January 19, 2024 11:00am

The NFL conference semifinals

History works against the top seeds

Photo of Rick Gosselin
NFL Correspondent

The top seed in the NFL playoffs has its perks -- but no guarantees.

When a team finishes the regular season with the best record in the conference, it is awarded the top seed in playoff bracket. That one team gets a week off and the home field for the duration of the playoffs. The Baltimore Ravens were awarded the top seed in the AFC playoffs this post-season on the strength of their 13-4 record and the San Francisco 49ers claimed the top seed in the NFC with a 12-5 mark.

The downside is, regardless of the seed, the eventual Super Bowl champion must survive conference play to claim the Lombardi Trophy. There have been 23 Super Bowls played since 2000. A top seed has won only eight of them. In the last five years, there have been 10 teams that reached the Super Bowl. Only four of them were top seeds.

So in this week’s NFL Power Poll, we asked our panel of former players, coaches, officials, talent evaluators, writers and broadcasters which of the two top seeds in these 2023 playoffs is more likely to fail in its quest to reach the Super Bowl, Baltimore or San Francisco.

Despite posting the best record in the league, the Ravens were choice to miss out on a Super Bowl appearance. The Ravens received 111 of the 162 votes cast.

The Ravens have won two Super Bowls in their history, both times as a No. 4 seed. This is only the second time Baltimore has held the top seed. The Ravens were No. 1 in 2019 but, after their bye week, lost to the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round. The 49ers have reached two Super Bowls since 2000, as a third seed in 2012 and a first seed in 2019. They lost both times.

“While the Ravens have been the best team in the league over the course of the regular season, their competition in the AFC playoffs is stronger than what the Niners face in the NFC,” said long-time Associated Press NFL editor and Hall-of-Fame voter Barry Wilner. “So their road to Las Vegas seems more treacherous.”

Indeed. There were five teams that finished with at least 10 victories in the NFC this season. Three of them have already been eliminated from the playoffs – the Dallas Cowboys (12-5), the Philadelphia Eagles (11-6) and the Los Angeles Rams (10-7). All four teams left in the AFC playoff bracket have at least 10 wins.

The Ravens begin their Super Bowl quest Saturday at home against the AFC South champion Houston Texans (10-7). The 49ers begin their quest Saturday as well against the wild-card Green Bay Packers (9-8).

In our second question, we asked our panel to pick the outcome of the marquee matchup of the weekend – the Kansas City Chiefs at the Buffalo Bills. The Chiefs won the AFC West and the Bills captured the AFC East. In his first five seasons as quarterback of the Chiefs, Patrick Mahomes took Kansas City to three Super Bowls. But he never had to play a road AFC playoff game in his five playoff runs. This will be Mahomes’ first-ever road playoff game. So who wins, the Bills or the Chiefs?

Our panel picked Buffalo by a 111-51 count.

“I'm not betting against the Bills at home when there is a lot of snow on the ground and Josh Allen is hot,” said Nick Pugliese, the sports editor of the Palm Beach Post.

The two teams met in the playoffs in both 2020 and 2021. The Chiefs prevailed 36-24 in the AFC title game in 2020 and 42-36 in overtime in the divisional round in 2021. In those two games Mahomes completed 62 of 82 passes for 703 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions.

“Even with Patrick Mahomes playing on the road, I trust him more not to make the mistakes that get teams beaten in playoffs than I do Josh Allen,’” said Gene Frenette, a sports columnist with the Florida Times Union. “He was fantastic against Steelers without T.J. Watt to harass him. But KC has a real defense and pass-rushers Chris Jones and George Karlaftis will make things more taxing for Allen.”

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of significant key players in American sports today. It's member list draws on people from media, team management, and league management. It is not a scientific survey, but the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those who know most about the sport.

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