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A Ticket to the Dance: What it’ll take to make it into a 14 team playoffs field

And what does that mean for the Denver Broncos in 2020?

NFL Combine - Day 2

With Broncos Country buzzing with excitement in the wake of the 2020 NFL Draft, there’s been quite a bit of playoffs talk. But are the 2020 Broncos a playoff contender?

The first practical step to figuring that out is to determine how high that “make the playoffs” bar is. We’ve all had a pretty good idea of that with a 12 team playoff format, but now the NFL has expanded the playoffs to 14 teams, 7 teams per conference, for 2020. The bar’s a bit lower, but where is it exactly? Are 9 wins an automatic playoff ticket? What about going 8-8?

To get a better idea of how this will work out, I examined both conferences’ standings over the last 10 seasons to see what the 7th and 8th place teams’ records were.

One thing that immediately jumped out at me was the 10-6 records popping up for the NFC in the first half of the decade. From 2010 to 2014, NFC teams with 10-6 records missed the playoffs 5 times. That’s kind of crazy, really, and I think that it was probably the driving force behind the expanded playoffs (aside from profit). With a 14 team playoffs, only 1 of those 10-6 teams, the 2010 Giants, would still miss the big dance. Due to that, the expansion of the playoffs goes long way toward fixing this major issue that was created by the guaranteed playoffs ticket for division winners.

On the other end of the spectrum, over the last decade 6 more teams with 8-8 records would have been 7th seeds and made the playoffs. To be totally honest, I find that kind of gross. As much as the 2011 overtime playoff win over the Steelers delighted us Broncos fans, getting the reward of a playoff game without even earning a winning record in the regular season doesn’t sit well. Getting that as a division champion is one thing, I guess, but as a 7th seed? Ick.

Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow celebrates his 80 yd touchdown pass with running back Willis McGahee to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 29-23 in the first round of the AFC playoffs Sunday January 8, 2012 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.HYOUNG CHA Photo By Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images

But the most common record on the lists is 9-7. Over the last decade, teams have finished with a 9-7 (or 9-6-1) record 30 times. Under the 12 team playoffs setup, 11 of those teams made the playoffs. But if the NFL had been running 14 team playoffs for that time period, 5 more 9-7 or 9-6-1 teams would have made it in. The odds of making the playoffs with 9 wins have jumped from 38% to around 53%.

That may actually be lower than it should be due to the excellent & deep 2014 AFC & 2017 NFC groups, both of which featured playoffs fields with all 6 teams boasting at least 10 wins. The 2014 AFC also had 4 teams with 9-7 records, and the 2017 NFC had 3 such teams. So even with 2 of those teams getting added to the big dance in a 14 team field, 5 of the 14 9-win teams to miss the playoffs if we’d had a 14 team field during the 2010s come from those two groups.

In Summary

While the playoffs bar has lowered a little bit, trading some justice for 10-6 teams for some questionable playoffs appearances for 8-8 teams, 9 wins is still the minimum mark for real playoff contention. You just have a better chance to make it in with 9 wins, up from about 1-in-3 to somewhere in the range of 1-in-2 or even 2-in-3.

What that means for the Broncos in 2020 is that 9 wins is the minimum goal. The roster’s been loaded up with talent this offseason, and with a strong defense and what looks to be a dynamic new offense coming together, fans should expect the team to contend for the playoffs. That should be helped somewhat by a schedule that, while tough, isn’t looking as vicious as the last two years’ schedules.

Let’s try to keep our expectations realistic as well, though. This team isn’t likely to peak into Super Bowl contention in 2020. It’s a very young group on offense, and that’s going to come with its learning moments. And a socially-distanced offseason program won’t make that any easier. I think they’re entirely capable of 9 or 10 wins and a playoffs appearance, maybe even a wildcard round win. Anything we get beyond that is purely icing on the cake right now.


What will be the lowest record that earns a spot in the 2020 NFL playoffs?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    (37 votes)
  • 40%
    (314 votes)
  • 6%
    (47 votes)
  • 38%
    (299 votes)
  • 2%
    (23 votes)
  • 7%
    (56 votes)
776 votes total Vote Now