Playoffs are a tricky thing.
My favorite sporting event is the NCAA Basketball Tournament and I think an NCAA Football Tournament is long overdue. The NBA and NHL both have way too many teams in their playoffs (16 of 30) but it works because of the best-of-seven series. I don’t like the MLB playoffs because it seems odd to play 162 games and then tell a team they have to win a best-of-five series to advance.
I generally like the setup of the NFL playoffs. Single-elimination tournaments are sometimes unfair, but they are necessary for the NFL. Do the best teams make the Super Bowl every year? Of course not – both #1 seeds were eliminated before the championship games just this season. But the Super Bowl is the biggest yearly sporting event in the entire world, and that’s for a sport that is played nearly exclusively in the United States. So the NFL must be doing something right.
Prior to this season, I thought a twelve team playoff was just about right; if anything, it was too many. But I had a semi-epiphany during this year’s postseason: the NFL needs to expand its playoffs.
The NFL expanded the playoffs to include twelve teams in 1990. At the time, there were three divisions and 28 teams; the three division winners earned the top three seeds and three wild-cards earned the fourth, fifth, and sixth seeds. The top two teams were given a bye into the second round and the #3 seed (the worst division winner) played the #6 seed (the worst wild card) and the #4 and #5 seeds squared off in the first round.
Between 1990 and 2001, playoff upsets were fairly rare. Here are each seeds’ record in those twelve seasons:
#1 seed: 38-17 (.691, 7-5 in Super Bowl)
#2 seed: 29-21 (.580, 3-4)
#3 seed: 20-24 (.455)
#4 seed: 28-22 (.560, 2-2)
#5 seed: 8-24 (.250)
#6 seed: 7-24 (.226)
Each seed performed progressively worse, with the exception of the #3 and #4 seeds. This makes some sense. In many seasons, the three division winners aren’t necessarily the three best teams in the conference. The best wild card team is often better than the worst division winner.
In 2002, the NFL expanded to 32 teams by adding the expansion Houston Texans and split into four divisions. The NFL kept the playoffs at twelve teams, adding one division winner and getting rid of one wild card berth. The four division winners received the top four seeds and two wild cards received the #5 and #6 seeds. As of the 2011 divisional playoffs, the records of each seeds are:
#1 seed: 21-16 (.568, 2-6 in Super Bowl)
#2 seed: 17-13 (.567, 3-0)
#3 seed: 14-17 (.452, 1-1)
#4 seed: 13-18 (.419, 0-1)
#5 seed: 13-17 (.433, 1-0)
#6 seed: 16-15 (.516, 1-0)
And now things have gotten weird. The #5 and #6 seeds have won two Super Bowls after never even making it to the Super Bowl in the previous twelve years. #6 seeds are the third best seed. #4 seeds are the worst. But the most striking thing is how similar the records of each seed are.
There are two obvious reasons behind this.
First, with four divisions and only two wild cards, the chances are exponentially greater that one or both of the wild card teams will be better than the weakest division winners. In this season, the four wild card teams were: Baltimore (12-4), New York Jets (11-5), New Orleans (11-5), and Green Bay (10-6). They respectively played division winners Kansas City (10-6), Indianapolis (10-6), Seattle (7-9), and Philadelphia (10-6). Only Philadelphia and Green Bay even had the same record, and the Packers owned a victory over the Eagles during the season.
In the 18 matchups between #4 and #5 seeds since 2002, the #4 seed had a better record four times, the same record four times, and a worse record ten times. The #4 seed receives home field advantage, but it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that they are only 10-8 against #5 seeds since 2002. In many seasons, the #5 seed is simply a better team.
Second, the NFL is serious about parity. For years, the NFL has been hellbent on creating parity in the league. They have largely succeeded, as this graph that made the rounds on the Internet two months ago shows.
As the league expanded from 26 teams in 1970 to 32 teams in 2002, it made a concerted effort to make it fair for every team. The salary cap*, draft structure, and schedule structure all make it extremely hard for a team to start a dynasty. In the 2000s, 15 teams made it to at least one Super Bowl; in the 1990s, 13 teams made it; in the 1980s, 10 teams did; and in the 1970s, 9 teams made it.
* The salary cap discourages owners from spending like the Yankees and Red Sox by a) giving them only a certain amount to spend and b) disincentivizing big-money moves. Unfortunately for owners like the Redskins’ Daniel Snyder, this second part isn’t always clear. The current salary structure in the NFL simply isn’t set up for owners to spend a large sum of money on only one of 53 players, no matter how good that one player is.
We can debate the merits of this parity for hours. On the one hand, my old roommate from Tampa was a fan of parity when the Buccaneers won the 2003 Super Bowl after almost thirty years of pure torture for their fanbase. I’m sure all 264 Arizona Cardinals fans were a fan of parity when the Cardinals finally made their first Super Bowl two years ago. And I actually enjoyed the Saints’ first Super Bowl run last year, mostly because unlike many of these traditionally terrible teams, their fanbase is extremely dedicated and passionate.
But I think there’s something to be said for dynasties. Part of the fun of the MLB playoffs is us non-Yankee fans rooting against the Yankees, which makes Yankee fans root for their team harder, which makes us hate them more, and so on. The NFL has sorely lacked one of these teams since the Cowboys of the 1990s.
Oh, you could argue that the Patriots fit that role now, but I’m not so sure. They won three Super Bowls in four years between 2002 and 2005, but they were a product of NFL parity in the first place. The 2002 win was their first Super Bowl and they did that with a rookie quarterback in a true underdog story. Most fans didn’t get around to hating them until after their third Super Bowl win in 2005; since then, thanks to parity, they had the Super Bowl loss to the Giants to ruin their perfect 2007-08 season and…well, that’s about it.
The Colts and Steelers have both qualified for two Super Bowls since 2005 (one more than the Patriots), but they don’t really qualify as dynasties either. In those four Super Bowls, only once (the Colts’ 2010 season) was one of those teams the #1 seed in the conference. They simply were teams that got hot at the right time.
The NFC is even worse – nine NFC teams have qualified for the Super Bowl in the last nine years. If the Packers pull off a win on Sunday, they will make it ten for ten. Think about that: there are 16 teams in the NFC, and it’s possible that ten of them could win the NFC championship before any team wins a second title. And amazingly, the Atlanta Falcons, this year’s #1 seed, isn’t one of those ten. They will likely be the favorite to win the conference before next season, so it is plausible that they make it 11 for 11.
One more stat to pile on. The seven NFC teams that have not made it to the Super Bowl since 2001 (Packers, Falcons, Cowboys, Redskins, 49ers, Vikings, and Lions) combined for 27 of the NFC’s first 32 Super Bowl appearances.* This is parity taken to the extreme.
* This doesn’t include Super Bowl III, when the Baltimore Colts won the pre-merger NFL before moving to the post-merger AFC two years later.
So there is good and bad that comes with parity. Those stats are fun to look at, but they are relatively meaningless – this is the route that the NFL wants to go down, so we might as well just deal with it.
Wow…already 1,300 words in to this article and all I’ve told you is that division winners get an unfair advantage over better wild card teams and that the NFL is focused on parity – two things you were already well aware of. Thankfully, we’re about to get to my ephiphany.
The NFL needs to expand the playoffs.
If the NFL wants to go with the whole parity thing, that’s fine. But we are getting screwed out of meaningful football because of the current playoff structure.
Thanks to parity, the first round bye for the top two teams in each conference has been rendered fairly useless. I’m sure that the week off is a nice break, but it does not provide a significant advantage. Since 2002, teams with a first round bye are only 22-14 in the divisional round (and only 12-12 since 2005). Between 1990 and 2001, they went 35-9.
Parity has essentially turned the playoffs into a crapshoot. If it is already a crapshoot, why not expand to eight teams for each conference? If we kept the current seeding structure, expanding to eight teams would have given us additional first round matchups of Atlanta vs. Tampa Bay, Chicago vs. New York Giants, Pittsburgh vs. San Diego, and New England vs. Jacksonville. All but the Patriots/Jaguars game would have been fantastic games.
By doing this, we would be getting rid of whatever advantage the top two seeds have with their bye. But really, who would care? I didn’t hear anyone complaining that the regular season is a farce after both #6 seeds beat the #1 seeds in the divisional round this year; I can’t imagine that people are going to be upset when an #8 seed beats a #1 or a #7 beats a #2.
But the current playoff structure doesn’t just screw us out of good extra playoff games. With the way the playoffs are set up now, week 17 is completely meaningless for most teams. Of the 16 games in Week 17 this season, exactly one – St. Louis vs. Seattle – had an impact on the playoffs no matter what the outcome of the game. Only nine other games (Panthers vs. Falcons, Raiders vs. Chiefs, Bucs vs. Saints, Steelers vs. Browns, Bengals vs. Ravens, Packers vs. Bears, Titans vs. Colts, Jaguars vs. Texans, and Giants vs. Redskins) might have had an impact on playoff qualifying or seeding and only one of two teams would be impacted in each of those games. That’s six completely meaningless games, plus several others that only would have mattered if things fell just right.
Let’s say the NFL expands the playoffs to eight teams in each conference and then changes the structure to remove home field advantage for division winners. The division winners still get an automatic bid into the playoffs, but teams are seeded strictly according to record. This will simultaneously get rid of the #4/#5 seed problem I described above and also reward the top two teams by having them play the two worst playoff-qualifying teams.
All of a sudden, week 17 becomes a lot more meaningful. Now three games (St. Louis vs. Seattle, Tampa Bay vs. New Orleans, and Chicago vs. Green Bay) have an impact on both teams regardless of other results. Eleven more games (those listed above, plus Miami vs. New England, Buffalo vs. the Jets, Dallas vs. Philadelphia, and San Diego vs. Denver) have an impact on at least one team. Only the Lions/Vikings and 49ers/Cardinals game would be meaningless.
That’s two simple tweaks to the playoff format, and we have created ten more exciting football games over Week 17 and the first round of the playoffs. And that doesn’t even include the teams that were eliminated early in the AFC this season. Teams like San Diego, Oakland, and Miami were eliminated before Week 16 because the conference happened to have two great wild card teams in the Ravens and the Colts.
The only two objections that I can think of to this plan are a) we want to reward the top two teams in each conference with a bye; and b) we don’t want the playoffs to be any more watered down/the regular season to be less important.* As to the reward, I already showed that the bye simply doesn’t matter any more because parity has brought teams ridiculously close together.
* Related to this, there’s the always fun argument that “Why don’t we just include all teams if playoffs are so great? Where does it end?” My answer: it ends with sixteen teams – I already told you that.
I can’t buy the watered down playoffs argument either. Just look at the NFC this season – there is one game separating the #2 seed in my plan (11-5 Chicago) and the #7 seed (10-6 Tampa Bay). In the AFC last season, the #3 seed would have gone to 10-6 New England and the #8 seed would have gone to 9-7 Houston. In the 2008 NFC, the #3 seed would have gone to 11-5 Atlanta and 9-7 Tampa Bay would have been left out of the playoffs completely.* And so on. I’m a big fan of meaningful regular seasons, but since the NFL is so concerned with parity, the regular season is fairly meaningless to begin with.
* Coincidentally, 9-7 Arizona actually made the Super Bowl from the NFC in 2008.
Whew…now we’re up to a 2,100 word rant in something I can sum up in one sentence. That sentence: “Dear NFL, if you insist on shoving this parity down our throats, the least you can do is give us some more football.”
Hey, no one ever accused me of being concise.