Every year as we close in on the NFL playoffs, people start to talk about seeding. Securing a first round bye or home field advantage clearly has its advantages, but how much does it impact a team’s likelihood of success in the playoffs? This study examines the success rate of NFL playoff teams as it relates to their playoff seeding in the NFL’s 12-team playoff format. This archival research goes back 27 years and accounts for the seed of the team that won that the Super Bowl, and the two teams that played in the Super Bowl in each season. In this system teams are seeded 1-6 in each of two conferences with the two conference champions meeting in the Super Bowl.
First Seed – Home Field throughout Playoffs
In the past twenty-seven years 28 first seeded teams have made it to the Super Bowl and 13 of them have become Super Bowl champions. This means that a team with a number 1 seed in the playoffs has a 51.9 percent chance of winning the conference and advancing to the Super Bowl. That is pretty substantial with a field of six teams in each conference. Given that there are two number one seeds each season (one per conference), the fact that 13 first seeded teams have won the big game means that an individual team ranked first in their conference has a 24.1 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl
Second seeded teams have advanced to the Super Bowl 14 times. This is exactly half as often as first seeded teams and means that a second seeded team has a 25.9 percent chance of making it to the Super Bowl. Six second seeded teams have won the Super Bowl, which means that an individual second seeded team has an 11.1 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl.
First Round Bye Teams – First and Second Seeded Teams
The first and second seeded teams each receive a first round bye. Between the two teams in each conference with first round byes there have been 42 Super Bowl appearances in twenty-seven seasons. That means that there is a 77.8 percent chance that a conference champion will be a team seeded first or second in their conference. 19 teams with first round byes have gone on to win the Super Bowl, meaning that on average, each team with a first round bye has a 17.6 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl.
Only 2 teams have made the Super Bowl after earning a third seed in the playoffs and 1 of these teams won the big game. That means that an individual third seeded team has a 3.7 percent chance of making it to the Super Bowl and a 1.9 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl.
Interestingly enough, there is a spike at this position. 7 fourth ranked teams have made it to the Super Bowl and 4 have won it. This means that an individual fourth seeded team has a 13 percent chance of competing in and a 7.4 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl. There is no reason why the fourth seed should have an advantage over the third seed. In fact, theoretically the fourth seeded team should be competing against slightly better teams throughout the playoffs. Prior to the NFL’s realignment in 2002, the fourth seed was not a division champion, but the team with the best record among teams that didn’t win their division. However, the difference between the success rate of fourth seeded teams before and after 2002 is statistically insignificant.
Only 1 team has ever made it to the Super Bowl from the fifth seed under the current NFL playoff format. That team was the 2007 New York Giants who famously gave the New England Patriots their first loss of the season in Super Bowl XLII. This means that an individual fifth seeded team has a 1.9 chance of making it to and winning the Super Bowl.
2 teams have made it to the Super Bowl from the sixth seed and both won. The Pittsburgh Steelers were the first in 2005, followed by the Green Bay Packers in 2010. The “us against the world” narrative appears to work pretty well when coupled with an elite quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger or Aaron Rodgers. Sixth seeded teams have a 3.7 percent chance of making the playoffs and a 3.7 percent chance of winning the playoffs.
Limitations and Conclusions
Certain limitations must be accounted for. Injuries and weather conditions can play a major role in playoff games and were not accounted for in this study. Perhaps the most obvious factor is that higher seeded teams are generally going to be better than lower seeded teams. If a team is good enough to win 12 or 13 games in a season, they may not need any advantage to win the Super Bowl.
Earning a first round bye in the playoffs is a huge advantage. Teams seeded first have an advantage over teams seeded second, but both have a large advantage over the field. Teams not earning a first round bye have a chance of winning the Super Bowl, and there is not a large disparity among them.
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