The Buffalo Bills are set to participate in their 15th playoff tournament since the AFL-NFL merger. When they square off against the Houston Texans on Saturday, the Bills will do so as the fifth seed in the AFC playoff field, visiting the fourth-seeded Texans in a Wild Card match-up.
As far as roads to the Super Bowl go, the fifth seed isn’t typically a spot where we see many conference champions. In fact, since the NFL added a fifth seed to its playoff tournament back in 1978, there have been only two No. 5 seeds to qualify for a Super Bowl (and yes, that includes the strike year of 1981 where 16 teams vied for Super Bowl glory).
The 1985 New England Patriots represented the AFC in Super Bowl XXI as a No. 5 seed, which at the time was the last seed in the playoff bracket. They started their march to the Louisiana Superdome by defeating the New York Jets at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, winning 26-14 against their division rivals. That gave the Pats a date with the first-seeded Los Angeles Raiders, who they defeated 27-20. New England went on to defeat the Miami Dolphins 31-14 in the AFC Championship game. The Patriots were then eviscerated by the Chicago Bears, widely regarded as one of the best teams in NFL history, losing the Super Bowl 46-10.
The next time a No. 5 seed made it to the Super Bowl was after the 2007 season, when the New York Giants represented the NFC in Super Bowl XLII. The Giants began by defeating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24-14 in a Wild Card game, and they followed it up by traveling to Texas Stadium to defeat the Dallas Cowboys 21-17 in the Divisional round. In the NFC Championship Game, the Giants defeated the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, winning 23-20. That earned them a date with the 18-0 New England Patriots, who were favored by 12.5 points to become the second undefeated team in NFL history. We all know how that went—David Tyree made one of the most absurd catches in league history, Eli Manning threw a touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds remaining in the game, and the Giants upset the Patriots 17-14 to become Super Bowl champs.
Since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff format in the 1990 season, there have only been seven Wild Card teams to make the Super Bowl. Four of those teams (the 1992 Bills, 1997 Denver Broncos, 1999 Tennessee Titans, and 2000 Baltimore Ravens) played a home playoff game as the No. 4 seed in the AFC, which used to occur when the league only had three divisions in each conference. Since the team went to a four-division alignment in 2002, no Wild Card teams play first-round home games anymore. Only the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 6 seed), 2007 Giants (No. 5 seed), and 2010 Green Bay Packers (No. 6 seed) have advanced to the Super Bowl. All three of those teams won their respective Super Bowls.
Since 1990, No. 5 seeds are 20-38 in the Wild Card Round. Of those 20 teams to move on to the Divisional Round, only six have won the next game. Of those six teams to enter the playoffs seeded fifth and make it to the Conference Championship Game, only the 2007 Giants were victorious.
What does this mean for the 2019 Buffalo Bills? Perhaps nothing at all, as the past doesn’t necessarily determine the future. What it does show, though, is that the Bills would be bucking historical trends if they are to advance to their fifth Super Bowl in franchise history.