8 Exciting Changes the NFL Should Consider for the NFL Playoffs
The NFL playoffs have remained largely unchanged since 2002, save for a move this season that will allow both teams to have one possession in overtime games.
Is it time for more changes? Perhaps. There are a ton of proposals out there for changing things if the league moves to an 18-game regular season schedule, and also some for keeping the regular season status quo, but changing the field for postseason play to clear up some known issues.
Here’s a look at eight exciting changes the NFL should consider. They can’t all be accepted since some conflict, but I’ll give you the case for and against each one. Feel free to add your own proposals in the comments!
Seeding by Record
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This has been kicked around before, mostly because very often teams with better records end up on the road because their division was more hotly contested. That could be the case this year in the AFC, where the Pittsburgh Steelers seem likely to finish with a better record than the fourth-seeded team, if not the third seed as well.
Teams with the best records would be rewarded by having a higher seed. In this scenario, even if a team finishes 8-8 and wins their division, they would be seeded lower than a second-place team with a 12-4 record. It would also make it worthwhile for second-place teams in good divisions to keep playing hard all the way to the finish line.
Seems so wonderful, but there are a few kinks here that need to be straightened out. This plan would make winning a division less important, but only slightly because of the need to have a top record to qualify. It would also punish division winners who don’t have a great record by sending them on the road and away from their fans. It’s not a perfect plan, but the cons don’t seem to outweigh the pros.
Bye Weeks for All Division Winners
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Okay. Let’s say you don’t want to change the seeding for the playoffs. What about giving division winners all a boost by letting them all take the first week off? The fifth and sixth seeds would duke it out for the right to play in the next round. The top seed would get a second bye week while the remaining teams would play the usual best vs. worst record format.
Baseball is heading this way when they add a second wild card team. There’s a winner take all round between the two wild card teams. This makes winning a division so much more important, because it guarantees a week off. Wild cards would have to play an extra game (21 in all if they go to the Super Bowl). It also, I think, creates more drama.
It won’t happen, and I’ll tell you why. The number one team would be incredibly rusty after two weeks off. Also, it lengthens the playoffs. The NFL doesn’t seem to be looking to do that, just the regular season. It also allows for a potentially lesser team to have a week off while another team will have to gut it out. It seems like a fun idea, however.
Back to Sudden Death
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Yes, it was just changed, but I’m not sure it will stick. The playoffs are all about winner-take-all games. There are no second chances. Why should overtime be different. Now, to be clear, I support the NFL doing the new overtime format during the regular season. I just don’t like it for the playoffs.
There’s no higher drama than a sudden-death overtime game’s coin toss. The winner has the best chance to win by far. The loser must go on the defensive (unless your Marty Mornhinwheg). It makes for great theater. The playoffs are all about intensity—this ups it. It also prevents a game from devolving into a field goal contest.
There’s the sentiment that doing this puts one team at a serious disadvantage, based solely on the coin toss. I get that. There aren’t a lot of cons really. The NFL did it this way for so long.
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Let’s take it the other way now. What about having both teams play a full 15 minute overtime, regardless of scoring and then go to sudden death after that, if necessary. It solves the issue of the coin toss, and it maintains the drama of the regular game. I’ll go a step beyond and suggest that the sudden death involve field goals in five yard increments, starting at the 25. The better kicker wins the day.
It solves some of the issues people have with both sudden death and the new system being tried this season. It’s almost a compromise between the two, but there are some additional things thrown in to create drama (I like the field goal kicking because suddenly, it makes a good kicker a really important weapon).
Games could drag on. Kicking in a dome (or Denver) could mean the sudden death would drag on for a long, long time. Playing a full overtime period regardless of the score removes some of the drama from the final minutes of the fourth quarter. It’s a good plan, but it’s got its issues, too.
Expanding the Playoff Field
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Could the NFL go to eight teams per conference in the playoffs? I guess it could happen. There are varying ways to do this: They could add one team per conference and give the top three teams a bye week. They could add two and give all four division winners a bye week. They could add two, and have a more expansive wild card slate. This has been discussed as part of the increase to an 18-game season or even as an alternative to it. There’s a lot to play with here.
More games and more teams. There’s always a team we feel bad leaving behind. That 9-7 team that battled its way down the stretch to overcome a poor start. The San Diego Chargers of this season could be that team. So could Cincinnati or New York. This would allow one or two more teams in each conference the chance to push for a championship.
But what about those seasons when you’re just glad to drop the dead weight and play the real games? There have been seasons where the teams making the playoffs are the only teams you want to see in January. Could you imagine if the last two teams were 8-8, 7-9 or 6-10? There would be outrage.
Returns from Injured Reserve
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I’ve always wondered why the NFL has a season-ending injury list. No other sport really does that. Baseball has a 15 and 60-day disabled list. Hockey has injured reserve, but players can be reactivated at any time. The problem is that there is no minor league system for optioning players in the NFL. You’d have to cut someone. This would provide that you could bring back any player on IR by cutting another, but only during the playoffs.
Teams would have a little more leeway when it comes to ending the seasons of injured stars. Rod Woodson returned in 1995 to play in Super Bowl XXX. The Steelers had to, however, keep his roster spot vacant until then.
With all of the focus on how irresponsible teams in professional sports can be with injuries (Cleveland, I’m looking at you and Colt McCoy), this might promote a little bit more of that theory of “well, he’s good enough to play.” Other than that, this seems like a great plan.
What About Teams with Losing Records?
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How about this one? You have to have a winning record to make the playoffs. A couple of things have to happen. One, you can’t expand the playoffs. Two, you’d probably be best-suited to expand the regular season. This would have helped last season, when Seattle won a division at 7-9 but saw both Tampa Bay and New York at 10-6 staying home.
While the Seattle win over New Orleans made great news, it was kind of an abomination of what people expect the playoffs to be about. Seattle wasn’t the best team in the NFL. They were the 10th-best team. Two better teams stayed home because they had to go as a division winner.
You run the risk of making divisions unimportant. What’s the use in winning one if it means you don’t make the playoffs? There’s another risk, too. What if you make this rule and there are no teams left that don’t have a losing record? Do you play that team in the playoffs as a 6th seed? It could happen, and it begs the question of what would be done.
How About Eliminating the Bye Weeks
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There are six seeds in the playoffs. What about not having any bye weeks in the first round. You can have different ways of matching teams up. You could have best vs. worst like they do now, or you could match one versus two, three versus four and five versus six. You could have all the division winners square off and the two wild card teams playing each other. Then, the top remaining team would get a bye the following week, with an automatic berth in the conference title game.
It means more games, more drama and more importance regarding seeding. If you do a best versus worst, you don’t want to be a sixth seed. It also removes the perceived unfairness that goes along with giving out two bye weeks per conference. It also rewards the top survivor by giving them a home championship game.
I like this until the part about giving an automatic pass to the championship game. That bugs me because you leave the door open for a team that otherwise might have won being left out of the big dance. Outside of that, there’s not much wrong.