Why low seeds thrive in the NFL playoffs

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n 2006, the Pittsburgh Steelers became the first sixth-seeded team — the lowest possible seed in the NFL playoffs — to not only make it to, but win the Super Bowl. The Green Bay Packers accomplished the same feat in 2011, three years after the New York Giants won the Lombardi Trophy as a number five seed.

Those unpredicted runs are hardly the exclusion anymore. Indeed, lower seeds are actually routinely advancing deep into the playoffs. Where in years past, top-seeded teams completely outclassed the postseason, the past decade provides seen a surge of upstarts crash the party.

This phenomenon coincides with a tweak the NFL made in the early aughts to the way playoff teams are determined. And though the change itself seemed fairly minor at the time, really had a significant impact on the way the postseason has played out since.

For the 1990-91 season, the NFL expanded the playoffs to 12 teams, with six squads representing each conference — the winners of each conference’s three divisions, plus the next three teams in each conference with the best records. Over the next 11 years, 7 number one seeds won the Extremely Bowl. Of the 22 teams to make the Super Bowl during that span, all but four were seeded either number one or two. Teams that completely outclassed the regular season also dominated the playoffs.

Then in 2002, things changed. The little league expanded each conference from 3 divisions to four to accommodate the expansion Houston Texans. In doing so, the NFL altered the playoff landscape, with four division winners now earning automatic bids, as well as the remaining two berths going to the following best teams in each meeting. This change has led to jumbled playoff matchups and more unpredictable outcomes.

How? For one thing, the change diminished inter-divisional competition, offering weaker teams with an easier way to the postseason. Whereas divisions utilized to include five or six groups apiece, they all now have just four. Fewer teams per division means there’s now a greater chance that each team in a division will be lousy. As a result, teams like the 2010 Seattle Seahawks, who finished the season having a losing record, can still make the playoffs by simply being the best of four subpar teams.

On the other side of the coin, the shrunken outrageous card pool has led to tougher competition for the final postseason places. A five or six seed can now easily be, in terms of winning percentage, significantly better than their seeding indicates.

Mixed, these changes have fostered playoff pools with strong teams on the high and low ends, and weaker department champs in a squishy middle. Oftentimes, this has led to wild card groups taking on higher seeds with worse regular season records. For instance, simply this year, the Seattle Seahawks (11-5) — playing in perhaps the best division in football — maintained only a wild card and number five seed, while the Washington Redskins squeaked out a 10-6 record to win the surprisingly vulnerable NFC East, scoring a number four seed. The Seahawks were the low seed and still favored to win the game — despite the fact that it was performed in Washington. And win the Seahawks did.

Possibly more egregiously, consider 2008, once the Indianapolis Colts finished the year in a impressive 12-4, but slipped towards the AFC’s fifth seed because they did not win their division. That record would have put them in a three-way connect for the NFC’s top seed. However, they had to travel to San Diego for their first-round matchup with the fourth-seeded Chargers, whom ended the season at 8-8 inside a division where no team cracked. 500.

Returning to the 2005-06 Steelers, their Super Bowl victory is less surprising when you consider their record. At 11-5, they will actually tied for the fourth-best record in the AFC. However , the Cincinnati Bengals held the tiebreaker on the Steelers for the division crown, dropping the Steelers into the wild card pool and, ultimately, the lowest seed.

Similarly, the sixth-seeded Packers of 2010-11 technically tied for the conference’s fourth-best record in 10-6, but lost their department and wound up as a six seed — behind that infamous 7-9 Seattle team, no less. As for the 3 years ago Super Bowl-winning Giants, they stated the fifth seed with the conference’s third-best record.

Keep in mind, in the first 11 years of the 12-team playoff format, seven number one seeds and two number twos won the Super Bowl. Because the divisional dilution in 2002, just two top-seeded teams have gained the Super Bowl, while the amount of lower seeds to win — and to even just reach — the Super Bowl has increased dramatically. Including this year’s Ravens, a team seeded fourth or even lower has made the Super Bowl in six of the last eight years.

Certainly, the NFL’s win-or-go-home playoff file format has played a role in this unpredictable pattern of Super Bowl champs. But the move to four divisions, as well as the resulting effect on the postseason panorama, has only added to the apparently random list of Super Bowl winners and losers in the last decade.

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