As we approach the end of another NFL season, an occasional practice has begun again: the appeal to expand the playoff format. This season one team with 10 wins, either the New Orleans Saints or the Arizona Cardinals, will miss the playoffs while two teams with eight or nine wins will get NFC playoff berths by way of winning their divisions. Every few years it seems, somebody in the media looks over the standings and goes on the air or in print to lament to sad fate of a team that has won 10 or 11 games and will be relegated to the same January fate as those teams finishing with a meager 3-13 or 5-11 record. This lament will be punctuated with a call for either an expansion of the payoff field or a change in the rules so that the six best teams in each conference make it regardless or record or division standings. The NFL is the only one of the four major professional team sports with a one and done playoff format; that makes the prospect of adding another team or two more appealing than say, the NBA or NHL, where a team that’s around .500 (or worse) gets to see if they can manage to make a best of seven series against a top seed interesting for a few games en route to the inevitable outcome. The one and done format adds to each individual teams’ chances of winning it all; a 9-7 teams with all its deficiencies only has to play above its head once against the 13-3 favorite and not four times out of seven games. But is the proverbial 10-6 or 11-5 team that gets shut out really worth including, or are we better off without them?
This is actually the perfect time to look at the playoff format and determine if expanding the field further is a good idea. The current field, with six teams from each conference making it to the postseason, has been in effect for 24 seasons. Twelve seasons ago, exactly halfway through, the league went from a three division alignment for each conference to one with four divisions, and the number of 10-win teams missing the playoff went up significantly since. In the first twelve years only two teams won 10 games and missed the playoffs, both in the same season. The 1991 San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles both went 10-6 and missed the playoffs on tiebreakers. The Niners lost multiple games by less than a touchdown, including a loss to Atlanta on a last second Hail Mary pass, while the Eagles had to struggle through 15 games without their starting quarterback and had to run through a gauntlet of suckitude featuring the likes of Jeff Kemp and Pat Ryan. Neither team would have gone quietly in the playoffs had they gotten in: the Eagles defense was ranked first against the run, pass, and overall and the Niners ended the season with a 30 point blowout win over an 11-5 Chicago Bear playoff team. But for the rest of the time before the format change, such an occurrence never happened again. The seventh place team in either conference was an eight or nine game winner that nobody outside of their own fanbases missed once the season was over.
But the format change would eventually be the dawning of a new day. After two 10 win teams missed the playoffs in the first five years, five teams in seven years (including 2013) would have to spend January watching the playoffs on television. Two were particularly unfair. The 2008 Patriots went 11-5 and watched an 8-8 San Diego team get in and the 2010 Buccaneers went 10-6 while the Seattle Seahawks got in with a 7-9 record. In both instances the team that made it got in by virtue of winning their division. And therein lays the biggest problem with the current format. The implied need to reward every division winner with a playoff berth sets up potential scenarios where teams that win close or bad divisions with 7 to 9 wins get a berth (and a home playoff game, to boot) over teams that finish second or third in good divisions with 10 or more wins. But the real question is whether or not we are missing anything when that scenario rears its ugly head. The 7-9 Seahawks, thought to be a lamb heading to slaughter in the wildcard round against the defending champion Saints, ended up winning at home and losing on the road in the second round to the Bears. Would the 10-6 Bucs from 2010 survive a trip to Philadelphia or Chicago in January? Probably not, but the 11-5 Patriots from 2008, even without the injured Tom Brady, would have been hell on wheels in the AFC. So that matter is a wash.
The ultimate question is whether or not the seventh team could challenge for the Super Bowl with any regularity. Keep in mind that the sixth team was considered a frivolous playoff participant until a few of them actually won the whole thing. Are there any of these seventh place teams that could make the same kind of run? Two of them, namely the 1991 Niners and 2008 Patriots, most definitely could have. But the 2007 Cleveland Browns, who went 10-6 but didn’t beat one team that finished over .500 and lost to a 4-12 Raiders team would likely have been sent home in short order. If you want to include the former you have to be willing to live with the latter. And reshuffling the entire playoff deck just to accommodate a team that would be worth having in the field two or three out of ten times is a change not worth making, in my opinion. Now will it happened? That all comes down one thing, and it’s not fairness. It’s money. If the demand for more games is such that the networks will fork over the extra money for more of them, and the numbers look right for the bean counters in the league office, then it’s likely to happen in the future whether it works well or not. But as long as the demand is relegated to people in the media who need something to talk about in the waning days of the regular season we’re not likely to see it.
The other option, the reconfiguration to best six regardless of division standings, is not likely to happen. A change to best six regardless of division standings, would reduce the number of meaningful games in the final week or two of the regular season. This week two NFC division titles and the playoff berths that go with them are up for grabs in head to head matchups, and the remaining two wildcard spot in each conference will be determined over the course of six other games featuring one of the teams still alive. There are six NFC teams and three AFC teams still alive for unclaimed playoff berths, and several teams already in the playoffs who need to win their final game to secure a better playoff seed. Consequently, 13 of the final 16 games of the regular season have something at stake. A best six in format would only reduce that number of games and give us more teams treating week 17 like a preseason game. And with the league wisely trying to eliminate that as much as possible, anything that makes that even remotely more possible is a non starter.
My ultimate prediction is that nothing changes. The league is pretty much at the saturation point in all areas, and it would be unwise to push the envelope much further. The league may talk about it, and various members of the media may advocate for it, but adding another round of playoffs to accommodate one or two more teams in each conference would add to the attrition that already decimates several teams every year and run the risk of giving the fans more football than they want. A Super Bowl being played by two backup quarterbacks because the starters couldn’t survive the extra playoff game could be a disaster in the making. A 2010 Super Bowl matchup between Curtis Painter and Mark Brunell would have been brutal to see, and a 2014 matchup between whoever is backing up Peyton Manning and Drew Brees today would be equally as bad. My hope is that wiser heads will prevail over the potential for more money in the short run.