Every year, 12 out of 32 teams make the NFL playoffs. The NFL may up that number to 14 at some point, 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 50 Super Bowl winners have a 40-9-1 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, 112 of the 168 playoff teams, or exactly two third, won their season opener. But there were also 56 teams (one third of all playoff teams) that made the playoffs after losing their season opener, including the 2014 Super Bowl winning Patriots, who stumbled out of the gate with a to the Dolphins in Week 1, 2014.
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 shifted significantly from the 37.5% all teams shared before kickoff weekend. Overall, exactly 50% of the teams (112 of 224 teams) who have won their season opener since 2002 also made the playoffs. Conversely, only 25% of the teams that lost their season opener (56/224) eventually made the playoffs over the same period.
That puts a lot of pressure on the Cowboys and all other 0-1 teams to win their next game. Because the brevity of the NFL season also means that if you follow up a season-opening loss with more losses, you'll be out of the playoff race pretty fast. Just how fast that can happen is illustrated by the image below, which shows how the playoff odds have developed over the last 14 seasons by W/L from Week 1 through Week 3:
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 10%; lose the game after that and you can start looking at mock drafts for 2017, because you're going to be sitting at home in January. And nobody likes looking at mock drafts in September.
The Cowboys lost yesterday, and even though they lost by the slimmest of margins, it still gives them a 25% historical chance at the playoffs. If they had won, they'd be sitting pretty with a 50% historical chance at the playoffs. To get back to that 50% level, the Cowboys will have to win their next two games.
Losing their season opener was a significant speed bump for the Cowboys on their road to the playoffs, and they'll have to pick up the pace over the next few games if they want to stay on track in the playoff race.