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The No. 6 seed

By Times staff
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2002

Since the NFL adopted its current 12-team playoff system in 1990, road teams have a 12-32 record in the wild-card round, winning 27.3 percent of the time. Since 1995, their first-round survival rate drops to 20.8 percent, and in the NFC, it's 16.7 percent. The lone two NFC wins in the last 12 chances were hardly major upsets -- a 9-7 Arizona team beat a 10-6 Dallas squad on the road in 1998, and a 9-7 Minnesota team won at a 10-5-1 New York Giants team in 1997.

NOT SO BAD: The Buccaneers have the sixth and lowest seed in the NFC, but that isn't as much a curse as it might be in other sports' brackets. Because the sixth seed faces the conference's worst division champion, which is seeded third, that's often a better fate than meets the No. 5 seed, which faces the conference's top wild card, seeded fourth.

Thirteen times in 11 years, a No. 5 seed has faced a team with a better record than what its respective No. 6 team faced. On average, No. 3 seeds since 1990 have a .646 winning percentage; in the same span, No. 4 seeds have won at a .680 clip.

For an example of why it can be good to be bad, look no further than this week: San Francisco went 12-4, three games better than Tampa Bay, and as a reward for doing so, they must travel to Green Bay, where the Packers (12-4) have never lost a playoff game. Tampa, as the conference's lowest seed, travels to Philadelphia, where the Eagles (11-5) went 4-4 this year.

By no coincidence, No. 6 seeds have fared better in the first round than No. 5 seeds since 1990: sixth seeds are 7-15, while fifth seeds are 5-17.

TOUGH ROAD: Some would say that Bucs coach Tony Dungy needs to win two playoff games to save his job. If that's the case, he would have to do what no coach in NFL history has been able to do: reach the conference championships as a No. 6 seed.

In 22 attempts, sixth seeds have won their opening playoff game just seven times, and then faced with the twin adversities of playing on the road again, against a team that just enjoyed a week off, all seven teams have lost in the second round.

Not only have they lost, they've lost badly. The average margin of victory in the seven second-round losses is 37-15 -- no No. 6 seed has come closer than 10 points since 1992, has scored more than 22 points in losing or given up fewer than 20 points in defeat.

Only twice in 11 years has a team that played on the road in the wild-card round advanced to the conference championships, and in both cases, those teams were seeded fifth and lost.

WHY BOTHER: In the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedies, one option the NFL considered to make up for the one-week delay would have trimmed the playoff field from 12 teams to eight, thus shortening the playoffs by one week. That scenario was widely panned because it pushed four teams out of the postseason, but in reality, those teams historically have never factored in a Super Bowl.

The teams that would have missed the playoffs under the revised system -- the fifth and sixth seeds in each conference -- have reached the conference championships only twice in 44 attempts, and the NFC's lowlies are a combined 0-for-22.

The challenge of winning on the road three straight weeks has been too much for any NFL playoff team -- the two teams that won their second game on the road (Indianapolis in 1995 and Jacksonville in 1996) did so by only a field goal and lost on the road the next week.

When you hear inspirational stories of wild-card teams advancing to the Super Bowl -- or even winning, as the 1997 Denver Broncos and 2000 Baltimore Ravens did -- what you forget is that all four wild cards to reach the Super Bowl started their playoff runs at home. All were from the AFC, and all won at least 11 regular-season games.

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