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NFL Playoffs: A Look Ahead

   by Larry Ness - 07/28/2009

The 2007 New England Patriots became the first team to ever go undefeated through a 16-game NFL regular season (NFL adopted its 16-game season in 1978), scoring an NFL single-season record 589 points. I will note that the Pats' 36.8 PPG average ranks second all-time in NFL history, as the 1950 LA Rams scored 466 points over a 12-game season (38.8 PPG). Neither the '07 Pats nor the '50 Rams won NFL titles.

As everyone remembers, the Pats were within 35 seconds of a perfect 19-0 season two years ago but lost 17-14 to the New York Giants in Super Bowl 42, when Eli Manning connected with Plaxico Burress (remember him?) on a 13-yard TD pass. Ironically, those 1950 Rams similarly fell just short of winning an NFL title that season, losing 30-28 to the Cleveland Browns on Lou Groza's 16-yard field goal with just 28 seconds left in the game.

It was hard to argue against the Pats making it back to the Super Bowl in the 2008 season but in last year's first week, Tom Brady went down with a season-ending injury. In stepped Matt Cassel, who hadn't made a start at QB since high school. All he did was go 10-5 as a starter, completing 63.4 percent of his passes for 3,693 yards with 21 TDs and 11 INTs (QB rating 89.4). However, the Pats' 11-5 record was not good enough to get them into the 2008 postseason.

The NFL expanded its playoff format to include 12 teams for the 1990 postseason. The 2008 Pats became just the fifth team to win double digits in a single year and not qualify for the playoffs and the first to win 11 games and not do so. The 1985 Broncos also failed to qualify for that year's postseason despite an 11-5 record, but the playoff field that year consisted of 10, not 12 teams.

While the Chargers were able to capture the AFC West title with only an 8-8 record, the Pats lost a tie-breaker with the 11-5 Ravens for the AFC's second and final wild card berth. In the NFC, both the 9-7 Cards (winners of the NFC West) and the 10-6 Vikings (winners of the NFC Central) finished with a worse record than last year's Patriots team. Now New England fans may have felt 'robbed' in 2008, but let me remind them of the heartbreak suffered by fans of the 1967 Baltimore Colts (myself included).

The first-ever Super Bowl was played the year before (the NFL's Packers beat the AFL's Chiefs 35-10) and beginning in the 1967 season, the NFL decided to split each of its two conferences (East and West) into two divisions for its final three seasons before the 1970 merger. The East would consist of the Capitol and Century divisions, while the West featured the Coastal and Central.

My then-beloved Colts (still in Baltimore at that time) were joined by the Atlanta Falcons (had just entered the NFL in the preceding season) plus the LA Rams and the San Francisco 49ers in the Coastal Division, the most geographically-challenged division in sports history (can anyone come up with a better example?). Led by Johnny Unitas, the NFL's MVP in 1967, the Colts finished 11-1-2 but didn't make the postseason.

Only the NFL's four division-winners qualified for the playoffs back then and despite the fact that none of the NFL's other three division-winners reached 10 wins during the 14-game regular season, the LA Rams matched the Colts' 11-1-2 record in 1967, winning the Coastal division based on a better point differential in the teams' two head-to-head meetings that year. How bad was it for Baltimore fans that year? Pretty bad.

The Colts entered the season's final game of the year in 1967 at 11-0-2. The Colts would play the Rams at LA in that final game, a team they had tied earlier in the season, 24-24 in Baltimore. However, the Rams entered that game 10-1-2, meaning the Colts needed to beat the Rams (or tie them), to avoid spending the postseason at home. The Rams dominated the Colts that Sunday, beating them 31-10.

So New England fans, please spare me the tears. The 1967 Baltimore Colts are the only team in NFL history to enter the final week of a season unbeaten, yet fail to make that year's postseason. As I often like to say, you can't make this stuff up!

Looking ahead to 2009: I mentioned at the top that the NFL expanded its playoff field to include 12 teams beginning in the 1990 season. The Colts own the longest active postseason streak with seven straight playoff appearances, followed by the Giants, who have qualified for five straight postseasons (no other team owns a streak longer than three seasons).

At the other end of the spectrum, the Cardinals ended a nine-year postseason drought in 2008, on their way to making the franchise's first-ever Super Bowl appearance. Heading into the 2009 season, the Lions (fresh of the NFL's first-ever 0-16 regular season) and the Bills, both own nine-year postseason droughts. However, while the Bills have averaged 7.8 wins per season these last nine years, the Lions have averaged a measly 4.4 wins per year during the same span.

How many teams can we expect to make this year's postseason that also made last year's field? History tells us that on average, about half. There have been 110 teams from 1991 through 2008 to follow a playoff appearance with another one the very next season. That's an average of 6.1 per season. Back in 1995, eight of 12 teams returned to the postseason from 1994, the most-ever from one year to the next. The fewest "repeaters" in any one season has been four, which happened just once (in 2003).

Therefore, history tells us that we can expect six of last year's playoff teams to repeat in 2009, while six others will make room for six teams which failed to play in last year's postseason. Join me this coming Friday (July 31), as I'll list the six teams I believe are most likely to be back in 2009's playoff-field. Then, on Tuesday August 4, I'll rate the non-playoff teams from last year most likely to be playing in the 2009 postseason.

Good luck, Larry

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