For better or worse, each of the NFL’s 32 teams opens every season with the same goal in mind: win the Super Bowl. This is obviously a hilarious longshot for at least half of the league in any given season, but the NFL’s steady parity gives us several teams every year that massively exceed expectations.
While winning the Super Bowl is the ultimate goal, teams also have to take smaller steps along the way to help achieve said goal. The obvious first step is to win as many regular season games as possible.
Achieving one of the top-2 seeds in either conference is desirable for a couple of reasons. First off, it ensures that each of those 4 teams will enjoy at least 1 home playoff game. Secondly, nabbing the No. 1 or No. 2 seed means you’ll get a bye week while the 8 “lesser” playoff teams are forced to do battle in the Wild Card round.
However, earning a first-round bye certainly does not ensure a trip to the Super Bowl, let alone a Super Bowl title. Could having the bye week actually hurt a team’s chances of advancing deep into the playoffs?
Football is a brutal sport, as we are reminded time and time again every season. In order for teams to operate at peak efficiency, they need as many key players healthy as possible. It’s no panacea, but rest and relaxation can go a long way toward making sure players are fit and ready to roll come gameday.
Of course, having days off doesn’t always mean things are going to run smoothly once the action resumes. Sometimes, players need to take some time in order to shake off whatever rust may have set in during the time off. Obviously, rust can be a major hindrance.
The extra week of rest gives the players a much-needed chance to recharge the batteries, but we’ve seen teams coming off a bye week come out flat in the past. In 2017 alone, we had a pair of top-2 seeds lose in the Divisional Round. The Kansas City Chiefs were beaten on their home field by the Pittsburgh Steelers, while the Dallas Cowboys fell at the hands of the Green Bay Packers despite entering the playoffs as the top seed in the NFC.
Most Favorites Still Win
While teams that earn a first-round bye aren’t infallible, most still wind up advancing to the conference championship round. Home field advantage plays a huge role, of course. It also helps to be playing against a team that just played another game the previous week.
The NFL is famous for its parity. Every year, there are a handful of playoff teams that didn’t qualify for the tournament the season prior. That said, favorites are favorites for a reason. You will see the occasional playoff upset every now and then, but by the time we reach the conference championship games, most Cinderella stories have already been extinguished.
It’s rare to see a Wild Card team advance deep into the playoffs. There have only been 10 teams in the history of the league to make the playoffs as a Wild Card and go on to advance to the Super Bowl. However, those that do get that far actually have a pretty favorable track record. Of the 10 Wild Card Super Bowl participants, 6 went on to win it all.
Playing a game the week prior is also a potential disadvantage for health purposes. Football is a brutal game, and we see players get injured constantly. It’s an unfortunate reality of the sport. So, obviously the team that did not have to play a game the week prior has an advantage from that perspective. They aren’t risking one of their key players being injured, while their prospective opponent may have lost a player or two to injury during the Wild Card round.
Non-Wild Card Winners
While most don’t necessarily go on to win the Super Bowl, there have still been plenty of non-Wild Card teams that played on Wild Card Weekend go on to win it all in recent years. From 2010 through 2014, 3 of the 5 teams to win the Super Bowl did play on the first weekend of the playoffs. Only the 2014 Seahawks and 2010 Saints had a first-round bye in that span.
The 3 Super Bowl champs from 2015 through 2017 (Patriots, Broncos, Patriots), meanwhile, were teams that had a first-round bye. Having a bye isn’t necessarily crucial to eventually winning the title, but it also isn’t a death knell to have to play a game on Wild Card Weekend.
There is no data to suggest that having a bye week in the Wild Card round of the NFl playoffs is actually harmful. More often than not, the cream rises to the top. There’s a reason the AFC in particular has been so predictable for the last couple of decades. The Patriots, Steelers, Broncos, Colts and Ravens have pretty consistently been the conference’s elite teams. It’s no coincidence that we haven’t had an AFC representative in the Super Bowl other than those 5 teams since the 2003 Raiders.
Some teams get hot at the right time, while others are so consistently great that it doesn’t matter whether they had a playoff bye or not. The topic of whether momentum actually exists in sports can be debated, but there is zero reason to believe that having an off week actively hinders a team’s chances at reaching its ultimate goals.
The NFL realigned into 8 divisions with 4 teams apiece when the Houston Texans joined the league in 2002. Since then, just 8 teams that played in the Wild Card round wound up advancing to the Super Bowl. They were the 03 Panthers, 05 Steelers, 06 Colts, 07 and 11 Giants, 08 Cardinals, 10 Packers and 12 Ravens. 6 of those teams won it all.
Once the NFL expanded to 32 teams, 2 teams in each conference received a first-round bye. Previously, there was only 1 team in each conference that would get a bye until the divisional round. From 1990-02, the league had 6 divisions, yet 12 teams still made the playoffs. That means that there were a trio of Wild Card entrants in each conference.
During that 13-year span, however, just 4 teams advanced through the Wild Card round and eventually made it to the Super Bowl, and all of them came out of the AFC. Those were the 92 Bills, 99 Titans, 97 Broncos and 00 Ravens. The Broncos and Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl.
Having a bye also means you get at least one playoff home game, which is massive in the NFL. In football, home teams have won playoff games 64.7 percent of the time, which is the highest mark among home teams in any of the 4 major American professional sports. In fact, that winning percentage of 64.7 percent is actually nearly 5 percent higher than the regular season winning percentage of home teams in football (57.1).
In conclusion, having a postseason bye is clearly beneficial. Having to play one fewer game along the path to the Super Bowl is a tremendous advantage. Getting the opportunity to play your games at home is an even larger advantage, as evidenced by the aforementioned numbers.
Take a look at how the odds shake out for the ongoing 2018 postseason. Wild Card weekend was something of an anomaly this year, as 2 of the 4 teams to advance through the first round were actually on the road (Atlanta, Tennessee).
Still, the odds still favor the higher seeds entering the divisional round. The Patriots, the top-seeded AFC team, are the favorites to win it all at +175. They’re followed by the Vikings (+350, No. 2 seed in NFC) and the Steelers (+550, No. 2 seed in AFC). This year’s top seed in the NFC, the Philadelphia Eagles, are way down at +1200. Despite having home field throughout the NFC playoffs, few believe in the Eagles after the team lost starting quarterback Carson Wentz to an ACL tear late in the season. As a result, the Saints (No. 3 seed) are the next most likely NFC club to win Super Bowl 52 (+600).
Having a first-round bye may be less important than home-field advantage from a statistical perspective, but there is still far more evidence that it helps more than it hurts.