NFL Playoffs

Why NFC's No. 1 seed is vital for 49ers in expanded NFL playoff format

Why NFC's No. 1 seed is vital for 49ers in expanded NFL playoff format

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."

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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."

Hmm ...

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.

[RELATED: Sportsbooks expect 49ers to draft offensive player at No. 13]

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.

Ex-49er Vernon Davis reveals emotions after 'The Catch III' vs. Saints

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AP

Ex-49er Vernon Davis reveals emotions after 'The Catch III' vs. Saints

Dwight Clark has "The Catch," Terrell Owens has "The Catch II" and Vernon Davis owns "The Catch III." 49ers fans should feel lucky to be a part of so much history. 

Owens' catch came 17 years after Clark's and Davis turned this into a trilogy 13 years after T.O.'s sequel. Davis etched his name in history by hauling in the game-winning catch with nine seconds left to beat the New Orleans Saints, 36-32, in the 2011 NFC Divisional Round playoffs. 

The former No. 6 overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft was overcome with emotion. He was seen crying and hugging teammates and coaches on the sidelines.

Davis finished his famous performance with seven catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns. Once he crossed the goal line, he couldn't hold his emotions back

"It was always my dream to be a professional athlete," Davis said in a recent Q&A with Niners Nation. "The struggles and difficulties I had along the way, losing games and as a player coming into the league, not living up to my expectations right away. All of that was built up in me, and once I made that play and that catch, I couldn’t help but let those tears out." 

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Even though he already had produced two seasons of at least 900 receiving yards and was a Pro Bowler in 2009, many believed the tight end hadn't lived up to expectations. Davis was a freak at the NFL Scouting Combine and was believed to dominate the NFL from Day 1. 

But then he only averaged 377 receiving yards in his first three seasons and famously found himself in a sideline dispute with coach Mike Singletary. And then, "The Catch III" happened. 

"Those were tears of joy," Davis told Niners Nation. "All of the work, all of the dedication, and the moments where we just couldn’t succeed as a team. I went from falling to getting back up. That’s what that was."

Davis, now 36 years old, retired from the NFL this offseason. He played 10 seasons in San Francisco and had 5,640 receiving yards and 55 touchdowns. Davis also scored eight more TDs over four seasons in Washington. 

The two-time Pro Bowl tight end now is focused on an acting career

How 1991 49ers were best team to miss NFL playoffs in previous format

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How 1991 49ers were best team to miss NFL playoffs in previous format

The NFL officially expanded its playoffs to 14 teams -- seven in each conference -- Tuesday, adding teams to the postseason for the first time since 1990.

The previous format led to plenty of near-misses, and Aaron Schatz -- writing for ESPN and utilizing Football Outsiders' DVOA (defensive value over average) metric -- ranked the best teams who would've made the playoffs under the new rules, and the 1991 49ers earned the crown.

"A seventh seed would have also made for a great story," Schatz wrote, "because the 49ers played themselves back into contention with a third-string quarterback."

Joe Montana missed the entire season after injuring his elbow in the 1990 NFC Championship Game, while Steve Young injured his knee in Week 10. Steve Bono admirably filled in for Young in six starts, but the 10-6 49ers missed out on the playoffs by virtue of two losses by an average of four points to the No. 6-seeded Atlanta Falcons, who held the tiebreaker over San Francisco.

Those 49ers were loaded, as 1991 marked the only season San Francisco didn't at least advance to the NFC Championship Game from 1987 through 1994. Bono ranked third in passing DVOA that season and the 1991 49ers had the second-highest DVOA (26 percent) of any team that failed to make the playoffs from 1990 through 2020.

That would've set them up well for a playoff run.

"[The] 49ers' playoff pedigree might very well have made them favorites on the road against second seed Detroit," Schatz argued, "which ranked only 17th in DVOA despite a 12-4 record. San Francisco outscored opponents by nearly 10 points per game during the regular season; Detroit outscored opponents by just three points per game."

The 1991 Lions, as Schatz noted, advanced as far as the NFC Championship Game. Washington (56.9 percent DVOA, which topped the NFL), led by quarterback Mark Rypien, crushed Detroit in that game, so San Francisco would've faced an uphill battle throughout the rest of the NFC playoffs. 

[RELATED: Best, worst 49ers' draft picks of each round this decade]

The 49ers might've gotten a boost, however. Young started for the 49ers in a 52-14 demolition of the Chicago Bears in the regular-season finale, throwing for 332 yards and three touchdowns. Could Young, who led the NFL in passing DVOA despite his injuries that season, have gone on an Aaron Rodgers-esque run and led the NFC's lowest seed to a Super Bowl appearance?

We'll never know the answer, but it's a fun hypothetical to consider nonetheless. Just as it will be when we look back on the 14-team era after the NFL inevitably expands its playoffs to include 16 (or more) teams.