Expanded playoffs in the NFL? Why not? All bets are off, anyways.
Let’s put aside, for the moment, the questions lingering around the NFL operating in the midst of a pandemic. The NFL has committed to daily testing for all personnel on an ongoing basis, so clearly bulldozing forward is considered optimal from the league’s perspective.
But ICYMI, the league expanded the playoffs this year to allow an additional wildcard team per conference.
There are questions.
First: Wait, what?
Then: So why now? Why two more teams? And how will it work?
First things first. This isn’t exactly new. It’s part of a CBA vote that went down in late March. You know, back when we weren’t sure what this whole quarantine thing meant and binged Tiger King on Netflix. Anyway, it’s the adoption of a plan that’s been floated any number of times, most recently in 2014, that should help mitigate some end of season hand wringing. It’s not perfect, but it’s probably better, even if it won’t improve the quality of the field every single year.
The new rules add a third wildcard team to each conference. In most years (like last year), this will mean adding an additional 10-6 or 9-7 team to the mix from the AFC and NFC. In years like 2019, an argument can be made that these two extra teams deserved a chance, given that at least one or two divisional winners will be sporting the same record. Where the plan gets shaky is when an 8-8 team gets added to the playoffs, like… “why?”. Sure, teams can get hot late in the season and make a run, but overwhelmingly the top two seeds in each conference tend to reach the big game. So, watering down the field by adding mediocre teams isn’t exactly must-see TV.
Except…it kinda is. Wildcard weekend is awesome. And now there’s going to be more of it. Six teams from each conference will play on the first weekend of playoffs, with only the number one seed from the AFC and NFC resting.
Wait. Hold on. That’s huge. Only one bye per conference? Doesn’t that tilt the odds dramatically towards the top seed? Yup. It certainly does. It’s been seven years since a team without a bye-week two has made it to the Super Bowl (the 2012 Ravens, who won). Reducing the number of bye teams will absolutely create some late season “pennant-rush” type tension at the top, where every regular season game takes on added importance. What’s not to like about that?
Honestly, it’s a pretty good fix in some respects, but the main problem with this new, bigger playoff format is that it doesn’t do anything to correct the biggest issue with the current NFL playoffs.
What is that you may ask?
Fair question. Easy answer.
The biggest issue by far is the guaranteed top four seed for divisional winners. Any adjustment of the playoff format should have addressed this glaring problem. Just last year, the 9-7 Eagles hosted an 11-win wildcard team. But it can be worse. So much worse. Remember the 2010 Seahawks that won the NFC West at 7-9, then won the home game against the Saints, who had to travel all the way across the country? Any situation where an 8-8 or 7-9 team hosts a playoff game against a team with a better record is patently absurd, so here’s my modest proposal to deal with the situation. You know, for the next time the league messes around with the playoff format…
Divisional winners should be guaranteed a top four seed in the playoffs, but only if they’re above .500. If a division winner is at or below that level, then the first wildcard would become the four seed, and the sub-par divisional winner is reseeded based on record. So, this means that the 2019 Eagles would still have been the four seed and hosted a home game, but those 2010 Seahawks would fall to the number seven seed in the new format and have to play on the road. It’s a reasonable way to ensure that better teams with better records aren’t sent on the road to face inferior competition, otherwise, why bother having the wildcard teams at all?
As with any newly adopted playoff format, there will be unforeseen scenarios that will frustrate a fan base. What if two teams in the same conference manage to go 16-0? One of those teams gets a bye and one has to play on wildcard weekend based on increasingly obscure tiebreakers or even a coin flip. Ugh.
Seems loony, but it could happen.
Hell, it’s 2020. It honestly wouldn’t even be all that strange.
For more thoughts and opinions from Tom, check out his author page.
Image Source: AP Images