The path to a 14-team NFL playoffs continues to loom before us. It appears now that there is significant momentum to expand the playoffs as early as 2015, according to Peter King. It would likely be in a format where the top-seeded team in each conference earned a bye, while the No. 2 and No. 7 seeds would meet in an extra game in the Wild Card Round.
Ignore, for a moment, the potential revenue brought in by an extra game or whether such a format would bring more parity. How would this effect teams on the field? For every season when a deserving seventh seed would make the playoffs, like the Arizona Cardinals last year, you have a year where a Caleb Hanie-led Chicago Bears team would have crashed the postseason.
If you go back to when the NFL first expanded the playoffs to 12 teams in 1990, the San Francisco 49ers would have been affected by playoff expansion five times. They’ve been that deserving seventh seed, and they’ve been the second seed at risk of losing a bye. By looking at those five seasons, we can get a clearer picture of how the addition of an extra team per conference could alter the playoffs.
The 1991 49ers squad missed the playoffs for the first time since the 1982 strike-shortened season. At the time, a bunch of the blame fell on the departures of free agents Roger Craig and Ronnie Lott and elbow injury that cost Joe Montana the entire season.
That left former USFL star and Tampa Bay Buccaneer reject Steve Young to helm the 49ers, though it was actually third-string quarterback Steve Bono, taking over for an injured Young midway through the season, who led the team down the stretch to a very respectable 10-6 record. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA, the 49ers were actually the second-best team in the NFL in 1991, having finished the campaign with a six-game winning streak. But two close losses to the Atlanta Falcons caused them to miss the playoffs, with Atlanta getting the nod over S.F. by virtue of a tiebreaker.
The ’91 49ers, then, are much like last year’s Arizona Cardinals. Since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams, only 10 double-digit win teams have missed the playoffs. Those are the teams fans have in mind when they support the expanded playoffs; it seems unfair for a team that good to stay at home during the postseason.
The 49ers would have traveled to Detroit in the first round of the playoffs. Earlier that season, the Lions had come into San Francisco and were obliterated 35-3, with Young throwing 18-of-20 for 237 yards and two touchdowns before handing off duties to Bono for the rest of the afternoon. The 49ers defense held Barry Sanders to only 27 yards rushing that day, and it’s not hard to see them coming out on top in a playoff rematch.
That would have sent them to a third matchup with the Atlanta Falcons in the second round, and it’s entirely possible, considering how close the first two matchups were, that the 49ers would have come out victorious there. I don’t see them getting past the Washington Redskins, who had one of the greatest teams ever in 1991, but that’s a far cry from what actually happened that year.
Maybe the ascendancy of Steve Young speeds up Joe Montana’s departure. After all, the 49ers kept Young in the starting role despite missing the playoffs in ’91—had they gotten all the way to the NFC Championship in Young’s first season as starter, maybe they try to trade Montana a year early.
Imagine the Lions, embarrassed by the 49ers in the postseason, dumping Rodney Peete for Montana, paring him up with Barry Sanders in his prime. That would have shaken up the balance of power somewhat.
Instead, the first exposure 49ers fans had to Young was as a regular-season starter on the first 49er team to miss the playoffs in nearly a decade. It would take Young years—not until winning the Super Bowl, actually—for him to finally step out of Montana's shadow. Driving the team back to the NFC Championship Game would have stunted some of those complaints out of the gate.
In 1993, the 49ers again finished with a 10-6 record, but this time, that was enough to earn them the No. 2 seed and a bye. In a 14-team playoff, however, all their 10-6 record would have done is earn them a rematch with their Week 18 (there were two bye weeks that season) opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Eagles actually beat the 49ers on the last day of the season in overtime, 37-34. That gave Philadelphia an 8-8 record, squeaking them into the postseason ahead of the New Orleans Saints. Of course, a 49er win over the Eagles in the season finale wouldn't have impacted San Francisco's playoff seeding, which explains why Steve Bono replaced Steve Young in the second half.
Bubby Brister, who took over for an injured Randall Cunningham, managed to turn a 4-0 start into that 8-8 finish for Philadelphia. The Eagles ended the season 11th in DVOA, and would have slipped into the playoffs with wins over backup quarterbacks for San Francisco and New Orleans.
With the team trying at full speed in the rematch, I don’t see the ’93 Eagles being anything more than a speed bump for the 49ers. This is an example of the downside of expanding to 14 teams; no one outside of Philadelphia was clamoring for a Brister-led Eagles team to crash the playoff party.
Coming off of their win in Super Bowl XXIX, the 49ers slipped to an 11-5 record, good enough for only second in the NFC. Again, that would have paired them with the seventh seed in our expanded playoffs, rather than getting to enjoy a week off to rest.
Enter the Chicago Bears, a solid but unspectacular team in ’95. They started out the season hot, rolling to a 6-2 record, but then lost five out of their next six games, putting them into a tailspin they never quite pulled out of. Winning their last two games would have gotten them back into a 14-team playoff, rather than staying at home.
The 1995 NFC Central was a beast of a division, too. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA, the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions were all top-10 teams in ’95, with only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dragging the division down. Put the Bears in the NFC West or East, and they probably earn a playoff spot even in the old system.
The 49ers and Bears didn’t play in ’95, but considering it was a down year for Chicago on defense, and considering the 49ers once again led the league in offense, I think the 49ers still would have won. Then again, they were shocked by the Packers in the Divisional Round that season, so it’s not out of the question that a different NFC Central team could have sent them home.
We skip past the eras of Steve Mariucci, Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary entirely to get to the next time the 49ers would have been affected by playoff expansion. In those eras, the 49ers were either a wild-card team or bad enough to come nowhere near the playoffs.
But, in 2011, the 49ers bounced back in a big way with Jim Harbaugh and Alex Smith, rocketing to a 13-3 record, their best since 1997. That was enough to earn them a bye, but the 15-1 Green Bay Packers earned the top spot, which would have sent the 49ers to a first-round matchup in a 14-team system.
Their opponent? The Chicago Bears...again. The 2011 edition of the Bears ended up finishing with an 8-8 record, trumping the Arizona Cardinals, Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys on tiebreakers to earn that seventh slot.
The ’11 Bears actually were a really good team at the beginning of the season. Jay Cutler and Matt Forte led them to a 7-3 record, and they looked to be rolling to a wild-card berth. Then, both those players got hurt, and they turned to Caleb Hanie to save the day.
Caleb Hanie did not save the day, going 0-4 as a starter. By the time they switched to Josh McCown, it was too late to salvage the season.
The Bears managed to lose to Tim Tebow. They lost to the Tyler Palko-led Chiefs 10-3. The Bears had scored 30 or more points in six of Jay Cutler’s starts; they never again topped 21. With Cutler out of the lineup, the Bears were entirely unthreatening and would have been rolled over by the 49ers.
The last time the 49ers would have been affected by this playoff expansion was 2012, the year they switched from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick at starting quarterback. Their 11-4-1 record was enough to win the NFC West, but they finished behind Atlanta’s 13-3 record in the race for home-field advantage. That’s one more first-round matchup in a 14-team system.
Their opponent? The Chicago Bears again! The 2012 edition of the Bears was better than their ’11 counterpart, going 10-6 behind a healthy Jay Cutler. They started the season 7-1, but five losses in six games in November and December knocked them back far enough to lose to the Vikings on a tiebreaker.
One of those losses came in Colin Kaepernick’s first-ever game as a starter. The Bears were unprepared for Kaepernick’s debut, as the 49ers scored on their first four offensive possessions, winning 32-7.
Of course, that was the one game Jay Cutler missed, with Jason Campbell taking over the reins in that one. Cutler alone isn’t enough to make up for a 25-point differential, but maybe he avoids some of the 5.5 sacks Aldon Smith put up in that game and makes it competitive.
A playoff rematch would have been interesting to see; the Bears were floundering at the end of the season but were still the sixth-best team according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA, with the stingiest defense in the league. Do the 49ers win that game? They’re definitely still favored, but it’s not a guarantee.
That’s the biggest possible effect of a seventh-seed team in the playoffs. The 49ers made the Super Bowl in 2012 by winning two playoff games. Add in a third game against the Bears, and that’s one more chance to slip up.
Maybe Kaepernick gets hurt in the game, leaving him unavailable for the playoff run. Maybe the 49ers put up a bad all-around game and lose. Any time you change a bye week into a game, you run the risk of turning that into a loss.
Since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990, 13 No. 2 seeds have made the Super Bowl, in part thanks to that first-round bye. Since 1990, No. 2 seeds are 37-18 against lower seeds in the playoffs for a .673 winning percentage. That would imply that four or five of those Super Bowl teams wouldn’t have made it out of the Wild Card Round in this format.
That .673 number might be a little soft, because seventh seeds would on average be worse than fourth or fifth seeds, and because teams that make the Super Bowl tend to be better than average themselves. Still, the fact remains that slipping an extra team into the first round could have seen the 2013 49ers or 2009 Steelers or 2005 Patriots get knocked off before they could even reach the second round.
Simple solution: win that top seed. In a 14-team playoff environment, the battle for the first slot in the playoffs will become even more important than it is now. If not, good teams like the 49ers could see themselves overrun by a swarm of seventh-seeded Chicago Bears.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.