The NFL loves to sell parity. Teams can turn things around quickly, and anyone can go on a Super Bowl run. Fans are so used to picking five or six new playoff teams each season, because that is what history says will happen.
But not this year.
Even though the 2012 season has had an odd script, it's building toward a familiar final act. Expect this year’s postseason to look like a recycled version of last year’s with at least 75 percent of the same teams.
Based on standings through Week 12, there will be just three new playoff teams and two new division winners. That is the most realistic scenario. The numbers could be even smaller should a team like New Orleans make a run down the stretch.
There was already chatter after the two dominating wins in MetLife Stadium this week of a third Super Bowl in six years between New England and the New York Giants.
We may see some playoff rematches from last season. It is not far-fetched for the Giants to go through the Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers on their way to the Super Bowl. In case you forgot, those are the three teams they beat last season to get to Super Bowl XLVI.
An unusual season indeed, but the same cream from last year is starting to rise to the top once again.
Long forgotten are the Arizona Cardinals starting 4-0 or the Philadelphia Eagles at 3-1. They have each lost seven straight, though history pointed us in that direction. Minnesota was 5-2, but now sits at 6-5 with games against Green Bay (twice), Chicago and Houston remaining on the schedule. Good luck getting to 8-8.
However, the AFC does include the one real surprise team of the season, the Indianapolis Colts (7-4) following their 2-14 demise last year. But it has been a quick rebuild aided by a down year for the conference.
The surprising numbers on division winners
The four AFC teams comfortably leading their divisions — Houston, Baltimore, New England and Denver — all won those divisions last season. No conference has ever repeated all four division winners, and only once (AFC in 2006-2007) has a conference had three repeat winners.
It is hard not to expect a full repeat in the AFC. The NFC is cloudier, but San Francisco and the Giants are in good shape to repeat. That just leaves Atlanta (10-1), who has a considerable lead in the NFC South, especially over last year’s winner New Orleans (5-6). The only other difference is Chicago (8-3) leading last year’s winner, Green Bay (7-4), but even that can change with one head-to-head game left.
Since the league went to eight divisions in 2002, there has been an average of 5.2 new division winners. Each season has had at least four new division winners, and just last year the league set a record with seven new division winners. The only repeat was New England winning the AFC East for the eighth time in 10 years.
That just goes to show how hard it is to repeat as a division champion. Teams have only done it 25 of 72 times (34.7 percent). Here is how often it has happened from 2002 to 2011 for each division.
The fact that so many new teams won their division last year makes it more impressive how many are sustaining it in 2012. Here is a yearly breakdown of the division winners from 2002 to 2006.
It sure does help to have a Tom Brady or Peyton Manning starting every game.
Finally, here is the list of winners for 2007-2011 with the current standings in 2012 included.
Obviously the best quarterback in the division gives that team a real advantage, but the player must stay healthy. When Tom Brady missed the 2008 season, it marked the only time since 2003 New England did not win the AFC East.
Ben Roethlisberger’s high-ankle sprain last season and his shoulder/rib injuries this year have given Baltimore enough of an edge to sustain their AFC North success. Joe Flacco may not be on the same level, but he has never missed a start in his career.
When Peyton Manning was out last season it opened the door for Houston in the AFC South. Now that Manning is back, but in Denver, he is solidifying the AFC West for the Broncos after last year’s fortunate 8-8 division title.
The Bears won the NFC North by a game in 2010, while Aaron Rodgers saw the Packers go 0-2 in the games he left or missed with injury. Last season, the Bears fell apart after Jay Cutler was lost, and this season they are back in the lead as they hope Cutler stays healthy.
The NFC South always has a new champion. Unusual circumstances surrounding Sean Payton and Bounty-gate led to New Orleans digging an early hole at 0-4, and Matt Ryan has taken advantage by leading the Falcons to a 10-1 record.
If the Saints can somehow catch up to manage a wild-card berth, then they will further recycle the 2011 playoff group.
Recycled playoff teams
Looking beyond divisions, since 2002 the NFL has averaged 6.3 new playoff teams. That is more than half of the entire 12-team playoff field. The previous low is five, and the high was eight from 2002 to 2003. Here is a handy table to show the playoff seeds for 2002 to 2006.
There is very little consistency in seeding from year to year. The 2010-11 Patriots and 2002-04 Eagles are the only teams to repeat as the No. 1 seed. The Harbaugh brothers will hope to coach the first teams to repeat as the No. 2 seed. Actually, they would probably prefer No. 1, even if it has been cursed in recent years.
Here is the table for 2007 to 2012, with the 2012 records being current and subject to change.
In 2012, there should be no more than three new playoff teams, which would be the lowest yet.
The funny thing about Indianapolis and Chicago likely being two of those teams is that both likely make the postseason in 2011 had Peyton Manning and Jay Cutler not been significantly injured. That would have kicked out the Detroit Lions and Cincinnati Bengals.
The most likely scenario in the AFC is that either the Bengals (6-5) or Steelers (6-5) will be swapped for the Colts. It is still possible the young Colts can falter and the AFC North gets three teams again, which would mean all six AFC teams repeat from 2011.
NFC is harder to predict with more teams in the race, but it is practically a lock the Chicago Bears will replace the Detroit Lions, giving the NFC North two teams again. We just do not know if the Bears can close the division as well.
The other change likely comes from the sixth seed. Can the Saints rally against a tough schedule and return to the playoffs, with the Super Bowl being hosted in New Orleans? It would be a mini-miracle, but their competition is not the stiffest.
New Orleans is in 11th place in the NFC, yet is one game back of the team in sixth place. Dallas and Washington are the other two teams technically ahead of them, but the Saints can personally take care of the Cowboys in Week 16.
It may be a long shot, but the Saints have the opportunity to get this done, which would give us just two new playoff teams (Colts and Bears, who met in Week 1).
Will history win out?
Every team has five games left to decide these playoff seeds. History is strong at suggesting at least four new division winners and five new playoff teams, but this should be a historic year for returning teams to the postseason.
Barring miraculous upsets along the lines of Washington taking the NFC East or Houston’s leaky pass defense falling apart as the Colts win out to take the AFC South, we are getting a recycled postseason for a change.
For the fans longing for revenge and budding playoff rivalries, then that is not necessarily a bad thing. But if parity is what you seek, then better luck next season.
Scott Kacsmar (@CaptainComeback) writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, Bleacher Report, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network.
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