NFL Playoffs: A Look At How The No. 1-6 Seeds Have Fared Since 1991

By Tom Ayer
January 02, 2013 2:20 pm
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It’s playoff time again in the National Football League.   The one and done format of the NFL playoffs contributes to the popularity of the game.   Let’s look at some recent history and see if your team has a shot at this year’s Lombardi Trophy.  

But before we do that let’s get some playoff myths out of the way.  Think you need a great offense that churned out points and yards in the regular season?  Think again.   The teams that score the most points in the regular season rarely win the Super Bowl…let alone get out of the divisional round. Do you think your team needs a great defense that just stifled all comers in the regular season?  Nope.  Just look back to a year ago.   The 2011 New York Giants gave up more points in the regular season than they scored.   That is usually a recipe for a top ten draft pick…not a Super Bowl win.   Finally, does your team need to be “hot” going 3-1 or 4-0 over the last four games of the season?   No.   The NY Giants stumbled into last season’s playoffs by going 2-2 over the last four games and looked really shaky at times over the last month of the season.   In 2010 the Packers finished 2-2 and strained to beat the Bears to get in.   New Orleans staggered at the end of 2009 by going 1-3!  This is the playoffs.   Your team now has a chance to win pro football’s ultimate prize and they can do it!

Following the 1990 season the National Football League started its current 12 team (6 in each conference) seeded playoff format.   The first two years of the current playoff system were nice and predictable with every team dutifully following its respective seed and going down quietly to defeat to a higher seed.  That neat and clean system ended with the 1992 Buffalo Bills.   They were a 4 seed in the 1992 playoffs (played in Jan 1993) and made it to the Super Bowl.   The playoffs have rarely followed form since. 

Since the current system was adopted for the 1990 playoffs the 1 v. 2 conference Championship game has happened only 22 times out of 44 possible meetings.   Only half the time has the “better” teams (at least by seeding) advanced to the championship games.  It is even rarer since 2005. 

Death, taxes, and a team (and sometimes two) from Wild Card Weekend making at least the conference Championship Game – three things you can count on…especially over the last 10 seasons.  If your team wins on Wild Card weekend don’t think for a second they are done. 

Let’s look at how the seeds have fared over the years since January 1991.

6 – In theory this team is the worst team in the playoffs in both conferences.   The #6 seeds played that way for many seasons.   Indeed until the 2005 Steelers broke through no number 6 seed even made the conference championship game let alone the Super Bowl.   The Steelers broke the door down for number 6 seeds and they rushed in to make 4 of the next 12 conference championship games.   The 2010 Packers were the second number 6 seed to win a Super Bowl.   Bengals and Vikings fans…HAVE HOPE!

5 – Since 1990 the number 5 seeds have made it to the conference championship games less often than number 6 seeds…only FIVE times since 1990.   The only Super Bowl appearance was a good one – the 2007 Giants taking down the undefeated Patriots.

4 – Seven times since 1990 has the number four seed made it to the conference championship game.   With five Super Bowl appearances the four seeds have certainly been efficient.  Three times have the four seeds won the Super Bowl

3 - Seven times since 1990 has the number three seed made it to the conference championship game. Only once has the #3 won the Super Bowl (2006 Colts)

2 – Hope your team fought hard for the number 2 seed because this has been a ticket to the conference championship game.   It is easier to say how often the 2 seeds have NOT made it to the conference championship game.  Of the 44 chances (22 conference championship games) since 1990, the TWO seeds have failed to get there ONLY ELEVEN TIMES.   That is an astounding 75% of the time.  However it has not translated to success at the next level as TWO seeds have only won the Super Bowl SIX times and  only twice since 2004.

1 – In theory this is the best team in a conference.   As such this year the Broncos and Falcons have been rewarded with home field advantage throughout the playoffs.  In theory the number one seeds should have a lock on conference championship appearances.  The percentages are pretty good as the number one seeds have made it to the conference championship games 31 out of 44 chances but consider recent years.   Since 2005 the number one seeds have failed to get to the conference championship games an astonishing eight out of 14 times.   That failure rate is especially acute in the National Football Conference.  The 2007 Cowboys barely lost to the eventual champion Giants.  Since then the NFC number one seeds have routinely gotten embarrassed at home in the divisional round of the playoffs.   Only the 2009 New Orleans Saints acted like a number one seed.  The 2008 Giants, 2010 Falcons, and 2011 Packers were annihilated.  

In summary the 22 Super Bowl Champions since 1990 tell us all seeds have a chance…even the number 6 seeds.   6 SEED – 2 Super Bowl wins; 5 SEEDS – 1 WIN; 4 SEEDS – 3 WINS; 3 SEEDS – 1 WIN; 2 SEEDS – 6 WINS; 1 SEED – 9 WINS.   For the fans of the Packers, Seahawks, Texans and Colts, history seems against your teams based on your teams’ seeding.    If your team is the number one seed don’t count on anything…especially in the NFC.

Good luck to your teams and enjoy the playoffs. 

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By Tom Ayer
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15 months ago
Tom-that is some interesting stuff. You point out that Eli Manning was able to lead that 5th seeded Giant Team to a S.B. win, and that fact coupled with the fact that he is 1 of only 5 QB's that are part of this exclusive club-multiple MVP awards and multiple S.B. wins, are pushing Eli way up the ladder toward Top 10 of All-Time status, IMO. The other 4 members of that exclusive club are Starr, Bradshaw, Montana, and Brady. Three of those guys are also part of another exclusive club-MVP in both the Reg. season and the S.B. in the same NFL year and they are-Starr, Bradshaw, and Montana. Talk about playing your way onto the Top 10 list-they certainly did it IMO.
15 months ago

Sorry Tom-I should have said-about that 5th seeded Giant Team that won the S.B.-it was led by Eli Manning at QB. But my main point-Eli is becoming 1 of the very best ever, IMO. Any QB that can play good enough to help a lower seeded team win a S.B. should get a lot of extra credit IMO. Every team they go up against is probably a better team, and almost all of their games are on the road. That's a tough way to win it all.

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