NFL Playoff Expansion: Why It Must Happen and How to Make It Work

Shaun Church@@NFLChurchContributor IDecember 26, 2013

Expanding the NFL playoff format would give more good teams a chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
Expanding the NFL playoff format would give more good teams a chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The NFL needs to expand its playoff format to include a seventh team from each conference. Speaking as a fan, that is the greatest idea since the league expanded to the two-team wild-card format when the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.

If you are thinking this is a terrible idea because the playoffs would become a watered-down mess of mediocre teams getting blown out by far superior franchises, just hold off on that thought until you hear the argument.

There are many good and logical reasons why this would work, and, in case you missed it, this is not new news. According to Mark Maske of the Washington Post, the NFL’s competition committee planned to submit the idea of playoff expansion to team owners at the annual league meeting in March 2013.

The committee ultimately did not make its presentation, but the idea has been around for a while.

Here is how it could go down.


How to Make it Work

As you know, 12 teams make the playoffs each season. The winners from each conference’s four divisions get in automatically, with the top two teams in each conference that just missed the cut being allowed in as wild cards. The conferences' top two teams have a bye week, while the third- and fourth-seeded teams battle the two wild-card teams on Wild Card Weekend.

Scrap that.

In the new format, a third wild-card team—the No. 7 seed in each conference—would play the No. 2 seed on wild-card weekend, meaning only the top seed in each conference would be given a bye. Using playoff teams and would-be seventh seeds, here is how the playoffs would have looked last season (we gave each No. 2 seed a victory over the No. 7 seed):

Shaun Church

In the NFC, the Chicago Bears, who missed the playoffs with a 10-6 record, would have traveled to the Bay Area to play the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park. In the AFC, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who missed the playoffs with an 8-8 record, would have traveled to face the New England Patriots.


Watered-Down Playoffs?

Right off the bat, we see that playoff expansion would have provided NFL fans with two more potentially awesome games.

Last year, the Bears finished No. 3 in scoring defense, allowing just 17.3 points per game. The 49ers were just ahead of them at No. 2, allowing 17.1 PPG. Jay Cutler vs. Colin Kaepernick in the postseason with two dominant defenses; what’s not to love about that?

Then you have the two veterans in the AFC with five Super Bowl rings between them—Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady. A Steelers-Patriots game is always big news no matter the stakes, but the playoff atmosphere would have amplified the matchup. The two future Hall of Famers have met only once in the playoffs, a 41-27 Pats stomping of the Steelers during Roethlisberger’s rookie season.

Ben Roethlisberger lost to Tom Brady in the playoffs as a rookie.
Ben Roethlisberger lost to Tom Brady in the playoffs as a rookie.Al Bello/Getty Images

The extra game would not always be a marquee Roethlisberger vs. Brady-type matchup, but it would be competitive far more often than not.

In looking at the past 10 years of playoffs (since 2003), the 20 potential No. 7 seeds had a combined record of 182-138 (.569), or an average yearly record of 9.1-6.9.

That includes nine 9-7 teams, five teams each that finished 10-6 or 8-8 and those unfortunate 2008 Matt Cassel-led Patriots, who missed the playoffs at 11-5.

Simple math tells us 75 percent of potential No. 7 seeds over the past decade finished with a winning record (15 of 20); 30 percent finished with double-digit wins (six of 20); and no potential seventh seed in that time finished with a losing record.

For comparison, the 20 No. 6 seeds since 2003 finished with a combined 195-124-1 (.609) record. The average regular-season record by the sixth seeds was 9.8-6.2, and they had a playoff record of 17-18, including two Super Bowl winners—Pittsburgh (2005) and Green Bay (2010).

Given the fact that anything can happen once teams get to the postseason, adding two more nine-win teams would not dilute anyone’s playoff experience—it would enhance it, if anything.

You remember the 2010 Seattle Seahawks that won the NFC West with a 7-9 record, right? They hosted Drew Brees and the 11-5 New Orleans Saints and beat them, 41-36, while Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch gave us one of the better highlights in NFL history with the 67-yard game-clinching touchdown seen below.

Meanwhile, the New York Giants finished that season at 10-6 and missed the dance because of tiebreakers. Who knows what would have happened if they had sneaked in as the seventh seed and headed to Chicago to face the 11-5 Bears?

And what happened to the Giants in 2010 could happen to the Arizona Cardinals this season. Head coach Bruce Arians and Co. have the opportunity, but they may miss the postseason because of how strong the NFC West is—both Seattle and San Francisco will be in the playoffs in January.

The NFC East, on the other hand, is in a down year and could send a 9-7 division-winner to the postseason.

So why should the Cardinals sit at home watching after one of the best seasons in the franchise’s history? Why did the Giants miss out on playoff football after a 10-win season while the Seahawks were the only team to make the postseason with a losing record?


Why Playoff Expansion Will Work

As noted above, six teams with at least 10 wins would have made the playoffs if there had been a seventh seed from 2003 to 2012. That 2010 season provided two 10-6 teams that missed the playoffs, in fact—the Tampa Bay Buccaneers joined the Giants in the NFC as playoff snubs.

Tampa is the only team in the past decade that would have missed out on the opportunity to play for the Lombardi Trophy under the suggested 14-team playoff format.

There used to be a time when 10 wins guaranteed teams a spot in the postseason. From 1992 to 2002, the season the NFL added the Houston Texans to bring the league to its current total of 32 teams, zero 10-win teams missed the playoffs.

In essence, adding an extra team to the postseason eliminates the 10-win-snub situation. There is no reason a team with 10 or more wins should miss out on the postseason.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell appears in favor of the idea, according to Judy Battista of

With the competitiveness of the league, you see teams get hot the second half of the season. A reasonable argument could be made that there are teams that should qualify for the playoffs and don’t and could win the Super Bowl. I don’t think we want to expand just to have more teams. We want to create more excitement, more interest and give teams a chance to win the Super Bowl.

With more teams winning 10 games these days than in the past, it just makes sense to expand the playoff system.

An average of 9.3 teams per season racked up double-digit win totals in the league’s first 25 years after schedule expansion (’78 to ’02). The most recent decade of play saw a sizeable increase, all the way up to 10.8 teams per season. A number of different reasons and theories can be attributed to the increase, such as league expansion and better competition around the NFL.

Whatever reason you want to point toward as to why more teams are succeeding these days, the simple fact is that there are too many good teams missing out on the playoffs. Adding a seventh team in each conference and more two games on Wild Card Weekend is a perfect solution to that problem.


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