As under the radar as the NFL can be (so not much at all), the owners voted to approve an expansion of the playoffs yesterday from 12 to 14 teams. The reasons for this are obvious to everyone. Two more additional playoff games are two more programming slots TV networks get to bid over, and there’s a greater chance for owners to see their teams get playoff revenue.
As for application, which never really mattered to the owners but we’ll kick it around, it does seem more fair. Only the top seed in each conference will get a bye now, meaning the best teams during the regular season have a better chance of meeting in the Super Bowl. Which is what everyone should want, giving the regular season more meaning. Since 1990, 46 of the 58 possible Super Bowl berths have gone to teams with a bye. That’s a cool .793 batting average for teams that get to rest for a week.
You can see this playing out over a few years where there’s even less drama to the playoffs as No. 1 seeds march to the Super Bowl without much interruption, teams cry foul, and then the owners expand the playoffs to 16 teams and give no one a bye. Which would completely devalue the regular season and division format, but let’s run that kitten over when we get to it somewhere around 2030 (and that’s probably being optimistic).
Still, this system has its flaws, which basically lie in how the No. 1 seed is determined.
If you don’t put much thought into it, taking the team with the best record seems legit. However, because these teams are playing different schedules, it’s not always the clearest marker. Especially as the difference between a No. 1 and No. 2 seed is most often or even a tie-breaker, and certainly no more than two games. And two games isn’t a huge difference when you consider the factors. The last time a team won a conference by three games was the 2007 Patriots, who had to go undefeated to do so.
This past season isn’t much of an example. The 14-2 Ravens got to harvest on a pretty sad AFC South, but were exposedin the divisional round. And the 12-4 Chiefs equally got to feast on the organs of a mildew-filled AFC West, and would have gotten the Ravens anyway. (Should you be eating organs with mildew? Let’s discuss that at another time.) Over in the NFC, the Niners came away with the No. 1 seed even in a division with the 11-5 Seahawks, outlasting the Saints for that right ,who had to play exactly no one in the NFC South, per usual.
However, the previous season’s NFC shows the issue. The Saints beat out the Rams for the No. 1 seed, both at 13-3, but the latter got a bye anyway and walked into New Orleans. Certainly nothing questionable happened at all that turned Saints fans into Southern Maple Leafs fans, and the Rams were off to the Super Bowl to bore the ever-loving shit out of all of us. But in this new format, the Rams would not have gotten a bye, and considering the margins of that NFC Championship Game, that could have made a huge difference.
However, the Rams were in a division with another playoff team while the Saints, as is custom, were in a division with teams with mittens pinned to their jackets year-round. Furthermore, the Rams had to play both the Chiefs and Chargers that season, whereas the Saints got to roll through a remedial batch of the AFC North. That tie-breaker was decided on a head-to-head game during the season, but that isn’t always the case. And now that the difference is about a bye instead of just seeding, is one game enough to fairly state that? It worked out under the old format, but this new one is more trying. It’s the best we’ve got, but still.
The previous season, the 13-3 Eagles claimed the No. 1 seed in the NFC over the 13-3 Vikings, but they never played each other during the season, and record against common opponents ended up being the tie-breaker. Their divisions were about equal, but the Eagles played a somewhat underwhelming AFC West that year while the Vikings had to roll through an arguably slightly tougher AFC North. It all came clean again when the Vikings pulled a Vikings and shat on their own playoff miracle in Philadelphia. Maybe it will always work that cleanly. Again, the margins are small here, but now the rewards are bigger, and the dropoff from simply lower seed to no bye at all is pretty precipitous.
There is no perfect solution to this. And when they expand to 17 games, it’s only going to get more awkward. Perhaps division winners should only be rated against each other through common opponents and head-to-head (and sites, given the home-and-home within divisions), but good luck selling that to everyone. But that could see teams weighted against each other based on only five or six games, which wouldn’t be much of a sample size.
This won’t happen every season, and for the most part everyone wins. Owners and TV execs get more playoff games. Fans get a bonanza on Wildcard Weekend. Players get a bigger chance at a playoff spot. Tearing through the regular season nets a greater reward. Likely, we’ll get even better Super Bowl matchups, ones that have been building throughout the four months of the season. It’s just not as perfect as they’d have you believe.