The NFL has been chomping at the bit to tinker with various things as of late, from television schedules, to minor rule tweaking, to moving the draft, to changing up the Pro Bowl. And now we’ve reached the point where they’d like to change the playoff landscape once again by adding an additional wildcard seed per conference.
While the discussion was tabled for now (reportedly, some owners feared ‘oversaturating the market’ by changing the playoffs as they seek to roll out their new Thursday Night Football schedule for the 2014 season), it seems only a matter of time that it comes to pass.
To be truthful, I don’t know entirely what to make of the new proposal. I do not object to changing the format in principle. After all, it’s been altered a number of times over the years as the league has evolved and expanded.
The proposed change would add two new games to the playoff schedule, one in each conference. Rather than each conference advancing two teams to the second round with an automatic bye week by virtue of securing the top two seeds, the second seed would be asked to play the lowest seed in the wildcard round.
This obviously significantly disincentivizes the value of acquiring the second seed. Instead of getting a week off and a free pass to the division round, the second seed now must earn the right to advance without the benefit of the time off. Granted, they will be asked to contend with a seventh seed, but it’s an added game nonetheless.
Thus, if there is a clear frontrunner for the top seed in a conference, then by the end of the season, those competing for the second seed will be less motivated to strive for that position, which could impact the quality of games.
On the other hand, the change would also make the top seed significantly more valuable, since they would be the sole team in each conference with the luxury of a week off, not to mention one less game to play en route to a championship.
Therefore, it could translate into even more combative games down the stretch of the regular season if the first seed is still in contention.
Adding seventh seeds to each conference, though, could also dilute the talent pool that enters the postseason. Previously, the NFL has only seen one team with a losing record reach the postseason during a full schedule, that being the Seattle Seahawks a few years back.
One issue that I’ve had with the MLB and NBA is that the early rounds of the playoffs are often less contested due to the number of teams advancing. Each league advances 16 teams—more than half of the entire pool. Teams with losing records regularly reach the postseason, and rarely find much success.
But there are always thrilling underdog stories. The Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl following the 2005 season by making a late-season run, entering the playoffs as a sixth-seed, and proceeding to beat the top three seeds in the AFC before defeating the top seed in the NFC en route to acquiring the franchise’s record-tying fifth championship.
The Green Bay Packers and New York Giants have also recently gone all the way out of the lowest seed. Adding another seed could grant access to a late-surging team that could do damage in the postseason. The Steelers could have been such a team last season, after finishing on a 6-2 run and (incredibly) missing the playoffs by just a hair.
But decisions aren’t made based on one outcome. All factors above should be considered when weighing the value of expanding the playoffs. Granted, the prime mover of this discussion for the league will be financial revenue, and not the integrity of the sport, but that doesn’t inherently make it a bad idea.