We all love football, but are wise enough to know that sometimes there’s too much of a good thing.
When the NFL expanded to a full season of Thursday night games, the reaction was met with a shrug. When the league was pondering an 18-game schedule, fans and media seemed against it. And the never-ending chatter about expanding the playoff field inevitably leads to people complaining about too many mediocre teams making the postseason as it is.
The NFL playoffs are just about perfect. There’s usually a thrilling chase for the six playoff spots in the final weeks of the season. Though some teams back into the postseason, the last squads in usually earn their spots in Week 17. Once the field is set, a five-week, 11-game playoffs gets underway, culminating in the biggest sporting event of the year. Why mess with a good thing?
Still, there’s far too much money on the line to keep the playoffs at 12 teams. The only question is, will expansion be a soul-crusher like the NCAA’s exceptionally-lame”First Four” games that are roundly ignored by America and always cause confusion about what’s an NCAA tournament first-round game and what’s a second-round game? Or will everything work out perfectly, like when the NFL handled its expansion to 32 teams by dividing each conference into eight four-team divisions split among two conferences?
Though we’re still not thrilled with the idea of messing with the NFL playoffs, if we accept that the league is going to expand the playoffs one day, a proposal floated in a Thursday article in The Washington Post is the best possible scenario. Mark Maske reports:
The NFL’s competition committee has been studying the possibility of adding one playoff team in each conference, increasing the league-wide postseason field from 12 to 14 teams. That would result in one team in each conference receiving a first-round playoff bye instead of the current two. There would be a total of six games played league-wide on the opening weekend of the postseason rather than the current four.
With six wild-card games, the league could add a day to the first playoff weekend, possibly in the form of two Saturday games, three Sunday games and a Monday night game. Or the league could also do a three/three split on Saturday and Sunday. But aside from the two extra games and one playoff bye, not much changes. Divisional playoff weekend and beyond are exactly the same.
The major downside to this plan is the same as always: Diluting the playoff field means more mediocre playoff teams. It’s bad enough that the fight for the second wild-card slot is usually a slog amongst a number of undeserving teams. Now another middling team per conference is going to earn a berth? Come on, this isn’t the NHL or NBA. The regular season means something in the NFL.
As for the pros, the obvious one is that we get more football. Wild-card weekend is always pretty great; throw in two extra games, including one on a Monday night, and it’ll get even better. Plus, the playoff bye would gain value, possibly leading to more meaningful late-season games between top contenders. The top seeds won’t be able to rest starters if they’re fighting for just one bye instead of two.
Do those pros outweigh the cons? Perhaps, especially if the major problem most people have (more middling teams) is more perception than reality. Will adding a seventh playoff team actually result in playoff mediocrity? Here are the teams that would have qualified for the expanded playoffs in every year since the NFL went to its current eight-division format.
2013 — Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8), Arizona Cardinals (10-6)
2012 — Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8), Chicago Bears (10-6)
2011 — Tennessee Titans (9-7), Chicago Bears (8-8)
2010 — San Diego Chargers (9-7), New York Giants (10-6)
2009 — Houston Texans (9-7), Atlanta Falcons (9-7)
2008 — New England Patriots (11-5), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)
2007 — Cleveland Browns (10-6), Minnesota Vikings (8-8)
2006 — Denver Broncos (9-7), St. Louis Rams (8-8)
2005 — Kansas City Chiefs (10-6), Dallas Cowboys (9-7)
2004 — Buffalo Bills (9-7), New Orleans Saints (8-8)
2003 — Miami Dolphins (10-6), Minnesota Vikings (9-7)
2002 — New England Patriots (9-7), New Orleans Saints (9-7)
Here’s a breakdown of the records for each of the theoretical seventh playoff teams:
8-8 — 6 of 24 (25%)
9-7 — 11 of 24 (46%)
10-6 — 6 of 24 (25%)
11-5 — 1 of 24 (4%)
In the past 12 seasons, there would have been more teams with 10+ wins making the playoffs than teams finishing .500. That’s a decent trade-off.
If playoff expansion isn’t inevitable, it’s close to it. Though all proposals will get met with the usual “sky is falling” proclamations, if the NFL keeps expansion to two and super-sizes wild-card weekend, playoff expansion could be the perfect extra helping of postseason football.