It’s no secret that NFL owners want to stuff more meaningful football into the current league calendar, like a harried traveler trying to jam one more shirt into a bulging suitcase. The white whale for ownership is an 18-game regular season. But that feels like a longer shot than the Miami Dolphins making the playoffs. It’s anathema to a workforce that feels the pain of the current 16-game slate.
The NFL is acutely aware that the four-game preseason product has devolved from a passable representation of the real thing into an exercise in ennui, anonymity, and injury avoidance. But the obvious solution for doing away with the sagging preseason lies in a plumped-up postseason. The Washington Post reported last week that owners are starting to come around to this, as momentum is building for an expanded postseason.
Expanding the playoffs from 12 to 14 teams is the silver-bullet solution. It adds two games to the most meaningful part of the season, it appeals to the players’ competitive nature, and it fixes a flawed playoff format that doesn’t always produce the most deserving participants. It’s an easier gimme than Tom Brady throwing to an uncovered receiver.
Player safety is paramount for the NFL Players Association. It’s a huge part of the objection to moving to 18 games, but players will be less resistant to risking their bodies if they know it’s for a shot at lifting the Lombardi Trophy.
I’ve been a proponent for expanded playoffs for more than a decade, and it has been bandied about in league circles since 2003, when the Patriots and Chiefs were both behind a proposal. The way it would work is that instead of the current six teams per conference (four division winners and two wild cards), there would be seven per conference (four division winners and three wild cards). Instead of two teams getting byes, only the team with the best record in the conference would receive a bye.
Naturally, there is resistance to anything new or different. There are football fans and observers fulminating against the idea of additional playoff participants. They see it as sacrilege. This proves that people have remarkably short memories and are inherently stubborn.
This addition would be closer to a restoration. The NFL had a playoff system with three wild cards per conference from 1990-2001 before the 2002 realignment begat the current four-division format. During that period, there were three division champions per conference.
Most arguments against an expanded playoff format are based upon emotion and the false belief that the current format allows in only the most worthy of teams while preventing undeserving teams from making the postseason. It doesn’t. It never has.
Playoff degradation is already here in the form of watered-down four-team-division winners. The NFL has set up divisions too small to fail, even when the teams in them do. From 1990-2001, under the previous playoff format, there were no teams that won a division with a record of 8-8 or worse. Since 2002, it has happened four times.
Dating back to 2008, six times a division winner has made the playoffs despite having a worse record than a team left out of the playoffs. In 2010, a 7-9 Seattle Seahawks team made the playoffs as a division champion while a pair of 10-6 clubs missed the playoffs. From 1990-2001, 39 teams went 7-9; zero made the playoffs.
In 2013, the 8-7-1 Green Bay Packers won the NFC North title while the 10-6 Arizona Cardinals watched on TV. In 2014, the 7-8-1 Carolina Panthers hosted a home playoff game while the 10-6 Philadelphia Eagles were left with their noses pressed against the playoff glass.
Closer to home, the 2008 Patriots became the only team since the playoffs were expanded to 12 teams in 1990 to miss the playoffs with an 11-5 record. They watched on TV while the 8-8 San Diego Chargers enjoyed the spoils of a rotten AFC West. From 1990-2001, under the old format, all 33 teams to go 11-5 made the playoffs.
Bad teams are already getting into the playoffs via bad divisions. A revised playoff format would ensure that teams like those ’08 Patriots don’t get penalized simply for not being in a certain geographical gridiron grouping in a given year. I’ve railed about this for years, but it doesn’t resonate.
Recency bias does, based on familiarity with this format for the last 18 seasons. People complain that they don’t want to watch more 8-8 or 9-7 teams in the playoffs, except they’ve already been watching them for 30 years.
From 1990-2001, 40 teams went 8-8; four of them made the playoffs as wild cards with nobody railing against their inclusion then.
From 1990-2001, 44 teams went 9-7; 27 of them (61.4 percent) made the playoffs. Who felt the sanctity of the NFL was threatened then?
Under the current playoff format, the 2011 Giants, ugh, won the Super Bowl as a 9-7 team for those complaining that they don’t want to watch irrelevant 9-7 teams. They only beat Bill Belichick and Brady.
Last year, the two additional playoffs teams would have been the 9-6-1 Pittsburgh Steelers and the 8-7-1 Minnesota Vikings. An affront to football, no doubt. A desecration of the competitive crucible that makes the NFL the premier sports league in North America. Or just more of what we already have.
From 2002-18, three teams went 9-6-1; last year’s Steelers were the only ones not to make the playoffs. The 2008 Eagles, who went 9-6-1, advanced to the NFC title game and lost to the 9-7 Cardinals. I must have missed where they canceled the playoffs that year because two nine-win teams reached a conference title game.
Playoff expansion is not automatic field dilution, at least not beyond anything NFL fans have stomached for decades.
Another issue raised against postseason expansion is that it would turn the NFL into the NBA and NHL, which are profligate with their playoff spots, allowing more than half their teams to participate in the postseason.
From 1990-94, you had 12 of 28 NFL teams (42.9 percent) qualifying for the postseason. If you expanded the current playoffs to 14 teams, 43.8 percent of the 32 teams would qualify for the playoffs, less than a 1 percent difference. Unless you hated football then, you wouldn’t hate it now.
Objections have been raised about the competitive impact of going from two byes to just one. While it would ensure that teams had to play out their seasons with competitive integrity, there’s fear that it would provide one team too great of an advantage.
However, playing on Wild Card Weekend is far from a Super Bowl death sentence. Since 2002, six Super Bowl winners have benefitted from a bye, including two stretches of three consecutive seasons (2005-07 and 2010-12).
Upgrading the playoffs to 14 teams would solve the problem of packing in more football.
Ideally, the enhanced postseason would be married to a 17-game regular season with two bye weeks. But that could be an uphill fight when the current collective bargaining agreement expires following the 2020 season.
If you crave more football, playoff expansion is the way to go.