It's not going to affect the 2014 season, but sometime soon the NFL's owners are going to vote to expand the playoffs to 14 teams. It seems almost inevitable, and for the life of me I can't come up with one reason why it should happen.
I take that back, there's a big reason: it will make the owners a ton of extra money. But it's not going to improve anything about the NFL's on-field product.
Why not? Well, let me count the ways.
Since the NFL expanded to 12 playoff teams for the 1990 season, the league has had basically the most entertaining playoff format in sports. By including just 37 percent of the league's teams in the postseason, it's the most exclusive playoff in American sports. At the same time, it allows enough participants that all 32 teams have a reasonable hope of making it.
Which brings me to a big point: who exactly are we leaving out here? This is not college football, where one-loss, two-loss and even occasional undefeated teams are left out of the championship picture.
The new format would add a No. 7 seed in each conference, creating six total wildcard games instead of four. In the past 10 seasons, 14 of 20 seventh-place finishers in the AFC and NFC have been either 8-8 or 9-7. In 10 years, five teams have finished 10-6 and not made the playoffs, and the 2008 Patriots were left out after finishing 11-5.
The stat still remains, though: 70 percent of seventh-place finishers in that timespan were middling teams. Are we really crying at their exclusion? And as for the outliers – the 2008 Patriots and 2012 Bears of the world, doesn't that take some drama out of the proceedings?
For instance, last year's Cardinals were undoubtedly disappointed to miss the playoffs at 10-6. But they were part of a wide-open NFC field last year until the final hours of Week 17. Had last year's field included a seventh team, they would have secured a playoff berth with their Week 16 upset of Seattle. It actually would have reduced the amount of teams vying for the final spot in the postseason.
And are we really complaining that not enough teams are in contention? The NFC playoff seedings weren't decided until the final week last season – including win-and-in division title games in the NFC East and NFC North. Six teams were in the running for the AFC's final wildcard spot.
That means only about 12 teams in the NFL *weren't *involved in the playoff chase during the final two weeks of this season. Again, does it really seem like someone is getting hosed in the current format?
That's just the wildcards. What about the NFL's elite teams, and the disservice we'd be doing them in the new format? The logistics aren't finalized, but the likeliest scenario for a 14-team playoff is that each conference's No. 1 team gets a bye, thereby creating first weekend matchups between No. 2 and No. 7, No. 3 and No. 6 and No. 4 and No. 5.
Under that format, two top-notch teams are getting a pretty raw deal.
Going back a decade, let's take a look at the No. 2 seeds in the NFL playoffs. Of the 20 teams to finish second in their conference in that span, 16 of them have had four or fewer losses – eight of them have finished 12-4, six have finished 13-3, one has finished 14-2 and the 2012 49ers finished 11-4-1.
Three No. 2 seeds in that span went 11-5, and the 2006 New Orleans Saints managed to secure a bye despite finishing 10-6.
A whopping 80 percent of the time in that decade, the No. 2 seeds in the playoffs have had a record of 12-4 or better. You're going to take a bye week away from those teams and force them to play an extra game – in this parity-driven league? Seems bogus to me. [embedded_ad]
What about logistics? Two extra games makes it tough to fit everyone in, and league officials are discussing the possibility of playing playoff games on a Friday night or a Monday night. If they go that route, they're guaranteeing that someone will play a playoff game on a short week's rest.
Which brings up another point: player health. We've seen strong push back from players and fans alike about expanding the regular season to 18 games. It's doubtful so many would complain about more playoff football, but it still creates more games and therefore more opportunity for injuries – which, the 2012 and 2013 Cowboys can attest we don't need any more of.
When you boil it down, there are many reasons why an expanded playoff field seems like a bad idea. You decrease the meaning of the regular season, you add needless complication to the system and you potentially run the risk of watering down the playoffs themselves.
In all honesty, I only see one reason why NFL owners would consider this – money. More teams means a better opportunity to make money off home playoff games, and it means more revenue to share from the TV profits.
If that's the motivation, so be it. Pro football is a business, after all. But let's not pretend it's about anything more than that.