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.