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What NFL history says about (un)importance of Nos. 3 and 4 playoff seeds

With their loss to the 49ers [1] on Sunday night, the Patriots slipped from the No. 2 to No. 3 seed in the AFC, a setback with obviously considerable implications. New England would have to win an additional playoff game to reach the Super Bowl [2], and the team would then have to win a road game in the divisional round in order to advance to the AFC championship game with a Super Bowl berth on the line.

WEEI.com’s Christopher Price argues that [3], given the likelihood that the Pats [4] can’t overtake the Broncos [5] (who play a couple of easy marks in the last two weeks of the season), New England would be well served to lose its way down to the No. 4 seed in the playoffs.

But what does history say? Have teams with the No. 3 seed done any better than those with the No. 4 seed? For that matter, how big is the difference in the second and third seeds in terms of the likelihood of emerging from a conference and reaching the Super Bowl?

Here’s a look at the seeds of the 44 teams to reach the Super Bowl since 1990, when the NFL went to a 12-team playoff format:

No. 1 seeds – 21 reached Super Bowl, 9 won

No. 2 seeds – 12 reached Super Bowl, 6 won

No. 3 seeds – 2 reached Super Bowl, 1 won

No. 4 seeds – 6 reached Super Bowl, 3 won

No. 5 seeds – 1 reached Super Bowl, 1 won

No. 6 seeds – 2 reached Super Bowl, 2 won

As one might expect, the No. 1 seeds have been the most frequent conference representatives in the Super Bowl, emerging almost one out of every two times (47.7 percent). And, as might also be expected, the No. 2 seed is the second most frequently represented, an unsurprising development given the opportunity to host a divisional playoff game and, in years where the No. 1 seed gets upset, the AFC championship game as well.

But beyond the top two seeds, the No. 4 seed has advanced to the Super Bowl with far greater frequency than the No. 3 seed. That doesn’t mean that there’s particular benefit to being the No. 4 seed as compared to the No. 3 seed, per se — but, at the least, it’s hard to make the case for the intrinsic value of being the No. 3 or No. 4 seed.

Teams that win their divisions get to host home playoff games in the wild card round. After that, it’s a crapshoot. In other words, if the Patriots don’t think that they have a realistic chance of catching the Broncos or Texans in the remaining two weeks of the season, then they have little incentive to play to win — particularly if they believe, as in 2005, that they could have a more favorable series of matchups if they lose one or both of their remaining games.