beating up on the other 4th place finishers, and those division winners have zero playoff experience.

    Good luck Carolina……..

  4. Who remembers Tom Brady choking against Denver in the ’05-06 divisional round? Chance to take the lead and INTERCEPTION

  5. What happened was the NFL realized they could use referees a lot more to their advantage in order to create the best story lines and drama, regardless of who were really the best teams.

    Whatever equates to the best ratings and most revenue is what the NFL finds important, which is why the league is classifed as entertainment, not a sport.

    Take a close look at the last ten years, and tell me if you really think it’s all a coincidence.

  6. I don’t see much parity, pretty much the same teams win the superbowl since 2000.

    Patriots 3
    Ravens 2
    Steelers 2
    Giants 2

    Sprinkle in a few one time teams, but even those teams are good almost every year.

    This whole thing about anybody has a chance to win the Superbowl is bull crap.

    If you don’t have a Good Coach + Good GM + Good QB + Serviceable (at least) defense. You ain’t winning.

    That eliminates over half the league.

  7. The reason is what was mentioned. The smoothing out of talent distribution throughout the league over time. Every team has what it takes to beat the other if they have a better game plan and execute it accordingly. Essentially, the difference between 13-3 and 10-6 isn’t all that much in a parity driven league.

  8. That’s one way to look at it… Another way is that at least one #1 or #2 seed has been in the Super Bowl game since at least the late 90’s until now (that’s as far as I went back). That means the 1#1 and #2 seeds are still extremely valuable. The main reason is not playing at all the first week of the playoffs is the same as an automatic victory. As soon as the divisional round starts then the advantage is just typical home field. Which since 2005 is only 56%.

    That means one of the conferences will be represented by a #1 or #2 seed this year almost certainly.

    I would say SF has the best chance to be a non-seed representative at this point.

  9. Not saying the fix is in, but there are too many rules that could potentially alter the outcome of a game. Throw in the challenge flag and it seems that there are a lot more unfixed variables in the game today. Sometimes it feels like the players are secondary.

  10. “Who remembers Tom Brady choking against Denver in the ’05-06 divisional round? Chance to take the lead and INTERCEPTION”

    Who remembers Peyton Manning getting outplayed and beaten by Billy Volek on his home field? I could make a long list of the one and done king’s postseason failures.

  11. baltimoresnativeson says: Jan 10, 2014 10:28 AM

    I don’t see much parity, pretty much the same teams win the superbowl since 2000.

    Patriots 3
    Ravens 2
    Steelers 2
    Giants 2

    Sprinkle in a few one time teams, but even those teams are good almost every year.

    This whole thing about anybody has a chance to win the Superbowl is bull crap.

    If you don’t have a Good Coach + Good GM + Good QB + Serviceable (at least) defense. You ain’t winning.

    That eliminates over half the league.

    – – –

    Winning the SuperBowl isn’t the final determinant for parity. You need to look at BOTH the teams playing in it, as the margin of victory has been so slim in the past 14-years. So, when you look at that, there really IS parity. The Niners, Packers, Cardinals, Seahawks, Colts, Bears, Saints, etc. have also had the chance.

    Parity. Which, is precisely the reason why the NFL grows in popularity, while sports with no parity (MLB) decline rapidly.

  12. If there is one thing that IS clear, it’s that the NFL should spend a lot of time evaluating this question and determining how the playoffs should be structured for the future. We already know change is coming anyhow, but it’s not too late to decide what those changes should be and I think they need to spend a LOT more time thinking about how the playoffs are structured as well as how the divisions are set up as well as many other interrelated topics, there’s just so much stuff that needs to be fixed or evolved.

    And they are a decade behind on improving the game and the business in general. That’s the key issue to think about.

  13. Agree with most posters that the rules have helped to a large degree. But it is a QB driven league. The teams with one are in the playoffs. Problem is when you have a good one, you have to pay him. QB pay is way out of hand right now. Paying your QB $20 million does not allow you afford to put pieces around them. Star QB can then get you to playoffs but that is where it evens out. 49rs and Seahawks will soon realize once they pay Colin and Russell. Can’t afford all other pieces.
    Great QB will get you there but not necessarily allow you to win it all.
    Until QB greed slows this is the trend for forseeable future

  14. Part of the problem that causes this was increasing the divisions from 3 to 4 starting in 2002. This increased the odds of a mediocre (or worse team) winning a division plus strong wild cards from not making it.

    Instead, each conference should only have two divisions (East and West) with 4 wildcards. This would solve the problem.

    And absolutely no more playoff teams.

  15. Whatever the NFL is doing seems to be working. The popularity of the game is at an all time high and advertisers are spending more and more money to get in on it. Super Bowl commercials are not only incredibly expensive to buy, but now you have to have an academy award winning personnel to produce them.

    Why not have the fans of every team feeling as if this could be their year? How many people tuned in to see the Tampa Bay/Jacksonville game? Did you? But I bet that one of them will be in the hunt next year, even if they don’t quite make it. Go back to 3 yards and a cloud of dust and there will be o fans and no money.

  16. NO… The parity is caused by the widespread use of bottled water!!!! Now the home team can’t get advantage by spiking the tap water in the visitor locker room!!!!!

  17. Back in the day (damn, I’m old enough to say that now…), home field advantage was probably held by a team that could run the football and play tough defense.

    Now, you have teams like the Falcons, Manning’s Colts, and current-era Packers winning HFA throughout the playoffs, and running into problems when a more physical team shows up in their house and takes the fight to them.

    Next to no running game, lightweight, pass-rush-oriented defense built as a foil to an offense that’s supposed to post 40 a game….yeah, that’s a problem when a team shows up with enough defense to slow that high-powered offense down, and enough of a running game to wear that lightweight defense down by the third quarter.

  18. The Steelers should always be allowed into the playoffs to prevent future scams like the one we witnessed this year. We know that the Steelers are always good enough to be there. They just face so much adversity, not just from their opponent, but Rigger Goodell and his goons as well. A team as prestigious, profitable, and support as the Steelers should not be excluded.

  19. It just stands to reason that the more bad teams in the playoffs, the better the chance a bad team has of winning it all.
    If a team the caliber of, say, the Buffalo Bills were in the playoffs, that team would have a chance. A chance.
    The postseason should be reserved for the league’s elite teams only. The popularity of the league remains high because we are programmed to accept lower standards.
    There simply are not enough quality teams in the league to stock a 12-team tourney.
    My favorite team, the Steelers, have played a schedule the past THREE seasons that’s featured 30 teams that finished each season at or below .500. That’s 10 mediocre or worse teams a season on a 16-game schedule. That’s ridiculous.
    In 2011, the 13-3 Patriots qualified for the playoffs without having to beat one team that season with a winning record. That’s incredible.
    The league stinks.
    And yet we can’t stop watching.

  20. Nobody recognizes what major thing changed in this time period, not one single person.


    10-20 years ago, teams didn’t rest players when they had their playoff spots locked up. If there was a game on the schedule the STARTERS PLAYED.

    Within the last 10 years playoffs teams resting starters has become THE NORM. Take the Chiefs and Broncos for instance.

    The Chiefs sat all but 2 starters against the Chargers in week 17, and where are the Chiefs now?

    Likewise the Broncos played not much more than the first half before sitting Manning and many starters.

    THIS IS WHAT HAS CHANGED. And it has opened the door for wildcard teams fighting for their lives being far more hungry than teams who think they’ve already won something.

    It’s not science…… If you check at when this started happening it was around the time Peyton Manning was blowing out his division with 4-6 weeks still left in the season. The AFC South was so bad for SO LONG, the NFL realized they had to change scheduling to make up for the fact that dominant teams were running away with their divisions with tons of regular season games left on the schedule.

    Now we have today. Where dominant teams can still finish out their season with 1-2 meaningless games as opposed to 4-6. And the teams still resting their players are paying for it.

  21. Is there anyone besides me who thinks that the outcomes of games is controlled by something other than the play on the field?

    Doesn’t this data actually support that there is some magic hand that affects games, keeps the league more balanced with apparent parity, and prevents those teams with talent or coaching advantages from winning too much all the time?

  22. Arizona should’ve been in over Green Bay. I understand the division thing and that many opponents on a team’s schedule are division opponents, but the cardinals got the shaft (as have many teams in the recent past). I think if a team has a better overall AND division record than a division winner that team should be in. After all, if teams are judged by the teams in their division, wouldn’t a better overall AND division record justify it? Side note: I’m a Lions fan.

  23. The blog says,

    “In 2005, something happened. The reasons for it aren’t entirely clear. Maybe more than 10 years of the salary cap and free agency”
    It’s simple. There’s not that many balanced offenses in the NFL anymore. Going Against pass heavy teams is not as physically taxing as going against teams who can run the ball.

    Look at the Giants last Super Bowl run. Atlanta(no running game), PAckers(no running game), 49ers(didnt run too often in thAt game), Patriots(no running game).

    Ravens last Super Bowl run…Colts(no running game), Broncos(no running game), Patriots(no running game)..

    Theses teams playoff runs are virtually 7 on 7 drills. It’s not as physically taxing as it once was when teams ran the ball.

    I remember in 2002 when Trestman took over play calling for the raiders and they went pass heavy. Defenses would have a lot of energy in the 4th quarter they would be dancing to stadium music during tv timeouts and what not.

    In 2011 when Gruden was calling the plays and it was run heavy you saw none of that from opposing defenses. In the 4th Quarter they would be beat down in the 4th after dealing with Wiz, B Robb & company for 3 Quarters. They had no energy left and struggled the following weak. Just like when teams play the NFC west this year.

    It’s difference when you play against real football teams as opposed to 7 on 7 drills.

  24. Amazing that anyone is surprised. The NFL wants parity, and they are slowly getting it. I like that teams can really compete and have a chance now even if they lose 6 or 7 games…but I also miss the dynasty and being able to predict the outcome with at least some certainty.

  25. 12 week regular season, everyone makes the playoffs and no one gets a bye week. We could have a 2-10 team win the SB if they get lucky enough.

    Oh, then play all the playoff games in London and Germany. The AFC has all their playoff games in london, the NFC in Berlin. Oh, and don’t put them on TV in the US, only in Europe. Then build a stadium in Thule, Greenland to host the SB every year, so we can always have a cold weather venue.

    Goodell would endorse what I just wrote.

  26. The Steelers should always be allowed into the playoffs to prevent future scams like the one we witnessed this year. We know that the Steelers are always good enough to be there.

    This is a joke right? The team that lost its first 4 games of the year?

  27. justdoitseahawks12 says:
    Jan 10, 2014 1:13 PM
    SEAHAWKS 57 Aints 3


    What is: the number of years since each team won a superbowl?

    I’ll take Seattle teams with a history of abject failure for 200, Alex.

  28. For all those waxing rhapsodic about the tougher teams and tougher schedules of the past, need I remind you that the 1972 Dolphins gained their immortality against opponents with a .397 winning percentage?

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