I have a confession to make that will come as a surprise to far more of you who read this blog than those of you who know me in real life. I love ESPN’s NFL Playoff Machine. A lot. Ever since I discovered it1I honestly couldn’t tell you what year I discovered Playoff Machine. It feels like it’s been around as long as I’ve been using the internet., I’ve spent hours on it each year, trying to play out how the playoff picture would shake out after each week of play. While I would spend a good bit of time trying to create scenarios that benefit teams I like or harm teams I dislike, the most fun came from building out the weirdest possible outcomes possible. Whether that be finding a way to sneak in a team that has a 1% chance of making the playoffs2Five Thirty Eight is a great resource for seeing this type of thing when the season is going on. or seeing if I can make all of the teams with first round byes as of week 12 miss the playoffs, I find the entire exercise to be calming.
The best resource I’ve found for giving me this feeling during the NFL offseason is PlayoffPredictors.com. While they do far more than just NFL playoff prediction scenarios, the NFL predictor is an amazing tool for me playing out possible sources of weirdness when the Playoff Machine is down for the year3ESPN typically only has the Playoff Machine running during weeks 13-17 of the NFL season. This year, we got it week 12, which was amazing.. This led me to wonder — what’s the weirdest possible playoff scenarios that COULD happen in a given NFL season?
Allow me to be clear, these scenarios will likely never occur. They require a ton of absurdity to happen and likely will never even be remotely possible. But I want them to be. I’ve used the 2018 NFL schedule for each of these scenarios for sake of convenience more than anything else. I’ve also made an active effort to not have tie games unless I absolutely have to, as that’s just silly.
Scenario 1: Eleven 10-win Teams Miss The Playoffs
We begin with the scenario that inspired this post — how many teams with 10 wins can miss the playoffs in the same season? The most teams that have finished 10-6 and missed the playoffs in the same season is two, which has happened on several occasions. There have also been three 11-5 teams miss the playoffs, (though only one in each season it’s happened) but we’ll talk more about that scenario a bit later on. In this scenario, not only do two teams total miss the playoffs despite winning 10 games, eleven of them do. Granted, in order for this scenario to happen, we have to have a plethora of putrid teams at the bottom of each conference. In fact, the bottom four teams in the AFC and NFC combined for 11 wins in this season, including a winless season from the Panthers.
Scenario 2: Six Teams with Losing Records Make the Playoffs
Similar to the first scenario, we need a lot of extremes for our second scenario to be a reality. There have been four teams in NFL history to make the playoffs with a losing record, though two of those teams come with a giant asterisk. Both the 1982 Browns and Lions made the playoffs at 4-5 thanks to a strike-shortened season and were promptly routed. The two teams to make the playoffs with losing records since then — the 2010 Seahawks and 2015 Panthers — both won their first playoff game, so seeing a 7 win team win in the playoffs wouldn’t be unprecedented. In this situation, we’d be guaranteed at least two 7-9 teams picking up playoff wins, as both 4 vs. 5 matchups feature losing teams against each other. In a bit of unintentional symmetry, the AFC’s 4 vs. 5 matchup (Browns vs. Raiders) is the same matchup that occurred in the aforementioned 1982 playoffs.
Scenario 3: The Call to Kill Auto Bids for Division Winners
Let’s talk about this scenario in two phases, beginning with the NFC. A scenario like this has happened on a couple of occasions, including the aforementioned 2010 playoffs where the 7-9 Seahawks played the 11-5 Saints in the first round. Even in seasons where there’s an 8-8 division winner, sports talking heads loudly wonder whether or not division winners deserve home field advantage in the first round if they have a worse record — particularly because it (surprisingly) matters.
And then there’s the AFC, where this idea is taken to its most extreme conclusion. For this scenario, I had every team in the AFC North lose every game they played (except intradivisional games) and every team in the AFC South win every game they played (again, except intradivisional games). This creates a situation where a 13-3 Jacksonville team is getting left out of the playoffs in favor of a 3-13 Baltimore team. No team better than 11-5 has ever missed the playoffs.
Unlikely? Incredibly. Hilarious? Yes. In retrospect, I should have done this in such a way to cause the Browns to be the 13-3 team to miss the playoffs, but that’s too much effort.
Scenario 4 – 83% of the Teams In the Playoffs After Week 11 2018 Miss The Playoffs
Okay. So a little background on this. First off, here were the standings following week 11 of the 2018 season.
And now we have our results. Link to the full scenario.
I tried my hardest to get all 12 teams that were in the playoffs as of week 11 to miss the playoffs at the same time. That said, when you have four teams with two or fewer losses after week 11, that’s REALLY hard to do. Especially when one of those team has a tie and there’s a division where you have to knock both a two loss and a three loss team out of the playoffs. In most other seasons I’ve found, this would be possible. In this season, however, we get this beautiful scenario where the only crimes against our rule are New Orleans and Pittsburgh making the playoffs as wildcard teams.
What other scenarios would you like to see me do? Was this even remotely interesting? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.