The NFL officially expanded its playoffs to 14 teams — seven in each conference — Tuesday, adding teams to the postseason for the first time since 1990.
The previous format led to plenty of near-misses, and Aaron Schatz — writing for ESPN and utilizing Football Outsiders’ DVOA (defensive value over average) metric — ranked the best teams who would’ve made the playoffs under the new rules, and the 1991 49ers earned the crown.
“A seventh seed would have also made for a great story,” Schatz wrote, “because the 49ers played themselves back into contention with a third-string quarterback.”
Joe Montana missed the entire season after injuring his elbow in the 1990 NFC Championship Game, while Steve Young injured his knee in Week 10. Steve Bono admirably filled in for Young in six starts, but the 10-6 49ers missed out on the playoffs by virtue of two losses by an average of four points to the No. 6-seeded Atlanta Falcons, who held the tiebreaker over San Francisco.
Those 49ers were loaded, as 1991 marked the only season San Francisco didn’t at least advance to the NFC Championship Game from 1987 through 1994. Bono ranked third in passing DVOA that season and the 1991 49ers had the second-highest DVOA (26 percent) of any team that failed to make the playoffs from 1990 through 2020.
That would’ve set them up well for a playoff run.
“[The] 49ers’ playoff pedigree might very well have made them favorites on the road against second seed Detroit,” Schatz argued, “which ranked only 17th in DVOA despite a 12-4 record. San Francisco outscored opponents by nearly 10 points per game during the regular season; Detroit outscored opponents by just three points per game.”
The 1991 Lions, as Schatz noted, advanced as far as the NFC Championship Game. Washington (56.9 percent DVOA, which topped the NFL), led by quarterback Mark Rypien, crushed Detroit in that game, so San Francisco would’ve faced an uphill battle throughout the rest of the NFC playoffs.
The 49ers might’ve gotten a boost, however. Young started for the 49ers in a 52-14 demolition of the Chicago Bears in the regular-season finale, throwing for 332 yards and three touchdowns. Could Young, who led the NFL in passing DVOA despite his injuries that season, have gone on an Aaron Rodgers-esque run and led the NFC’s lowest seed to a Super Bowl appearance?
We’ll never know the answer, but it’s a fun hypothetical to consider nonetheless. Just as it will be when we look back on the 14-team era after the NFL inevitably expands its playoffs to include 16 (or more) teams.