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NFL's top seeds battle in rare - and profitable - spot on Championship Sunday

Since 1985, there have been 29 (out of a possible 60) instances when the No. 1 seed met the No. 2 seed in the NFL Conference Championship, so it’s far from a rare event. 

However, the last time both conferences featured the top two seeds in the AFC and NFC, which is what football bettors have this Championship Sunday, was way back in 2004. It seems that the NFL has featured more parity over the past few years and therefore, reduced the likeliness of this happening.

So what happens when the No. 1 seed plays the No. 2 seed? Well, in short, the No. 1 seed wins more often than not. 

In 19 of the 29 instances, the No. 1 seed progresses to the Super Bowl. This is, of course, not unexpected. Not only does the No. 1 seed get home-field advantage for the game, but they are presumably also the better team during the regular season. 

This seems to suggest that Carolina and Denver will be the teams to progress, right? Not so fast. 

Denver finds itself in the somewhat weird position of being an underdog at home against New England, with only five previous No. 1 seeds being tagged as the pup. And the line does a better job of predicting the outcome than seeding. 

Although during the regular season, the lines only predict the correct outcome around 65 percent of the time, during the conference finals when the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds play, they correctly predict it 76 percent of the time (22 of 29). So it’s actually more likely for New England to progress this weekend (as a 3-point favorite).

So, more importantly, who wins the betting matchups when the No. 1 seed plays the No. 2 seed? Unfortunately, it seems like there is no advantage to be gleaned from the lines – the No. 1 has covered the spread 14 of 29 times - nearly exactly 50 percent. 

However, one interesting trend has been that the team expected to win has also covered the spread more often than not. Teams projected to win by the oddsmakers have covered the spread 17 times and lost 12 only times. 

This isn’t that large of a discrepancy, but it’s more pronounced when you look at cases where the home team (and No. 1 seed) is the betting underdog (as Denver is). 

In these cases, of which there have only been five among the entire No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchups, the home underdog has covered only once, the other four times the away favorite has covered the spread. Not a large sample size to be sure, but one that suggests taking New England nonetheless. 

We can also look at totals, and see how often a game goes Over the number. In all No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchups, it has gone Over 18 times and Under 10 times (with a push one time) – going Over the total 64 percent of the time. That’s not large enough to be statistically significant (given the small sample size) but definitely large enough to be practically significant. 

One thing to notice, however, is that when the home No. 1 seed is a betting underdog to the away No. 2 seed, the games actually lean to the Under more often (2-3 Over/Under). 

That means that when the No. 1 seed is favored, as Carolina is, the game goes Over nearly 70 percent of the time. So rather than betting both Overs Sunday, the NFC Championship may hold some extra historic No. 1-versus-No. 2 value in terms of a high-scoring finish.


Harrison Chase is the Co-President of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, a student-run organization at Harvard College dedicated to the quantitative analysis of sports strategy and management.

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