What's In An NFL Playoff Seed: The Success Rate Of Each Over The Years

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 24: John Clay #38 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter of the game against the St. Louis Rams at Heinz Field on December 24, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)

The NFL has used a 12-team postseason format for over 20 years now. Here, we examine what those 20 years can tell us about the nature of each playoff seed, and uncover a sea change of sorts in recent years.

In the NFL postseason, one difference in playoff seeding immediately presents itself: the top two seeds in each conference get to sit around while the rest of the teams play through the first round. That, of course, is a profound advantage. It gives a leg up toward a team's Super Bowl ambitions. But how much of a leg up? And what's really the difference between a 3-seed and a 6-seed?

Well, I've looked at the NFL's playoff results since 1990 -- the first year the league instituted a 12-team playoff format -- and tried to chart them out in a meaningful way.

First, let's look at the percentage of 1- and 2-seeds that have won each playoff round:


This year's 1-seeds: Patriots, Packers
This year's 2-seeds: Ravens, 49ers

These guys, of course, get to skip the first round of the playoffs. And it should also be noted that the Super Bowl percentages above are, by their very nature, skewed.

This is where things get a little complicated, but: those numbers are a reflection of a given 1- or 2-seeded team's historical success rate of reaching and winning the Super Bowl from the outset -- not the percentage likelihood of a given Super Bowl winner to be a 1- or 2-seed. Basically, it gums up the works because in the Super Bowl, it's possible for a team to play another team of the same seed. Sorry for the boring statistical tangent. Next slide!


This year's 3-seeds: Texans, Saints
This year's 4-seeds: Broncos, Giants

Since 2002, these seeds have been made up of division winners whose records weren't good enough to win a first-round bye. On the positive side, these teams receive home-field advantage in the first round. On the negative side, sometimes these teams -- for example, this year's Broncos and Giants -- don't appear to be as strong as teams who had to fight for wild card berths.

Historically speaking, the four-seed has actually had a slightly higher success rate than the 3-seed, which suggests to me that the difference between receiving a 3-seed berth and a 4-seed berth is negligible.


This year's 5-seeds: Steelers, Falcons
This year's 6-seeds: Bengals, Lions

Again, we're looking at two similar stories. The takeaway here is that these teams are almost always knocked out before they reach the conference championship.

Remember last year's 6-seeded Packers, though, who turned on their jets down the stretch and won it all. Given the low sample size, and the swings in quality an NFL team often experiences over the course of the season, I'm actually surprised that the statistical verdict comes down on them as hard as it does here.

And just as a team is capable of changing in quality from week to week, the overall postseason climate in the NFL has certainly changed a bit in recent years.


In order to smooth out the numbers a little, collect a more meaningful sample size, and observe general trends rather than single-year aberrations, I added up the numbers in five-year blocks.

With the exception of the unexplained and uninteresting swap in fortune between the 3- and 4-seeds between the late 1990s and early 2000s, the first 15 years of the 12-team postseason era demonstrated remarkable consistency. If you were a 5- or 6-seed, your outlook was roughly as bleak as, say, a 13-seed in the NCAA Basketball Tournament.

Between 2005 and 2009, however, we see those bottom two seeds eat right into the fortunes of the 1- and 2-seeds. Perhaps that's a reflection of the growing parity throughout the league in recent years.

It's important to note that the NFL's postseason, like the NFL's regular season, is a weird statistical animal. There are no 7-game series in which the "truly superior" team will have enough time to weather the swings and demonstrate its superiority. There are 60 minutes of clock, and that's it.

That isn't a slam against the "truly inferior" team, though. Let's take the example of last year's Saints-Seahawks playoff game (which the underdog Seahawks won). If that game were played 10 times over, and I were asked to guess who would win the majority, my money would certainly be on the Saints.

But that is not the game. That's why I'm putting "truly superior" and "truly inferior" teams in quotes, because they're imaginary qualities. By the only standard that mattered, the Seahawks were the better team, full stop. The NFL is a league that tosses the importance of sample size by the wayside.

And in this year's postseason field, all 12 teams are certainly capable of winning by that standard.

Okay, well, fine, not the Giants. But come on, you know what I meant.

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