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The NFL Playoffs Weren’t Designed to Produce Upsets

For the second time in four years, the 1- and 2-seeds will square off in both conference championship games. No other sport’s postseason produces this level of chalk, but the NFL wouldn’t want it any other way.

A football scoreboard showing the home team ahead 47-6 Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There is a reason January Madness is not a thing. The NFL playoffs are not built for stunning upsets or incredible finishes. They are designed to get the best two teams in the NFL to the Super Bowl, and they do a great job.

I’ve mentioned offhand over the past few months that the NFL has the worst postseason of any major sport, and this upsets people. I get it. The NFL is our favorite sport, and the playoffs are the best games between the best teams, and the best games should be the most exciting. There are so many moments we remember: The 2017 playoffs brought us the Minnesota Miracle; Aaron Rodgers made magic happen in the 2016 playoffs at Dallas and connected on multiple Hail Marys the year before against Arizona; Brandon Bostick botched that onside kick in the 2014 playoffs; Richard Sherman tipped that pass and called Michael Crabtree a sorry receiver in the 2013 playoffs. The 2019 playoffs have already delivered the Double Doink.

But when we look at the big picture, it’s obvious that the postseason doesn’t quite match our perception. Some facts:

• Over the last five seasons, all 10 conference championship games have been won by the home team: Nine by 1-seeds, and one by the 2-seeded Falcons in the 2016 season. As a result, four of the last five Super Bowls have been between a 1-seed and a 1-seed, and the fifth was between a 1-seed and a 2-seed.

• The last major non-chalk occurrence came in the 2012 season, when the 4-seeded Ravens made the Super Bowl. They remain the last team to make the Super Bowl after playing in the first round of the playoffs instead. They are also the last team to make the Super Bowl after having to play a road playoff game in the postseason, although that could change should either road team win a champ game on Sunday. Let’s just say this again since we’re clear: No team has made the Super Bowl after playing in the first round of the playoffs in six years. No team has made the Super Bowl after playing a postseason road game in six years.

Both conference championship games this year are between the 1-seed and the 2-seed. This is the second time in just four years that the final four teams have been the top-seeded four teams.

You’d think that the average postseason game would be significantly more competitive than the average regular-season game, because in the regular season, elite teams like the Chiefs and Patriots get to play bottom-feeders like the Raiders and Jets. But that’s not quite the case: In the 10 postseasons before this one (not including the neutral-site Super Bowl), the average margin of victory has been 11.6 points per game. That’s higher than the average margin of victory for three of the last four regular seasons, and nearly a full point higher than the average margin of victory this year (10.8 points per game.)

• Out of the 256 games this NFL season, 136 were one-possession games (meaning they were decided by fewer than eight points). That’s 53 percent. Over the same stretch we just looked at (the most recent 10 postseasons, not including the Super Bowl), just 49 percent of games have been decided by one possession. This season, 73 of 256 games were decided by three points or fewer (28 percent) while just 18 percent of postseason games over the last 10 postseasons have been decided by three points or fewer.

No other sport’s postseason comes close to this level of chalk. The general consensus is that the NBA playoffs are too dull because the Cavaliers and Warriors have played in four straight finals, but that’s not a structural problem. Only one of those meetings came when both teams were 1-seeds. (Last year, Golden State was a 2-seed and the Cavaliers were a 4-seed.) There hasn’t been a 1-vs.-1 matchup in the World Series since the Red Sox and Cardinals played in 2013. The Stanley Cup hasn’t been won by the team with the best record in its conference since the Blackhawks in 2013. Despite featuring just four teams playing two games each, the 1-seed has never won the College Football Playoff.

This isn’t a coincidence. The NFL seems to have done this by choice, thanks to a format unlike any other in sports. And while these results have been bad, some more important results are why they’ll keep it.

The NFL’s postseason is weird. The top two teams in each conference get a first-round bye, while the other eight teams must play in the wild-card round. The closest comparison is the MLB forcing four of its 10 playoff teams to participate in a wild-card game, but the advantage has to be larger for the NFL teams—the physical toll of an additional football game is much larger than an additional baseball game.

And then there’s the matter of home-field advantage, which goes to higher-seeded teams. A FiveThirtyEight study shows that home-field advantage in the NFL postseason is a huge benefit, larger than home-field advantage in any other sport’s postseason or in the NFL regular season. (The study accounts for the fact that better-seeded teams get home-field advantage, and therefore would be more likely to win anyway.) In other sports, playoff home-field advantage gives one team four home games in a seven-game series. That means better-seeded MLB, NBA, and NHL teams get home-field in 57 percent of games in a seven-game series. But favored NFL teams get home-field in 100 percent of games in a one-game series. I’d always considered the one-game nature of the postseason to be more conducive to upsets—any given Sunday, right? But when there’s just one game, that means only one team gets to reap the massive benefit of playing in its home.

Are top seeds making the Super Bowl year after year after year because of the extra rest, because of the home-field advantage, or because they’re simply the best teams? We can’t tell, and it doesn’t matter. The point is that when we stir all these things together, we get a massive chalk stew.

If I were in charge, I’d probably change a few minor things about the NFL’s postseason format. I’ve already written about how I would reward teams with better records with home-field advantage over teams that won their divisions. I’d also consider expanding the postseason to 16 and making every team play in the first round—not so much because I expect an 8-seed to knock off a 1-seed, but to make the whole situation a bit more equitable for everybody in terms of rest. That said, I totally understand why the league has made things this way, for two reasons.

The first is that while this format might be a bummer for underdogs, the NFL does a better job of appropriately rewarding teams that perform well in the regular season than any other sport. And that’s fine, because quite frankly, the regular season is great. I spend 11 hours per Sunday, 17 Sundays a year, watching football, gorging myself on RedZone until it gives way to Sunday Night Football. I’d absolutely watch this regardless of what the NFL’s postseason format looked like—I’ve got a fantasy team or three. But it’s objectively a good thing that the NFL’s postseason format convinces the league’s best teams to continue battling for wins well after they’ve gotten into the playoffs.

Consider the Patriots. They’ve won the AFC East 15 times over the last 16 years, and only four times out of those 15 years has the division been decided by one or two games. They’ve won by four games five times, by five games twice, and in 2007, they won the division by nine games. (Really.) Most years, the Pats could stop playing once the calendar flips to December. But they’ve learned that clinching the divisional title and a playoff berth is not enough—they have to keep playing until they have the best record in the AFC.

There is no greater testament to the way the league’s format benefits teams than the Patriots. They have earned the best record in the AFC seven times since 2003, making six Super Bowls in those years. In the seven seasons where they have made the postseason but not as the no. 1 seed, they have missed the Super Bowl six times and made it just once, in 2004. Since 2001, the Patriots are 20-3 in home playoff games and 3-4 in road playoff games. (My favorite headline of the week: “Tom Brady has fewer postseason road wins than Mark Sanchez.”)

And as much as we love the concept of upsets, it’s not so bad when the two best teams in a sport meet in the championship game. Recently, the Super Bowl has been absolutely incredible. The Philly Special! 28-3! Malcolm Butler’s goal-line pick! We’ve gotten three great games in four years.

The NFL’s greatest asset is the Super Bowl, the grandest sports spectacle on the American calendar. To ensure that event goes as perfectly as possible, the league helps its best teams stay alive until February with a unique postseason format that lets top seeds glide to the Super Bowl while everybody else must run a marathon uphill in the snow. (Not literally, but it is snowy in many of these places in January.) The NFL pays for its excellent Super Bowls with a meh postseason—and I think that’s a trade-off everybody would make.