Dec 272013

Everybody knows that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ road to the playoffs will be difficult. Just how difficult? To grab a playoff spot the Steelers need to win and hope that three other teams lose. Historically that scenario hasn’t panned out for too many teams.

Only two teams out of 29 have ever made the playoffs after needing a victory and favorable outcomes in three or more other games in the league’s last regular-season week. The 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers and the 2006 Kansas City Chiefs being the only teams to ever pull off that feat.

Percentage of Playoff Appearances Based on Last Regular-Season Week Scenario – 1970-2012

Notes: The list doesn’t include teams that had playoff spots locked down before the start of the last regular-season week… The list counts the scenario heading into the final week; not the scenario that the team headed into at the kickoff of their game (i.e. of the teams that had different scenarios heading into their late afternoon or night games).

From 1970-1977, the playoffs were an eight-team tournament. In 1978, the playoffs expanded to ten teams, and in 1990 they were expanded to the current twelve-team format. In 1982, the NFL’s post-season included sixteen teams due to a strike-shortened season.

Controlled Own Destiny Made Playoffs Missed Playoffs Pct. That Made Playoffs
144 teams 110 teams 34 teams 76.39%
Depended on One Other Outcome Made Playoffs Missed Playoffs Pct. That Made Playoffs
81 teams 27 teams 54 teams 33.33%
Since 2007, nine teams have been in this scenario – all missed the playoffs. Last team to make the playoffs with this scenario: 2006 New York Giants. 
Depended on Two Other Outcomes Made Playoffs Missed Playoffs Pct. That Made Playoffs
41 teams 3 teams 38 teams 7.32%
Made Playoffs: 1993 Pittsburgh Steelers; 2002 Cleveland Browns; 2008 Philadelphia Eagles.
Depended on Three or More Other Outcomes Made Playoffs Missed Playoffs Pct. That Made Playoffs
29 teams 2 teams 27 teams 6.90%
Made Playoffs: 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers; 2006 Kansas City Chiefs.


To make the playoffs all the Dallas Cowboys have to do is defeat the Philadelphia Eagles. The Cowboys have been in a similar situation the last three years: 2012 vs. Washington and 2011 vs. New York. In fact, the Cowboys have missed the playoffs four of the last six times that they have controlled their own playoff destiny in Week 17.


Fighting for a Playoff Spot in the Season’s Last Week – By Franchise (1933-2012)

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Playoff App.: The number of playoff appearances the franchise has made.

Already In: The number of times the franchise was already in the playoffs by the league’s last regular-season week.

Alive: The number of times a franchise was alive in the playoff chase in the league’s last regular-season week. Doesn’t include the times the franchise had already locked down a playoff spot.

- Control: The number of times a franchise controlled their own destiny in the playoff chase; needing to only win their last regular-season game to make it to the playoffs.

- Depend: The number of times a franchise’s playoff hopes depended on a victory and other outcomes.

- Made/Pct.: The number of times/percentage a franchise made the playoffs with the aforementioned scenario.

The tallies include AAFC and AFL seasons.

Columns can be sorted by clicking on the titles in the header. You can search for a specific franchise using the search box to the right.

FranchisePlayoff App.-Already In-Alive--ControlMadePct.--DependMadePct.
Arizona Cardinals85115360.0%600.0%
Atlanta Falcons129733100.0%400.0%
Baltimore Ravens95644100.0%200.0%
Buffalo Bills171295480.0%4125.0%
Carolina Panthers43411100.0%300.0%
Chicago Bears2517219666.7%12216.7%
Cincinnati Bengals116135480.0%8112.5%
Cleveland Browns28201566100.0%9222.2%
Dallas Cowboys302796233.3%3133.3%
Denver Broncos1916128337.5%400.0%
Detroit Lions1681511654.5%4250.0%
Green Bay Packers2824144375.0%10110.0%
Houston Texans221000.0%100.0%
Indianapolis Colts25161410770.0%4250.0%
Jacksonville Jaguars65511100.0%400.0%
Kansas City Chiefs1611116466.7%5120.0%
Miami Dolphins2216157457.1%8225.0%
Minnesota Vikings271616121191.7%4125.0%
New England Patriots2015168562.5%800.0%
New Orleans Saints988100.0%7114.3%
New York Giants311823141071.4%10330.0%
New York Jets146149777.8%5120.0%
Oakland Raiders2117126466.7%600.0%
Philadelphia Eagles23181122100.0%9333.3%
Pittsburgh Steelers2720125480.0%7342.9%
San Diego Chargers1712744100.0%3133.3%
San Francisco 49ers2519117685.7%400.0%
Seattle Seahawks1261155100.0%6116.7%
St. Louis Rams2716177685.7%10550.0%
Tampa Bay Buccaneers106744100.0%300.0%
Tennessee Titans21121188100.0%3133.3%
Washington Redskins23142012866.7%8112.5%
zBaltimore Colts (AAFC)10111100.0%000.0%
zBrooklyn Dodgers (NFL)001000.0%100.0%
zBuffalo Bills (AAFC)21111100.0%000.0%
zChicago Hornets (AAFC)001000.0%100.0%
zLos Angeles Dons (AAFC)001000.0%100.0%
zNew York Yankees (AAFC)330000.0%000.0%


Additional Info

  • This is the 13th consecutive season – a streak going back to 2001 – that the New England Patriots have either clinched a spot or have been alive in the playoff chase during the league’s last regular-season week. Only the Green Bay Packers from 1992-2004 can match the Patriots’ streak. The Los Angeles Rams had such a streak for 12 years (1969-1980).
  • The Buffalo Bills haven’t been in the playoffs or at least in the playoff chase in the league’s last regular-season week since 2004; currently the oldest such drought in the NFL. Followed by the Cleveland Browns (2007)… From 1948-1971 (24 seasons) the Pittsburgh Steelers were never in the playoffs or in a playoff race at the end of the season.


Sources: Click here for a list of newspaper resources I used to confirm/find playoff possibilities.


  2 Responses to “NFL Playoff History: Fighting for a Playoff Spot in the Season’s Last Week”

  1. Andrew, can you please clarify something for me. I may be missing something obvious here but according to your source the 3 scenarios for the Steelers to make the Playoffs in 1989 were a Houston victory over Cleveland and losses by Cincinnati and Indianapolis. Both the Bengals and Colts lost but the Browns beat the Oilers. Only 2 of those scenarios came through but nonetheless the Steelers made the Playoffs as the 5th seed.

    An interesting fact about the 1989 Steelers is that they are the only team to make the Playoffs by winning only 1 Division game (excl. Strike shortened seasons).

    Thanks in anticipation.

  2. Mark, you bring up a great point.

    It was the NFL that released these playoff scenarios to the press. You’d think they’d be right, but in the case of the ’89 Steelers they were obviously wrong.


    After the Browns victory the Steelers’ playoff hopes were dependent on four outcomes – at least according to the Pittsburgh Press. The article is on left (front page). Unfortunately it was scanned sideways.

    Those four outcomes all happened. The Raiders, Dolphins, Colts, and Bengals all lost. The Steelers will be looking for some of that ’89 luck on Sunday.

    BTW – Great fact on the Steelers’ division woes in 1989.

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