In fact, of the top five least penalized teams in the NFL in 2006, only two made the playoffs. Denver (67 penalties) and Pittsburgh (69 penalties) were the two least penalized teams in the NFL – yet neither made the playoffs in 2006. Of the top 10 least penalized teams – only four (New York Jets – 70, Kansas City – 76, New Orleans - 79 and Indianapolis - 86) made the playoffs.
Conversely, of the five most penalized teams in the NFL (Minnesota was the worst at 123 penalties), two also made the playoffs – Chicago and Philadelphia. Of the 10 most penalized teams, three made the playoffs (Baltimore was eighth at 109). And just behind the top 10, at 11-13 were three playoffs teams – Dallas, Giants and New England.
In total, the average number of penalties suffered per team was 95. Six playoff teams were better, six worse. The numbers couldn't have been more indifferent to the effects on the number of penalties suffered and team success.
But, there's more.
What also became clear as the numbers unraveled was that the average yards-per-penalty varied wildly between teams, showing that some teams suffered much larger penalties than others (big pass interference penalties, unsportsmanlike fouls, holding, etc.).
This changed the dynamic – greatly. The average yards-per-penalty in the NFL in 2006 was 8.2 yards. And this was where the numbers proved more telling in 2006 for team success. Of the 12 playoff teams, only four had penalty yard averages above the 8.2 yard mark (Dallas – 9.4, New York Giants – 9.3 Philadelphia – 8.8 and San Diego – 8.8). Of these four, they went 1-5 in the playoffs (Philadelphia won its first game) and averaged 8.9 yards per penalty in their playoff games.
The best of the playoff teams were Indianapolis (6.9) and Kansas City and New Orleans (each at 7.6). Pittsburgh, by the way, averaged 8.9 yards per penalty.
Ultimately, the key issue with penalties seems to be not so much in not committing penalties, but in not committing the major infractions.