Road to the Playoffs: Who Overachieved, and Who Fell Short in 2013?

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Here's a review of the NFC teams which competed most heavily through the 2013 season for playoff berths.

Twice during the 2013 season, we looked at the teams which were competing for playoff berths: in Week 7 (the Saints' bye week) and Week 12 (after the last bye week).  We considered the difficulty of the schedules they had faced, and the difficulty of their remaining schedules. Now that the season is over, we can look at which teams performed as expected, and which teams exceeded (or fell short of) expectations.

After each losing three of their first four games, the Philadelphia Eagles and Carolina Panthers got their acts together, and finished strong to win their respective divisions.  The Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions, after starting strong, fell short of even their diminished Week 12 projections.  And the Green Bay Packers, who seemed to be out of playoff contention after losing Aaron Rodgers to a fractured collarbone, managed to recover and squeak their way into the postseason as the half-win leaders of the NFC's most mediocre division.

the New Orleans Saints had the most difficult schedule of all NFL playoff teams

With the regular season finished, we can also determine the final Strengths of Schedule faced by each team, based not on predictions but on how well their opponents actually performed this season. While the No.1 Seahawks had a weaker-than-average schedule, and the No.6 Saints had the most difficult schedule of all NFL playoff teams, it may come as a surprise that the two NFC playoff teams with the fewest wins -- Philadelphia and Green Bay -- had two of the easiest schedules in the entire league.

Team

Week 7 Record

Week 7 Projection

Week 12 Record

Week 12 Projection

Final Record

Strength of Schedule

Seattle
(NFCW)

6-1

14-2
(1st)

10-1

13-3
(1st)

13-3
(1st)

.490
(18th)

Carolina
(Out → NFCS)

3-3

8-8
(Out)

8-3

11-5
(6th)

12-4
(2nd)

.494
(16th)

Philadelphia
(Out → NFCE)

3-4

8-8
(Out)

6-5

9-7
(Out)

10-6
(3rd)

.453
(31st)

Green Bay
(NFCN)

4-2

13-3
(2nd)

5-5-1

8-7-1
(Out)

8-7-1
(4th)

.453
(30th)

San Francisco
(Wildcard)

5-2

13-3
(5th)

7-4

11-5
(5th)

12-4
(5th)

.494
(17th)

New Orleans
(NFCS → WC)

5-1

12-4
(3rd)

9-2

12-4
(2nd)

11-5
(6th)

.516
(11th)

Dallas
(NFCE → Out)

4-3

10-6
(4th)

6-5

9-7
(4th)

8-8
(9th)

.484
(21st)

Detroit
(WC → Out)

4-3

10-6
(6th)

6-5

9-7
(3rd)

7-9
(11th)

.457
(29th)

The Strength of Schedule is based on the percentage of wins by each of a given team's opponents, meaning a higher SoS is more difficult than a lower SoS. Conversely, the numbers in parenthesis (in the SoS column) indicate the ranking among all teams in the NFL, with the lower number being stronger than higher numbers. For example: .516 is stronger than .490, and the 16th highest SoS (win percentage of a given team's opponents) indicates a more difficult Strength of Schedule than the 32nd highest SoS.

NFC South

The New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers faced the toughest schedules of all NFC playoff teams, with the Saints having rather successfully navigated the most difficult schedule of all NFL playoff teams, despite a slew of injuries.  In fact, the Saints were the only team in the league to reach the postseason after facing a schedule in which their combined opponents had an overall winning season.  The rest of the NFL's playoff field faced opponents with losing records, overall.

New Orleans started the year off strong, and remained in playoff contention throughout the entire season.  Given that they were one win away from taking the division, even one play (of several throughout the season) going differently -- or being refereed properly -- would have resulted in the Saints finishing the season with the No.2 seed.  In the end, they were successful the moment they reached the postseason; and as a bonus they won a playoff game in the cold on the road before being eliminated in Seattle.

The Carolina Panthers had a weak start to the season, losing three of their first four games, before winning their next eight games (with a little help from the referees in New England).  After losing to the Saints, the Panthers finished the season strong and claimed the division with three more wins.  They then went on to lose their first playoff game, despite having home-field advantage after a bye week to plan and recover.

NFC West

Having come close to sending three teams to the playoffs, at first glance the NFC West may have seemed like the strongest division in the league in 2013.  Of course, they also faced the AFC South, which had three teams combine for a 13-35 record.  And the AFC West -- the AFC division which played the Titans, Texans, and Jaguars -- actually did send three teams to the playoffs.

Despite their easier schedule, the NFC West's playoff teams each edged out their NFC South counterparts by only one win.  That said, the Niners and Seahawks will be competing in the NFC Conference Championship this weekend; and the Super Bowl will feature a team from the NFC West.  With one of the strongest home-field advantages in the NFL, the Seahawks will be trying to keep Harbaugh from having a second shot at the Lombardy he missed last year.

Regardless of who wins, facing a winning team in New Jersey will be much different from most of their season this past year.  If San Francisco can pull off a win this weekend, the southern team may actually have a better chance in the Super Bowl than their northern rivals.  The only victories the Seahawks had on the road against winning teams in 2013 were a 5-point win in Week 1 against the Panthers -- who started out the season losing three of their first four games -- and against the Cardinals, who beat Seattle in their own house eight games later.  The Cardinals were the only winning team the 49ers defeated on the road in the regular season; but after postseason wins at Green Bay and Seattle, they would likely welcome the neutral field in New Jersey.

NFC North

Like the NFC West, the NFC North had three teams competing to make the playoffs in the final weeks.  That is where the similarities end, however.  After losing Aaron Rodgers for the second half of their season, the Packers (8-7-1) barely edged out the Chicago Bears (8-8) and the Detroit Lions (7-9) at the end; and multiple teams competing for the No.5 and No.6 slots had better records than the winner of the NFC North.

Despite facing three of the five easiest team schedules in the NFL this year -- Chicago (28), Detroit (29), and Green Bay (30) --  the NFC North was the only division in the league lacking a team with double-digit wins.  Even the Vikings had the  sixth-easiest schedule in the NFC (19th most difficult in the NFL).  The NFC North was simply outclassed this year; and it is right that they didn't make it past the Wildcard round in the postseason.

NFC East

The division winner for the East was determined by the last game of the 2013 regular season, and the Dallas Cowboys came within seconds of taking the division lead and making the playoffs.  The Eagles managed to win by two points, however, and exceeded expectations by earning the right to host a playoff game in January.

Despite providing the Saints with their first playoff win on the road in franchise history, Philadelphia's season can largely be considered a success.  Although the Cowboys had obviously planned to make the playoffs, the greatest disappointment of the division was delivered by the Washington Redskins, who only managed to scrounge three wins just one year after breaking out to take the division (10-6) in Robert Griffin III's rookie season.

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