Season of Upsets to Filter Through to Playoffs?

Russell Wilson and the Seahawks are one of four wild-card teams looking to knock-off higher-ranked opposition this weekend, a task in which bookmakers expect Seattle to succeed.

After 17 weeks of physical play, shocking results, unexpected storylines, and some true battles of attrition, we’re just hours away from the start of the NFL playoffs, and this year, we’re in for something special.

The 2012 NFL season relished in unexpected victories and the emergence of some unlikely contenders. Think, San Francisco’s Week 1 upset win in Green Bay; Seattle’s wins over New England, San Francisco, and Green Bay, with the assist going to the replacement referees in the latter; surprising playoffs runs by the Colts and Vikings; and the Washington Redskins fending off the entire NFC East behind rookie quarterback, Robert Griffin III.

In a season that specialized in dealing out surprise win after surprise win, we have a playoff bracket loaded and waiting for more of the same, and it all starts with this weekend’s wild-card fixtures.

Upsets in the wild-card round of the playoffs are nothing new. Since the NFL expanded to 32 teams for the 2002 season, only two seasons have seen the No. 3 and No. 4 seed from both the AFC and NFC advance to the divisional round of the playoffs.

That feat happened following the 2007 season and again last year. In each of the other eight seasons, at least one lower seed has advanced. In fact, more often than not, more than one lower seed has advanced, and in three instances (following the 2010, 2005, and 2004 seasons) three lower seeds have moved on. There has yet to be a season in which all four lower seeds advanced. In total, 17 (out of 40) lower seeded sides has advanced in a decade of play.

One of the reasons that might explain this trend of lower seeds advancing is the structure of the playoffs. With the current setup, a winner of a weak division will be seeded higher than a team with a better record that finished second in its division. Seattle and Indianapolis are both examples of this as we enter this weekend’s playoffs. Both finished with a better record but seeded lower than Washington and Baltimore respectively, and both will be on the road to start the playoffs.

But this explanation would generally relate to the No. 5 seed beating the No. 4 seed. Very rarely (if ever) would you see a No. 6 seed that had a superior record to a No. 3 seed, yet in nine instances the No. 6 seed has defeated the No. 3 seed, most recently following the 2010 season when Green Bay upset Philadelphia and the New York Jets upset Indianapolis. That’s more times than the No. 5 seed has beaten the No. 4 seed (eight), which means there’s more to it than simply who has the better record.

We all know that there are extenuating circumstances that can be identified as helping or hindering a playoff run: the pressure of a playoff game (the 2006 Dallas Cowboys); a team getting hot at the right time (the 2007 New York Giants); or even sheer good luck (the 2009 ‘Music City Miracle’). What we also know is that it’s all but impossible to predict when such upsets and playoff runs will happen.

So, will we see upsets this weekend?

In the ‘Season of Upsets’, its seems nobody is really expecting the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds in both conferences to be playing next weekend.

For starters, Seattle (11-5, 3-5 road) is favored over Washington (10-6, 5-3 home) going into Sunday’s clash at FedEx Field. Granted, oddsmakers have only been so bold as to make the Seahawks a one-point favorite, but that still suggests the Pacific Northwest side should come out of the game with a win, and, in all honesty, you’d be hard-pushed to find somebody that would consider such a result a surprise.

But it’s not only the Redskins that need to be on guard. A slumping Baltimore (10-6, 6-2 home) will host a surging Indianapolis (11-5, 4-4 road) on Sunday in what could easily be an upset. Baltimore may be the favorite (-6½) heading in, but the Ravens have lost four of five while the Colts have won nine of 11. It’s not hard to envisage another No. 5 seed upsetting a No. 4 seed.

Before we get to Sunday’s games, Houston (12-4, 6-2 home) finds itself in the same predicament as Baltimore. The Texans have slumped at the wrong time, losing three of four, while Cincinnati (10-6, 6-2 road) is on a charge, winning seven of eight, with that one loss coming by just one-point. There are a lot of big name pundits already backing the Bengals over the Texans.

Which brings us to the Saturday night game at Lambeau Field. Green Bay (11-5, 7-1 home) and Minnesota (10-6, 3-5 road) clash for the third time this season, and the second time in two weeks. As you’d expect, Green Bay is favored (-9½) in this one and you’d be forgiven for passing this off as a dead cert. After all, the Packers have won 10 of 14 against the Vikings and the game is in cold Wisconsin. Except…

Except, last week’s game between the two sides – a 37-34 win for the Vikings – has left some wondering if the Packers can stop Peterson and Co. Add to this the fact that Green Bay is 1-3 in its last four home playoff games, a streak that started with a 31-17 loss to, yes, the Minnesota Vikings in Jan. 2005, and you have enough doubt to feel compelled to wonder whether we have another upset on our hands.

Could this be the first season in which all four lower seeds advance to divisional play? The way things have gone this year, it’s not the most far-flung idea out there.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if Houston, Green Bay, Baltimore, and Washington all came out this weekend and did exactly what is needed to win. That would certainly set-up some intriguing matchups next week.

One thing we can count on though is that this season still has a sting in its tail, which makes for a fantastic ride for all of us.