We’ve never seen four teams from the same NFL division make the playoffs in the same year since the realignment in 2002, but there’s suddenly a realistic chance of it happening this season.
If the playoffs started today, the entire AFC East, the Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and New England Patriots would participate. Plus, another division in the NFC has a surprisingly good chance of doing it, too.
We know, of course, that it’s only week 11 and there are still seven weeks left, so anything is possible. But even the idea that this could happen was a statistical impossibility until the 2020 season when the NFL added a third wild card. Before that, there were only two wild card slots, which meant that a maximum of three teams from the same division could make it to the postseason. But with a seventh team in the mix every year, it opens up the possibility for that fourth team to slip in if they were good enough and the rest of the conference sucked.
Let’s start with the AFC East. Yahoo Sports consulted with statistical simulation models from FiveThirtyEight, Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders to determine the probability that this could happen. And the chances are greater than you might think.
In FiveThirtyEight’s simulation, which uses the Elo rating system to assign a power rating to each team, all four AFC East teams made the playoffs 9.7 percent of the time.
In the Pro Football Focus simulation, the teams made it 9.2 percent of the time.
The Football Outsiders simulation, which uses DAVE (DVOA Adjusted for Volatility Early) by combining early-season DVOA ratings with pre-season forecasts, calculated that the teams have a 16.2 percent chance of winning all playoff games. place.
This would be wild if it happens. But the road is not easy.
AFC East needs to win and needs help too
The easiest way for all four teams to make it is if they split the division games and win every other game. So the Jets should beat the Patriots in Week 11, the Bills should beat the Jets and the Dolphins in Weeks 14 and 15, the Patriots should split their series with the Bills in Weeks 13 and 18, and then beat the Dolphins in week 17, and the Dolphins should beat the Jets in week 18.
All four also need help from the rest of the league. First, all the other current top teams in their respective divisions – the Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans – will have to win as much as they can to push the rest of the teams down. All other non-AFC East teams, meanwhile, must lose as much as possible.
In this scenario, the four teams would be able to lock playoff seeds in Week 15 at the earliest, according to FiveThirtyEight’s playoff prediction model. And by the end of the season, the Bills would win the division 13-4, the Dolphins and Jets would finish 12-5, and the Dolphins would take second place, and the Patriots would make it with an 11-6 record .
However, there is clearly a lot of room for variation. The biggest threats to this are the Los Angeles Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals, two second-place teams with good offenses that could win some more games in the last seven games of the season. The Bengals have already defeated the Dolphins and Jets and will play against the Patriots and Bills in Weeks 16 and 17, respectively. The Chargers, meanwhile, are still playing the Dolphins in Week 14 and still have half their division games left.
But as long as those teams — and we technically have to include the Indianapolis Colts in this discussion — don’t beat the AFC East teams, or at least win more games than the first-place teams lose, this wild event could play out. Perhaps one of the most pivotal games in this regard is a Week 16 game between the Colts and Bengals. Both can compete for playoff spots, but it will depend on which team is better positioned to make the playoffs. The AFC East needs that team to lose.
NFC East could also send its four teams to the playoffs
Oddly enough, the NFC East also has an outside chance to send all four of its teams to the postseason after the Washington Commanders upset the Philadelphia Eagles Monday night.
The Commanders are currently out of the playoff field at 5-5 and should probably win to secure a playoff berth in the same fashion as, say, the Patriots should make the playoffs. The Eagles, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys are all square in the playoffs with records of 8-1, 7-2 and 6-3, respectively.
According to Pro Football Focus, this has a 16.3 percent chance, probably because of how weak the rest of the NFC looks after 10 weeks. Football Outsiders has the chance slightly lower at 12.8 percent.
Could this have ever happened in the past?
There was a slim chance that this could have actually happened in the second year of the new playoff model. The NFC West sent three teams to the 2021 playoffs — the Los Angeles Rams, the San Francisco 49ers and the Arizona Cardinals — but the Seattle Seahawks finished two games behind the Eagles, whose 9-7 record was good enough to beat them. to deliver the seventh seed in the NFC playoffs.
But even if you applied the new playoff model to previous years, this would never have happened between 2002-2019. The closest opportunity came in 2014 with the Browns, who finished fourth in the AFC North 7-9, but would not have been beaten by the Texans 9-7. The rest of the AFC North – the Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers – all made it to the postseason.
Now if we want to get technical, a division has already sent four teams before. However, this all happened when there were five teams in each division, but only three divisions per conference. The NFC Central accomplished this feat three teams in 1982, 1994 and 1997 when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were in the same division as the Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears
There still are a lot of matches played in the last seven weeks, so anything can happen. The Bills have already proven themselves mortal after losing to the Jets and Vikings in consecutive weeks and the Jets and Patriots are anything but stable. But it would be really cool if four teams from the same division took over a playoff tournament and maybe a wild card weekend full of extra division games.