With the NFL’s recent expansions to a 14-team playoff in the 2020 season and a 17-game schedule this season, the calculus for identifying what win-loss records may be needed to make the playoffs may have changed, too.
To better understand the playoff implications of each win or loss, we used the nflSeedR package in the R Statistical Software to simulate 10,000 17-game NFL seasons based on historical estimates of team strength. Below, we visualize the probabilities for playoff, division, and top-seed hopefuls across the league.
The first chart shows the percentage of NFL teams that can expect to make the playoffs at each record (credit to FiveThirtyEight for the idea).
In the graph, teams that start 3-0 can expect to make the postseason 76% of the time. The odds drop with each loss; a team that starts 2-1 sees its chances drop to 55%, a 1-2 team drops to 32%, and a winless start means a team can only expect to make the postseason 14% of the time. Week 4 can provide additional clarity — if a 3-0 team wins to go 4-0, their expected chances of qualifying for the postseason jump to 85%. If that team falls to 3-1, the likelihood of earning a playoff spot drops to 67%.
Additionally, the chart shows that extreme circumstances are still possible. For example, there’s about a 1% chance that
Earning a playoff berth is not the only goal. Teams that win their division or finish as the conference’s top seed gain the advantage of playing playoff games at home. Here are similar charts showing the percentage of teams that win divisions and finish as top seeds.
Teams that start 3-0 have about a 51% chance of winning a division title and a 20% chance of earning the No. 1 seed. For 0-3 teams, those chances plummet to a 6% chance of winning their division and less than a 1% chance of earning their conference's No. 1 seed.