In the NFL the notion has been floated about that for eastern teams, performing well on the West Coast is a difficult task. But do San Diego, Seattle, Oakland and San Francisco really hold an edge over eastern teams above and beyond normal home field advantage? Is there some sort of jet lag/extensive travel voodoo that sinks teams from the Eastern Time Zone? Let’s take a look.
Over the past 10 years, the home team for all NFL regular season games has gone 1462-1096, winning just over 57% of the time.
If West Coast teams do indeed have an added advantage, that red portion of the pie representing away wins should get even smaller when illustrating the records of West Coast home teams versus eastern opponents. Does it?
What you actually see is the red slice getting bigger. West Coast teams have won 53.7% of their games (79-68) against eastern teams, WORSE than home teams in the NFL as a whole have fared over the last decade.
Digging into the numbers more specifically, Oakland and San Francisco drag things down. San Francisco was 18-19 (48.6%) in such contests and Oakland was only 15-22 (40.5%). On the flip side, San Diego and Seattle were better than the national average. San Diego went 24-15 (61.5) and Seattle 22-12 (64.7%).
Ultimately Oakland and San Francisco have fielded bad teams in general over the past decade; they are a collective 81 games below .500. Seattle and San Diego went 40 games ABOVE .500. If you’re a lousy team, the comforts of home won’t always make much difference. And perhaps eastern teams fail so often in San Diego and Seattle simply because the Chargers and Seahawks have been winners over the past 10 years.
The Bengals finally broke their dubious streak of not having been to the playoffs in consecutive years. The Reds are now on the clock. They haven’t made it to the playoffs in back-to-back years since *gulp* 1975-1976. I wanted to look at how often teams that had made the playoffs followed it up with a return visit the next year.
Since 1996 there have been 138 playoff teams in baseball. Of those, 70 were holdovers from the previous year. (50.7%). Essentially it’s a coin flip on whether any given playoff team returns the next year. The numbers for the other three major sports leagues:
- NFL (1996 onwards): 204 teams made the playoffs, 104 were returnees (51.0%)
- NHL (1996-97 onwards, minus the strike season of 1994-95): 240 playoff teams, 175 returnees (72.9%)
- NBA: (1996-97 onwards): 256 playoff teams, 192 returnees (75.0%)
So essentially, year to year half of the NFL and MLB playoff field is made up of new teams, whereas only a quarter of the teams are new in the NBA and NHL. The obvious explanation is that in the NHL and NBA more than half of the leagues’ teams make the playoffs each year. More playoff entrants = easier to make an immediate return. Baseball, even with two new wild card teams, is most selective about who it lets in. Only a third of teams make it. The NFL lets more teams in than MLB, but a team’s schedule difficulty and fortunes can vary wildly from one year to the next. An easy schedule one year can be fatally hard the next. Some teams in football and baseball have figured out how to make extended runs though. The Yankees went to the playoffs 13 consecutive times from 1995-2007 and the Indianapolis Colts managed to overcome parity by going 9 straight times from 2002-10.
If the fact that returning to the playoffs is only a 50/50 proposition for the Reds is concerning to you, there is some slightly better news. Since the wild card era began in 1995, 41 teams have made the playoffs by winning 97 or more games in a season. Of those, 24 returned the following year, a rate of 58.5%. A 58.5% return rate for dominant teams is still pretty low, but at least it’s a little better chance than a coin flip. Other facts:
- On average, those 41 teams followed up their 97+ win campaigns with 93.4 wins the next year
- The 17 teams to miss out on a return to the playoffs won an average of 83.9 games. So while there were no playoffs, they could still generally call themselves winners.
- Houston and San Diego suffered the biggest dropoffs in the measured timespan. Houston went from winning 97 games in 1999 to 72 in 2000. San Diego won 98 in 1998 and only 74 the following year.
The Bengals started 3-5 this season, with uninspiring losses to teams like Cleveland and Miami. They have picked themselves up off the mat by winning 5 of 6 and currently lead the Pittsburgh Steelers by a game for the 6th and final playoff spot in the AFC. A win this afternoon over those Steelers puts the Bengals in the postseason. So that got me wondering: how often has a team lost 4 in a row and made the playoffs?
Since the NFL expanded to two wild cards per conference in 1978, 33 NFL seasons have passed. I’m excluding 1982, when striking caused an 9 game season and a 16-team playoff. In that span, 374 teams have made the playoffs.
- 87 teams have made the playoffs while enduring at least a 3 game losing streak (23.3% of all playoff teams).
- 20 of those teams have had a losing streak of 4 games, and 2 have even had 5 game streaks (The 1986 New York Jets had a 5 game streak to end the season where they were outscored 183-61. Yikes. The 1997 Vikings also lost 5 in a row).
- The 22 teams with 4 or 5 game losing streaks have constituted 5.9% of the playoff field in 33 seasons, so playoff destiny is in the Bengals’ hands….but they might want to forget about what history says.
So what about if the Bengals make it in? How much playoff damage have these major slumpers caused? The postseason record of the 22 teams that lost 4 or 5 games in a row in the expanded wild card era is 13-21 (38.2%). 19 of those 22 won no more than one game before bowing out (and most none), but there were three exceptions:
- The 1989 Los Angeles Rams made it to the NFC Conference Championship before bowing out
- The 2002 Oakland Raiders fell in Super Bowl XXXVII to Tampa Bay
- The 2011 New York Giants knocked off New England in Super Bowl XLVI
Those Giants are the only Super Bowl winners since 1978 to have taken a month off from winning games in the regular season. They entered the postseason as a 9-7 wild card and the rest is history.
Super Bowl Winners since 1978 by Longest Regular Season Losing Streak:
- 1 loss: 16 teams
- 2 losses: 13 teams
- 3 losses: 3 teams
- 4 losses: 1 team
Predictably, most of the big winners never lost more than a couple games in a row in the regular season.