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30 Dec 2003

Guest Column: Know Your Playoff History

Guest Column by Richie Wohlers

So the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots have the #1 seeds in the NFL playoffs this year. You think it's a no-brainer that they are going to meet in the Super Bowl? Think again.

The current NFL playoff system, six teams from each conference, began following the 1990 season. That's 13 seasons. In those 13 playoff seasons, the #1 seed from both conferences have met in the Super Bowl two times. In 1991 the #1 seeded Buffalo Bills (13-3) faced the #1 seeded Washington Redskins (14-2) and in 1993 the #1 seeded Buffalo Bills (12-4) played the #1 seeded Dallas Cowboys (12-4). In 1993, the Bills were the #1 seed only by a tie-breaker over the Houston Oilers (who lost their first round game at home to the Kansas City Chiefs).

OK, so it's pretty rare for both #1 seeds to make it to the Super Bowl. How often does at least one of the #1 seeds get there? It's been much more common in the NFC. In 13 seasons, the NFC #1 seed has made the Super Bowl eight times, and the other five times the #2 seed was the NFC representative. The last NFC #1 to get there was the St. Louis Rams in 2001.

The AFC has been much more wild over the past 13 seasons. Only five times has the #1 seed made the Super Bowl. Three of those were the Buffalo Bills in the early 90's. The other two were the Denver Broncos in 1998 and the Oakland Raiders in 2002. If the #1 seed didn't make it, the #2 only made it four times. Only one AFC #3 has made it, the 1999 Tennessee Titans. THREE AFC #4 seeds have made the Super Bowl: Buffalo in 1992, Denver in 1997 and the Baltimore Ravens in 2000.

It turns out those three AFC #4 seeds to make the Super Bowl aren't necessarily all that shocking after all. Yes, they had to win two road games apiece, but they were all good regular season teams who just happened to lose their division to even better regular season teams.

The '92 Bills lost the AFC East to the Miami Dolphins despite identical 11-5 records. In fact, all three division winners that year had 11-5 records.

The '97 Broncos went 12-4, but that was only good enough for second in the AFC West, as the Kansas City Chiefs notched a 13-3 mark. No other AFC team was better than 11-5 that year.

The 2000 Baltimore Ravens were just like the Broncos. They went 12-4, but lost out to a Tennessee Titan team that went 13-3 in the AFC Central. Only the Oakland Raiders at 12-4 could match Baltimore's record.

The late rounds of the NFC playoffs have gone according to form quite often. In 13 seasons, the NFC Championship game pitted #1 vs #2 11 times. The only #3 seeds to sneak in were the 2001 Philadelphia Eagles and the 1995 Green Bay Packers.

But the EARLY rounds of the NFC playoffs have been a completely different story. Seven times the #6 seed has gone on the road and defeated the #3 seed, while the #4 seed has won their home game every year since 1993.

In the AFC, the only #6 seed to win a playoff game was the 1999 Miami Dolphins, when they went to Seattle and won a road playoff game for the first time since 1972. Three #5 seeds have managed to pull off the upset in round one.

Now we see how various seeds have fared. How about a look at the number of upsets each season?

I'm counting any road team winning as an upset. Every NFL playoff season since 1990 has had at least 2 road teams post victories in the playoffs (not counting Super Bowls), and it has happened eight times. The most ever was 1992, when 5 road teams won games. Four times in the AFC has the home team won every game, and the NFC home teams have pulled the trick only three times.

What does all this mean for 2003?

The common factor amongst most of the "upsets" is not the fact that a poorer team won the game. The NFL's tiebreaking procedures and seeding of division winners higher than wild cards is what creates most of the "upsets."

What team stands out in 2003? In the AFC, it's the Tennessee Titans. They finished 12-4 (tied for first in their division), but must go on the road to play the "higher ranked" Baltimore Ravens at 10-6. In the NFC, it would be the "lower ranked" Seattle Seahawks who must play at Green Bay, despite both teams having identical 10-6 marks. If Seattle knew how to win on the road, and Brett Favre didn't have the football gods smiling on him, this game would be ripe for an upset.

Other than that, most of the playoff seedings match pretty closely to the teams' final 2003 records. Using that information, and combining it with 13 years of historical information, you can expect that there might be about 3 road victories out of the 10 NFL playoff games (not counting the Super Bowl) this season. And, if there was one team that should not surprise you to go deep into the playoffs it would be the #5 seeded Tennessee Titans, who only missed being a #3 seed due to tiebreakers.

Comments?  Make them in our discussion thread, or contact Richie at richiewohlers @ hotmail.com.  If you are interested in writing a guest column,something that takes a new angle on the NFL, please email us your idea at info@footballoutsiders.com

Posted by: admin on 30 Dec 2003