For the first time in NFL history, 14 out of 32 teams will make the NFL playoffs this year. That means that prior to Week 1, each NFL team had a 14 out of 32 chance (44%) of making the playoffs.
With the first week of NFL action in the books, 16 teams are undefeated and 16 teas are winless. Does that mean the winless teams should start tanking for a better draft spot? And should the undefeated teams start resting their starters for the playoffs?
Not so fast.
The league moved to its current divisional alignment in 2002. Since then, 144 of the 216 playoff teams (or about two thirds of all playoff teams) won their season-opener. But there were also 72 teams (about a third of all playoff teams) that made the playoffs after losing their season-opener.
In the 18 seasons since 2002, the seventh seeds in each conference (the two teams that qualify as the 13th and 14th teams in the playoffs this year) won 20 of their season openers and lost 16.
If we add up the playoffs teams and the seventh seeds, 57% of the teams winning their season opener (164 of 252 teams) would have made the playoffs under the 2020 14-team playoff rules. Conversely, only 30% of the teams losing their season opener would have made the playoffs.
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.
The table below summarizes what the historic playoff odds for making a 14-team playoff 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 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.
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 14%; three consecutive losses to start the season and for all intents and purposes your season is over.
The Cowboys lost their opener, and are now looking at a 30% historical chance at one of the top seven seeds. If they had won, they’d be sitting pretty with a 57% historical chance at the playoffs. To get back to that level, the Cowboys will have to win their next two games against Atlanta and in Seattle.
We’ll continue monitoring the Cowboys’ playoff chances every week, and it would sure be nice if we could talk about a 1-1 record after next week.