The NFL played its first-ever 17-game season in 2021 (over 18 weeks) and that seems to be the 'new normal,' at least until the season is expanded to 18 games (wait for it!). Since it's 100 percent likely that anyone reading this article is betting on NFL games, I'll start with an ATS recap of the 2021 season, comparing it to the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Home teams went 132-123-1(.518) two seasons ago (2019), the worst record since the advent of the 16-game schedule. Then, in 2020, home teams had a losing record for the FIRST time in history, going 127-128-1. One could argue that empty and partially empty stadiums played a role in that. However, that situation no longer applied in 2021. That said, home teams struggled again in 2021, finishing just 138-131-1 (.517) SU and 128-140-2 ATS (47.8%). Home dogs used to be considered 'money in the bank' but home 'puppies' were only 34-69 (.330) SU, although they were a more respectable 49-54 (47.6%) ATS. For those O/U bettors, I hope you were an 'under' bettor, as there were 146 unders, 123 overs and three pushes (that's 54.3% favoring the under). The best ATS teams were Dallas (13-4) and Green Bay (12-5), followed by Detroit which was 11-6, despite going 3-13-1 SU. FIVE teams went 10-7. The worst ATS records belonged to 3-14 Jacksonville (5-12 ATS) and 5-12 Carolina (5-12 ATS). The 6-11 Bears, plus the 4-13 Giants and the 4-13 Jets all finished 6-11 ATS. The Vikings were the best 'Over' team (11-6) with the Chargers, Chiefs, Eagles and Jets going 10-7. The best 'Under' team was the Broncos (12 unders-to-5 overs), followed by the Giants (11-5-1) and the Steelers (11-6).
Come mid-August, I will be offering my top selections for team over/under win totals for the 2022 regular season and in this article, I will review the NFL playoff structure, THEN and NOW! The leagues merged in 1970 and the 'new' NFL (with 26 teams) reorganized into two conferences of three divisions each (AFC and NFC). For you old-timers or youngsters with a passion and appreciation for history, I highly recommend "The NFL, Year One" (The 1970 Season and the Dawn of Modern Football) by Brad Schultz. From the 1970 season to the 1977 season, four teams from each conference (for a total of eight teams) qualified for the playoffs each year, the three division champions plus a "wild card" team. Expansion came to the regular season in 1978, going from 14 games to 16. The league added one more wild card team for each conference, as the two wild card teams played the week before the division winners (wild card winner would then play the No. 1 seed from each conference). The 1990 season saw a third wild card team for each conference added, expanding the playoffs to twelve teams. The lowest-seeded division winner was then "demoted" to the wild card week, leaving the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in each conference with an opening 'bye week!'
The 1990 format continued until the 2002 expansion (to 32 teams) and reorganization into eight divisions. In this format, the four division winners and two wild cards are seeded 1–6, with the top two seeds receiving byes, and the highest seed in each round guaranteed to play the lowest seed. There were calls to expand the playoffs to 14 teams beginning in 2006 but there were no changes made. However, the "COVID" season of 2020 brought the implementation of a 14-team playoff format, placing a third wild-card team in each conference, and only giving the top seed a bye. The current 14-team playoff field seems like the "new normal" but then again, don't bet on it.
As we look ahead to what to expect in NFL 2022, we now have a two-decade history to look back on. On average, how many teams repeat their playoff appearance from one season to the next, compared to how many teams are making a playoff appearance the season after missing the postseason. As noted above, the 2002 playoff field expanded from 10 to 12 games and lasted through the 2019 postseason. So how many teams repeated their playoff appearance from the previous season, compared to teams making a playoff appearance after missing the postseason the previous year.
Here's what my research revealed. 98 of 204 playoff teams repeated their playoff appearance from 2003 through 2019, while 106 teams were playoff 'newbies!' Doing the math, that means that on average, 48.0 percent of the teams were back in the playoffs the following season, while 52.0 percent of the teams were in the playoffs after missing the postseason the previous season. With the field expanding to 14 teams in 2020 (from 12), there were seven playoff participants from 2019 and seven non-playoff teams from 2019 in the 2020 field. For the 2021 postseason, six teams were playoff repeaters from 2020, while eight teams were new to the field from 2020.
That's pretty consistent, so we should expect pretty much a 50-50 split, meaning about half of the coming playoff field will be teams that did NOT compete in last year's postseason. Just a thought. That kind of uncertainty ("On Any Given Sunday") just may be why the NFL stands atop the sporting world as "America's Game." Here's another great read, "America's Game" (The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation) by Michael MacCambridge,
I'll be back next Wednesday (July 13th) with my first "real look" at NFL 2022. See you then.