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Is There Really a Benefit to Adding Two NFL Playoff Games?

The league’s new CBA includes more postseason football. But is that a good thing? We looked back at the past 10 years of matchups under the new format to find out.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This season, the NFL will have more playoff teams than ever before. As a result of the new CBA, which the players agreed to on Saturday, 14 of the league’s 32 teams will earn postseason berths this winter. That’s nearly 50 percent of the NFL, making the path to the playoffs easier than it has ever been. Along with creating a no. 7 seed in each conference, this move also means that both no. 2 seeds will now play on wild-card weekend, giving us six games for the postseason’s opening slate.

These are wild changes—the biggest to the NFL in decades. But are they good ones? There’s only one way to find out: playing the games. Since we can’t do that today, I did the next best thing and looked at the past 10 postseasons to see what they would have looked like under this new format. The changes include everything from new intriguing matchups to massive ripple effects that could have changed the entire league (read on to find out how this change could have kept the Ravens from drafting Lamar Jackson). Here’s what I found:

The 2019 Postseason

New wild-card matchups:

  • AFC: No. 7 Steelers (8-8, 18th in Football Outsiders’s DVOA) at no. 2 Chiefs (12-4, second)
  • NFC: No. 7 Rams (9-7, 12th) at no. 2 Packers (13-3, 10th)

The Steelers skidded to three consecutive losses to end last season … and somehow that would have been good enough for a postseason berth and a matchup against the Chiefs. And while Pittsburgh fielded the league’s third-best defense by DVOA, I’m pretty confident Patrick Mahomes and Co. would have gotten past Mason Rudolph and the 32nd-ranked offense.

Rams-Packers, meanwhile, would have been pretty interesting. L.A. regressed in 2019, but Green Bay overachieved, going an incredible 8-1 in games decided by eight or fewer points. That game would’ve been competitive.

Would the Super Bowl result be affected?

Another game is another game, and with it comes the chances of an upset or injuries that would have rippled through the postseason. So while the Chiefs would have been heavy favorites against Pittsburgh, this format puts up a significant obstacle for them on the path to the Super Bowl.

What about the regular season?

Four AFC teams finished at 7-9, and perhaps one of them would have been more motivated to make a run late in the season if they thought they could catch the Titans, who claimed the last spot with a 9-7 record. The Raiders (losers in five of their last six) and Colts (losers in seven of their last nine) in particular could have made a late push.

The Chiefs also may have rested some players. In the final weeks of the season, they were in a battle with the Patriots for the no. 2 seed, but were unlikely to catch the Ravens for the top overall spot (even though Kansas City held the head-to-head tiebreaker). Under this new system there isn’t much of an advantage to gaining the second seed instead of the third—and it’s certainly not worth risking injury to Mahomes or any of the Chiefs’ top players.

Any other ripple effects?

After going all in with big-money contracts for guys like Todd Gurley, Jared Goff, and Brandin Cooks, and making blockbuster trades for players like Jalen Ramsey, the Rams have watched their defense fall apart this free-agency period. Perhaps they’re being more conservative now because they realize it’s all coming apart at the seams—but a playoff berth may have prompted the team to keep the pedal to the metal.

The 2018 Postseason

New wild-card matchups:

  • AFC: No. 7 Steelers (9-6-1, ninth) at no. 2 Patriots (11-5, seventh)
  • NFC: No. 7 Vikings (8-7-1, 10th) at no. 2 Rams (13-3, second)

Once again, the Steelers are in. This is a pattern—in fact, the Steelers would have made the playoffs every single year in the past decade under this new system. They’ve been in the playoffs six times and just missed the four other seasons.

In 2018, the Steelers beat the Patriots 17-10 in a Week 15 matchup, so this format would have set up a rematch a few weeks later. Granted that game was at Heinz Field, and this theoretical playoff game would happen in Foxborough—but still, this would have been an interesting matchup. The Vikings and Rams also played that season in the Week 4 Thursday Night Football matchup when Jared Goff set the world on fire. That ended up as just a seven-point victory for Los Angeles though … there’s no guarantee the Rams come out on top again.

Would the Super Bowl result be affected?

With both Super Bowl teams now playing an extra playoff game, it’s extremely likely one or both of their paths gets derailed in this scenario. We could have had the Saints-Chiefs Super Bowl we were promised instead of the Rams-Patriots 13-3 clunker.

What about the regular season?

Both no. 7 seeds were very clear this season, so the end of the regular season wouldn’t change much at all.

Any other ripple effects?

Not much that I can see. The Steelers and Vikings didn’t do anything too drastic that offseason.

The 2017 Postseason

New wild-card matchups:

  • AFC: No. 7 Ravens (9-7, seventh) at no. 2 Steelers (13-3, third)
  • NFC: No. 7 Lions (9-7, 12th) at no. 2 Vikings (13-3, fourth)

I’m a skeptic of this expanded playoff format, but this is the kind of year when it shines. In 2017, we would have gotten two divisional matchups, and both no. 7 seeds would have come into the playoffs with a winning record.

The Ravens were 0-2 against Pittsburgh that year. Could the Steelers go three for three? Given how close these two squads were in DVOA, a Baltimore upset is easy to imagine. On the NFC side, the Lions split the regular-season series with the Vikings, but given the gap between the two teams’ DVOA, Detroit would have been a significant underdog in their playoff matchup.

Would the Super Bowl result be affected?

The Eagles and Patriots were both no. 1 seeds, so their path to the Super Bowl wouldn’t have changed much at all.

What about the regular season?

The Ravens just missed out on the playoffs this season—Eric Weddle had an interception in Week 17 against the Bengals that could have secured a playoff berth, but it was wiped out by a defensive holding penalty. With another playoff spot available, the Ravens would have made it, and the Chargers (also 9-7) would have drawn the short stick out of the four AFC teams that finished with nine wins.

The NFC had three 9-7 squads. All missed the postseason, so the new format would have given us a race between those teams for the last spot.

Any other ripple effects?

After a third consecutive year when they failed to reach the playoffs, the Ravens went on to draft Lamar Jackson. Do they think differently about Joe Flacco if he’d just guided the team to postseason berth? If the Ravens don’t take Jackson with the no. 32 pick, where does he end up? The domino effect is mind-boggling.

Meanwhile this was Jim Caldwell’s last season with the Lions. Perhaps he’s never fired if the team had snuck into the playoffs.

The 2016 Postseason

New wild-card matchups:

  • AFC: No. 7 Titans (9-7, 15th) at no. 2 Chiefs (12-4, sixth)
  • NFC: No. 7 Buccaneers (9-7, 22nd) at no. 2 Falcons (11-5, third)

At the very least, having sophomore season Jameis Winston in the playoffs would have been fun, since we never know whether his next pass will be a touchdown or an interception. And this gives us an intriguing divisional playoff matchups. Marcus Mariota vs. Alex Smith is a bit less tantalizing.

Would the Super Bowl result be affected?

The Falcons playing on wild-card weekend means they’d be less likely to get to the Super Bowl, which means the 28-3 collapse could be wiped from history. Atlanta fans might like that, actually.

What about the regular season?

The Titans beat the Broncos in Week 14, which gave Tennessee the tiebreaker despite both teams finishing 9-7. That’s late enough in the season that it’s clear both teams would have been eyeing this new seventh seed, and thus that game would have taken on new significance.

Any other ripple effects?

Would we think about Mariota and Winston differently if they both made the postseason in their second year in the league? I mean, probably not—but those of us who had high hopes for the 2015 draft class can dream.

The 2015 Postseason

New wild-card matchups:

  • AFC: No. 7 Jets (10-6, ninth) at no. 2 Patriots (12-4, sixth)
  • NFC: No. 7 Falcons (8-8, 26th) at no. 2 Cardinals (13-3, third)

Does anyone want the Falcons, who lost eight of their final 11 games in 2015, in the postseason? What would be the point of that? This matchup is an example of this expanded format at its worst.

A Jets-Patriots playoff game would be interesting, if only because I’m a sucker for divisional rivalries. And anything can happen when Ryan Fitzpatrick is under center. The Jets also beat the Pats in an overtime game just two weeks prior to when this wild-card matchup would have theoretically occurred.

Would the Super Bowl result be affected?

The Broncos and Panthers were both no. 1 seeds, so the Super Bowl would likely remain the same.

What about the regular season?

The Pats lost their final two games of the season, which paved the way for the Broncos to win the no. 1 seed. That was disappointing for New England fans at the time—under the new format, it would have been devastating.

Any other ripple effects?

Do we think the Jets re-sign Fitzpatrick if he guides them to the playoffs? Wait, they did that anyway? OK, carry on then.

The 2014 Postseason

New wild-card matchups:

  • AFC: No. 7 Texans (9-7, 19th) at no. 2 Broncos (12-4, second)
  • NFC: No. 7 Eagles (10-6, seventh) at no. 2 Packers (12-4, third)

The Texans used a rotating cast of quarterbacks in 2014, starting Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, and Ryan Mallett for stretches with fluctuating degrees of success. Keenum—who started the team’s final two regular-season games and won both—would have likely been the one to suit up against Peyton Manning’s Broncos. It’s tough to see that ragtag group having much of a shot.

The Eagles, meanwhile, were surprisingly good despite leaning on Mark Sanchez at quarterback after Nick Foles broke his collarbone in Week 9. But they also would have run straight into Aaron Rodgers at the peak of his powers—so keep your expectations in check.

Would the Super Bowl result be affected?

In the Patriots and Seahawks, we have another straightforward matchup of top seeds.

What about the regular season?

Three teams finished at 12-4 in the NFC and two more did in the AFC. Those races for the top seeds would have been even more exhilarating under this format. Meanwhile, four teams in the AFC had a 9-7 record, so the Texans would have had competition for that final playoff spot.

Any other ripple effects?

Chip Kelly making back-to-back postseasons could have changed the course of the entire Eagles franchise—and by extension, totally upended recent NFL history.

The 2013 Postseason

New wild-card matchups:

  • AFC: No. 7 Steelers (8-8, 15th) at no. 2 Patriots (12-4, fifth)
  • NFC: No. 7 Cardinals (10-6, 10th) at no. 2 Panthers (12-4, third)

This was one of those weird years with a large disparity between the seventh-seeded team that just missed out on the playoffs (in this case, the 10-6 Cardinals) and the fourth-seeded team that squeaked in thanks to a weak division (the 8-7-1 Packers). In Carson Palmer’s first year in Arizona, the Cardinals were still figuring some things out and just missed the postseason, but they’d go on to make it the next two years. They also beat the Panthers 22-6 in Week 5, forcing three interceptions out of Cam Newton, and were 10th in DVOA. That could have been a fun matchup.

But do we need Steelers-Patriots again? Pittsburgh lost to New England 55-31 in Week 9. That dropped the Steelers to 2-6, and while their 6-2 rally to finish the season would have been a lot more impactful if they ended up in a playoff spot, they still would have been outmatched against the Pats.

Would the Super Bowl result be affected?

Broncos-Seahawks. Once again, we have the top seeds competing for the Lombardi Trophy, so we shouldn’t expect much to change.

What about the regular season?

The second half of the season would have been more fun on the AFC side, especially since the Ravens, Jets, and Dolphins all also finished at 8-8. The race for that last spot would have been very tight.

Any other ripple effects?

The Cardinals were already feeling good about new head coach Bruce Arians taking over their 5-11 squad and winning 10 games, and the Steelers are the Steelers—they never really overreact.

The 2012 Postseason

New wild-card matchups:

  • AFC: No. 7 Steelers (8-8, 18th) at no. 2 Patriots (12-4, third)
  • NFC: No. 7 Bears (10-6, sixth) at no. 2 49ers (11-4-1, fourth)

Steelers-Patriots again! This .500 team lost five of its last seven—I don’t think we need to see them get rinsed by Tom Brady and Co.

Meanwhile the Bears were quite good that season, fielding the league’s top defense … and 26th-ranked offense. Julius Peppers, Peanut Tillman, Tim Jennings, Henry Melton, and Brian Urlacher would have caused problems for anyone in the postseason. I blame Jay Cutler for the Bears not being better, though his receivers outside of Brandon Marshall leave nothing to write home about (anyone remember Earl Bennett? He was second in receiving yards for that team. It was bleak).

Would the Super Bowl result be affected?

The Ravens made a run to the Super Bowl after playing on wild-card weekend, so let’s assume they do that again in this format. But would the 49ers make it after playing an additional game? We may have missed out on the Harbaugh Bowl.

What about the regular season?

The Patriots may have taken their foot off the gas in Week 17, since they couldn’t have caught the Broncos for the top seed. Ditto for San Francisco in the NFC—the Falcons were way out in front.

Any other ripple effects?

Longtime Bears head coach Lovie Smith was fired at the end of the 2012 season, but he probably hangs around for another year with back-to-back playoff appearances.

The 2011 Postseason

New wild-card matchups:

  • AFC: No. 7 Titans (9-7, 13th) at no. 2 Ravens (12-4, seventh)
  • NFC: No. 7 Bears (8-8, 15th) at no. 2 49ers (13-3, sixth)

I don’t really need to see the Matt Hasselbeck–Chris Johnson Titans in the playoffs, and the Bears aren’t much more interesting. This time around, the Bears had the 30th-ranked offense and the fourth-ranked defense. This exercise has really reminded me how many great defenses their offense couldn’t take advantage of.

Would the Super Bowl result be affected?

The Patriots were the no. 1 seed and the Giants made a run as the no. 4 seed. Neither would be too affected by the new format

What about the regular season?

The Cardinals, Eagles, and Cowboys all also finished 8-8 in the NFC, but the Bears would get the nod due to win percentage in common games. The Lions were the no. 6 seed that year at 10-6, so with a seventh spot on the line those squads would have had some extra motivation.

Also in the NFC, the Niners likely shut down early—no one was catching the 15-1 Packers for the top seed.

Any other ripple effects?

See above: The Lovie Smith era maybe doesn’t end with back-to-back finishes as the no. 7 seed.

The 2010 Postseason

New wild-card matchups:

  • AFC: No. 7 Chargers (9-7, eighth) at no. 2 Steelers (12-4, second)
  • NFC: No. 7 Giants (10-6, ninth) at no. 2 Bears (11-5, 14th)

Finally! We get a seventh seed with a better DVOA than a second seed. New York seems to go on playoff runs only if they play on wild-card weekend, and this was a truly dangerous Giants team—plus, they’d beaten the Bears 17-3 in Week 4.

The Chargers are another impressive no. 7 seed. They won seven of their final nine games—a stretch which featured a whopping 10 players who eclipsed 100 receiving yards—and could have easily made noise in the postseason. They were no. 4 in offensive DVOA and no. 7 in defense. In true Chargers fashion, they ranked dead last on special teams.

Would the Super Bowl result be affected?

The Steelers would have faced a more difficult road, but the 6-seed Packers would have had virtually the same uphill climb.

What about the regular season?

The Giants and Buccaneers both finished 10-6 in the NFC. That’s one of the benefits of this new system—rarely will 10-6 teams fall short of the playoffs. This year, though, Tampa Bay would be one of those few exceptions.

Any other ripple effects?

The eventual champion Packers may not have met the Bears in the NFC championship game that year, and losing that matchup of bitter rivals would be tragic.