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NFL’s new playoff format makes the top seed much more valuable, and the numbers prove it

Related: How the new playoff format would have impacted past Patriots teams

Cleveland Browns v New England Patriots
“Get the number one seed.”
Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

On Tuesday, the NFL’s 32 franchises voted to adapt a new postseason format. Beginning this season, 14 instead of 12 teams will advance from the regular season to the playoffs with one extra team added to the equation as a seventh seed in each of the conferences. Accordingly, the league also needed to change the general matchup system of its tournament with seven instead of six teams involved on each side.

In broad terms, those changes look as follows:

  • Only the two conference’s top seeds will enjoy first-round byes moving forward.
  • The second seeds will have to play on wild card weekend, hosting the seventh seeds.

Needless to say that this new system makes the coveted number one seed even more desirable. Not only will it still get to face the worst-seeded team left standing after the wild card round and have home field advantage throughout the playoffs, it will also enters the tournament off with an additional week of rest. The two-seed, meanwhile, no longer has that luxury which in turn makes for a drastic difference between the two.

How big is the change in value between seeds one and two under this new format? According to Chase Stuart of Football Perspective, who simulated 32,000 postseason runs, the top seed now has a 52.5% chance of making the Super Bowl compared to 47.5% under the previous 12-team format. The second seed, on the other hand, saw its odds of winning the conference and making the Super Bowl decrease from 30% all the way down to 18.8%.

In full, the numbers look as follows:

Super Bowl chances per seed (pre-change vs post-change)

Seed Chance of making Super Bowl (pre-change) Chance of making Super Bowl (post-change) Difference
Seed Chance of making Super Bowl (pre-change) Chance of making Super Bowl (post-change) Difference
1 47.5% 52.5% 5.0%
2 30.0% 18.8% -11.2%
3 10.0% 11.2% 1.2%
4 4.9% 6.3% 1.4%
5 5.3% 6.3% 0.9%
6 2.4% 2.9% 0.6%
7 0.0% 2.1% 2.1%
via Chase Stuart

As can be seen, the numbers confirm the belief that adding a seventh team to the equation and in turn stripping the two-seed of its first-round playoff bye week makes the path to the Super Bowl a much easier one for the team that finished the regular season with the best record. Yes, it does make the rest of the field much more open — at least from a statistical perspective — but at the cost of the top seeds being in a much better position as well.

So, what does this mean for the New England Patriots? As we discussed when the idea of expanding the playoff field was first proposed, the Patriots would have had a tougher road to the Super Bowl in numerous years: they would have earned a first-round bye only seven instead of twelve times going back to the divisional realignment of 2002, and would have had to play four postseason games en route to their 2004 and 2018 championships.

That said, the Patriots also would have made the postseason as the seventh seed during the 2009 season — the last year that saw quarterback Tom Brady not start the majority of the team’s games during a season.


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