The New England Patriots will enter the NFL’s playoffs on Sunday: as the second seed in the AFC, they will host the highest remaining wild card team in the conference. Home field will not be the only advantage the Patriots will have against the Los Angeles Chargers, though, as the team is also coming off a week of rest — nothing unusual for New England: for the ninth year in a row, Bill Belichick’s club has earned a first-round bye.
Just like the other three teams hosting a game this weekend, the Patriots are favored to win their matchup both by the bookmakers and by the folks over at FiveThirtyEight.com. But as we all very well know — just think back to January 2011 — the odds are one thing, actually winning a game is another. With that in mind, let’s expand on an article colleague Rich Hill published one year ago: How often do top-two seeds lose their first playoff game?
Rich analyzed 2007-2016, and in order to offer some new information we go beyond that time frame and will include both last year as well as the six years between the league’s divisional realignment in 2002 and the 2007 starting point. And what we can see is that teams coming out of a first-round bye do not lose often in the divisional round, but upsets do still happen rather regularly.
Over the 16-year timeframe, teams coming off a bye are 43-21 which makes for a winning percentage of 67.2%. The New England Patriots have been part of such an upset twice since 2002: in 2006, they went on the road as the fourth seed in the AFC and defeated the top-seeded then-San Diego Chargers 24-21. Four years later, they were thrown out of the tournament as the number one seed when the sixth-ranked New York Jets came into Foxboro to win 28-21.
The ‘06 Patriots and ‘10 Jets are two of 21 teams, to register road wins on divisional round weekend. And of the 21, six went on to go all the way and win the Super Bowl: between 2005 and 2007, three straight wild card teams — the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Indianapolis Colts, and the New York Giants — went on to win the Super Bowl, something that also happened from 2010 to 2012 when the Green Bay Packers, the Giants again, and the Baltimore Ravens captured the title without having to enjoy a first-round bye.
What has never happened, is that all four of the top-seeded teams lost. The worst round for them came in 2008, when three of the four games ended with upset victories: the six-seeds — Baltimore and Philadelphia — both won against their conference’s top seeds, while number four Arizona went on the road to beat number two Carolina. Only the eventual Super Bowl champions from Pittsburgh, the AFC’s second seed that year, survived.
Generally speaking, it is far more likely that one or two teams will lose coming out of their first-round bye. So the big question is, who will it be in 2018? When looking at the odds, the two AFC teams are the most likely to get upset this weekend. While both the Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs are favored to advance, their games are closer than that of their NFC counterparts: New England is favored by 4 points, Kansas City by 5.
The Los Angeles Rams are 7-point favorites over the Dallas Cowboys, for comparison, while the New Orleans Saints are favored to win by 8 against the reigning world champion Philadelphia Eagles. While upsets could of course happen in the NFC as well, the more likely scenario — at least when judged by the odds — is that one of the AFC’s top two seeds will go home after the divisional round.
That is, if an upset happens. Four times over the past 16 seasons a perfect divisional round took place for the home teams: in 2002, 2004 and 2015 all four squads coming off a bye used it to deliver a win in their respective playoff openers. Two times, in ‘04 and ‘15, the Patriots were part of the victorious group of teams. Will they be again this year? We will see in two days. But just don’t be surprised if an upset has already taken place by then.