Now that December has dawned, the NFL playoff races will rightly dominate the league’s landscape over the last five weeks of the regular season, as the push for positioning in January begins in earnest. But where things really get interesting, with the stakes the highest, is the top third of the 12-team playoff bracket. The most telling race within the race remains the fight for the four first-round byes, because history says they’re by far still the strongest indicator of who will wind up playing for that shiny silver trophy in the NFL’s golden anniversary Super Bowl in Santa Clara.
At the moment, that means things are looking the most Super for Carolina (11–0, No. 1 seed) and Arizona (9–2, No. 2) in the NFC, and New England (10–1, No. 1) and Cincinnati (9–2, No. 2) in the AFC. The other most legitimate contenders for a bye are Denver (9–2, No. 3) in the AFC and Minnesota (8–3, No. 3) in the NFC, both of whom will have head-to-head opportunities in the coming weeks to leap-frog the No. 2 seed. Also deserving of a mention is Green Bay (7–4, No. 5), which still has games with both Arizona and Minnesota and thus could factor into the chase for the NFC’s No. 2 seed.
In the season the NFL is celebrating all things 50, it’s instructive to note that we’ve now had 25 years of the league’s 12-team playoff format (1990-2014), giving us a nice round 50 Super Bowl-qualifying clubs in that span. Here are some of the statistical highlights about the importance of seeding in trying to get to and win the big game:
• Thirty-eight of those 50 Super Bowl berths—or a whopping 76%—have gone to a team that earned a first-round bye (i.e. one of the top two seeds). That percentage has roughly held true the past six seasons, when nine of the past 12 Super Bowl trips have been made by a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.
• Seventeen of the 25 Super Bowl winners (68%) from 1990 to 2014 have been either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, underlining the groundbreaking news that it’s easier to win three postseason games than four. How’s that for new math?
• More than half of those 25 Super Bowls (13 of 25, 52%) have featured matchups between teams that both enjoyed first-round byes. We’ve had five No. 1 versus No. 1 Super Bowl matchups, including three in the past six years, and eight No. 1 versus No. 2 pairings.
• In all 25 seasons, at least one of the Super Bowl teams had a first-round bye. To repeat, the Super Bowls that followed every season from 1990 to 2014 all included at least one No. 1 or No. 2 seed. So a first-round bye in January is a pretty valuable thing indeed.
Before we get into a team-by-team look at the seven most viable candidates to earn a first-round bye this season, here are some other interesting nuggets to bear in mind as the playoff races unfold in the coming weeks:
Sorry to break it to you, Chiefs and Packers fans, but you really don’t want to be a fifth seed. Only one No. 5 has ever even made it to the Super Bowl, so history says you’re staring at a 2% chance to reach Santa Clara. On the plus side, the only fifth seed to reach the Super Bowl was the 2007 Giants, and they won it in spectacular style, fashioning arguably the biggest upset in pro football history in defeating the 18–0 Patriots.
The No. 3 and No. 6 seeds aren’t exactly Super Bowl launching pads either. Each slot only accounts for two of the 50 Super Bowl teams, giving each a 4% success ratio. The only No. 3 seed to win a ring was the 2006 Colts, and the 2005 Steelers and 2010 Packers were both long-shot winners from the No. 6 spot. The No. 3’s are currently Denver and Minnesota, with Houston and Seattle (both 6–5) in possession of the No. 6 slots.
If you can’t earn a first-round bye, No. 4 is where you want to be, even if it’s currently difficult to see a Super Bowl in the near future for Indianapolis (6–5) and/or Washington (5–6), who hail from the two weakest divisions in the NFL. Seven of the 12 non-bye seeds to reach the Super Bowl since 1990 were No. 4 seeds, the most recent being the 2012 champion Ravens. And the 2011 Giants won it all from that same slot. In fact, eight of the 12 non-bye seeds to reach the Super Bowl won a ring (66.6%), including six of the last seven, with only the 2008 No. 4-seeded Cardinals narrowly missing out.
Lastly, there are seemingly cyclical swings to everything in the NFL, and the latest trend is back to the No. 1 seeds being extremely advantageous. The league went 15 seasons (1994–2008) without having a No. 1 vs. No. 1 Super Bowl, but we’ve had three in the past six years, including each of the past two (Seattle-Denver in 2013, Seattle-New England last year). Does that portend a Carolina-New England Super Bowl on the way? Predicting just that for teams with a combined record of 21-1 isn’t exactly a feat of bravery.
Here’s a look at the road ahead for the seven top contenders for the NFL’s four first-round byes:
No. 1 Carolina—The Panthers have never been a No. 1 seed in their 21-season existence, but it’s looking pretty good this year. They hold a two-game lead over Arizona and finish with four division games in the last five weeks, facing the slumping Falcons twice, as well as the Saints and Bucs once. Only a Week 15 trip to the Giants will bring a chance for a true cold-weather game, but New York does have that track record for spoiling perfect seasons, or at least coming dangerously close.
No. 2 Arizona—The Cardinals own a one-game lead over Minnesota for the No. 2 seed but have plenty of heavy lifting left to do to secure a first-round bye. Arizona plays host to the Vikings on the Thursday night of Week 14 and then faces tough back-to-back home games to finish the season against Green Bay and Seattle. That’s three of the five other current NFC playoff teams visiting Glendale in a four-week span. And don’t forget, the Cardinals held the NFC’s top seed at 9–2 through 11 games last year, but with Carson Palmer injured they wound up 11–5 and in the No. 5 spot, going one-and-done in the first round against fourth-seeded Carolina.
No. 3 Minnesota—Like the Cardinals, the Vikings still must face multiple NFC playoff contenders, with games against Seattle at home this week, at Arizona next week, and at Green Bay in Week 17. And a Week 16 home game with the Giants could bring another challenge, especially if New York remains alive in the sad-sack NFC East. Even a Week 15 home date with the improved Bears won’t be a gimme. The Vikings have already lost to the Packers, so they would have to build at least a two-game lead over Green Bay for their Week 17 trip to Lambeau to not be a showdown for the NFC North title.
No. 5 Green Bay—The Packers, losers of four of five, could still salvage the No. 2 seed if they get some help. The scenario that would help them the most has Minnesota knocking off Arizona next week, Green Bay beating the Cardinals themselves on the road in Week 16, then finishing the job with a win at home against the Vikings in Week 17. That could all combine to produce a 12-4, No. 2 seed finish as the NFC North champs.
No. 1 New England—The Patriots’ loss at Denver opened the door for a real race for the AFC’s top seed, because now New England’s margin for error is essentially gone. The Patriots lead the Bengals and the Broncos by one game in the bid for homefield advantage, but Denver holds the head-to-head tiebreaker should those two teams finish even. The Pats should win their remaining home games against Philadelphia and Tennessee comfortably, but road trips to Houston in Week 14, the Jets in Week 16 and even Miami in Week 17 aren’t automatic Ws. The Texans and Jets can play some superb defense, and the Dolphins always seem to give the Patriots a game in South Florida, beating them there in 2013 and 2014. The Patriots are gunning for their sixth first-round bye in a row.
No. 2 Cincinnati—The Bengals broke their two-game losing streak last week at home against the out-matched Rams, and there’s a scenario in which Cincinnati can clinch a playoff berth this week. But we all know the Bengals want bigger things than just another playoff berth this season. No team in the NFL has more motivation to nail down a first-round bye and a home game in the divisional round, given that Cincinnati has lost on wild-card weekend in four consecutive years. A bye would be a rare victory of sorts for Marvin Lewis and his players. The Bengals have two very challenging games remaining: home against Pittsburgh in Week 14 and at Denver on the Monday night of Week 16. Given that they are tied with the Broncos at 9–2 but hold the No. 2 seed edge by virtue of a better AFC record (7–1 to 5–2), Denver is the team Cincinnati has to beat. The Bengals would love the following trifecta: They beat Pittsburgh, the Steelers knock off the Broncos, and then they win in Denver the next week. Hello, first-round bye.
No. 3 Denver—The Broncos will be expected to take care of their remaining three division games, two against San Diego and a home date with Oakland. That means their bid for a first-round bye will come down to Weeks 15 and 16: at Pittsburgh and home against Cincinnati. If Denver can get the win against the Steelers, then the showdown with the Bengals will essentially be for the No. 2 seed. The Broncos would love the inverse of the scenario that would help the Bengals: A Steelers upset of the Bengals in Week 14, followed by Denver wins over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. And wrap your mind around this tidbit: If the Patriots and Broncos are the top two seeds in the AFC in some order, it would mark the fourth consecutive season that has occurred. It was Denver No. 1 and New England No. 2 in 2012–13, and New England No. 1 and Denver No. 2 last year.