7th Seeds In NFL History

I’ve long had ardent opposition to the expansion of the NFL playoffs from 12 teams to 14.  Yet this is an idea that refuses to die, and it seems like it will be an inevitability. If I were an NFL owner, I would still vote against it.  However, in recent years I have slightly softened my opposition.  The main reason why is because if we’re still going to retain giving division winners automatic home playoff games, no matter how terrible the division is (one of my most hated rules in the NFL), expanding the field to 14 would at least ease the pain for one team who put together a good record in a tough division, but would be at risk of missing the playoffs in favor of a mediocre division winner.

The above paragraph, of course, consists of opinions (my own and those of the Competition Committee), so I decided to add a bit of objectivity to determine just how wise of an idea this would be.  Beyond the fold I have constructed a table listing out all of the 52 games that would have taken place since 1990 (when the playoffs expanded from 10 to 12 teams) if the #7 seed was granted entry into the playoffs against the #2 seed.  Included are the teams’ records, as well as Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings to add a little extra depth.  At the end, I’ll add some commentary for the most notable hypothetical games

The games

Games highlighted in green indicate games in which FO gave the #7 seed a higher DVOA rating than the #2 seed.  Games highlighted in yellow are games in which the #7 seed’s DVOA was not higher, but in which the #7 seed did beat the #2 seed in the regular season. (Note that I did not highlight the 1994 NFC game; although the Giants did beat the Cowboys, that was in Week 17, and since Dallas lost to the 49ers in the regular season I have a strong feeling that the Cowboys sat their starters in that game.)

And finally, since this is a Broncos blog, I’ve highlighted in their colors the years where they would have been implicated. (WARNING: 2006 could be very triggering.  Read the commentary on that year at your own risk.)

Year #7 W-L DVOA #2 W-L DVOA #7 W-L DVOA #2 W-L DVOA
2015 NYJ 10-6 12.4% (9) NE 12-4 22.6% (6) ATL 8-8 -16.1% (26) ARI 13-3 27.4% (3)
2014 KC 9-7 9.9% (10) DEN 13-3 29.5% (2) PHI 10-6 12.8% (7) GB 12-4 23.3% (3)
2013 PIT 8-8 0.9% (15) NE 12-4 19.0% (5) ARI 10-6 9.8% (11) CAR 12-4 24.9% (3)
2012 PIT 8-8 -1.0% (18) NE 12-4 34.9% (3) CHI 10-6 20.5% (6) SF 11-4-1 29.9% (4)
2011 TEN 9-7 7.2% (13) BAL 12-4 17.2% (7) CHI 8-8 1.8% (15) SF 13-3 19.0% (6)
2010 SD 9-7 17.6% (7) PIT 12-4 37.3% (2) NYG 10-6 14.5% (9) CHI 11-5 3.0% (16)
2009 PIT 9-7 16.4% (9) SD 13-3 13.4% (11) ATL 9-7 2.3% (18) MIN 12-4 17.7% (7)
2008 NE 11-5 9.2% (11) PIT 12-4 27.0% (4) TB 9-7 7.7% (13) CAR 12-4 19.8% (6)
2007 CLE 10-6 5.8% (13) IND 13-3 33.0% (2) MIN 8-8 4.9% (14) GB 13-3 21.0% (5)
2006 DEN 9-7 -3.7% (18) BAL 13-3 31.9% (1) GB 8-8 -1.4% (14) NO 10-6 10.8% (8)
2005 KC 10-6 24.4% (5) DEN 13-3 30.4% (2) MIN 9-7 -18.5% (20) CHI 11-5 -0.9% (16)
2004 JAX 9-7 1.7% (13) NE 14-2 34.2% (2) NO 8-8 -18.6% (27) ATL 11-5 -4.8% (17)
2003 MIA 10-6 12.8% (9) KC 13-3 30.3% (1) MIN 9-7 1.3% (14) STL 12-4 1.0% (15)
2002 DEN 9-7 15.2% (8) TEN 11-5 9.2% (11) NO 9-7 6.1% (14) TB 12-4 31.6% (1)
2001 SEA 9-7 0.0% (15) NE 11-5 7.9% (11) WAS 8-8 -0.5% (17) CHI 13-3 15.8% (8)
2000 PIT 9-7 22.6% (4) OAK 12-4 20.8% (5) GB 9-7 7.8% (13) MIN 11-5 -6.3% (22)
1999 KC 9-7 17.6% (4) IND 13-3 4.0% (17) CAR 8-8 1.5% (19) TB 11-5 12.3% (8)
1998 TEN 8-8 1.4% (13) NYJ 12-4 28.3% (2) TB 8-8 2.2% (12) ATL 14-2 18.8% (7)
1997 NYJ 9-7 2.6% (14) PIT 11-5 27.0% (5) WAS 8-7-1 3.6% (12) GB 13-3 29.7% (1)
1996 KC 9-7 9.1% (10) NE 11-5 10.1% (8) WAS 9-7 10.0% (9) CAR 12-4 22.1% (5)
1995 DEN 8-8 11.3% (8) PIT 11-5 20.7% (4) CHI 9-7 9.8% (9) SF 11-5 40.0% (1)
1994 OAK 9-7 -3.2% (14) SD 11-5 10.6% (8) NYG 9-7 -7.0% (18) DAL 12-4 32.9% (1)
1993 MIA 9-7 3.7% (15) HOU 12-4 16.3% (5) PHI 8-8 9.4% (11) SF 10-6 25.6% (1)
1992 IND 9-7 -27.2% (27) MIA 11-5 8.9% (11) GB 9-7 -8.2% (18) DAL 13-3 35.1% (1)
1991 MIA 8-8 -1.3% (18) DEN 12-4 3.5% (12) SF 10-6 26.0% (2) DET 12-4 -1.2% (17)
1990 PIT 9-7 13.8% (10) OAK 12-4 26.0% (3) DAL 7-9 -19.9% (23) NYG 13-3 30.8% (1)

As you can see, there are only 17 games out of 52 (32.7%) that I have flagged as being potentially compelling.  Any Given Sunday always holds true, but it’s easy enough to see that there’s a whole lot of games that face off mediocre teams against the cream of the crop.  Quite a few of #2 vs. #7 matchups could be duds, but the cold, hard truth is that even dud NFL playoff games will still bring in high TV ratings, hence why the question of playoff expansion may be more a matter of when than if.

But we should go ahead and look over the games that do look intriguing on paper.

Games of interest


Despite advancing to the AFC Championship Game and losing 7-6 to the Bills, FO had the Broncos as only a slightly above average team in 1991.  Historically, the Broncos play terrible against the Dolphins, so having to face them in the first round could be troubling.  At least it would have been played in Denver.

On the NFC side, FO considered the 49ers the second best team that year despite missing the playoffs, and considered the Lions to be overrated.  The 49ers did obliterate the Lions 35-3 in the regular season in San Francisco, could they have done the same in the Silverdome?  Either way, it seems unlikely that anyone could have stopped the Redskins juggernaut that year.


The Colts went 9-7 despite being given the second lowest DVOA in the league, and being called “possibly the luckiest team in NFL history“. Their flukiness was confirmed by going 1-15 the year before and 4-12 the year after.  Yet one of their wins was over the Dolphins, hence this game getting highlighted.


In this universe, if the Chargers want to get to the Super Bowl they’ll have to face the hated Raiders a third time, who they split the regular season series against.  If the Chargers lose, then I sure hope someone else takes out the Raiders before they can get the honor of getting blasted by the 49ers in Miami.


Mike Shanahan put together a valiant in his first year as head coach in Denver, being the first team to miss the AFC cut.  In this universe, they’d have to defeat the eventual AFC champion Steelers.  But if they win, then they’d have to travel to Arrowhead Stadium the next week to take on the Chiefs, a team that swept the Broncos that year.  Could they pull off an upset as massive as what the Colts did on them in real life?  I sure hope so, because otherwise we could have very well seen Marty Schottenheimer in a Super Bowl.


DVOA really liked both the Chiefs and the Raiders in 1999, so we should be happy that the Seahawks squeaked out the AFC West this year.  If the Chiefs beat the overrated Colts, then we’d have to hope that the Jaguars take them down, preferably in the manner that Jacksonville sent Dan Marino into retirement.


This is the one year that justifies 14 teams in the playoffs the most.  The Steelers were the odd team out in a very tough AFC Central, and they had beaten the Raiders in the regular season that year.  One would obviously hope they could do it again in the playoffs.

But it’s the NFC that’s the most remarkable.  The Packers missed the playoffs despite sweeping the NFC champion Vikings (of which includes the famous “he did what?” game).  Surely, Packers fans would have liked to make it three in a row against their most hated rival at that time, and also spare us all from one of the least entertaining NFC Championship Games ever.


Oh, 2002 NFL season, how I hate you in so many ways.  Let’s dream of a nice alternate history in which the Broncos sneak into the playoffs, take down a possibly overrated Titans squad, and then upset the Raiders in the next round.  That would be quite nice, right?

Well, let’s also consider what could have been a nightmarish alternative.  The Bucs went 12-4 this year, but two of their losses came against the Saints–and that’s who they would have had to play if there were 14 teams in the playoffs.  Can they avoid the dreaded three game sweep?  I sure hope so, because no one else literally knew what the Raiders were going to call other than Jon Gruden.


If #7 seeds were allowed in the playoffs this year, Paul Allen’s blood curdling call to the end of the Vikings’ season never would have happened.


This year may very well have been the nadir of the “everyone expect the Eagles in the NFC sucks” era.  The Falcons somehow got to the NFC Championship Game despite being mediocre in DVOA (although getting lucky in facing the second worst DVOA rated team of the year in the Rams helps).  The Saints were rated worse but I don’t see why they couldn’t win the rubber match.

Meanwhile, an honorable mention has to go on the AFC side.  The Jaguars would have edged the Ravens out on a strength of victory tiebreaker by one game.  But both teams would have first squeezed out, via the conference record tiebreaker, the Bills, a team that FO has long noted as being their highest rated team to miss the playoffs.


Uh oh, would the Chiefs be gunning for revenge for 1997 in this game?  Hopefully that Mile High magic that usually dooms KC would do its job again.


Ugh, here we go.  FO gave the Ravens the second highest DVOA rating this year, and while they deemed the Broncos mediocre, they did beat the Ravens in the regular season (albeit in Denver).  But even if the Ravens obliterate the Broncos in the rematch in Baltimore, that’s OK, because maybe that would be enough to set the butterflies in history off just enough so that Darrent Williams didn’t get murdered the night after the end of the regular season…


This was the year where Mike Tomlin infamously said the Steelers were going to “unleash hell” in December in the press conference after losing three straight games.  Apparently, “unleash(ing) hell” meant promptly losing to the pathetic Raiders and Browns to extend that losing streak to five.  But hey, they ended the season winning three straight, and also beat the Chargers 38-28 in the regular season, so why couldn’t they do it again?


The Giants were the first unjust victim of missing the playoffs while a team with a losing record made it in (and yes, I’m fine with trading away the Beastquake in exchange for justice).  Making matters worse is the fact that they beat the Bears 17-3 in the regular season, meaning they could have a favorable matchup here.  And then, of course, this happened to them in this season.


The Titans beat the Ravens in the regular season.  If they could have made it two straight, they would have been the ones to travel to New England, while the Tim Tebow show Elway vs. Kubiak showdown in Houston would have taken place.  Just how more insufferable would the Tebowmaniacs have been if the Broncos had held off getting curbstomped by the Patriots until the AFC Championship game?


The Cardinals were not only able to decisively defeat the Panthers in the regular season, but they also were able to beat the Seahawks in Seattle.  It sure would be nice if they could have replicated those feats in the playoffs, right?


Yet another chance for the Chiefs to try to exact revenge for 1997.  But considering how Peyton Manning had the Chiefs’ number for all but his very last game while he was in Denver, I wouldn’t have been as nervous about this game as I would have been in 2005.


The Jets beating the Patriots in overtime last year was one of three key losses that the Broncos needed to get the #1 seed that year.  If they do it again in the playoffs, that means they would have gone to Denver the next week instead of the Steelers.  Given how razor thin the Broncos’ AFC playoff wins were, who knows if they could have done the same against the Jets.