This is the first in a six-part series over the next three weeks)
The NFL expanded its playoff field to include 12 teams beginning in the 1990 season. Heading into the 2009 season, there had been 110 teams from 1991 through 2008 to follow a playoff appearance with another one the very next season. That’s an average of 6.1 per season. The 2009 postseason included six teams from the 2008 field and six teams that sat out 2008's postseason (right on the number!). Updating the numbers reveal that 116 teams have followed up a playoff appearance from the year before over the last 19 seasons (still 6.1 per).
Interestingly, the top-three seeds from 2008's AFC field all failed to qualify for last year's postseason (Titans, Steelers and Dolphins), while neither of the NFC's top-two seeds from 2008 were around last January either (Giants and Panthers). Returning playoff teams from 2008 in 2009 were the Cards, Chargers, Colts, Eagles, Ravens and Vikings. "Newbies" were the Bengals, Cowboys, Jets, Packers, Patriots and Saints.
The 2008 Pats (at 11-5) became just the fifth team to win double digits in a single year and not qualify for the playoffs since the NFL expanded its playoff format to include 12 teams. They became the first to win 11 games and not do so. The 1985 Broncos also failed to qualify for that year's postseason despite an 11-5 record, but the playoff field that year consisted of 10, not 12 teams. No team with double digit wins failed to make the 2009 playoff field while two 9-7 teams got in (Jets and Ravens) and three were left out (Falcons, Steelers and Texans).
The Bengals went from 4-11-1 in 2008 to 10-6 last year, winning the AFC North. The Packers went from from 6-10 in 2008 to 11-5 last year and the Saints from 8-8 in 2008 to the winners of the NFC South (13-3), as well as claiming the conference's No. 1 seed. However, the Saints were the first No. 1 seed to ever enter the postseason on a three-game losing streak. The Chargers, who got into the 2008 postseason with a win in Week 17 and an 8-8 record but took an 11-game winning streak into last year's postseason.
Considering the fact that the Saints would go on to win the Super Bowl last year and the Chargers would lose their first playoff game at home to the Jets (17-14), we should have learned that winning or losing streaks heading into the postseason are virtually irrelevant. Back in 1995, eight of 12 teams returned to the postseason from 1994, the most-ever from one year to the next. The fewest "repeaters" in any one season has been four, which happened just once (in 2003). So how many teams can we expect to make this year's postseason which also made last year's field?
History tells us that on average, about half. We know that the Colts own the longest active postseason streak with eight straight playoff appearances and are coming off a 14-2 regular season and a Super Bowl appearance. However, the Giants saw their five-year playoff streak snapped last year after going just 8-8, which leaves the Chargers (who own four straight playoff appearances) with the second-longest active postseason streak. At the other end of the 'food chain' we find the Bills and Lions, who each own 10-year postseason droughts.
I'll return on Friday with Part 2 of my preseason NFL series, revealing some early predictions on possible 2010 "playoff surprises," based on those teams' 2009 point-differentials.