Who Would Benefit Most from Expanded NFL Playoffs?
Since 1990, 12 NFL teams—six each from the AFC and NFC—have been eligible to qualify for the postseason each year.
But the league is seriously bandying about adding an extra playoff team in each conference, and even though the idea was tabled until the fall, meaning the 2014 postseason won't be expanded, most feel it's only a matter of time before the measure is passed.
And even though it won't happen this year, figuring out which teams would benefit the most from an expanded postseason in 2014 provides a glimpse into their potential fortunes.
First, let me explain how I chose the six teams listed in this column. In order to merit selection, a team cannot be one of my top-two choices to win its respective division (except the teams in the jumbled AFC East behind New England). While some of these choices may seem controversial, it's how I currently see the season playing out.
Teams that I could easily see making the playoffs in their current format are not eligible for this list. Those clubs are the New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos, San Diego Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, New Orleans Saints, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers.
Some teams were automatically disqualified, as they wouldn't qualify for the postseason even with an added spot available. Those franchises are the Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Oakland Raiders and Minnesota Vikings.
And the last paring came as a matter of personal preference. For example, I believe that the New York Giants and Washington Redskins will both finish ahead of the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East, meaning that the expanded playoffs would benefit the Cowboys more than either the Giants or Redskins. The rationale for each team's inclusion is explained in its slide.
Here are the teams that would benefit most from expanded NFL playoffs.
Every Team in the AFC East Except the New England Patriots
Go ahead and print the T-shirts and hats: The New England Patriots will win the AFC East for the 11th time in 12 seasons. Coach Bill Belichick's team doesn't need an expanded playoff to qualify for the postseason.
But for the other three teams in the division—the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills—an expanded playoffs could make the difference between playing football or golf once the calendar turns to January.
Last season, the Jets and Dolphins both finished 8-8, just missing the postseason. And both clubs have improved in the offseason.
The Jets have added weapons at the skill positions to advance their offense into the 21st century, inking free-agent receiver Eric Decker and running back Chris Johnson in free agency and drafting Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro in the second round. Quarterback Michael Vick was also brought in to push incumbent starter Geno Smith.
In 2013, the Dolphins couldn't protect quarterback Ryan Tannehill, allowing a league-high 58 sacks. In order to keep Tannehill upright, the club signed left tackle Branden Albert, guard Shelley Smith and drafted Tennessee tackle Ja'Wuan James in the first round.
And while the Bills finished 6-10, they have a number of talented young players on both sides of the ball, including former Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins, whom the team traded up in the first round for the right to select.
A case could be made for the either the Jets, Dolphins or Bills to finish at 8-8 or better, but it's unclear if that will be enough to make the postseason with the system as is.
An expanded playoff would certainly help their chances.
St. Louis Rams
The St. Louis Rams have the look and feel of a playoff team.
The problem is so does every other team in the NFC West—and right now, the Rams don't appear to be on the same level as the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers or Arizona Cardinals.
Think about it: If the Rams played in an easier division (say, the NFC East or AFC South), they would likely qualify for the postseason. They have the best defensive line in football, spearheaded by the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, end Robert Quinn, and the offense should be improved with the drafting of Auburn tackle Greg Robinson.
But with the NFC West being as rough-and-tumble as it is, it's tough to envision a scenario where the Rams are able to qualify. Just last year, the Cardinals finished 10-6, but that was only good enough for third place in the division, and they ended up missing the playoffs.
If seven teams qualified for the NFC postseason instead of six, an easier case could be made for the Rams. It's within the realm of possibility that either the Seahawks, 49ers or Cardinals could falter this season for a variety of reasons, and if that happens, the Rams could be the beneficiary.
There's no question that an expanded playoff would benefit the Rams in 2014.
The Dallas Cowboys have failed to qualify for the postseason in each of the last four years, including three consecutive losses in Week 17 "win-and-in" NFC East title games.
So it makes sense that owner Jerry Jones is a major proponent of the potential expanded playoffs, telling NFL Media's Kimberly Jones (via NFL Media's Ian Rapoport) that it would "help my Cowboys."
Of course, it would behoove Jones to worry more about constructing a better roster and doing a better job of managing the salary cap to push his team into the playoffs, but why do that when you can wait on the playoffs to expand? And yes, that sound you just heard was every Cowboys fan in the country slapping his/her forehead in disgust.
But it's true that the expanded playoffs would be a benefit to the Cowboys. Their defense finished 2013 ranked 32nd overall and doesn't look to be much improved. The offense should be solid, but 34-year-old quarterback Tony Romo is coming off a second back surgery. Dallas needs all the help it can get.
As of this writing, the Philadelphia Eagles are the favorite to win the NFC East, and the 2014 iterations of the New York Giants and Washington Redskins should be better than they were in 2013. That means the Cowboys face an uphill climb to reach the postseason.
Jones is right to want the playoffs to expand. It might be the only way for the Cowboys to advance into January with their current core of players and coaches.
Last season, the Detroit Lions missed a golden opportunity to claim what would have been only their second playoff appearance in the past 14 seasons.
And with division rivals Green Bay and Chicago looking like perennial postseason contenders, the Lions might just need the playoffs to expand in order to qualify.
There's no doubting the talent that the Lions possess. The offense, featuring quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson, is absolutely loaded. And the defense, keyed by tackle Ndamukong Suh, has the ability to sparkle as well.
But considering how good the Packers and Bears are projected to be, it's difficult to imagine the Lions earning a top-two finish in the NFC North.
Plus, the Vikings should be improved, meaning the Lions face a daunting task to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
An expanded playoff would surely help their case, as a third-place finish in the NFC North wouldn't necessarily eliminate them from contention.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs finished 11-5 in 2013 and qualified for the postseason, but they are far from a lock to repeat that performance in 2014.
While the San Diego Chargers finished in third at 9-7, they also made the tournament, and on paper, they appear to be better than Kansas City heading into 2014.
In fact, an argument could easily be constructed that out of the four teams in the AFC West, the Chiefs are the only squad that hasn't gotten better this offseason. The Broncos, Chargers and Raiders have all improved, while Kansas City hasn't added playmakers at the receiver position and had its offensive line pilfered in free agency.
As long as quarterback Peyton Manning stays healthy, the Broncos are close to a lock to win the AFC West for the fourth consecutive season. The Chargers have the feel of a playoff squad. And the Raiders should be competitive, which is more than they've been able to say over the last few seasons.
All of these factors mean that the Chiefs will have a tough time making the playoffs in 2014, especially if they finish third in the AFC West. That's where an added postseason berth would greatly benefit coach Andy Reid's team.
Last season, the Atlanta Falcons' streak of three consecutive playoff appearances ended in hideous fashion, as the club finished 4-12 and in last place in the NFC South.
But a fantastic offseason engineered by general manager Thomas Dimitroff has the Falcons back on the upswing. The issue is that the NFC South is an incredibly tough division, with the Panthers, Saints and Buccaneers all looming as legitimate playoff contenders.
At this point, the Falcons cannot be considered the best team in the division (that honor belongs to New Orleans), and it's very possible that both the Buccaneers and Panthers will also finish ahead of them. I believe more in Tampa Bay than I do in Atlanta.
If the Falcons are only the third-best team in their own division, it's going to be difficult to qualify for the playoffs. Much like the other teams on this list, an additional spot would greatly enhance their chances.