Every year, 12 out of 32 teams make the NFL playoffs. Which means that prior to Week 1, each NFL team had a 12 out of 32 chance (38%) of making the playoffs.
But those odds went out the window with the season openers. Because an NFL season is just 16 games long, every game carries an inordinate weight in determining a team’s playoff odds. And as a result, playoff odds have shifted significantly from the 38% all teams shared before kickoff weekend.
Since realignment in 2002, 50% of the teams (135 of 272 teams) that won their season opener also made the playoffs. Conversely, only 25% of the teams that lost their season opener (69 of 272) eventually made the playoffs over the same period.
The table below summarizes what the historic playoff odds look like over the first nine games of the season, depending on a team’s record at any given time.
That historic record puts a lot of pressure on 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.
If you’re one of the teams that stumbled out of the gate 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 11%; three consecutive losses to start the season and for all intents and purposes your season is over.
The Cowboys won their opener and are now sitting pretty with a 50% historical chance at the playoffs. But the brevity of the NFL season also means that if they don’t follow up that initial win with more wins, they could be out of the playoff race pretty fast.
For now though, the Cowboys have done what needed to be done and started their season on the right foot. And if they continue winning, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t eventually have a playoff spot locked up.