Podcast: The Chiefs and Other Back-to-Back Conference Championship Appearances
In this week's edition of It's Always Sunny in Chiefs Kingdom, Austin and I took a trip down memory lane to the penultimate game of the 2019 season. A 35-24 victory over the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Championship Game sent the Kansas City Chiefs to their first Super Bowl appearance in fifty years. After the win down in Miami, and the parade, and the trophy, and the offseason moves, and locking up Patrick Mahomes for the next millennium, many Chiefs fans are now looking forward to the title defense.
Just how likely is it, based on the performance of past teams who made back-to-back conference championship game appearances, that they'll get there for a third consecutive year?
In the 54 seasons of the Super Bowl era, there have been, mathematically, 216 teams to appear in a conference championship game. Out of those 216 teams, 71 of them were there for the second consecutive season, coming out to 32.9% of all participants.
This rate seems appropriate when taking into account the difficulty of navigating an NFL season and ending up among the final four teams, and also the likelihood of a championship-contending team reaching that milestone more than one time. A dominant team like the 2011-2018 New England Patriots made the conference championship game a staggering eight consecutive seasons. That run would account for seven of the back-to-back appearances in NFL history. You can see how dynasty-like runs help to boost this appearance rate.
The era in which these feats were accomplished should also be taken into consideration. The NFL has expanded teams and playoff formats over the years, and the difficulty of reaching back-to-back conference title games under the current playoff format is evident. In the 24 seasons from 1966-1989, a conference championship team was making a second-consecutive appearance 39 times. Out of 96 total teams, that's 40.6% of the time. After expanding to 12 playoff teams in 1990, that rate drops to 32 teams out of 120, or 26.7% of the time.
To further complicate matters, the NFL has once again changed the playoff format to now include two more wildcard participants and remove the second-seed bye week. I would expect the 26.7% championship game repeat appearance rate to go down further as more teams are thrown into the playoff mix.
A curious thing happens when the criteria changes from two appearances in a row to three appearances in a row. While the pre-1992 rate drops all the way down from 40.6% to 13.5%, the post-1992 rate drops from 26.7% to 12.5%, making the likelihood of a recent team getting to three conference championship games in a row basically equivalent to the pre-wildcard era. I thought at first that might just be New England messing up the sample size, but the Patriots only account for 6 of the 15 occurrences in the modern era.
The Buffalo Bills, in their tragic four-straight Super Bowl defeats in the '90s, accounted for two of the modern three-consecutive conference title game appearances. The Dallas Cowboys, in the same era, also did it twice. The San Francisco 49ers did it once in that era, and once from 2011-2013. The Green Bay Packers made three straight NFC title games in 1995-1997. Andy Reid's Philadelphia Eagles accomplished the feat twice in the early 2000s, and then there are New England's six runs of three-peats from 2011-2018.
What does all of this mean for the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs? Between the new playoff format, the COVID-19 complications, and the randomness of the NFL... maybe not much. Historical rates show that they did something that only 26.7% of modern-playoff-era teams were able to accomplish by making it to back-to-back conference title games and that they will try to do what only 12.5% of teams were able to get done by making it three in a row.
Chiefs fans probably feel that, with their 500 million dollar man leading the way, they'll gladly take those odds.