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How important is a playoff bye? Even the New England Patriots need one

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How important is a bye? Just ask Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.

Wild Card Round - Tennessee Titans v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

I guess it’s safe to say the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady/Gillette Stadium mystique isn’t so mystical when that mystique doesn’t get a bye into the divisional round.

The Patriots reign as defending Super Bowl Champions came to an end on Saturday night, in a 20-13 loss to the Titans in the wildcard round of the playoffs. The loss to Tennessee also marked the end of New England’s three-year reign as AFC Champion. The Patriots’ early playoff exit also means they won’t be appearing in the AFC title game for the first time since the 2010/2011 postseason.

I believe the key word from the previous paragraph is “wildcard.” Why? Saturday night’s showdown at Gillette Stadium was the first time the Patriots began their postseason in that round since the 2009/2010 playoffs.

Perhaps not surprisingly, New England was one and done that time, too, and that’s because, for all of Belichick’s genius, if there’s one thing he’s never been able to figure out during his ascension up the depth chart as the greatest NFL head coach of all time, it’s a way to get his teams to the Super Bowl by winning three playoff games.

Belichick has taken the Patriots to the playoffs 17 times since being named their head coach in 2000—damn impressive—but he’s never reached the Super Bowl in his four attempts to make it there from the wildcard round.

What does this all mean? Even a coaching genius needs an extra week to scheme and game-plan for his playoff opponents.

I thought it was funny listening to the CBS broadcast crew relay a conversation it had with Brady last week about how he was trying to rationalize to his teammates that being the number three seed was almost the same as being the number two.

Haha, good one, Touchdown Tommy. You might be the greatest quarterback ever, but I doubt you were able to thread that one through triple coverage and into the part of your teammates’ brains where they were willing to believe the illogical.

Let’s face it, while it might be sexy and inspirational to say things like, “Just get in the dance, and anything can happen!” that’s really not true. Oh, sure, it might be comforting logic for your average team that just barely sneaks into the postseason with an 8-8 or 9-7 record, but NFL history shows us that, when it comes to the true Super Bowl contenders, there’s a huge difference between a two and a three seed (or a bye and no bye).

Beginning in 1978, when winning three playoff games became a requirement for teams that started in the wildcard round, through 2002, only six squads—1980 Raiders; 1985 Patriots; 1992 Bills; 1997 Broncos; 1999 Titans; and 2000 Ravens—managed to reach the Super Bowl, with Oakland, Denver and Baltimore capturing Lombardi Trophies, respectively.

And that’s why a bye was almost as important as oxygen during that 25-year period.

However, the period right after that, when there was a 10-year run of Super Bowl success for teams that started their postseason journey in the wildcard round, likely camouflaged the realty of just how important a bye was. From 2003-2012, seven teams—2003 Panthers; 2005 Steelers; 2006 Colts; 2007 Giants; 2008 Cardinals; 2010 Packers; 2011 Giants; and 2012 Ravens—reached the Super Bowl, with Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, New York (twice), Green Bay and Baltimore winning six Lombardi Trophies.

I don’t know what made that little blip of wildcard success possible, but if the past six postseasons have taught us anything (no team has even reached the Super Bowl from the wildcard round since the 2012/2013 postseason), it’s that it was simply a blip.

Therefore, while having the coach, the quarterback, the stadium and even the momentum are important when the postseason rolls around, none of them appear to be as vital as a bye.

Even the Patriots are smart enough to realize that.