Every year, 12 out of 32 teams make the NFL playoffs. The NFL may up that number to 14 as early as next year, but this year that number is still fixed at 12. That means that prior to Week 1, each NFL team had a 12 out of 32 or 37.5% chance of making the playoffs.
Week 2 is coming up, and the league is neatly divided into winners and losers: half the teams are undefeated, half the teams are winless. Already pundits are breaking out some obscure stats about how a team's week one performance effectively sets the tone for the rest of the season. Here's my favorite stat nugget about opening weekend: the 48 Super Bowl winners have a 39-8-1 record in the kickoff weekend games of their title seasons. Now how about that! Should the winless teams declare the season over already?
Not so fast. Since realignment in 2002, 98 of the 144 playoff teams won their season opener. But 46 teams made the playoffs after losing their season opener.
Because of the brevity of the NFL season with just 16 games, every game carries an inordinate weight in determining a team's playoff odds. After just one week of play, the playoff odds have shifted significantly from the 37.5% all teams shared before kickoff weekend. Overall, 51% of the teams who have won their season opener since 2002 also made the playoffs (98 of 192 teams). Conversely, only 24% of the teams that lost their season opener eventually made the playoffs over the same period (46/192).
Yet nothing is lost for teams like the Dallas Cowboys, who stumbled out of the gate on opening weekend. Because the brevity of the NFL season also means that if you string together a couple of wins, you'll be back in the thick of the playoff race. The image below shows how the playoff odds have developed over the last 12 seasons from Week 1 through Week 4:
In principle, there's no reason why the Cowboys shouldn't be able to win their next couple of games, and climb back to 50% playoff odds by Week 3 with a 2-1 record. In principle.
But that assumes that the Cowboys did indeed stumble out of the block on Sunday, and that their loss to the 49ers is not indicative of a bigger issue. If it's the latter, then this chart has an ugly message: Another loss would drop the Cowboys' playoff odds to a little below one in 10, and three consecutive losses to start the season means we can start planning for next year.
And I for one do not want to look at mock drafts in September.