Roger Goodell has hinted this year that the NFL is exploring the possibility of expanding the playoffs to 14 or 16 teams. Many football fans complained mightily that (gasp!) an under-.500 team might make the playoffs. There is evidence for their concern, too. In 2010 the Seattle Seahawks went 7-9 and still earned a playoff berth, leading many to complain about the NFL’s playoff system. “How can a team that didn’t go at least 8-8 make the playoffs?” Many “purists” pouted and stomped about.
My answer to this is, “Who cares?” More football is a good thing and the records don’t matter once the ball is kicked off on Wild Card Weekend.
The Wild Card and Divisional rounds are some of the best weekends on the sports calendar. How could this possibly be made worse by having a triple-header on Wild Card Saturday and Sunday?
Okay, okay, I still hear the naysayers shouting from the rooftops about a 7-9 or 6-10 team making the playoffs, and I think there is some validity to that point. However, a little tweaking to the playoff system could make it even better than it is now. So, let’s take a look at the changes that would need to be made and how this year’s playoff might have turned out under a seven team system.
Do note, though, that I am going to have the same two Super Bowl teams for argument’s sake so keep that in mind if you don’t think that the results for the Ravens or 49ers would have been the same.
Matt Hasselback with the Seahawks in 2011
This change has been discussed every year we've seen a Wild Card team with a better resume than the team they were playing. Under current rules, the wild-card team goes on the road. Two prime examples of this situation come to mind: First, in 2009 the Arizona Cardinals (9-7) hosted the Atlanta Falcons (11-5) on Wild Card Weekend. The Cardinals won the game 30-24 on their way to an improbable playoff run that ended in the Super Bowl.
In January of 2011, the Seattle Seahawks (7-9) hosted the New Orleans Saints (11-5). In the country’s introduction to Marshawn Lynch’s “Beast Mode,” the Seahawks toppled the Saints 41-36 in the Pacific Northwest.
If the NFL were to go to seven teams in the playoffs, the only thing that winning a division should guarantee is making the playoffs, not the fourth seed. Winning a division could serve as a tiebreaker (e.g., if the division winner and the wild card team are both 10-6, it would be played at the division winner regardless of head-to-head record), but that is all.
Tyrod Taylor Had the Majority of Snaps for the Ravens in Week 17
With more teams in position to make the playoffs at the end of the season it would create more exciting games in December. For once, the NFL should take a lesson from baseball and add wild card teams rather than standing pat. In addition, if winning a division did not guarantee a home game we would have less garbage games like we saw this year with the Cincinnati Bengals and the Baltimore Ravens in Week 17. With their seeding locked in, the Ravens rested their starters and finished 10-6. However, since the Indianapolis Colts were playing the Houston Texans to go to 11-5, the Ravens would not have put an inferior product on the field against the Bengals with home field advantage at stake.
The Falcons had a weak schedule, but still won 2 more games than anyone else in the NFC and deserved a bye
This would not always make a difference in the last week of the season, but it rewards the team that has the best record over a grueling 16-game schedule more than any other team, which makes the No. 1 seed that much more of a prize. As a bonus, the fans of the No. 2 seeds would not have to wait a week to see their teams play. In addition, the bye week is not always an advantage. The Green Bay Packers were flat as the No. 1 seed in January of 2012 and the Broncos could not win at home this year.
To begin looking at our hypothetical playoff scenario, we will start in the NFC. In a rematch of the Week 11 drubbing the 49ers handed to the Bears on Monday Night Football, this ends up being a little closer. With the limited play of Justin Smith coming off injury, the Bears are able to run the ball a little better and control the clock. The 49ers prove to be too much for the Bears in the second half and Colin Kaepernick capitalizes on three second-half interceptions by Jay Cutler. 49ers 34, Bears 21.
Since this is one of the match-ups that would remain the same we can assume the same result. However, imagine how differently the Vikings might have prepared if they knew that a home game was still a possibility in the playoffs? With Christian Ponder still hurt, it still may not have made a difference, but we are left to wonder. Packers 24, Vikings 10.
Perhaps it is ironic, but the Seahawks would get a home game without winning the division, reversing the result in the 2010-2011 playoffs. There is no doubt that the Seahawks have one of the biggest home-field advantages in the league and the result would have been even more lopsided. Even though the Seahawks’ owners are not too cheap to have a good playing surface, Robert Griffin III would not have been effective enough to win here. Seahawks 42, Redskins 21.
What is not to love about this game? Rob Gronkowski returns to the lineup against the flailing Steelers in a match-up of five out of the last 10 Super Bowl winners. I really admire and often root for the Patriots because I love the way they run their organization. However, the Steelers give the Patriots match-up problems much the same way that the Ravens do. The spread going in is around 10 in favor of the Patriots, but the Steelers keep it close throughout. Tom Brady leads a touchdown drive to take the lead in the fourth quarter but leaves Big Ben too much time on the clock. A late field goal lifts the Steelers. Steelers 23, Patriots 21.
The Cheerleaders were the only pretty thing about this Wildcard Game
Since this is a hypothetical list I would like to think that this game might have ended up differently from the offensive dumpster fire that it was, but, alas, I will not. We would have all been tortured again by this match-up the same way we were on January 5th. Texans 19, Bengals 13.
Since Indianapolis finished with the better record, this one would have been played in Lucas Oil Stadium under the new system. With the home crowd rocking in Indy, it would have looked early like the Colts could get off to a fast start and beat the battle-tested Ravens. However, the Colts have not been much of a first half team this year and the game is close at halftime. Flacco’s experience in the playoffs and the Baltimore defense is too much for the young Colts. Ravens 24, Colts 21.
Without the back-to-back travel weeks the Seahawks come into the Divisional round refreshed and ready to go. The Falcons jump out to a 10-point lead early on but cannot hold it. Because Chris Clemens did not have to play on the painted dirt in Washington, Seattle is able to maintain a better pass rush and contain the Falcons in the second half. Marshawn Lynch, although injured, manages enough in the second half to control the clock. Zach Miller torches the Falcons and there is no miracle comeback for Matty Ice.
I said earlier that I wasn’t going to change the result of games that were played, but this match-up is under new circumstances. With the extra rest and added pass rush the Falcons don’t have a chance. Seahawks 31, Falcons 20.
This game might have been closer because Justin Smith, such an integral part of the 49er defense, might not have been as fresh without the bye. However, the Packers still would have had no answer for Colin Kaepernick’s running ability. I think this one would have gone the same way. 49ers 45, Packers 31.
In a rematch of last year’s wild card match-up, the Steelers are again at a disadvantage because Ryan Clark cannot play at altitude. Peyton Manning looks cold in the freezing weather in the Mile High City, but does enough to get the job done. Unlike Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t throw any miracle passes to keep the Steelers close. Pittsburgh can’t match the intensity of the week before in New England and the 10-point spread on this game comes to fruition. Broncos 38, Steelers 24.
In Week 7 the Texans shellacked the Ravens 43-13 at Reliant Stadium. However, the Ravens are more focused in Ray Lewis’ “last ride,” and it is clear from the start that this game is much different. Matt Schaub plays better in the first half than he did against the Bengals, but has trouble finishing drives like he did against Cincinnati. The Ravens score fewer times in the first half, but go to the break with a 14-12 lead. In the second half, Flacco closes his eyes and chucks it downfield enough times to pull away from the struggling Houston offense. Ravens 27, Texans 19.
The high in Denver on January 20 was 46 degrees, which would have made for much better conditions than in the Divisional round match-up against the Steelers. Peyton Manning doesn’t look as cold, but the Ravens defense manages to contain Manning much the way they actually did under the current playoff format. The AFC Championship does not end up being a double-overtime thriller, but Manning makes a mistake late that costs Denver the game. This year, the Ravens don’t miss the easy field goal that sends them to the Super Bowl. Ravens 30, Broncos 28.
The rubber match between the two NFC West heavyweights is a slugfest from the beginning. Both teams pound each other in the first half in an attempt to establish the run game. The score is close at halftime, but the 49ers take the momentum in the third quarter on a long run by Colin Kaepernick. Marshawn Lynch’s nagging injury catches up with him in the second half and he and Robert Turbin are ineffective. Russell Wilson keeps the game close, pulling the Seahawks even late. Kaepernick capitalizes on a solid kickoff return and leads the 49ers down the field leaving David Akers with a 22 yarder to go to the Super Bowl. Even Akers can’t miss from there. 49ers 23, Seahawks 20.
The 49ers deserve to be the favorites in the Super Bowl merely by having to go through a tougher conference. With both quarterbacks starting their first Super Bowl, we may see some early jitters from both Kaepernick and Flacco. The 49ers have had several slow starts in the second half of the season, so don’t be surprised if the Ravens take a lead into halftime. However, this season the Ravens have not faced a power running game like the 49ers utilize. The Ravens are long in the tooth in some spots on defense and the 49ers wear them down by the fourth quarter. Colin Kaepernick, like Tom Brady in 2002, celebrates a Crescent City championship in his second year as a pro. 49ers 31, Ravens 24.