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What’s at stake?

With one regular-season game remaining, the Patriots already have a first-round bye clinched. The only question is whether they will enter the playoffs with the top seed in the AFC or the No. 2 seed. With a win in Miami or a Broncos loss at home against the Chargers, the Patriots’ only potential road trip of the playoffs would be to Santa Clara for the Super Bowl.

That being the case, it’s worth asking: How valuable is it to enter January as the top seed in a conference? What’s the payoff for the Patriots for beating the Dolphins this week?


To start with, that’s largely a question of how valuable it is to host a game against the No. 2 seed in comparison to being the No. 2 team that would have to play on the road for the right to advance. The matchup of the top two teams in a conference has proven a frequent enough occurrence to get a read on common patterns in matchups of the No. 1 vs. No. 2 seed in conference championships.

Half of the 50 conference championship games under the current 12-team playoff format (adopted for the 1990 season) have been played between the top two seeds in the conference. In those games, the higher seed owns a 16-9 record — meaning that the No. 1 seed is almost twice as likely to advance to the Super Bowl than the second seed.

The same pattern plays out even in years when the top two seeds don’t meet in the conference championship. Exactly half of the 50 Super Bowl participants in the 12-team format have been No. 1 seeds; nearly half (44 percent) of the last 25 Super Bowls in that time have been won by a top seed.

Playoff success by seed
A look at how teams have fared since the NFL went to a 12-team format in 1990
Seed Super Bowl Winners Percentage Conference Champions Percentage
1 11 44% 25 50%
2 6 24% 13 26%
3 1 4% 2 4%
4 4 16% 7 14%
5 1 4% 1 2%
6 2 8% 2 4%
SOURCE: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Meanwhile, roughly one out of every four teams (26 percent) to reach the Super Bowl has been a No. 2 seed. Six of the 25 champions (24 percent) during the 12-team playoff era have been No. 2 seeds.


Virtually every manner in which one slices the cake yields the same conclusion: Being the top seed is roughly twice as valuable as being the No. 2 seed.

Things aren’t quite as clear cut with the Nos. 3-6 seeds, with the No. 3 seed having fared surprisingly poorly in the playoffs and the No. 4 seed having done surprisingly well, but of course, the Patriots need not concern themselves with such matters.

The Patriots of the Brady/Belichick Era (2001-14) have won two Super Bowls as the No. 1 seed and two as the No. 2. In the five instances when they entered as the AFC’s top seed, they reached the Super Bowl four times.

Beyond their two Super Bowl victories (XXXVI and XXXIX) as the No. 2 seed, the Patriots have a pair of losses in the conference championship game from that position — once to a higher seed (Broncos in 2013) and once to a lower seed (Ravens in 2012).

Patriots playoff performances
*Seed to whom Patriots lost (if any) or beat in Super Bowl listed in parentheses
Year Seed Playoff result*
2014 1 Won SB (1)
2013 2 Conf (1)
2012 2 Conf (4)
2011 1 Lost SB (4)
2010 1 Division (6)
2009 3 Wild Card (6)
2008 Missed
2007 1 Lost SB (5)
2006 4 Conf (3)
2005 4 Division (2)
2004 2 Won SB (1)
2003 1 Won SB (3)
2002 Missed
2001 2 Won SB (1)
SOURCE: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Interestingly, the Brady/Belichick Patriots have lost just as many games to lower seeds in the AFC playoffs than they to higher seeds (3-3).

Meanwhile, they have never advanced farther than the conference championship game when as a No. 3 seed or worse under Bill Belichick.

Of course, that is of no relevance this week, as the Patriots look to secure home-field advantage and ensure that they won’t have to travel back to Denver for a conference championship game.


Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.