In Today's NFL, Why Do We Still Expect To See No. 1 Seeds Prevail?

Eric JAnalyst IJune 18, 2009

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 30:  The Vince Lombardi Trophy is seen during the NFC Head coach press conference prior to Super Bowl XLIII held at the Tampa Convention Center on January 30, 2009 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Since 2000, the NFL has had nine Super Bowl champions and eighteen number one seeds from the two conferences. However, we’ve only seen one number one seed win a Super Bowl in that time. 

Even that lone number one seed, the 2003 New England Patriots, wasn’t really supposed to be a number one seed if you ask me; that was supposed to be the Kansas City Chiefs.

However, after starting the season 9-0, the Chiefs imploded and went 4-3 the rest of the way, including dropping two games in the final four games of the regular season.

Instead of flopping in the postseason like a good little number one seed should, the Chiefs got started early and thus allowed the Patriots to become the only exception to an otherwise alarming trend this decade.

The probability of only one number one seed winning the Super Bowl in nine seasons is not exactly large. 

Even if we give every team in the playoffs equal odds, there is only about a 28 percent chance of seeing so few number one seeds come out on top if we were picking Super Bowl champions with a roulette wheel. 

Factor in better odds for the number one seeds and lesser odds for the wild card teams, and you can imagine how dramatically the probability drops.

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What makes this trend even more alarming is how we have seen three teams come out of the wild card round and win four consecutive playoff games to raise the Lombardi Trophy in just the past four seasons.

What’s even more alarming still is the realization that until Ben Roethlisberger threw a dagger in the collective heart of the state of Arizona, it was about to be four teams in four consecutive seasons.

Even if we gave the Steelers, Colts, and Giants even odds for winning each of their individual playoff games, the probability of winning four consecutive playoff games would be just over six percent.

Maybe these teams were simply God’s chosen teams. Maybe they were the anointed ones. 

But to see a specific handpicked team in each season win four consecutive playoff games for three seasons in a row?  Even with those even odds in each individual game, we are talking about a probability of about 0.02 percent.

If the Cardinals had beaten the Steelers and made it four consecutive seasons, then we’d be talking about a probability of about 0.0015 percent, assuming even odds in each individual game.

Maybe God simply took an ill-timed bathroom break?

Even so, just seeing the Cardinals win the three consecutive playoff games it took to put them in that Super Bowl in the first place combined with three consecutive Super Bowl Champions in the three seasons prior represents a probability of a mere 0.003 percent.

Now imagine the probability if we gave the anointed teams less than even odds to properly reflect their underdog status.

Even if we gave these anointed teams great odds of winning each game—let’s say 75 percent—we’d still be looking at the improbable. We’d still be talking about less than a 32 percent chance in any given year and not much more than a 1 percent chance of seeing these teams win the Super Bowl three times in a row and make it to a fourth Super Bowl.

However, if we are simply talking about any one of the eight teams in the wild card round each year winning the Super Bowl, the odds will increase dramatically.

Knowing that four teams will always remain after dust settles in the wild card round and merely expecting any one of them to win the Super Bowl makes the outcome far more likely.

In fact, if we assume that each of the remaining eight playoff teams has an equal chance of winning the Super Bowl, then we are talking about a 50 percent chance of seeing one of the four wild card weekend survivors win the Super Bowl since they collectively represent half of the remaining teams.

It’s clear to me that something other than extraordinary improbability is at work here, and I don’t think it is divine influence. Certainly the NFL has been working diligently to train us to expect the unexpected.

So in today’s NFL, why do we still expect to see number one seeds prevail?

Given the prior three seasons, was it really all that shocking that the Cardinals made it to the Super Bowl or was it almost more surprising that they failed to beat a team with a first round bye in that Super Bowl and complete their “improbable” run?

Is it really fair for us to talk about heavily-favored number one seeds choking in the playoffs the way I described the should-have-been 2003 Chiefs earlier in this article?

Should we be relying on regular season records so heavily in making our postseason predictions? Is the best team in the league in any given season the team with the best regular season record? The team that wins the Super Bowl?  Or not necessarily either?

Does the best team in the league prove itself in the playoffs, or are we tuning in to watch a very expensive production of a crap shoot?

Not knowing what to expect, but expecting the unknown, certainly does seem to boost broadcast ratings.

At what point do prospective number one seeds start throwing games? Well, it didn’t seem to work for the 2003 Chiefs; but did it work for the 2006 Colts?

After all, they started the 2006 season 9-0 before limping into the playoffs with a 3-4 record to finish the regular season. 

Maybe the 2003 Chiefs should have lost one more game?


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