A few years ago, Major League Baseball added two wild card teams, one from the American League and one from the National League, in an effort to spice up the playoffs. While the result has been good from an in-season standpoint, there are plenty of fans and pundits who don’t like the fact that a team can play hard for 162 games, earn a playoff spot, and then lose a one-game playoff that has about the same odds as a coin flip.
While MLB’s move continues to be debated, the NFL is likely going to vote on expanding its playoff format as well. Commissioner Roger Goodell, delivering his State of the League address on Friday, said that the league is considering adding one playoff team from each conference into the wild card round.
“There’s a lot of benefits to doing that,” Goodell told the media. “We think we can make the league more competitive. We think we can make the matchups more competitive toward the end of the season. There’ll be more excitement, more memorable moments for our fans.”
As it stands right now, the winners from each of the NFL’s eight divisions, four from the AFC and four from the NFC, get automatic playoff berths. In each conference, there are two more teams that earn wild card bids, and play the 3rd and 4th seeded teams. The top 2 seeds in each conference get first round byes.
Under the new proposal, the likelihood would be that the second seeded teams would have to play the newly-added seventh seed, with the divisional and championship rounds then proceeding as they currently are played.
There are plenty of advantages to exploring that kind of new system, as well as a few drawbacks. One of the benefits would be that the commissioner’s theory about more excitement at the end of the season would likely come to fruition. With teams playing divisional opponents the last week of the year, there is already plenty of intrigue in that regard, but this season, two of the four wild card spots were already locked up before the final week of the season.
Under the new proposal, it would keep several more teams alive for places in the playoffs, and fans in those cities affected would have increased reason to pay attention to the games in the later stages of the season.
The main drawback of the new plan would be that the likelihood of seeing an average team make the playoffs would go up. This season, the AFC barely avoided having an 8-8 team make the playoffs, as the San Diego Chargers won on an overtime field goal to eliminate the Pittsburgh Steelers. Under the new format, the Steelers would have made the playoffs, and likely would have been minced meat for the New England Patriots to feast upon.
Ultimately though, adding another team to the playoffs isn’t the biggest deal in the world. What is more insulting to fans is that a team like the Green Bay Packers, who finished 8-7-1, or the Philadelphia Eagles, who finished 9-7, get to host playoff games simply because they won their incredibly weak divisions. That leaves strong teams like the San Francisco 49’ers and the New Orleans Saints, who finished 12-4 and 11-5 respectively, as the visitors in crucial playoff games.
If the NFL is serious about making their playoff system better, then they’ll get rid of the rule that says a division winner automatically gets a home playoff game. By doing that, they’ll add more value to the regular season results rather than the geographical location of a team (the Dallas Cowboys excepted), and therefore make their playoff system even better.