Every year, 12 out of 32 teams make the NFL playoffs. The NFL may up that number to 14, but for now the number is still fixed at 12. That means that prior to Week 1, each NFL team had a 12 out of 32 chance (37.5%) of making the playoffs.
Even before all 16 Week 1 games have been played, 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 49 Super Bowl winners have a combined 39-9-1 record in the Kickoff Weekend games of their title seasons. Now how about that! Should the winless teams declare the season over already? And should the undefeated teams start resting their starters for the playoffs?
Not so fast. Since realignment in 2002, 105 of the 156 playoff teams won their season opener. But 51 teams made the playoffs after losing their season opener, including last year's Super Bowl winning Patriots, who stumbled out of the gate with a 20-33 loss to the Dolphins.
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 Week 1, the playoff odds will have have shifted significantly from the 37.5% all teams shared before kickoff weekend. Overall, 50% of the teams (105 of 208 teams) who have won their season opener since 2002 also made the playoffs. Conversely, only 25% of the teams that lost their season opener (51/208) eventually made the playoffs over the same period.
Yet nothing is set for teams like the Dallas Cowboys, who notched their first week of the season on opening weekend. Because the brevity of the NFL season also means that if you don't follow up that initial win with more wins, you'll be out of the playoff race pretty fast. The image below shows how the playoff odds have developed over the last 13 seasons by W/L from Week 1 through Week 4:
If you're one of the teams that stumbled out of the gates on opening weekend, your 0-1 record means next week's game is already something of a must-win game: Start the season 0-2 and your odds of making the playoffs drop to just 9%; lose the game after that and you can start looking at mock drafts for 2016, because you're almost certainly going to be sitting at home in January. And nobody likes looking at mock drafts in September.
The Cowboys got a win yesterday, and that puts them in the green in the table above. The win may have been costly from a team health point of view, but it may also have been invaluable from a team morale and confidence point of view. Time will tell about that, but there's no reason why the Cowboys shouldn't finish the first quarter of the season "in the green" and better than even chances of making the playoffs this year.
There's still a long way to go for this team, but winning the opener was an important first step for the Cowboys, one that will help them stay ahead of the ball in the playoff race.