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Monday, December 22, 2008
On the outside looking in

By Jim Baker
Special to Page 2

As compelling as the Patriots' 2008 season has been, they could go down in history not as the plucky team that fought back from the loss of its star quarterback in the first game of the season, but as the nonplayoff team with the best record of the modern era. If the Ravens, Dolphins and Patriots all win Sunday, all would finish the season with an 11-5 record, and the Pats would be the odd team out because the Dolphins would win the division and the Ravens would get the second wild-card spot by virtue of their better intraconference record. (The Colts already have clinched a wild-card berth.)

Dan Reeves and John Elway
The 1985 Broncos missed the playoffs at 11-5, yielding AFC wild-card berths to the Jets and Pats on tiebreakers.

Such an occurrence would make New England only the second 11-5 team not to make the playoffs since the NFL went to a 16-game season in 1978. The first was the 1985 Broncos, who were denied in the era when only 10 teams reached the postseason.

Throughout pro football history, how rare is this? In the old days, not very; but in these liberalized modern times, during which 8-8 teams sometimes win wild-card slots, it has happened quite infrequently. Let's take a look at the best nonplayoff teams from the NFL's various eras, and you'll see what we mean:

1992 to present

(Era of two conferences, 16-game season and 12 playoff teams)
Ideally, playoff systems separate the wheat from the chaff. The more teams that are included, however, the more likely it is that some chaff will sneak in there. Conversely, the less likely it is that any wheat will be omitted. You know that bubble you always hear about when it comes time to pick the teams for the NCAA basketball tournament? The NFL pretty much eliminated its bubble in '92 when it started inviting 12 teams to the playoffs. Since then, only three teams with double-figure win totals have not made the playoffs. The 2003 Dolphins, 2005 Chiefs and 2007 Browns all went 10-6 but were aced out of the postseason by the presence of better teams in their divisions and better wild-card entries. Of the three, the '07 Browns barely outscored their opponents and went 1-3 against playoff-bound teams, while the '03 Dolphins were 2-4 versus playoff-bound teams. The '05 Chiefs had the best point differential and went 3-2 against playoff-bound teams. That list will grow by at least one and possibly by as many as three teams this season. The Patriots, Dolphins and Ravens already have 10 wins each, and either one or two of them won't make the playoffs, depending on whether the Jets beat or lose to Miami. In the NFC, the Bucs could win 10 games and be denied the wild card, while the Bears could go 10-6 and not win the North Division.

1978 to 1991

(Era of two conferences, 16-game season and 10 playoff teams)
Only one team in this span went 11-5 and missed the playoffs: the aforementioned '85 Broncos. That Denver team probably isn't the best choice to represent this era, though, given that it outscored its opponents by only 51 points. Our vote goes to the 1991 San Francisco 49ers. Of the 12 teams that went 10-6 between 1978 and '91 and didn't make the playoffs, the Niners had the best point differential. In fact, they had the second-best differential in the entire NFL in 1991. They got off to a 4-6 start, losing by margins of two, three, six, five, three and seven points. Unfortunately, two of those close losses were to the Falcons, who beat them for a wild-card spot based on head-to-head competition.

1970 to 1977

(Era of two conferences, 14-game season and eight playoff teams)
This period produced five 10-4 teams that didn't qualify for the playoffs. Choosing which one was best is difficult, though. The 1976 Bengals and '75 and '77 Dolphins all had very similar scoring details. As a tiebreaker, we'll look at their records against playoff-bound teams. The '75 Dolphins were 0-3, the '76 Bengals were 1-4 and the '77 Dolphins were 1-1. The '77 Dolphins also had a better point differential than the Baltimore Colts, the team that won the division, so they get the edge.

1967 to 1969

(The mini-era of four divisions, 14-game season and four playoff teams)
Bubba Smith
Bubba Smith and the '67 Baltimore Colts missed the postseason at 11-1-2 … but what were they doing in the same division with the Los Angeles Rams anyway?
This mini-era was a test run for the modern NFL model: four divisions of four teams each. The difference between then and now was that there were no wild-card teams, meaning that if you didn't win the division, you had to watch the playoffs on TV. By quirk of some very strange alignment concepts in which only one of the four divisions made any kind of geographical sense (the four teams of the current NFC North were together as the Central), the Los Angeles Rams and Baltimore Colts ended up in the Coastal Division together, and both went 11-1-2 in '67. They easily were the best two teams in the league that season. True, each team beat up on the 1-12-1 Falcons twice, but each also defeated the eventual world champion Packers, who went a comparatively pedestrian 9-4-1 that season. They tied 24-24 in their first meeting in Week 5, setting up a final-week showdown in which the winner would go to the playoffs and the loser would go home. The meeting between the 11-0-2 Colts and 10-1-2 Rams remains one of the most anticipated regular-season games in NFL history. That it turned out to be an anticlimactic 34-10 Rams victory -- and that the Rams were subsequently humbled by the Packers 27-7 in the playoffs -- doesn't detract from what was at stake at that moment.

1961 to 1966

(Era of two divisions, 14-game season and two playoff teams)
With only two teams of 14 making the playoffs, there should have been some pretty good second-placers. Actually, though, only six nonplayoff teams from this period played .700 or better football. It's a close call for the best record among them between the '62 Lions (11-3) and the '63 Packers (11-2-1). Both had nearly identical scoring ratios and, if you want to place any credence in a fairly silly concept, both won their appearances in the late and unlamented Bert Bell Benefit Bowl (the so-called "Runner-Up Bowl" in which second-place finishers squared off after the season), although the Packers did so in a much more convincing fashion, beating the Browns 43-20, while the Lions nipped the Steelers 17-10. Both Packers losses came at the hands of the eventual league champions, the 11-1-2 Bears, so we'll go with the Pack on this one. The best American Football League team not to make the postseason was the '68 Chiefs, who went 12-2 but lost a divisional tiebreaker to the Raiders, 41-6. Other than that, the AFL produced only two other nonplayoff teams that won 10 game: the '64 Raiders (10-4) and the '65 Boston Patriots (10-3-1).

1933 to 1960

(Era of two divisions, fewer than 14 games in a season and two playoff teams)
In this era, divisional championship ties were broken on the field. So, although it's tempting to pick the '41 Packers and their 10-1 record as the best, they played the Bears for the right to meet the Giants in the championship but lost 33-14. The 10-2 Giants of 1950 also lost a tiebreaker, so we'll go with the '48 Bears. They outscored their opponents by a nearly 2½ to 1 ratio, and both of their losses were by narrow margins to the two championship finalists, the Eagles and the Chicago Cardinals. In Week 2, the Bears beat the Cards in their first meeting, which would prove to be their crosstown rivals' only regular-season loss. The Bears were edged by the Eagles 12-7 in Week 5, then won six in a row to set up a final-game showdown for the Western Division crown with the Cards, who were also 10-1. The Cardinals prevailed 24-21 with two late touchdowns.

Another team from this era that should be mentioned is the '48 San Francisco 49ers of the upstart All-America Football Conference. It was their misfortune to be in the same division as the Cleveland Browns, who happened to go 14-0 that season. San Francisco was 12-2, and both their losses came against Cleveland by the close scores of 14-7 and 31-28. The Niners scored the most points in the league, 495 -- more than 100 more than the Browns and the most by far in the brief existence of the AAFC.

1920 to 1932

(The pre-playoff era)
Because only one team was declared champion, and everyone else in the league was considered an also-ran, there were bound to be some stellar records among the runners-up. Although the '25 Pottsville Maroons (10-2) have long been a cult favorite because their title was allegedly stolen from them by Chicago Cardinals chicanery, we'll go with the '29 Giants as the representative of this era. New York went 13-1-1 with seven shutout victories. Their tie also was a shutout, a scoreless game against the Orange Tornadoes that was historically significant because it was the first time the Giants ever played in their eventual home state of New Jersey. The Giants' sole loss came at home against the champion Packers, who beat them 20-6 en route to a 12-0-1 season.


Why does the list of nonplayoff teams with at least 10 wins from the current era have a chance of doubling in one season? Three reasons: the NFC West and its 9-29 interdivisional record, the AFC West and its 10-28 interdivisional record and the Detroit Lions and their 0-10 interdivisional record. That's a combined .221 winning percentage among the have-nots padding the records of the haves. (If New England does fail to make it to the after-party with an 11-5 record, the Pats' claim as best nonplayoff team of the modern era will be mitigated by the fact that they have been a .500 team when not playing the NFC West (against which their record is 4-0) and AFC West (3-1).

Let's hope nobody uses this glut of high-win also-rans as a reason to contemplate expanding the playoffs to be more inclusive. One thing we can almost guarantee: Things will return to normal next season.

Jim Baker is a frequent contributor to Page 2. He can be contacted at bottlebat@gmail.com.