Does the NFL's first-round playoff bye benefit the top teams?

Keith R. Thompson,

February 2012

After the Green Bay Packers lost at home to the New York Giants in the 2011 NFC Divisional Round we are once again left to ask the all-important question, does the first-round playoff bye benefit the NFL's top teams?

Consider these facts, in 9 out of the last 11 NFL seasons we have seen at least one team with a bye in the first round of the playoffs gone on to lose their first playoff game. This is all-the-more shocking since these top teams are playing at home against lower-seeded opposition.

In fact, over that 11-year period exactly 16 top 1 and 2-seeded teams have lost their first game after the bye. That represents a measly 63.6% winning record. By comparison, during the first round of the playoffs the 3rd and 4th seeded teams (that do have home-field advantage in that round) have a 59% winning record. While that is not impressive by any means it highlights a major issue. For the top two seeds (that have home-field advantage in the Divisional round and) that also have the benefit of an extra week to rest their players that 64% win percentage is a poor tradeoff for not playing an extra home game. These top two seeds are better off playing a 7th and 8th seeded team in the first round of the playoffs.

This proposal has many positives.

For starters it brings four additional teams into the playoffs, which adds all of the revenue and competitive benefits that accompany that and allow for more league competitive balance.

 Secondly, it allows the top two seeded teams to generate revenues from gate receipts, concession and merchandise in that first playoff round.

Thirdly, players from these top two seeded teams will continue to remain sharp and in game shape since they will be playing in competitive matches. It is believed that this is a major reason why their current winning percentage is so low, compared with other professional leagues.

Finally, these top two seeded teams would still be highly favored to reach the next round of the playoffs (the Divisional round) since they will continue to possess home-field advantage, and they also have the benefit of playing the lowest seeded teams in the playoff. In addition, by virtue of their better records and higher seeds these top seeded teams could rest players towards the end of the regular season in order to keep them sharp for the playoffs without losing their competitive edge.

The NFL could also learn from the NBA’s own playoff changes in 1984. Prior to that the NBA’s playoff structure mirrored the format currently used by the NFL. However since that change–over the past 28 seasons–which allows 8 teams from each Conference to compete in the first round (with no byes) only twice have the top seeded team fail to make it to the next round of the playoffs. That is an incredible 96% winning record. Maybe the NFL’s top seeded teams will not enjoy such a high winning percentage should this proposal be enacted, but arguably the benefits that they get from playing one extra home game will far outweigh the small possibility of not making it to the Divisional round.


2012 PER Sports, Inc.

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