One thing that I have noticed in recent years while following the National Football League is that teams with 10 wins and 6 losses miss the playoffs more than in the past. Am I just seeing things, or has have things slowly changed since 16 game seasons started in 1990? If I am not seeing things, what caused it? Parity? More teams? I decided to take a look. Here is what I found:
* In 1997, The New York Giants were 10 – 5 – 1. In 2002, Pittsburgh was 10 – 5 – 1. I considered that close enough for 10-6 for these purposes.
As one can see, before 2003, only the 1991 season had a team with a 10 – 6 record that missed the playoffs. Then in 2003, 2005, 2007, 2010, and 2012, one 10 – 6 team missed the playoffs. This does appear to be a recent trend.
So what caused it? Parity or More Teams?
As far as parity is concerned, I would argue that parity started in the 1997 season, three years after the salary cap took effect. The AFC finally won a Superbowl that season after losing for 13 years straight. Superbowls that came after tended to flip more between the two conferences each year while far fewer were blowouts with one team crushing the other.
I suspect the reason for the recent increase in seasons with at least one 10 – 6 team missing the playoffs is the increase in the number of teams. In 1990, the NFL had 28 teams. By 2002 it had increased to 32. However, the number of playoff spots stayed fixed at 12.
Think of the playoffs as a pie that has exactly 12 slices. Some of those slices are bigger and tastier than others. A bye week with home field advantage throughout the playoffs is the biggest and tastiest slice of pie. The smallest and blandest is a wild card with no home field advantage. However, even as the league added more teams, the slices of playoff pie have stayed fixed at 12. 28 teams shared those 12 slices in 1990. Since 2002, 32 teams have fought for the same 12 slices of pie. Therefore, one now has to struggle more to get a slice of playoff pie, causing a 10 – 6 record to be less likely than it used too to get you a playoff spot.
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