The NFL schedule has consisted of 16 regular-season games and four preseason contests since 1978, with the current 12-team postseason structure existing for the past 29 years.
That structure may change, however, after a report from Mark Maske of the Washington Post revealed that owners are pushing an expanded postseason or an expanded regular season in lieu of dropping one or two preseason contests during current collective bargaining agreement negotiations with the NFLPA.
"Amid mounting criticism of an uncompelling exhibition-season product with sparsely attended stadiums and star players being withheld from games to avoid injury, there is increasing conviction within the NFL to shorten the preseason.
"The change could take effect by the summer of 2021 and would likely need to be accompanied by an expansion of the league's playoff field or regular season to offset the revenue lost from cutting preseason games. It is being discussed as part of ongoing negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement between representatives of the NFL Players Association and team owners, people familiar with the league's inner workings say."
Maske wrote that a playoff field expansion from 12 to 14 or a regular-season stretch from 16 to 17 are on the table.
An 18-game regular season has also been discussed, but as Maske noted, "the union's ongoing resistance to it is increasingly likely to turn the focus to adding playoff games, according to those with knowledge of the situation."
NFLPA President DeMaurice Smith made that resistance clear in July.
"I don't see an 18-game schedule—under any circumstance—being in the best interest of our players," Smith told ESPN's Cameron Wolfe and other reporters.
"If somebody wants to make an 18-game proposal, we'll look at it. I haven't seen anything that makes me think that it would be good for the players."
The current NFL postseason features 12 of the league's 32 teams, with six representing each conference. The top two AFC and NFC teams receive byes into the divisional round, while the other eight participate in wild-card games to meet them there.
Per Maske, the No. 2 seed in each conference would lose a bye and play a seventh seed in the wild-card round in a 14-team format.
Talk of a 14-game postseason is nothing new. In fact, the idea almost seemed inevitable, according to a report from ESPN's Chris Mortensen in 2014.
"Roger Goodell said last week that the league will vote in March to expand the playoff field from 12 to 14 teams in 2015 and, with that, several league sources believe playoff reseeding will become a reality.
"One formula that will be discussed in the offseason is that in addition to first-round byes for the teams with the best record in the AFC and NFC, two divisional champions in each conference will get home games and the remaining 8 teams will be seeded by win-loss record."
ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert also wrote how numerous sides of the league may support the notion:
"The idea of a 14-team field engenders support from a cross section of the league. Owners want the revenue generated by ticket sales and two additional television broadcasts. Players know it's a way to increase their compensation—indirectly, via a higher salary cap—while minimizing exposure to additional injuries."
However, the idea lost steam at the 2015 owner's meetings, with logistics seeming to be the biggest hurdle. New York Giants owner John Mara spoke with ESPN's Dan Graziano and others about the issues:
"It's going to happen at some point. I prefer it the way it is, but I don't feel as strongly about it really maybe as I once did. Because [expansion] is going to happen. One of my concerns about it was when are you going to play those extra games? One of the proposals was playing it on a Monday night. I just think playing on a Monday night in January in northern climates is not the ideal. However, Saturday would be a possibility, and that to me is much more palatable."
The proposed playoff expansion has its plusses and minuses.
On one hand, an addition of a seventh team may help correct a quirk in the current postseason structure, where a non-division winning team can be left out in the cold while a division winner with a much worse record makes the playoffs.
That happened in 2014, when the 10-6 Philadelphia Eagles stayed home while the 7-8-1 Carolina Panthers moved on.
On the other hand, the playoff field may become more diluted, featuring weaker teams on or around the .500 mark.
Regardless of which route the league takes, the 18-game regular season looks unlikely.