The last time the NFL changed its playoff format was 1990. Six teams from each conference made the playoffs, with the top-two seeds getting a bye.
And if you got a bye in the new format, you were four times more likely to make the Super Bowl than a team without a bye.
From 1990 through 2019, 48 of 60 Super Bowl participants had a first-round bye. That’s 80 percent.
The NFL is expanding the playoffs from 12 to 14 teams in 2020. Much of the attention will be paid to the teams that get into the playoffs as a No. 7 seed, who otherwise would not have made the postseason. But the No. 1 seeds will have a much bigger benefit.
Majority of Super Bowl teams had a bye
The playoffs will look different. There will be six games on wild-card weekend, up from four. And only one team in each conference will get a bye.
That isn’t getting all of the attention with this week’s playoff expansion news, but it is a significant change. There are many reasons, other than a week off, that top-two seeds accounted for 80 percent of Super Bowl teams over a 30-season stretch. Top-two seeds have home-field advantage in the second round. They’re theoretically the better team in their divisional round matchup. But the bye is a big deal.
Teams are beat up by the end of a season and that will be especially true in a 17-game season. And only one team in each conference is going to have the benefit of a bye, while all other teams playing divisional round weekend will be on their 19th game of the season.
It’s unlikely 80 percent of No. 1 seeds make the Super Bowl. But it might be close.
No. 1 seeds will have a huge edge
Joe Ferreira, @JoeNFL on Twitter, had a fascinating chart over an 11-season sample that showed how a 14-team bracket would have affected the regular seasons and how many teams would be alive.
Again, the biggest impact wasn’t on the bottom of the bracket. It was at the top. Only a few more teams would have been alive for that final wild-card spot, while far fewer teams would have been in play for the No. 1 seed.
Here are some playoff scenario stats comparisons if NFL goes to 14-team playoff:
* Heading into final wk, new format would have on average 2 more teams alive, 1 more team having clinched a spot, 1 more team in play for 1 more open spot...and 3 less teams in play for 1 less bye pic.twitter.com/ERz2sJEWnk
— Joe Ferreira (@JoeNFL) February 20, 2020
And while expanding the playoffs waters down the field, at least we won’t get terrible teams in. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport said in a 14-team field, only one team with a losing record would have made it as a No. 7 seed since 1990. That’s still one too many, and that view doesn’t account for a lot of uninteresting 9-7 and 8-8 teams, but it further shows that the biggest impact won’t happen at the bottom of the bracket with the No. 7 seeds, but at the top.
The difference between the No. 1 and 2 seeds now becomes a chasm. The No. 1 seed will get a bye, rest at the end of a 17-game season and then host the worst remaining team. The No. 2 seed won’t get much more benefit than the No. 7 seed other than being at home on wild-card weekend. A big reason the Kansas City Chiefs won Super Bowl LIV is they got a bye. Under the new system, they’d have been playing on wild-card weekend. Maybe the Chiefs would have won anyway, but it’s a lot tougher road.
In 30 seasons of the 12-team field, only 12 teams made the Super Bowl without a bye. There were two No. 3 seeds, seven No. 4 seeds, one No. 5 seed and two No. 6 seeds. And that was in a 16-game schedule, not 17.
The playoffs will be a little more unpredictable on the first and second weekends with more teams in the field. But the ultimate legacy of the 14-team field might be that we can prepare to see more No. 1 seeds than ever on Super Bowl Sunday. The advantage they have will be hard to overcome.
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