With the NFL playoffs' expansion, the number of teams that had previously received first-round byes has been cut in half. Instead of the top two seeds in each conference getting a bye week at the start of the postseason, now it'll only be No. 1.
The 49ers were the No. 1 seed in the NFC last year on their way to an appearance in Super Bowl LIV, and thus still would have received a first-round bye under the new format. Moving forward, they -- along with every other team in the league -- will have a slightly stronger chance of qualifying for the postseason each year, but a significantly reduced likelihood of earning a first-round bye.
Given the extremely strong correlation between first-round byes and playoff success -- and the fact that there will be two additional teams competing -- one could argue that it's even more crucial for San Francisco to earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC next season than it was in the last.
NBC Sports' Peter King took a look at the most recent Super Bowl participants and winners in his "Football Morning in America" column Monday, which revealed an undeniable trend.
For the last seven seasons, every participant in the Super Bowl has had a first-round bye.
"The seeds of the last 14 teams to make Super Bowls," King wrote, "starting with Seattle-Denver in SBXLVIII: 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 1."
King, however, isn't necessarily buying that a first-round bye is essential to winning the Super Bowl. To get a larger sample size, he compared the seeds of the last seven Super Bowl victors to the seven that preceded them.
"The seeds of the last seven Super Bowl winners: 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 2. The seeds of the previous seven Super Bowl winners: 3, 5, 2, 1, 6, 4, 4."
While King insisted he doesn't expect a No. 1 seed to continue winning the Super Bowl at a rate of five out of every seven years, he didn't attempt any explanation as to why the contrast is so stark. Obviously, there are rule changes from season to season, but nothing that would explain such a difference. The playoff structure wasn't altered over that span, either.
Until proven otherwise, though, one has to assume the status quo will be maintained.
If that's the case, the 49ers will need to repeat as the NFC's No. 1 seed -- in a more crowded playoff field -- if they hope to get back to the Super Bowl next year ... and win.