Should your Super Bowl bet always win their division?
Conventional wisdom says so, but you may find times where a team’s best bet may land at the fifth seed in the NFL playoffs in the age of analytics.
Ideally, you’d love to see your team win the first-round bye and gain home field advantage throughout. But if the second and third-seeded teams are up there in strength with the first seed, and if the fourth-seeded team is a distant fourth, reconsider.
Especially if the sixth and seventh seeds of the NFL playoffs put together strong sides.
This post will land you a few scenarios in which, from an analytics standpoint, you may want to see your chosen Super Bowl picks eclipse a lower seed.
Let’s begin with these four scenarios.
Weak Fourth-Seeded NFL Team
The 2020 NFL Season reflects the strangeness that has been 2020 since March. In the NFC East, the New York Giants led the NFC East after 11 games via a “tie-breaker” over the Washington Football Team in terms of head-to-head matchups.
This same Giants team started a meager 1-7 and the NFC East is so bad that not a single team is within three games of the .500 mark. This is as of Week 12, 2020, in case you need to go back through the archives.
Let’s take a scenario.
Say the Arizona Cardinals win the fifth seed and their division rival Seattle Seahawks scrape the third seed. The Seahawks would face the sixth-seeded Los Angeles Rams, and the second-seeded Green Bay Packers would play the seventh-seeded Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
If the Cardinals were your Super Bowl bet and they finished first in the NFC West and won the third seed, they’d be in Seattle’s spot with a much tougher opponent. Likewise, the Bucs have proven to manhandle the Packers earlier in the season.
Here, the Bucs are the seventh seed and they just beat the Packers in Lambeau. Meaning they must now play the New Orleans Saints, who would own the first seed in this scenario.
Let’s go back to our Super Bowl bet, the Arizona Cardinals. The Cards now have the opportune advantage to exert their revenge on either the Washington Football Team, New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys, or Philadelphia Eagles. Because someone has to win this division, right?
Oh, it’s just that the Cardinals used to be the division’s doormat before the 2002 NFL Season, so you can legit call it a revenge meeting. If the Cards win in this easy route, they would play the winner of the Seahawks/Rams game, with the Bucs facing the Saints.
Or, if the Packers beat the Bucs, they would play the Packers the following week.
But the point is, winning the fifth seed in favor of the third seed and the division allows the Cardinals to gain what you can consider a “guaranteed” win, or a close-to, in the wildcard playoffs.
Your Team Swept a Higher-Seeded Divisional Rival
This scenario won’t make you pull for a lower seed, but say your Super Bowl pick must play a higher-seeded division rival who finished 14-2. The rival went 14-0 against their competition. Only they went 0-2 against your pick.
Winning the division and a home game in this scenario is ideal. But since the rival struggled against your team earlier in the season, you shouldn’t lose sleep if your team must face them in the playoffs as the fifth, or even the sixth seed.
So if your team finishes 12-4 and the rival, 14-2, you can assure yourself that your team has a favorable matchup in the wildcard round. Hopefully, the sixth or seventh-seeded team pulls off an upset and grants your chosen team a favorable matchup in the divisional round.
Unless, of course, that 14-2 top-seeded team is the number one seed, and in many situations, they are.
Take the 1999 NFL Playoffs, where the 13-3 Tennessee Titans scored the fourth seed (the highest-seeded team during the time to NOT win their division). The 14-2 Jacksonville Jaguars stumbled twice against the Titans during the regular season.
The Jags came off of a convincing 62-7 win over the Miami Dolphins and the Titans headed into Jacksonville for the AFC Championship Game. Once again, the Titans were the victor, taking the game 33-14 and landing the team in its first Super Bowl.
The Jags finished 15-3 that season, counting the playoffs. They went 15-0 against everyone else and 0-3 against the Titans.
Your Team is a “Road Warrior”
Sometimes, teams just play well on the road, and this can make it challenging when handicapping sports games. If your chosen team is a quote-un-quote Road Warrior who went 6-2 on the road and 4-4 at home, you may want to see your 10-6 Super Bowl pick continue to play where they are comfortable.
Especially if they played and beat the higher seeds on the road earlier in the season.
Once again, a home playoff game is nice given the crowd’s encouraging energy. But some teams thrive on playing games in hostile environments.
In 2011, the Giants went 4-4 at home and 5-3 on the road, sneaking into the playoffs as the fourth-seeded division champion despite their 9-7 record. However, after defeating the fifth-seeded Atlanta Falcons, they played their final two playoff games on the road.
The 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers are another team who finished their regular season with a better road record and ended up winning their three playoff games on the road, becoming the first sixth-seeded team to win the Super Bowl and the second to win the AFC Championship.
So if you find your team winning more convincingly on the road or if they are just winning more road games, pulling for them to eek out the fifth, sixth, or even the seventh seed isn’t all that barbaric.
Now if that’s the only seed they can get, it’s one thing. But if they are the ultimate road warriors, they may as well try not to fix what ain’t broken.
Your Team Struggles at Home
It’s strange. It’s rare. But it happens. Sometimes, for one reason or another, teams struggle at home. So if your Super Bowl bet finishes 4-4 at home but 7-1 or even 6-2 on the road, or if they are something like 2-6 or 3-5 at home, then perhaps a home game in the playoffs isn’t a good choice.
And you may wind up betting against your Super Bowl bet for that lone home playoff game if they wind up finishing 2-6 at home and 7-1 on the road, as unlikely as that may sound.
Again, it’s rare. So rare that it’s something you may see once a generation. But it’s still a legit scenario you must consider when you reach the point of the season to where you know your Super Bowl bet’s tendencies.
Despite its rarity, don’t count it out.
Will Sports Betting Factors Change?
NFL betting factors can always change. For example, the NFC East in 2020 is so bad the NFL may reformat the playoffs to a situation where the teams with the seven best records get an invitation to the Big Dance. That said, a fifth-seeded 13-3 team would climb to the second seed, if their top-seeded rivals are 14-2 or better.
The only real scenario you would take out above is Scenario #1. However, if your Super Bowl bet finished 7-9 and won their division under a revised format in which the top seven teams make the playoffs, if they are road warriors or if they are playing a rival whose number they have, you’re still in luck here.
As you can see, there are a few reasons to get excited about Super Bowl betting, even if they don’t win their division. In fact, you can say it’s appropriate that your Super Bowl bet would find themselves better off if they didn’t win the division.
While it doesn’t happen often, sometimes playing a weak fourth or even a weak third seed on the road would pay off. Especially if a higher-seeded team they would meet in the divisional round is one they also beat on the road earlier in the season.
So if your team is mathematically eliminated from winning their division, but they have a solid shot at securing a fifth, sixth, or seventh seed, you may find it a blessing in disguise. Don’t give up on that Super Bowl bet just yet.