Crunching the playoff numbers

It's easy to pick teams to repeat as division champions and make the playoffs, but the reality of the numbers shows a different story. However, there is one proven formula to get to the playoffs.

The Vikings may have figured out the formula for success in 2008 – be a .500 team on the road.

While that may not seem like the loftiest of goals, the Vikings went 4-4 on the road for the first time since 2000 when they pulled off the stunt last year. It's not a dominating performance, but recent history has shown us that the key to being a playoff team is being .500 on the road and 8-4 in the conference. The ability to complete that task is the primary indicator of success in the NFL.

In 2008, nine teams in the league had a record of .500 or better and 8-4 or better against the conference. All nine teams made the playoffs – the Dolphins, Steelers, Ravens, Titans, Colts, Giants, Vikings, Panthers and Falcons. In 2007, it was much the same story. That year, there were seven teams that matched the feat of going 4-4 or better on the road and 8-4 in the conference. Again, all seven teams made the playoffs – the Patriots, Colts, Jaguars, Titans, Chargers, Cowboys and Packers.

What makes those numbers more interesting is the lack of NFC teams on that list. Last year, there were only four teams that accomplished that feat – three of the four division champions and the wild card Falcons. In 2007, there were just two – the division winning Cowboys and Packers. The Colts and Titans were the only teams to accomplish the feat each of the last two years, which speaks to the fast turnaround of success and failure in the NFL.

Of the division champions in 2008, only two – Pittsburgh and San Diego – were defending their 2007 division crown, and the Chargers did it with a pedestrian 8-8 record. In the NFC, things were much more complicated. None of the 2007 division champs repeated and none of them made the playoffs. Of the six playoff teams in the NFC in 2007, the only one to return to the playoffs in 2008 was the defending champion Giants.

There are a lot of expectations that the Vikings can return to the winner's circle in 2009, but the odds may be against them. Of the six NFC teams that made the playoffs last year, only the Giants had a winning record the previous season. Everybody else was 8-8 or worse and, while teams like the Vikings, Eagles, Cardinals and Panthers showed some promise, none of them looked like dominating teams that could compete for a Super Bowl title.

NFL experts will be weighing in the prospects for the NFL's 32 teams over the next month of two. Many of them will be on board by picking the defending division champs to repeat. It's a reasonable projection because the things those teams did right the previous year are expected to carry over. But the fact is that more than half the division champions each year failed to repeat, as teams like Miami and Atlanta come back from the dead to reclaim their spot in the league's pecking order.

If there is one sure-fire way for the Vikings to repeat as division champion, it's a simple formula – be a .500 team on the road and win two-thirds of their games in the conference. A total of 16 teams have done it over the past two years. All 16 of them made the postseason.

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