Is Being The Top Seed Actually a Disadvantage in the NFL Playoffs?


This past weekend was one to remember in the NFL, as there were three walk-off field goals and an overtime finish to round out the Divisional round. Overall, the magic of the NFL postseason encapsulates why we love sports.

However, when we start digging into the details, is it time to question some of the perceived advantages in the format of the NFL playoffs after three of the four home teams bid farewell? More specifically, both top-seeded teams in each conference were sent packing in their first playoff game this season.

Granted, this hasn’t happened since 2010 when the New York Jets defeated the New England Patriots 28-21, while the Green Bay Packers silenced the Atlanta Falcons, 48-21. When we consult the statistics and examine how many number top-seeded teams have exited at this stage since the seeding format was introduced in 1975, it sits at 25%. Those teams didn’t just fail to reach the Super Bowl or Conference Championship, but fell at their first hurdle. 

With all this said, is it time to reward the top-seeded teams from each conference with the option to play during Wild Card weekend? It may be a controversial idea, but only eight top-seeded teams have won the Super Bowl over the past 19 years.

The Packers finished with a 13-4 record this past season en route to earning a bye week in the NFC playoff picture. On the back of five consecutive wins, Green Bay built their momentum all the way to the top of the conference. Critics will point out the need for players to gather themselves and heal from ongoing injuries. However, something gets lost in the fog of preparation. Does the resting effect the chemistry to some degree? Perhaps the pressure itself plays a role while a team awaits their next opponent.

For the Tennessee Titans, they looked set for a dynamic run through the playoffs. Star running back Derrick Henry had been missing due to an ankle injury on October 31st against the Indianapolis Colts, but the team had turned in an impressive 5-2 record to secure top spot in the AFC and Henry had been activated from the IR for a potential Super Bowl run. However, it has been Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs that continued their blistering form, winning nine of their last ten games and now sit in the AFC Championship, despite playing an extra game during the Wild Card round.

The other advantage of being the top seed is home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Historically, home crowds have roared their team to victory and present hostile environments for any visiting teams. The yearly win percentage from 1970-2019 has been an impressive .576 for home teams. COVID and limited crowds impacted results in 2020, but during this season with a return to frenzied atmospheres in the stands, the winning percentage sits at a disappointing .486. The Packers certainly used their home field to their advantage during the regular season this season, posting an 8-0 record. However, when it comes to the January playoff game in Lambeau, one could argue that the conditions make it difficult for players to perform to their maximum ability and levels out the competition for visiting teams.

If you’re winning and sizing up a tilt for the Championship, you want to keep playing. If you’ve been handed the ticket as the top-seeded team in the conference, you may want to re-evaluate your team’s chances at a Super Bowl until drastic changes are eventually made by the NFL.

Matthew Partridge

Matthew Partridge has a wealth of sports writing, producing and directing experience. Previously a sports researcher at Sky Sports, he then moved into live broadcasts and on-air promotions. He resides in the UK and is now a media officer for a professional English soccer team.

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