What Does It Take To Make The NFL Playoffs?

With the NFL Playoffs around the corner, teams are fighting for every last win (or loss for teams vying for the 1st overall draft pick).  Some teams have already clinched playoff spots (Cowboys and Seahawks), but for others, it is impossible to make it (49ers, Jaguars, Browns, Rams, Bears, and Jets).  So, now in the upcoming four weeks, teams will be fighting to punch their ticket to the playoffs.

I attempted to find out what it takes to make the playoffs in the NFL and saw that since 2002 only one team (2008 Patriots: 11-5) has missed the playoffs with 11 or more wins.  So, it is safe to say that if a team wins 11 or more games, they will make the playoffs.  Despite the 2008 Patriots’ 11-5 record, they missed the playoff cut because of how the playoffs work.  If there is one extremely strong division, a team might miss the playoffs with 10 or more wins.  While on the other hand, when there is a very weak division, a team could get in with a non-winning record.  Eight teams have done so since 2002, and two of them only won seven games (2010 Seahawks and 2014 Panthers).

Mathematically, at the beginning of every season, there is a chance that 3-13 team could make the playoffs, and a 13-3 team misses them.  But, as the season progresses these chances get slimmer and slimmer as each game passes on until it becomes impossible.

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This graph illustrates that 66% of teams that made the playoffs had between 10 and 12 wins.
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So, how do you get to 11 wins?  The main component is having a good point differential.  Surprisingly, it would be incorrect to say a team should score a lot of points each game because a team with a stellar defense might be significantly better than a team with a top offense.  For example, the Saints have arguably the best offense in the NFL but are still sitting on a losing record of 5-7, while the Broncos are 8-4 and have an average offense.  This situation is because the Saints defense is awful compared to the great defense of the Broncos.  I use point differential to look at a team’s success because of instances like this one.

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Above, is the graph of the point differentials of every playoff team since 2002.  In red is the trendline, and you can see that most teams fall between 0 and +150.  In the rarest circumstance, a team made the playoffs with a -100 point differential.  That means they scored 100 fewer points than their opponents, but still managed to somehow make the playoffs.  On the completely opposite side of the spectrum, the 2007 Patriots completely obliterated every other team’s point differential with an average margin of victory of 20 points by scoring 320 more points than their opponents.  I would say in order to almost guarantee a playoff spot, a team would need a point differential of at least a +75.  But, this is not to say having a difference of +50 will probably not book you a playoff spot because it most likely will.

To sum it all up, in order to guarantee a spot in the playoffs a team must win at least 11 games and to win those 11 games that team should have a point differential of at least +75.

Watch my commentary on this article here: What Does It Take To Make The NFL Playoffs?

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