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Why an NFL Playoff Format Change Is Inevitable

The league and players association have reportedly agreed to a new postseason structure as part of the new CBA. Even if that plan falls apart, fans should be prepared for a new-look bracket some time soon.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Adapt or die. The NFL and NFLPA have informally agreed to change the NFL postseason structure, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. If finalized as part of a new collective bargaining agreement, the move would shift the NFL’s tectonic plates. The format would add a seventh team from each conference, increasing the 12-team playoff field to 14 for the 2020 season and beyond. It would be the first time the field has been expanded since 1990, when the league went from 10 teams to 12. The proposal would also eliminate the first-round bye for the no. 2 seed in each conference.

The resulting playoff field would look like this:

  • Six wild-card weekend games (currently four)
  • Four divisional-round games
  • Two conference championships
  • Super Bowl

Here are the teams from the last 10 years that missed the postseason as the no. 7 seed but would have made the playoffs under the proposed format.

2019: Pittsburgh (8-8) and Los Angeles (9-7)
2018: Pittsburgh (9-6-1) and Minnesota (8-7-1)
2017: Baltimore (9-7) and Detroit (9-7)
2016: Tennessee (9-7) and Tampa Bay (9-7)
2015: New York Jets (10-6) and Atlanta (8-8)
2014: Houston (9-7) and Philadelphia (10-6)
2013: Pittsburgh (8-8) and Arizona (10-6)
2012: Pittsburgh (8-8) and Chicago (10-6)
2011: Tennessee (9-7) and Chicago (8-8)
2010: San Diego (9-7) and New York Giants (10-6)

The Steelers would have made four additional playoff trips in the last 10 years, though they went 8-8 in three of those seasons. In fact, six of the 20 teams on this list would have made the playoffs with just eight wins. That will lead to a lot of criticism that this change will dilute the playoff field. Yes, it will. But diluting the playoffs is how the playoffs came to be.

In the early days of the NFL, the team with the most wins at the end of the season was the champion. But in 1932, football’s first championship game was played to break a tie atop the standings. To do so, they added something called a “postseason” game where the winner got all the marbles (this was the 1930s, when people still used marbles). The game was a logistical disaster, but fans loved it. For the next 35 years, this determined the NFL champion. Then the first Super Bowl was conceived for the 1966-67 season. Pre-merger, the game pitted the winner of the NFL championship game against the winner of the AFL championship game. This was a big money maker. The following year, in 1967, the two leagues added the divisional round, which expanded the playoff field to eight teams. This made even more money. A decade later, in 1978, the league wanted to move from an eight-team field to 10 teams, but to do so, it needed to add another round to the playoffs, which they called the “wild-card” round (silly name, imo). A dozen years after that, in 1990, the NFL added two more teams to the NFL playoffs, ballooning it to 12 teams.

The format has been largely untouched for 30 years, which has created the perception that the playoffs are immovable. But like tectonic plates, the NFL playoffs are prone to long periods of rest interrupted by sudden shifts that change the landscape. The world moves on, fans get used to it, and eventually people forget it ever looked different. But the only constant is change. So aside from the human fear of change itself, is 14 teams a good number? It would still mean less than half of NFL teams make the postseason, which is more than the NBA or NHL can say. In both of those leagues, 16 teams qualify for the postseason. It’s hard to pitch something as exclusive when the majority make it. The NFL would see 14 of 32 teams qualify, which is still two fewer playoff teams in a league with more franchises. (Major League Baseball is also reportedly considering expanding its postseason field and allowing teams to choose their opponents, which feels like a more drastic change than what the NFL could do.)

There would be changes beyond adding two 7-seeds. The 1-seed in each conference would become significantly more important with the 2-seed losing the first-round bye. The last two Super Bowl champions would have been forced to play on wild-card weekend, a true what if scenario. But more football will be profitable. Two additional games on wild-card weekend would make everyone involved more money. It would also let the NFL test whether they can saturate an entire weekend of American life like March Madness. Wild-card weekend could feature three games on Saturday and Sunday that would mirror the league’s experiment in December, when three games (Texans-Bucs, Bills-Patriots, and Rams-49ers) were spread across a Saturday. The NFL isn’t content with your Sundays. They want your Saturdays too, at least when they are legally permitted to vie for them. Or perhaps it wants one of your January Mondays.

The proposal won’t become official for the 2020 season without a new collective bargaining agreement, and it is not a guarantee that will come anytime soon. Owners and players are still haggling over large issues, including whether to add a 17th game to the NFL season. Players see it as the bridge to an inevitable 18-game schedule, which would take a further toll on their minds and bodies. Owners see dollar signs. The more things change, the more they stay the same.