How Important is a First-Round Bye in the NFL Playoffs?

On January 4, 2020, the Titans shocked the Patriots with a 20-13 victory. As Bill Belichick feared, Derrick Henry ran all over the team. New England’s wild-card exit was the team’s earliest end to a season since 2009. They’d looked like the team to beat in the AFC at 10-1, but injuries and strong opponents forced them to finish the season at 12-4.

The Patriots lost their chance at a bye in Week 17 when journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick’s Dolphins beat them. The NFL quarterback capped a career where all three AFC East rivals defeated the Pats with Fitzpatrick at the helm.

If the Patriots beat either underdog, they’d have made it to the divisional playoffs. But anything can happen in a wild-card game. A notable factor during the NFL playoffs, the first-round bye may be what a team needs to get to the Super Bowl.

The advantage of a first-round bye

Since New England is now on “Brady Retirement Watch,” instead of running through the playoff bracket, it’s worth looking at how advantageous a first-round bye can be. Since the current playoff format was implemented in 1990, 58 different teams have reached the Super Bowl.

Of those teams, 46 had a first-round bye. Only 12 of the 232 teams that played in a wild-card game have reached the Super Bowl that year. The odds of making it to the Super Bowl without a first-round bye are low. Teams with a bye are hugely advantaged.

What goes into a first-round bye advantage?

Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs celebrates his team's win
Patrick Mahomes of the Chiefs celebrates the win | Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The most important factor of a bye is obviously not having to play a game. Of teams with a bye, 100% make it to the divisional round of the playoffs; only half the teams that play wild-card weekend games will.

While only four of the 12 teams in the playoff have a bye, they’ll make up half of the divisional weekend’s games. Teams with byes only need to win twice to make it to the Super Bowl.

Additionally, the week off is critical for resting injured players. If Brady and Julian Edelman had a week to recover after the regular season, things could have gone differently for the Patriots this offseason. Structuring practices and workouts over a two-week span is infinitely easier for playoff teams than doing it in one.

The extra week to prepare is a godsend to coaches as well. Andy Reid made headlines in his career for his startling ability to succeed after the bye week. Gifted coaches can prepare a game plan with the extra week and deliver a high amount of the time.

Incidental advantages

The bye advantage isn’t just a week off, free win, or time to rest. The teams that earn first-round byes are the highest seeds, and they’re generally the best teams.

A team that finishes the regular season 14-2 (as the Baltimore Ravens did this year) is usually a better team than whichever 10-6 or 9-7 team emerges from wild-card week. Not only must the lower seeds play an extra game and catch up on practice and recovery; they’re often not as good as the team they have to face.

Home-field advantage in the NFL is generally worth two or three points. Some teams, like the Seahawks and Broncos, are even better than average at home, but each team benefits somewhat. A one-seed gets to play both playoff games at home until the Super Bowl, while a two-seed gets at least one home game.

Not only do wild-card teams have to play an extra game; they’re also forced to go on the road against stronger, rested teams. It’s almost surprising that Super Bowls aren’t even more top-heavy.