To achieve playoff success, the schedule does not matter: only the division does.

Dallas won the NFC East again last season.  That is the second time in the last three years.  The Cowboys have won 33 games over the last three seasons, with an 11-7 division record (.611 winning ratio). 


That means that Dallas is a combined 22-8 against the rest of the NFL (.733 winning ratio) over the last three seasons.  The Cowboys were 1-2 in the playoffs over that period of time.


Obviously the NFC East has truly been the toughest competition the Cowboys have faced over the last three years: once getting bounced from the playoffs by a NFC East team, and then getting knocked out from the playoffs by losing to another NFC East team the next season.  Instead of making Dallas stronger, however, this stiff competition seems to wear the team out: and not just the Cowboys.


Over the last three seasons, division winners have a combined record of 272-112.  Amazingly, teams that have had playoff success (at least one win per appearance) are 136-56.  That means that teams that won their respective division but were bounced immediately from the playoffs (0-1) were also 136-56 over the last three seasons.


The combined record of the division winners over the last three years adds up to a winning ratio of .708.  Teams that won their division and had some playoff success (again, winning at least one game per appearance) accumulated a winning ratio of .633 against non-divisional foes, while teams that lost their first home playoff game after winning their division won a ratio of .667 of the games against non-divisional foes.


In other words, successful playoff division winners won 83.3% of their games against divisional foes, while division winners that go one and done in the playoffs won 77.8% of their divisional games.  That is just a difference of four games over the last three years.


The real difference between teams that experience playoff success and those that do not:  the relative strength of the division.


Teams that won at least one playoff game after winning their division played against division rivals that boasted a winning ratio of .370.  That averages out to six games a season against teams that hover around 6-10.  Successful playoff division winners average going 5-1 in their respective divisions.


Division winners that lost their initial playoff game face teams in their division that had a winning ratio of .485.  Those division winners played six games against teams that almost averaged 8-8 records.  That adds up to three teams with a combined six more wins per season.


Returning to the fact that divisional winners that go 0-1 in the playoffs have only won 4 fewer games against divisional rivals than successful playoff divisional winners over the last three seasons, a valid argument can be made that these early playoff exiting divisional winners are just as good as the divisional winners that end up advancing in the playoffs.  The difference is that 0-1 playoff divisional winners have to play a tougher divisional schedule.


There have been twelve teams that have been eliminated at home in the playoffs after winning their respective divisions.  That 0-12 record cannot compare to the 21-10 playoff record of the divisional winning teams that experience playoff success.  The latter divisional winners have also won two out of the last three Super Bowls.


According to this data, Dallas may have its best opportunity in more than a decade to advance deeply into the playoffs and perhaps the Super Bowl this season.  Washington, while improved, will probably not finish with a winning record. 


Philadelphia has a new, inexperienced quarterback, as well as a plethora of inexperience throughout their defense.  For the Eagles, who have ridden Donovan McNabb and a powerful veteran defense for the last decade, 11-5 in 2009 could quickly approximate 5-11 in 2010.


The Giants still lack some key ingredients in the middle of their defense and need to answer several important questions in 2010.  Am I the only one that noticed that their second round pick was rated as a fourth round pick by the Cowboys front office?  How many defensive ends can play at the same time?  Which defensive end is going to man the middle linebacker position?


The recipe for Super Bowl success in 2010-2011 is simple:


Dallas Cowboys 11-5 (5-1 in the division)

New York Giants 7-9

Washington Redskins 6-10

Philadelphia Eagles 5-11


The numbers say so…

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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