In 1975, the NFL adopted numerical playoff seeding and began to give homefield advantage in the playoffs to the top-seeded team in each conference. Homefield advantage can be valuable but has not been a guarantee of a conference championship or a Super Bowl title.
The upcoming Super Bowl will be the 47th Super Bowl since the NFL adopted the current homefield advantage rule. In that time, the Super Bowl matchup has featured two #1 seeds only 13 times.
Top Seeds Fall Short of Super Success for Fourth Straight Season
Super Bowl LVI will not feature a #1 seed on either side, the ninth time that has occurred. In the AFC Championship Game, the Kansas City Chiefs, the #2 seed in the AFC, host the Cincinnati Bengals, the AFC’s #4 seed. And in the NFC Championship Game, the Los Angeles Rams, the NFC’s #2 seed, are hosting the San Francisco 49ers, the #6 seed in the NFC.
Both top seeds fell at home in the Divisional Round. The Bengals defeated the Titans in Nashville, while the 49ers eliminated the Packers in in Green Bay. That marks the first time that has happened since the 2010 season and only the fourth time since the introduction of seeding. 1979, 2008, and 2010 were the other seasons.
To date, the most recent Super Bowl matchup between two #1 seeds was four years ago. That year, the New England Patriots met the Philadelphia Eagles for the title at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In a thrilling upset, the Eagles, a five-point underdog, knocked off the Patriots 41-33 to win Super Bowl LII.
Last year, the Super Bowl LV matchup featured one #1 seed. The Chiefs, the top seed in the AFC, faced the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the NFC’s #5 seed. The Chiefs were favored by three points as they attempted to win back-to-back championships. But the Bucs became the first team to lift the Lombardi Trophy in their home stadium with a dominant 31-9 win.
How has Super Bowl history shaken out since seeds were introduced? Let’s take a look.
Super Bowl Matchup History Since the 1975 NFL Season
No #1 Seeds in the Super Bowl
As mentioned above, the upcoming Super Bowl will mark the ninth time that this has occurred: 1979 season (XIV), 1980 (XV), 1992 (XXVII), 1997 (XXXII), 2008 (XLIII), 2010 (XLV), 2012 (XLVII), 2018 (LIII), and 2021 (LVI).
Since the advent of playoff seeding, a #1 seed has been in the Super Bowl 38 of 47 times.
No NFC #1
This has happened 21 times, counting this season: 1975 (X), 1978 (XIII), 1979 (XIV), 1980 (XV), 1987 (XXII), 1988 (XXIII), 1990 (XXV), 1992 (XXVII), 1997 (XXXII), 1998 (XXXIII), 2002 (XXXVII), 2003 (XXVIII), 2007 (XLII), 2008 (XLIII), 2010 (XLV), 2011 (XLVI), 2012 (XLVII), 2016 (LI), 2018 (LIII), 2020 (LV), 2021 (LVI)
The #1 seed has won the NFC title 26 times and went on to lift the Lombardi Trophy 16 times.
No AFC #1
This has happened 22 times, counting this season: 1979 (XIV), 1980 (XV), 1982 (XVII), 1985 (XX), 1986 (XXI), 1992 (XXVII), 1994 (XXIX), 1995 (XXX), 1996 (XXXI), 1997 (XXXII), 1999 (XXXIV), 2000 (XXXV), 2001 (XXXVI), 2004 (XXXIX), 2005 (XL), 2006 (XLI), 2008 (XLIII), 2010 (XLV), 2012 (XLVII), 2018 (LIII), 2019 (LIV), 2021 (LVI)
The #1 seed has won the AFC title 25 times. But Super success has been infrequent, as the AFC’s top seed has lifted the Lombardi Trophy only nine times.
But how have results panned out when the Super Bowl matchup is completely devoid of top seeds, as it will when the 2021 NFL season comes to an end on February 13 at SoFi Stadium?
Well, if you have futures bets on the AFC champion to win the big game, history is on your side. In the eight previous matchups, the AFC champion has defeated the NFC champion six times.
Super Bowl XIV: AFC #2 Pittsburgh Steelers 31, NFC #3 Los Angeles Rams 19
Chasing their fourth title in six seasons, Terry Bradshaw and the Steelers were favored by 10.5 at the Rose Bowl. But the Rams more than held their own and led 19-17 after three quarters. But Pittsburgh scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to win and cover.
That was Pittsburgh’s last Super Bowl appearance for 16 years and last title for over two and a half decades. The Steelers ended their championship drought in the 2005 season, capturing the title with a win over the Seattle Seahawks.
Super Bowl XV: AFC #4 Oakland Raiders 27, NFC #2 Philadelphia Eagles 10
In their first Super Bowl, the Eagles were favored by three over the Raiders, who were making their third appearance. But the Raiders took an early 14-0 lead and never looked back, strolling to a comfortable win in New Orleans.
The Raiders, who have moved from Oakland to Los Angeles to Oakland to Las Vegas in the four decades since, won another title three years later but have not won another one to date.
Their most recent Super Bowl appearance came in the 2002 season, when former (times two now) coach Jon Gruden guided the Bucs to a lopsided title win at Qualcomm Stadium, the then-home of the Chargers, one of the Raiders’ biggest rivals.
Super Bowl XXVII: NFC #2 Dallas Cowboys 52, AFC #4 Buffalo Bills 17
In their third of four consecutive (losing) Super Bowl appearances, the Bills met the Cowboys, who were vying for their first title since the 1977 season.
It would be a Rose Bowl romp as Dallas forced a record nine turnovers and easily covered the 6.5-point spread. To date, their win is tied (with Seattle’s 43-8 win over the Denver Broncos eight years ago) for the third-largest margin of victory in Super Bowl history.
Super Bowl XXXII: AFC #4 Denver Broncos 31, NFC #2 Green Bay Packers 24
John Elway finally scaled the mountaintop, doing so in dramatic fashion to deny Brett Favre and the Packers a repeat.
In four previous Super Bowl trips, the Broncos were outscored 163-50, losing by 17, 19, 32, and 45 (a record). San Diego was the site of one of those defeats–their 42-10 loss to Washington in Super Bowl XXII–and would be the site of Elway’s first win in four tries. Denver took the lead on a Terrell Davis touchdown with less than two remaining then stopped the Packers to end their run of heartbreak.
While Elway repeated and then retired, Favre would not play for another title in his NFL career. It would be 13 seasons before Green Bay reached the big game again.
Super Bowl XLIII: AFC #2 Pittsburgh Steelers 27, NFC #4 Arizona Cardinals 23
Behind a late-career resurgence by Kurt Warner, the Cardinals finally reached their first Super Bowl. It seemed destined to end in defeat, as the Steelers held a 20-7 lead in the fourth quarter.
Then Arizona scored 16 straight points in a five-minute span, with a safety sandwiched around two Larry Fitzgerald touchdowns. However, they would not be able to seal the deal. The Steelers drove 78 yards, and MVP Santonio Holmes caught the go-ahead touchdown in the final minute. A sack and fumble ended the Cardinals’ hopes of a miracle, and the Steelers claimed their second title in four seasons.
An NFC Championship Game loss to the Carolina Panthers six years ago is the closest the Cardinals have been since then.
Super Bowl XLV: NFC #6 Green Bay Packers 31, AFC #2 Pittsburgh Steelers 25
As it stands, this could be the only title for Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. The Packers have had numerous high seeds in his decorated career, but his only title came in unlikely circumstances.
The Packers needed to win in the final week of the season to finish 10-6 and reach the NFL playoffs. Then, in the postseason, Green Bay won three straight road games to win the NFC title. In the NFC Championship Game, they defeated their arch nemesis, the Chicago Bears, to set up their matchup with the Steelers.
Though the 12-4 Steelers had a better record, the Packers were favored by three. Green Bay would back that up, taking a 21-3 lead in the second quarter. But from that point, the Packers had to hold on for dear life.
The Steelers mounted a major rally, pulling within 28-25 in the fourth quarter. However, the Packers ran down five valuable minutes and booted a field goal for the final margin.
To date, neither team has returned to the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl XLVII: AFC #4 Baltimore Ravens 34, NFC #2 San Francisco 49ers 31
In their first Super Bowl in almost two decades, the 49ers were favored by four points. But the Ravens, who knocked out the #1 (Denver Broncos) and #2 (New England Patriots) seeds in the AFC, took control early.
A 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half gave Baltimore a 28-6 lead. Shortly thereafter, the power went out.
After it came back, so did the 49ers. Colin Kaepernick made it 31-29 with a touchdown run in the fourth, but the game-tying two-point conversion attempt was unsuccessful. After a Ravens field goal, Kaepernick got one more chance and drove the Niners to the Ravens’ five-yard line.
But three consecutive incompletions all but sealed San Francisco’s fate, and Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis ended his career with his second championship. Since then, the Ravens have advanced no further than the divisional round.
Super Bowl LIII: AFC #2 New England Patriots 13, NFC #2 Los Angeles Rams 3
In the lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever, Brady and the Patriots won their sixth title by defeating the Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Mercedes-Benz Stadium is the home of the Atlanta Falcons, against whom the Patriots won their fifth title with the largest comeback in Super Bowl history.)
The only touchdown of the game was scored with seven minutes left, as rookie running back Sony Michel–who is now in his first season with the Rams after being traded by New England this past August–found the end zone from two yards out to break a 3-3 tie.
Despite the lack of scoring, an offensive player still received Super Bowl MVP honors. No, it was not Michel, who ran for 94 yards on 18 carries, but Patriots receiver Julian Edelman, who caught 10 passes for 141 yards.
Super Bowl LVI: AFC #2 or #4 vs. NFC #4 or #6
Who will contest this matchup on February 13? We will find out on Sunday.