NFL Playoffs by the Numbers: 28 years of seeding

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David Onyemata, Dak Prescott
(Photo: Stephen Lew)

In 1990, the NFL expanded the playoffs to 12 teams, seeding the teams in each conference 1-6. While the divisional format has changed since then, the playoff bracket has remained the same.

As the Saints sit back and watch the first weekend of playoff action unfold before they find out their Divisional round opponent on Jan. 13 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, let’s look at the trends that have unfolded since this version of the bracket began.

Wild Card Weekend: In the current format, the two division champions with the worst records host the two wild card teams in each conference.

As you would expect, the higher-seeded team wins more often than not, going 71-41 in these matchups. The AFC No. 4 seed has won 18 times, the NFC No. 4 seed has won 19 times and the AFC No. 3 seed has the most success, winning 20 times.

The outlier here is the matchup of the NFC’s Nos. 3 and 6 seeds. In this matchup, each team has won 14 times.

For those who expect form to hold, consider that only four times in 28 years have all four home teams won on Wild Card Weekend. As recently as three years ago, all four road teams won.

Divisional Weekend: In the NFL’s “floating bracket,” the No. 1 seed – like the Saints this year – plays the lowest remaining seed from Wild Card Weekend, while the No. 2 seed meets the highest remaining seed.

While the home teams on the AFC side have been more successful in the Wild Card round, the NFC home teams have had more success in the Divisional round.

Since 1990, AFC No. 1 seeds are 18-10 and No. 2 seeds are 19-9 in their opening playoff game. On the other hand, NFC top seeds are 23-5 and second-seeded teams are 22-6.

The five losses by NFC No. 1 seeds have all occurred since 2007. Interestingly, the Saints’ Divisional round  victory over the Arizona Cardinals to start their run to a Super Bowl XLIV title was the only win by an NFC top seed in a five-year span from 2007-11.

Home team sweeps are unusual in this round as well. After four sweeps in the first nine years of the format, it has only happened twice in the last 19 years.

Conference Championship: You may recall that the Saints’ matchup with the Indianapolis Colts in February 2010 was the first meeting of top seeds in a Super Bowl in 16 years. Saints-Colts has started a bit of a trend, however.

In the last five years, nine of the 10 top-seeded teams reached the Super Bowl and all 10 home teams won conference championship games.

The only break from that first trend was the 2016 Dallas Cowboys, who lost their Divisional game to the Green Bay Packers. The Packers then traveled and lost to the No. 2 seed Atlanta Falcons.

As the top seed in the NFC, the Saints would host the NFC Championship if they win their Divisional game. The last road team to win the NFC Championship was the 2012 San Francisco 49ers (at Atlanta).

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Lenny Vangilder


Lenny was involved in college athletics starting in the early 1980s, when he began working Tulane University sporting events while still attending Archbishop Rummel High School. He continued that relationship as a student at Loyola University, where he graduated in 1987. For the next 11 years, Vangilder worked in the sports information offices at Southwestern Louisiana (now UL-Lafayette) and Tulane;…

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