​​​​a smart blend of sports analytics and story telling

​May 2016:  Reprinted from the Bonus Morsels chapter of Football Morsels:  The Supporting Cast


   Teams in the pre-merger era played in a very competitive environment in both the AFL and NFL.  Football had taken a page out of the Major Leagues where only the division winners moved on to the postseason.  If teams tied for the division title, as in baseball, they played a one-game tiebreaker.  The AFL only had two divisions during their entire 10-year run and for the first nine of those years only the division winners advanced.  By 1968, the league had expanded from the eight original franchises to ten teams.  In their final year of existence, the AFL added two wildcards for a 4-team playoff format.

   The NFL, on the other hand, expanded from 13 teams at the start of the decade to 16 by 1967.  When the 16th franchise, the New Orleans Saints, joined in 1967, the league had enough teams to split into four divisions of four teams each and accordingly expanded the playoff format from two to four teams.  When the leagues merged in 1970, the 26 teams split into two conferences with three divisions each.  In each of the newly formed conferences, the NFC and AFC, the division winners and a wildcard advanced to the playoffs.

   With only two divisions per league for most of the 60s, some exceptionally strong second place teams in both the AFL and NFL never got a chance to play in the postseason.  In fact, ten teams from that decade won more than 70% of their games and did not make the playoffs.  The top three included:
-  The 11-3 1962 Detroit Lions came in second place to the eventual champion Green Bay Packers.  The Packers were almost perfect losing only once that year, ironically to the Lions.
-  The 1963 Green Bay Packers ended the season 11-2-1, only to lose the West Division by percentage points to the Chicago Bears with an 11-1-2 record.  However, if it was any consolation, the Pack had two chances to beat the Bears head-to-head but came up short both times.
-  In 1967, the Baltimore Colts and Los Angeles Rams had identical 11-1-2 records.  The teams played twice that year.  The first game ended in a 24-24 tie setting up a rematch on the last game of the season for a win or go home scenario.  The Rams won, 34-10, thereby winning the Coastal Division with a better head-to-head record.

   After the merger in 1970 and through 1977, five teams racked up 10 wins in the 14-game schedule and stayed home for the postseason.  During those years, the NFL had three divisions and one wildcard per conference.  The 10-4 1975 AFC Miami Dolphins and Houston Oilers lost out to the 11-win wildcard Cincinnati Bengals.  Karma is a bitch though, and the next year the Cincinnati Bengals won 10 and lost the wildcard to the 11-win New England Patriots.  Also in 1976, the 10-4 NFC St. Louis Cardinals lost the wildcard spot in a head-to-head tiebreaker to the Washington Redskins.  In 1977, the Miami Dolphins had identical 10-4 records to the Baltimore Colts, but did not play in the postseason losing the AFC East division on head-to-head point differential.

   In 1978, the NFL increased the schedule to the current 16-games and added a second wildcard.  Five teams made the playoffs from 1978 until 1990 when the wildcards increased again and six teams played in the postseason.  Since 1978, only two teams won 11 games and missed the playoffs, Denver and New England.  The 1985 Broncos tied two other wildcard teams with 11-5 records but lost on tiebreakers.  Similarly, the 2008 Patriots tied the Dolphins for the division title and the Ravens for the wildcard with identical 11-5 records, losing to both on tiebreakers.

   Interestingly, the New England Patriots followed up their undefeated 2007 regular season with another very strong campaign, barely missing the playoffs for only the second time in the Belichick-Brady era.  When Brady went down with a season-ending knee injury in the first game of the season, all the naysayers wrote off the Patriots.  As he always seems to do, though, Belichick worked his magic.  He plugged in backup QB Matt Cassel, simplified the offense somewhat and then schemed his way into a salvaged season.  Well, almost.  At 11-5, New England tied but lost the AFC East division title head-to-head to the Miami Dolphins on the strength of a fluke formation.  In the third game of the season, the Sparano coached 0-2 Dolphins sprung the “Wildcat” offense on the Patriots in an act of desperation.  The no-QB two running back offense miffed Belichick and the rest of the league that year.  That loss eventually caused to the Patriots stay home for the holidays.

   On the strength of the highest 85.7% winning percentage, an 11-1-2 record, a second ranked offense and a second ranked defense, the Don Shula coached 1967 Baltimore Colts earned the moniker of the best team to stay home for the holidays.