The NFL hasn’t changed its playoff format in 30 years or its schedule in 42 years.
But significant changes are afoot, with the NFL owners and players association seemingly close to adopting a new collective bargaining agreement. The 32 owners submitted their CBA proposal on Thursday after meeting in New York City, and now the NFLPA will decide, starting with a conference call on Friday, if it wants to ratify it or send it back for further negotiating.
Should both sides agree, the playoff field will expand from 12 to 14 teams for the 2020 season, and the regular season will increase to 17 games, probably for the 2022 or 2023 season.
The new postseason format would mean two extra wild-card games, and only the No. 1 seed in each conference gets a first-round bye. The 17-game season also would reduce the preseason from four games to three.
The NFL’s motivation is obvious. It believes in a basic formula: More real football, and less fake football, means more money for everyone.
The NFL and the union are haggling now over how to split it up. But an extra week (or two) of regular-season football, and two extra playoff games, should make the next round of TV deals that much sweeter, and should add to everyone’s bottom line. That includes the players, who would see an increase in the salary cap.
There’s a lot to unpack with these potential changes, and how they’re going to be implemented. Let’s dive in:
■ The key number is 10 — the number of home dates each team currently has in a season. An NFL owner told me in November the owners are adamant that they continue hosting 10 games per season.
Right now, every team hosts eight regular-season and two preseason games (of which season ticket-holders are often forced to purchase). In a 17-game schedule, the likeliest scenario would be half the league hosting nine regular-season games and one preseason game, the other half hosting eight and two, and then flopping the next year.
■ A second bye week seems mandatory in a 17-game season, especially if “Thursday Night Football” continues. A 17-game season will take an increased toll on the body, but it will be much more palatable if the players get two full bye weeks. I think it also would be a potential boon for the owners, helping them push the Super Bowl back to Presidents’ Day Weekend and making it a de facto national holiday.
■ The NFL also would be smart to make the 17th game another cross-conference game — a matchup featuring Tom Brady vs. Drew Brees or Patrick Mahomes vs. Russell Wilson. Adding a fifth interconference game would hopefully provide more premier matchups.
■ Extra football can be a positive or a negative. Positive: Another week of watching Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, and Kyler Murray. Also, who doesn’t want one (or two) more weeks of RedZone Channel, fantasy football, Buffalo Wild Wings, and three-team parlays?
Negative: More chances for injuries. Football has never been safer, but it’s still a brutal sport. And we’re not just talking head injuries and ACL tears — it’s another week for Jackson to sprain an ankle, Mahomes to suffer a bone bruise, and so on. Which means, among other things, that the NFL is increasing the odds that some of its star players won’t be available for the playoffs.
Some believe the NFL is just fine the way it is, and expanding to 17 games is too much. But the NFL is a TV sport, and the networks have nothing better to show than the NFL. And here’s betting the ratings will be just as high for 18 or 19 weeks as they are for 17.
■ Now on to expanding the playoffs to 14 teams. Wild-Card Weekend would increase from four to six games, likely with three games each on Saturday and Sunday. And the No. 2 seed would have to play on Wild-Card Weekend, hosting the No. 7 seed instead of getting a first-round bye.
■ Taking a first-round bye away from the No. 2 seed would be massive, forcing a team to play an extra game against a quality opponent instead of getting a week off. Three of the Patriots’ Super Bowl wins have come with the No. 2 seed (2001, 2004, 2018). The last two champions (Chiefs and Patriots) were No. 2 seeds. Four Super Bowl losers this decade were No. 2 seeds. It could potentially lead to a lot of upsets in the early rounds.
■ This would put a major premium on getting the No. 1 seed, what with a bye plus home-field advantage. Since the playoffs expanded in 1990, 22 of the 30 Super Bowls (73 percent) have been won by a team with a first-round bye. Put another way, only eight of the last 30 Super Bowls have been won by a team that had to play in Wild Card Weekend. The 2010 Packers, 2011 Giants and 2012 Ravens all went 4-0 in the postseason, but no team has done it since.
And only 12 of the 60 Super Bowl participants have come from Wild Card Weekend (20 percent). Getting a first-round bye is a significant advantage, and now only one team gets it.
■ Expanding the playoffs is another glass half full/half empty proposition. The biggest downsides: The potential for more mediocre teams getting in, and the potential watering down of the regular season. Few wanted to see Mason Rudolph and the Steelers get a shot at the playoffs last season.
But there are several positives as well. It means an extra game to watch a potentially great quarterback — in 2019, it would have given fans another game of watching Mahomes and the Chiefs. It also would keep more teams alive down the stretch of the regular season, and force more teams to play their starters in Week 17 to lock up playoff seeding. And the setup still gives a huge advantage to the team that finishes with the No. 1 seed, keeping the regular season meaningful.
■ The playoffs wouldn’t necessarily be watered down by mediocrity, either. In the last decade, 14 of the 20 teams that finished seventh in their conference had at least nine wins. There were five 10-6 teams that missed the postseason, and of course, the 2008 Patriots missed the playoffs at 11-5.
And going 8-8 or 9-7 doesn’t necessarily make a team bad. The Titans finished 9-7 last season, but they were scorching hot over the last two months and made it to the AFC Championship game. The 2011 Giants went 9-7 and won the Super Bowl.
■ This playoff format would have been horrible for the 2001-19 Patriots, and potentially the 2020 Patriots if Brady returns. The Patriots’ two-decade dynasty has been aided by getting a first-round bye and riding that advantage to the Super Bowl. All nine of the Patriots’ Super Bowl appearances in this run have come with a first-round bye, and three of their six titles have come as the No. 2 seed.
This new format will make it much tougher for a team to dominate year-in and year-out as the Patriots have.
■ But this new format will be great for the post-Brady Patriots, when they come back to the pack and will need to fight just to make the playoffs each season. Yes, it will be harder to get a bye, but adding a seventh team will give them an easier path to make the playoffs — which won’t always be a given around here. Just ask the 49ers or Cowboys.
■ The 17-game schedule and 14-team playoff format are a little clunky, what with an unbalanced schedule and heavy emphasis on the No. 1 seed. It seems like a prelude to what the NFL really wants — an 18-game schedule, and a 16-team postseason. It feels inevitable that the league will get there, potentially in the next decade.
Correction: Because of a reporter’s error, the date the NFL last changed its playoff format was incorrect in earlier versions of this story. The league adopted its current playoff format in 1990.