NFL playoffs including four teams from same division for first time since 2002 is likelier than you think

We've never seen four teams from the same NFL division make the playoffs the same year since the 2002 realignment, but there's suddenly a realistic chance it happens this season.

If the playoffs started today, the entire AFC East, the Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and New England Patriots, would be in. What's more, another division in the NFC has a surprisingly good chance to do it, too.

We know, of course, that it's only Week 11 and there are still seven weeks left, so anything is possible. But even the idea that this could happen was a statistical impossibility until the 2020 season when the NFL added a third wild card. Before that, there were only two wild card spots, meaning a maximum of three teams from the same division could make the postseason. But with a seventh team now in the mix every year, it opens up the potential for that fourth team to slide in if they were good enough and the rest of the conference was bad.

Let's start with the AFC East. Yahoo Sports conferred with statistical simulation models from FiveThirtyEight, Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders to determine the probability this could even happen. And the likelihood is higher than you'd think.

In FiveThirtyEight's simulation, which uses the Elo rating system to assign a power rating for every team, all four AFC East teams made the playoffs 9.7 percent of the time.

In Pro Football Focus' simulation, the teams made it 9.2 percent of the time.

Football Outsiders' simulation, which uses DAVE (DVOA Adjusted for Volatility Early) by combining early-season DVOA ratings with preseason projection, calculated the teams have a 16.2 percent chance of all earning playoff spots.

This would be wild if it happens. But the path isn't easy.

AFC East must win, and needs help as well

The entire AFC East is currently in the NFL playoff field. Will it stay that way for the first time since the realignment in 2002? (Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)
The entire AFC East is currently in the NFL playoff field. Will it stay that way for the first time since the realignment in 2002? (Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)

The easiest way for all four teams to make it is if they split the divisional games and win every other game. So, the Jets would need to beat the Patriots in Week 11, the Bills would need to beat the Jets and the Dolphins in Weeks 14 and 15, the Patriots would need to split their series with the Bills in Weeks 13 and 18 and then beat the Dolphins in Week 17, and the Dolphins would need to beat the Jets in Week 18.

All four will need help from the rest of the league, too. Firstly, all the other current top teams in their respective divisions — the Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans — will need to win as much as possible and push the rest of the teams down. All the other non-AFC East teams, meanwhile, need to lose as much as possible.

In this scenario, the earliest all four teams could lock up playoff seeds would be Week 15, according to FiveThirtyEight's playoff prediction model. And by season's end, the Bills would win the division at 13-4, the Dolphins and Jets would finish 12-5 with the Dolphins taking the second-place spot, and the Patriots would make it in with an 11-6 record.

There is clearly a lot of room for variance, though. The biggest threats to this are the Los Angeles Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals, two second-place teams with good offenses that could win some more games over the final seven games of the season. The Bengals already beat the Dolphins and Jets and play the Patriots and Bills in Weeks 16 and 17, respectively. The Chargers, meanwhile, still play the Dolphins in Week 14 and still have half of their divisional games left.

But so long as those teams — and we technically have to include the Indianapolis Colts in this discussion, too — don't beat the AFC East teams, or at the very least win more games than the first-place teams lose, this wild occurrence could play out. One of the most pivotal games down the stretch in this regard may be a Week 16 matchup between the Colts and Bengals. Both could be vying for playoff spots, but it will depend on which team is better positioned to make the playoffs. The AFC East needs that team to lose.

NFC East could send its four teams to playoffs, too

Oddly enough, the NFC East also has an outside chance to send all four of its teams to the postseason after the Washington Commanders upset the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night.

The Commanders are currently outside the playoffs field at 5-5, and would likely need to win out to secure a playoff berth in a similar fashion to how, say, the Patriots would need to make the playoffs. The Eagles, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys are all squarely in playoff contention with records of 8-1, 7-2 and 6-3, respectively.

According to Pro Football Focus, this has a 16.3 percent chance of happening, likely because of how weak the rest of the NFC looks after 10 weeks. Football Outsiders has a probability slightly lower at 12.8 percent.

The Commanders' win over the Eagles makes the NFL playoffs race interesting. (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)
The Commanders' win over the Eagles makes the NFL playoffs race interesting. (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

Could this have ever happened in the past?

There was a slight chance this actually could have happened in the second year of the new playoff model. The NFC West sent three teams to the 2021 playoffs — the Los Angeles Rams, the San Francisco 49ers and the Arizona Cardinals — but the Seattle Seahawks finished two games behind the Eagles, whose 9-7 record was good enough to give them the seventh seed in the NFC playoffs.

But even if you applied the new playoff model to previous years, this still would never have happened between 2002-2019. The closest possibility came in 2014 with the Browns, who at 7-9 finished fourth in the AFC North but would not have been beaten out by the 9-7 Texans. The rest of the AFC North — Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers — all made the postseason.

Now if we want to get technical, a division has actually sent four teams before. However, this all occurred when there were five teams in each division but only three divisions per conference. The NFC Central accomplished this feat three teams in 1982, 1994 and 1997 when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were in the same division as the Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears.

There are still a lot of games to be played in the final seven weeks, so anything could happen. The Bills already proved they're mortal after losing to the Jets and Vikings in consecutive weeks and the Jets and Patriots are anything but stable. But it would be really cool to see four teams from the same division take over a playoff tournament and perhaps a wild-card weekend full of extra divisional games.