Wild Card Weekend: Is it Bad for the NFL?

Wild Card weekend just ended, and three of the four winners (Tennessee, Minnesota, and Seattle) were Wild Card Teams. In one of those contests the Wild Card team (Seattle, 11-5) had a better record than the Division Champion (Philadelphia, 9-7) they faced, but in the one match-up that the Division Champion prevailed, the winner did not have a better record than their opponent (both Houston and Buffalo were 10-6). The 13-3 New Orleans and defending Champion New England, 12-4, are out to teams that did not win their division.

Let’s study this. Does the NFL have a problem similar to Major League Baseball of not rewarding their best regular season teams with an opportunity to participate in their ultimate contest. 

First of all is it unusual for Wild Card teams to eliminate Division Champions on Wild Card Weekend? No, it is not. Last year three of the 4 Wild Card teams also advanced, the year before that two did. In fact, since the current playoff format was implemented in 2002, 34 of the 72 games (47%) played on Wild Card Weekend have been won by the Wild Card Team.

Now let’s see how far these Wild Card Teams advance. Does professional football have the same problem as major league baseball, or NCAA Football and Basketball, that teams that don’t even win their Conference/League/Division, go on to compete for the ultimate prize? It has happened only three times since 2002. 

2005-06 Steelers (WC,T3rd) vs Seahawks

2007-08 Giants (WC,T3rd) vs Patriots

2010-11 Packers (WC,T3rd) vs Steelers (T2nd)

The team that is highlighted won the Super Bowl.

And it just so happens, that in all three instances the Wild Card Team won the Super Bowl.

Now, if we look at teams that made the Super Bowl prior to the current Playoff format from a Wild Card position we would include:

1969-70 Vikings vs Chiefs (WC, 2nd)

1975-76 Cowboys (WC, 4th) vs Steelers

1980-81 Eagles (T1st) vs Raiders (WC, T1st)

1985-86 Bears vs Patriots (WC, T3rd)

199293 Cowboys (2nd) vs Bills (WC,T1st)

1997-98 Packers (T1st) vs Broncos (WC,2nd)

1999-00 Rams vs Titans (WC,T2nd)

2000-01 Giants vs Ravens (WC,T2nd)

That means that 10 times (19%) in the Super Bowl Era a Wild Card Team has earned a spot in the Championship Game, and six times (11%) they have won it. That’s almost one in 5 that they participated in and just over one in 10 they’ve won.

How often do the teams with the best record in their conferences meet in the Super Bowl. We’ll include any team that tied for the best record in their conference on this list:

1966-67 Packers vs Chiefs

1971-72 Cowboys (T1st) vs Dolphins (T1st)

1972-73 Redskins vs Dolphins

1973-74 Vikings (T1st) vs Dolphins 

1976-75 Vikings vs Raiders

1977-76 Cowboys vs Broncos

1978-79 Steelers vs Cowboys (T1st)

1980-81 Eagles (T1st) vs Raiders (WC, T1st)

1981-82 49ers vs Bengals

1983-83 Redskins vs Raiders (T1st)

1984-85 49ers vs Dolphins 

1989-90 49ers vs Broncos

1991-92 Redskins vs Bills 

1993-94 Cowboys vs Bills (T1st)

2002-03 Bucs (T1st) vs Raiders (T1st)

2004-05 Eagles vs Patriots

2009-10 Saints vs Colts 

2013-14 Seahawks vs Broncos

2014-15 Seahawks (T1st) vs Patriots (T1st)

2015-16 Panthers vs Broncos (T1st)

2017-18 Eagles (T1st) vs Patriots (T1st)

That’s 21 of the 53 (40%) pitted the two teams with the best record in their conference against each other. Of interest is that the 1981 Super Bowl makes both lists, since the Raiders tied for the best record in the AFC, but still qualified for the playoffs as a Wild Card.

Additionally, 29 of the 53 Super Bowls (55%) have involved one team who had the best record in their conference. 

1967-68 Packers (3rd) vs Raiders

1968-69 Colts vs Jets (2nd)

1969-70 Vikings vs Chiefs (WC, 2nd)

1970-71 Cowboys (T3rd) vs Colts

1974-75 Vikings (T1st) vs Steelers (3rd)

1975-76 Cowboys (WC, 4th) vs Steelers

1979-80 Steelers (T1st) vs Rams (6th)

1982-82 Redskins vs Dolphins (2nd)

1985-86 Bears vs Patriots (WC, T3rd)

1986-87 Giants (T1st) vs Broncos (T2nd)

1987-88 Redskins (T2nd) vs Broncos 

1988-89 49ers (T3rd) vs Bengals (T1st)

1990-91 Giants (2nd) vs Bills

199293 Cowboys (2nd) vs Bills (WC,T1st)

1994-95 49ers vs Chargers (T2nd)

1995-96 Cowboys vs Steelers (2nd)

1996-97 Packers vs Patriots (2nd)

1997-98 Packers (T1st) vs Broncos (WC,2nd)

1998-99 Falcons (2nd) vs Broncos 

1999-00 Rams vs Titans (WC,T2nd)

2000-01 Giants vs Ravens (WC,T2nd)

2001-02 Rams vs Patriots (T2nd)

2003-04 Panthers (3rd) vs Patriots 

2005-06 Steelers (WC,T3rd) vs Seahawks

2006-07 Bears vs Colts (T3rd)

2007-08 Giants (WC,T3rd) vs Patriots

2011-12 Giants (6th) vs Patriots

2016-17 Falcons (T2nd) vs Patriots

2018-19 Rams (T1st) vs Patriots (T2nd)

That means that in 50 of the 53 Super Bowls (94%) at least one team had the best record in their conference, and only three involved none (6%). 

2008-09 Cardinals (T6th) vs Steelers (T2nd)

2010-11 Packers (WC,T3rd) vs Steelers (T2nd)

2012-13 49ers (2nd) vs Ravens (T5th)

The final list will show how teams earning a bye in the Wild Card round have faired. The current playoff format has been in place since 2002, but Wild Card Weekend was originally introduced in 1978. Since 1978 only 14 teams (18%) have come out of Wild Card Weekend to gain a spot in the Super Bowl, and never has there been two teams who participated in Wild Card Weekend facing each other in the big game. In nine of their 14 appearances the teams not earning a bye in the first round did go on to win the Super Bowl.

1980-81 Eagles (T1st) vs Raiders (WC, T1st)

1985-86 Bears vs Patriots (WC, T3rd)

199293 Cowboys (2nd) vs Bills (WC,T1st)

1997-98 Packers (T1st) vs Broncos (WC,2nd)

1999-00 Rams vs Titans (WC,T2nd)

2000-01 Giants vs Ravens (WC,T2nd)

2003-04 Panthers (3rd) vs Patriots 

2005-06 Steelers (WC,T3rd) vs Seahawks

2006-07 Bears vs Colts (T3rd)

2007-08 Giants (WC,T3rd) vs Patriots

2008-09 Cardinals (T6th) vs Steelers (T2nd)

2010-11 Packers (WC,T3rd) vs Steelers (T2nd)

2011-12 Giants (6th) vs Patriots

2012-13 49ers (2nd) vs Ravens (T5th)

The conclusion from this study is that the NFL has done a much better job of getting their better teams competing for their Championship than has Major League Baseball. The cream usually rises to the top, and the Super Bowl generally is a reward for the teams that have the best season. If you root for the 49ers, Packers, or Ravens, the percentages are good that at least one of them will make it to Miami for the Super Bowl.

Just for clarification we have not included the 1982-83 strike shortened season in our study. Due to the 9-game schedule the NFL chose to have all their playoff teams involved in Wild Card Weekend.

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