The NFL’s wild-card round playoff slots obviously change a bit from year to year, but one thing apparently doesn’t change; if the Houston Texans make the playoffs, they’re going to appear in the Saturday afternoon game (the slot that usually draws the weekend’s worst ratings). As we discussed last year, the Texans entered the NFL in 2002 as an expansion franchise and had posted five playoff appearances through 2018-19 (in 2011-12, 2012-13, 2015-16, 2016-17, and 2018-19), with all those games coming in the Saturday afternoon slot (for what it’s worth, they went 3-2 in those games). Now, they’re set for a sixth playoff appearance, and that’s again coming in the Saturday afternoon slot on wild-card weekend, this time against the Buffalo Bills on Jan. 4 (on ESPN and ABC).
It’s somewhat understandable why the Texans keep winding up in this spot. They’re not exactly the greatest national TV draw (while Houston is the seventh-largest U.S. TV market, refuting “small market” claims about their teams, the Texans drew the 24th-best viewership for national games in 2018-19) in general. And their opponent this time, Buffalo, was set for no primetime appearances this year until a Week 15 flex. (The Bills did appear in a Thanksgiving Day game against the Dallas Cowboys, which drew terrific ratings, but that wasn’t in primetime, and the ratings had more to do with Dallas than Buffalo.) So the Texans themselves (who had three primetime games this year, but largely thanks to who they were playing) don’t present a great case for top national TV billing, and facing the Bills certainly doesn’t help.
But it’s certainly interesting to see Houston yet again wind up in the Saturday afternoon slot, especially with this now being their sixth appearance there. The Texans have made the playoffs six times, always as division winners but not as one of the top-two seeds, which has required them to play on wild-card weekend each time. But there are always four games on wild-card weekend; if the assignment was purely random, the Texans would be expected to get the Saturday afternoon slot only one in four times (25 percent), and if it was a random assignment each time with no consideration for what had happened before, the odds of six straight Saturday afternoon assignments would be 2.44 percent. These assignments obviously aren’t random, and viewership potential is a key factor in them, but that number goes to show how different the regular assignment of the Texans to the Saturday afternoon slot is from what would be expected in a random system.
It’s somewhat logical for the NFL to produce these kinds of playoff slots, though. The Saturday afternoon game tends to draw the lowest viewership, and that tends to be where they put the teams least likely to draw big numbers. And the Titans-Patriots (Saturday evening on CBS), Vikings-Saints (Sunday afternoon on Fox), and Seahawks-Eagles (late Sunday afternoon on NBC) matchups all seem to have better ratings potential; the Patriots, Saints and Seahawks were third, seventh and 11th respectively in viewers tuned into their national TV games last season, and the Vikings and Eagles were ninth and 14th respectively (the Titans were 29th, but playing the Patriots still gives them a big edge). The 24th-best Titans and 27th-best Bills certainly seem like the least desirable matchup for national television, and that’s why that game’s in the Saturday afternoon slot. But it’s quite remarkable that the Texans have wound up there yet again.