Number one stunnas: Why top seeds haven't been as successful as expected

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

And why the Seahawks should still be just fine.

You know Seattle, I wanna be a Hawkamaniac and have fun with my family and friends, but just above the joyous celebration of earning the number one seed, there's a pall of doubt surrounding top seeded teams. Or perhaps it's just the regular dark Seattle clouds, that even Steve Pool could tell you contains plenty of doubt all-year-round.

Either way, I think a lot of people wonder about the number one seed and question whether or not the bye week or the hype or facing "upstart teams with momentum" is what kills top seeds every year. Since realignment in 2002, there have been 11 postseasons, not including the one that's coming up. Out of the last 11 years, only two number one seeds (don't forget that there are two each year, so that's 22 chances) have won the Super Bowl.

Even more fresh on people's minds though, is that number one seeds -- the team that's supposed to be the best in their conference playoffs -- haven't even been winning their first playoff game in recent years and aren't reaching the conference title matchup.

In the last five years, 6 of 10 number one seeds haven't won their divisional round matchup following the bye week.

So is it all doom and gloom for the Seahawks and Broncos after working so hard all season to earn the top seed in their respective conferences and bathe in the lap of luxury known as "homefield advantage throughout the playoffs"? Should we all rent space at the top of the Space Needle for about two minutes apiece, just long enough to jump?!

Well, no.

I did an investigate report on number one seeds (only dating back to realignment in 2002 that really altered the playoffs and seedings and division, so to look before that in this exercise would be pointless) to get to the heart of the matter and found out that:

A) Number one seeds aren't as successful as one would expect

B) Number one seeds aren't as good as one would expect

Case in point: The Atlanta Falcons have been the number one seed in the NFC in two of the previous three seasons. Have the Falcons ever been a favorite to win the Super Bowl?

Let's start with looking at the culprits that have sullied the good reputation of the number one seed, and finding out what their DVOA was, overall, as well as where they ranked on offense and defense, and then we'll go from there.

That is, if you guys want to be real Hawkamaniacs.

Number one seeds since 2002

Year Team Wins DVOA O DVOA D DVOA Result
2012 Falcons 13 10 12 12 L, NFCC
2012 Broncos 13 2 2 5 L, AFCD
2011 Packers 15 1 1 25 L, NFCD
2011 Patriots 13 3 3 30 L, SB
2010 Falcons 13 7 9 14 L, NFCD
2010 Patriots 14 1 1 21 L, AFCD
2009 Saints 13 6 2 17 W, SB
2009 Colts 14 8 6 16 L, SB
2008 Giants 12 3 2 8 L, NFCD
2008 Titans 13 5 16 5 L, AFCD
2007 Cowboys 13 4 4 9 L, NFCD
2007 Patriots 16 1 1 11 L, SB
2006 Bears 13 5 20 2 L, SB
2006 Chargers 14 1 2 15 L, AFCD
2005 Seahawks 13 3 1 16 L, SB
2005 Colts 14 1 3 5 L, AFCD
2004 Eagles 13 6 9 16 L, SB
2004 Steelers 15 1 8 3 L, AFCC
2003 Eagles 12 6 4 17 L, NFCC
2003 Patriots 14 4 14 2 W, SB
2002 Eagles 12 5 10 4 L, NFCC
2002 Raiders 11 2 2 7 L, SB

Just the Facts:

- Out of 22 number one seeds since 2002, only two of them have won the Super Bowl. That's (no need to carry a one here) one out of every 11 teams (though there are a lot of ones in that equation) or basically: 1/11. However, we also know that even though there are 22 teams, there couldn't be 22 winners, there could only be a maximum of 11. So really, you'd have to cut that number in half again and say that the number one seeds have won two of a possible 11 Super Bowls, aka 2/11.

Well, we know that there are 12 playoff teams every year, so is it easy to say that if the very elementary chances of a playoff team winning the Super Bowl is 1/12 (twelve teams, one winner) that your odds go up ever slightly when you're a number one seed? Yes, that is definitely one way to look at it.

However, we also much consider that by virtue of earning a bye week, a number one or number two seeded team doesn't have 1/12 odds, but 1/8 odds because they're automatically into the final eight right now at this moment. So if you were to look at it in simply that very basic way, the number one seeds might be falling below expectations.

Of the last 11 championships: two number one seeds, three number two seeds, one number three seed, two number four seeds, one number five seed, and two number six seeds have won the title. As many six seeds have won as one seeds. (Again, all of my numbers and statements only apply back to 2002, so consider that when you're about to jump to the comments for a counter-argument.)

If you were to lump together any team with a bye week, you'd see that 5 of the last 11 Super Bowls have been won by a one or a two seed. In addition to that, nine of the last 22 number one seeds have made a Super Bowl appearance, giving them much higher odds to make it but what is more surprising is how poorly they've fared in the final game. Eight of the last 11 Super Bowls have featured at least one number one seed.

Though the Saints and Colts both made the Super Bowl in 2009, that's the only time that the two number one seeds have made it that far since realignment. In the other seven post-2002 Super Bowls to feature a number one seed, the lower seeded team is 6-1.

- Of the six teams to be a number one seed and also be ranked first in DVOA that year, none of them won the Super Bowl that same season. In fact, only the 2007 Patriots that went 16-0 made the Super Bowl after being ranked first in DVOA and also securing a number one seed.

- Did you notice that of the 22 teams listed above, not a single one was ranked first in defensive DVOA? How is that even possible? AM I LOSING MY MIND!?!?!

In fact, out of the last eight number one seeds, only the 2012 Broncos even had a "good" defense.

While it didn't make the cut in the above chart, I can tell you that eight of the 22 teams featured a top 5 special teams unit by DVOA, with the 2006 Bears as the only team to be ranked first in that category.

- Conversely, offense appears much more prominently in this exercise, with four number one seeds ranking first on offense and four more ranking second. All told, 18 of the 22 number one seeds had a top 10 offense in DVOA, though what information can we gather as it correlates to regular season success / postseason success / being a number one seed?

Almost none?

Of the two teams to win the Super Bowl as a number one seed since realignment, the 2009 Saints had a great offense, average defense, and bad special teams and the 2003 Patriots had a great defense, average offense, and average special teams.

These facts play an even more interesting role when you consider that the number one seeds of 2013 may turn out to be the most telling of all. The Seahawks rank first on defense, the first team since 2002 to be ranked first on defense and win a number one seed.

The Broncos rank first on offense.

It's the first time that the number one seeds finished 1-2 in DVOA in the realignment era.

Seattle is the second team of the era to be a number one seed after finishing first in pass defense, along with the '06 Bears.

Denver is the fifth team to finish first in passing offense and get a number one seed, along with the '11 Packers, '10 Patriots, '07 Patriots, '05 Colts.

None of those teams won the Super Bowl.

You know who did win the Super Bowl? The teams that won the Super Bowl! I actually already compiled a bunch of Super Bowl information last year, so I've got it on the ready, gtg (shorthand for "good to go," helps you save time to say "Gtg," in the long run. Though sometimes they might think you're saying "Got to go" but really context matters) and we can easily compare "what happened to a number one seed?" and "what's the relationship between champions?"

A number one seed is not the best team, it is the team with the best record

It's very important to consider all of the factors that lead a team to their final record, not just "level of talent." Because on one hand you have the 2013 Green Bay Packers, a team that played half of their season without their best player and now they've got their best player back. On the other hand, not all 32 teams play the same schedule. Oftentimes, we'll see teams finish 13-3 or 12-4 and know that they beat a dozen bad or average teams and lost games against good opponents.

Schedule rank by DVOA, including for Offense and Defense (rankings are from hardest (1) to easiest (32))

Team Schedule O Sched D Sched
2012 Falcons 27 32 10
2012 Broncos 31 31 26
2011 Packers 31 26 22
2011 Patriots 23 13 20
2010 Falcons 22 11 26
2010 Patriots 7 1 15
2009 Saints 23 11 29
2009 Colts 17 17 19
2008 Giants 9 3 31
2008 Titans 23 13 24
2007 Cowboys 21 16 20
2007 Patriots 10 11 11
2006 Bears 31 26 30
2006 Chargers 29 18 32
2005 Seahawks 32 31 29
2005 Colts 27 32 20
2004 Eagles 23 15 28
2004 Steelers 7 5 20
2003 Eagles 21 7 28
2003 Patriots 10 10 16
2002 Eagles 32 12 29
2002 Raiders 2 30 1

What we learned:

- Of the 22 number one seeds, only four had a top 10 strength of schedule by DVOA, and only the 2002 Raiders schedule was especially difficult. Breaking it down as offense SOS and defense SOS, the 2010 Patriots offense faced the toughest schedule in the league and the 2002 Raiders defense faced the toughest strength of schedule in the NFL going the other way.

But otherwise, you'll see a lot of SOS's ranked in the bottom third.

Part of this is due to the fact that their opponents are simply facing a good opponent: Them. But that hardly explains all of it. Even the 2007 Patriots, arguably the best regular season team of all time, had the 10th-hardest schedule in the league that year and faced equally-difficult opponents whether it was on offense or defense.

This season, the Seahawks had the 17th-toughest schedule by DVOA, the Broncos had the 31st-toughest. Denver's offense faced the 30th ranked schedule, the Seattle offense went up against the 9th-ranked schedule. On defense, it was 31st-hardest for the Seahawks, 24th for the Broncos.

What about the teams that won the Super Bowl?

Team Sched SOS O SOS D SOS
2012 Ravens 16 18 16
2011 Giants 4 14 6
2010 Packers 15 9 22
2009 Saints 23 11 29
2008 Steelers 3 7 9
2007 Giants 12 17 16
2006 Colts 9 20 9
2005 Steelers 17 22 17
2004 Patriots 6 7 15
2003 Patriots 10 10 16
2002 Bucs 26 7 32

How interesting is it that the '02 Bucs faced the easiest slate of offenses in the NFL? Somewhat!

More interesting:

Average SOS rank by a Super Bowl-winner since 2002: 12.8

Average SOS rank by a number one seed since 2002: 20.8

That is a very significant gap.

By nature, a number one seed on average will have more wins per year than a Super Bowl winner, but Super Bowl winners sure are winning the battle of winning Super Bowls. By facing a tougher schedule, they may have a poorer record, but it does not necessarily make them a lesser team.

When does this show up? How about something that takes a little more time but also helps break down on a case-by-case basis, what happens to number one seeds when they lose. By seeing what teams beat them in the playoffs, how often is it "fluke" and how often is it "right."

Go back to 2002 and find the upsets. Not the upsets by seed, which you could argue is a terrible way to judge how good a team is (are the Saints and 49ers worse teams than the Eagles and Packers?) but by DVOA ranking that season.

2002: Both number one seeds are knocked off by the Buccaneers, the number one team in DVOA that season. Therefore, no upsets.

2003: The Panthers (16th in DVOA) do upset the top-seeded Eagles, but then Carolina loses to the fourth-by-DVOA Patriots in the Super Bowl. The top team in DVOA that year was the Chiefs, and they got mini-upset by the third-ranked Colts, who were mini-upset by the Pats.

2004: The Steelers went 15-1, the top team in DVOA, but lost to the Patriots in the AFC title game. New England went 14-2 and was second in DVOA, so it was hardly an upset. The Eagles were the top seed in the NFC and lost in the Super Bowl.

2005: 404: No such records exist!

okay fine...

The Seahawks lost to the six-seeded Steelers! But in actuality, Seattle was third in DVOA, Pittsburgh was fourth. In order to win the Super Bowl that year, the Steelers had to beat the Colts (1st), Broncos (2nd) and Seahawks (3rd), which at the time seemed like a major upset... except that Pittsburgh was just coming off of a 15-1 season the year before and of course were a great team.

(That doesn't mean that Super Bowl XL was legit, but whatever.)

2006: The Chargers were the top seed and the top team in DVOA, but lost to the Patriots (3rd in DVOA) and New England lost to the Colts (seventh in DVOA.) Then Indy went to the Super Bowl and beat the top-seeded Bears that were just fifth in DVOA, which was not that far off from the Colts. It was another "mini" upset, though it's hard to think of it as one when we're talking about Peyton Manning versus Rex Grossman.

2007/2011: We lump these two together because WTF Giants? New York was 14th in DVOA in 2007 and knocked off both top seeds. They were 12th in DVOA in 2012 and again, knocked off both top-seeded teams. They make no sense, and I will always hate them for that.

2008: The Ravens beat the top-seeded Titans, and Baltimore is ranked higher (2nd) in DVOA than Tennessee (5th) so it's sensible. The top-seeded Giants (3rd in DVOA) lost to the Eagles, and Philly was first in DVOA that year. Perhaps more surprising than the number one seeds getting knocked off is that the Steelers (4th) and Cardinals (21st!) went to the Super Bowl instead of the Ravens and Eagles, both of whom were upset in the conference title games.

Part of the reason they were upset?

The Cardinals and Steelers had higher seeds and therefore had homefield advantage, despite the fact that Arizona was just 9-7 in the terrible (at the time) NFC West.

2009: Both top-seeded teams made the Super Bowl. Though they were only sixth and eighth in DVOA that season, so actually they had to pull some DVOA upsets to make it that far.

2010: Despite their 10-6 record, the Packers were fourth in DVOA and knocked off the top-seeded Falcons in the second round, after having beaten the third-by-DVOA Eagles in the first round. Even if Green Bay had lost that game, it shouldn't be considered an upset if either one of them beat the seventh-by-DVOA Falcons.

The Pats were the top team in DVOA and though they are perhaps one of the most surprising upsets of the last decade, they lost to the sixth-by-DVOA Jets. Hardly a bad team, despite Mark Sanchez.

2012: Atlanta lost to the 49ers after nearly losing to the Seahawks, and both of those teams were comfortably ahead of the Falcons in DVOA. The Broncos (2nd in DVOA) were definitely upset by the Ravens last year, but who wasn't? Baltimore was still eighth in DVOA, however, and frankly, got very fortunate in that game against Denver.

So have number one seeds been "upset"? Yes. But when looking at DVOA, there are fewer upsets, more teams that are actually very close in DVOA, and oftentimes, great teams that get a poor seed and have to travel throughout the playoffs and pull off a few road wins. Or the goddamn New York Giants.

"So what you're saying is that we need to freak out and start riots in the streets?"

Not at all. Quite the contrary, in fact. And how. Vis-a-vis. Auction.

There are two distinct advantages that I can think of in the NFL playoffs: "Homefield" and "Being better than..." By virtue of winning the number one seed and finishing first in DVOA (for the second year in a row, mind you) the 2013 Seattle Seahawks are in a position that few are in.

Does that lock them into the Super Bowl? Obviously not. As my previous examples show, there have been five instances in the last 11 years of the top-ranked team by DVOA winning a number one seed and none of those five teams won the Super Bowl. Perhaps the best comp to the '13 Hawks would be the '04 Steelers that went 15-1 and finished third on defense, eighth on offense, but fell short of the playoffs.

What went wrong?

Well, it's hard to say that anything "went wrong" for the Steelers that year. They felt like a surprising runaway train as they stunned everyone by winning their last 14 games with a rookie quarterback at the helm for most of it, when few expected them to even make the playoffs. That year, Pittsburgh sort of reminded me of a kid who's riding a bicycle with no brakes down a hill and about halfway down realizes that he's never gone this fast before... and he's only halfway down the hill. "When am I going to reach terminal velocity, a la Charlie Sheen?" he asks.

Then they lost in the AFC title game to... the 14-2 Patriots, on their way to their third title in four years.

Nothing went wrong; Football happened.

The Seahawks will either face the Saints (4th), 49ers (6th) or Packers (21st) in their first playoff game. If they win, they may face one of those teams or the Panthers (3rd) or Eagles (8th in regular DVOA, 3rd in Weighted DVOA) in the conference title game. There's hardly a major upset in the lot, as even Green Bay could have arguably gone 12-4 or 13-3 with Aaron "Aarodgebly" Rodgers.

If Seattle doesn't make the Super Bowl, or doesn't win the whole darn thing, it's possible that football happened. But the good news is that no other team in the NFL has a better road to the championship, since where we are going, we won't need road games.

Some final numbers (rankings, not totals):

Year Team Total Offense Total Defense Turnovers Takeaways TO +/-
2012 Falcons 8 24 7 5 5
2012 Broncos 4 2 16 16 17
2011 Packers 3 32 2 1 2
2011 Patriots 2 31 3 3 3
2010 Falcons 16 16 3 7 3
2010 Patriots 8 25 1 2 1
2009 Saints 1 25 16 2 3
2009 Colts 9 18 10 18 13
2008 Giants 7 5 1 20 4
2008 Titans 21 7 3 3 2
2007 Cowboys 3 9 7 15 8
2007 Patriots 1 4 1 9 3
2006 Bears 15 5 28 1 4
2006 Chargers 4 10 1 15 3
2005 Seahawks 2 16 2 18 7
2005 Colts 3 11 4 7 4
2004 Eagles 9 10 7 17 11
2004 Steelers 16 1 5 11 5
2003 Eagles 18 20 5 18 8
2003 Patriots 17 7 7 2 2
2002 Eagles 10 4 7 3 4
2002 Raiders 1 11 4 8 5

On average:

- A number one seed is ranked 6 in Offensive DVOA and 11.8 in Defensive DVOA.

Comparatively, the last 11 Super Bowl winners have been ranked 10.36 in Offensive DVOA but 9.9 in Defensive DVOA. So it would seem to suggest that teams with stronger defenses have made it further in the last 11 postseasons than teams with stronger offenses, even though teams with stronger offenses performed better over the regular season.

(Good news, Seahawks)

Not to mention the fact that three of the last 11 champions were ranked first against the pass (like Seattle is) and four others were top 10 in that category. On the contrary, only the 2006 Colts were the top passing offense in the same season that they won the Super Bowl.

- On average, the last 11 winners have been ranked 7.6 on pass defense (DVOA), 14.7 in run defense, 9.45 in passing offense and 11.8 in rushing offense.

The number one seeds have been 10.59 in pass defense, 15.09 in rush defense, 6.95 in passing offense and 9.22 in rushing offense.

The number one seeds have also been ranked on average, 6.36 in turnovers, 9.13 in takeaways, and 5.31 in turnover differential. The Seahawks are first in takeaways and turnover margin.

We don't know yet if the Seattle Seahawks are about to win their first Super Bowl in franchise history or be another Hawkamaniac in Heaven, we only know that they are a number one seed and will be fighting for their first championship. Maybe number one seeds haven't performed as well as people have expected lately, but maybe we need to change our expectations of number one seeds.

Instead we need to focus on who is the best team.

Oh wait, that's also the Seahawks.

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