John W. McDonough/SI/The MMQB
John W. McDonough/SI/The MMQB

Time for an NFL Sweet 16

Playoff expansion is inevitable, so let’s do it right: Eliminate the first-week byes, go to eight teams from each conference and let the Madness commence. Like the NCAAs, that will provide the best test and the truest champion

By
Greg A. Bedard
· More from Greg·

ORLANDO – The expanded playoffs are coming, sooner rather than later. That much was certain in listening to several coaches and owners, and then commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday.

“I think there’s a tremendous amount of interest in this, possibly even to the point of support, but there are also things we still want to make sure we do it right,” Goodell said. “We’ve been very incremental in trying to do this, but we believe competitively it could make even our races toward the end of our season even more exciting, with more teams vying for playoff positions, which is great for our fans.”

Goodell has been ramping up the rhetoric on playoff expansion for the past several months. That means this is something his bosses, the owners, want. And if we’ve learned anything watching the NFL sausage being made, it is thatwhatever the owners want, they will eventually get.

So it’s time to stop the whining about postseason expansion. Cease with the arguments about how everything is perfect right now and doesn’t need to messed with. Stop talking about how the regular season will be watered down. Maybe those things are, to some extent, true (I have serious doubts about that), but it doesn’t matter. Playoff expansion is coming whether you like it or not. So it’s time to advance the discussion to what is ultimately more important: deciding how expanding the playoffs should be done.

My position: Forget adding just one team per conference; let’s go full bore into expanding the playoffs by adding two per conference, getting rid of the byes and making it a true tournament with a March Madness feel, complete with the Cinderella factor. Let’s make it a completely level playing field that would leave no doubt that the best team hoists the Lombardi Trophy in February.

Like many of you, I was against the idea of playoff expansion. It’s all about creating more revenue, and I’m tired of sacrificing the game for the sake of dollars (rules being tilted towards offenses, for example). But I’ve come around to the point where I don’t hate the idea.

The more teams in the postseason, the more assured we are that the cream rises to the top.

If an 18-game regular season is a non-starter with the players’ union, expanding the playoffs is the only option for possibly eliminating two preseason games. Making NFL fans, especially season ticket holders, suffer and pay for four meaningless games featuring a putrid product has been a shameful fleecing by owners.

“Hopefully it prompts us to maybe look at reducing the preseason,” Ravens owners Steve Bisciotti said of the expanded playoffs. “[The two] aren’t exactly hand-in-hand, but I think we’re trending in that vein, and I’d like to see that too.

Playoff expansion is actually way overdue. The current 12-team format was put in place in 1990, when there were 28 teams and six divisions. Now there are 32 teams and eight divisions. It’s time for a modification.

And after looking at the numbers (see table below), expanding the playoffs by one or even two teams would not suddenly invite some sort of seedy element into the regular or postseason. If a seventh team had included in each conference over the past 10 years, that team would have had a winning record 70% percent of the time (14 of 20 teams), and never a losing record. Expand that to eight teams, and the extra participants would have included 22 teams with winning records, 16 with .500 records and just two additional 7-9 teams (5 percent).

Wins 7th Seed 8th Seed
11 1 0
10 5 1
9 8 7
8 6 10
7 0 2
 

I’m OK with a few more 8-8 teams getting into the playoffs. We’re not talking about baseball (162 games) or basketball (82 games), where the number of regular-season games makes it a certainty that .500 team is indeed mediocre. The NFL season is just 16 games. Given the unbalanced schedules and deep-seated parity caused by the salary cap and draft order, winning in the NFL is hard. An 8-8 record is not necessarily a true indicator of a team’s worth. An 8-8 team in one division could be two games better in another based on schedule alone. Even within a division, some teams get an edge by playing the tougher interdivisional teams at home. The more teams in the postseason, the more assured we are that the cream rises to the top and didn’t get there because of a lucky draw. Injuries, too, have a profound impact on records. Should one team be virtually eliminated because its franchise quarterback got rolled up on and missed six games? Expanding the playoff field would give those teams another chance to prove their worth.

And, really, I fail to find the great travesty in letting a few more 8-8 teams in the playoffs. Either they prove to be better than their record, or they’re quickly eliminated. What’s so terrible about that? And remember the 7-9 Seahawks defeating New Orleans in the playoffs in January 2011? (Though Seattle did get to play that game at home, as a consequence of winning the division.)

That leads to the discussion about whether the playoffs should be expanded to 14 or 16 teams. Any expansion will lead to a change in the bye system, in which currently the two teams with the best records earn the cushy ride of sitting out the first round and only needing to win one home game to advance to the final four. I’ve long hated the bye system, but least with two teams getting byes, you could reasonably be assured that there was some modicum of fairness because usually there are two teams clear of the pack.

bedard-playoffs-marshawn-lynch-800
 

Expanding the playoffs by just one team in each conference would mean only one team gets a bye, and that would just be wrong. I don’t care what the statistics say about how teams with byes fare in the postseason. Having to play one fewer game than everyone else and then getting two home games is too much of a competitive advantage, especially when you consider the disparity in schedules.

Take this past season. If a seven-team system had been in place, the Broncos (13-3) would have received the only bye in the AFC. The Patriots, just one game back at 12-4, would have had to play three playoff games, despite playing a tougher schedule than Denver (18th-rankedby FootballOutsiders.com, compared to 31st for Denver) and beating the Broncos head-to-head. How is that even remotely fair? Why should one team dramatically increase its odds of reaching the Super Bowl simply because it had to the good fortune of having a better draw?

“The negative part of [playoff expansion] is if you expand there’s only going to be one team that gets a bye,” said Colts coach Chuck Pagano. “If you stay with the current system you have two teams that can earn a bye. Whatever they come up with, we’re going to face challenges along the way.”

In theory, having a bye as the carrot for the top teams keeps them more interested late in the season. I don’t buy into that. Making sure you have the best seed possible would be important in a non-bye structure because you never know when upsets happen. Given the home-field advantage some teams have thanks to crowd noise and the weather in January, it’s important to rise as high in the seedings as possible.

And in going to eight teams in each conference, not only are more teams in the playoff hunt for longer, but the importance of winning your division remains, since each division winner would receive at least one home game in the first round.

Yes, there are certainly some issues with the television schedule that would have to be worked out in any expansion, especially with 16 teams and eight games in the first round. But I’m sure some smart solutions can be found (who says two playoff games can’t be played simultaneously?).

The bottom line is, playoff expansion is coming to the NFL. It’s futile to protest against it, so it’s time to start thinking about how the new postseason will be shaped. Expanding by just two teams would stack the deck too much for one possibly undeserving team. Let fairness and excitement reign in the NFL. Open the postseason to 16 teams, eliminate the bye weeks and have a true tournament in which only the strongest team survives. Everyone loves the March Madness. Why? Because it’s unpredictable, frenzied and everyone travels the same road to the title. It’s time to bring that to the NFL.

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73 comments
TheBigDeal
TheBigDeal

All 32 teams make the playoffs.  Have a NCAA basketball like NFL Super Bowl  tourney.  


#1 seed vs. #32 seed.

#2 seed vs. #31 seed.

#3 seed vs. #30 seed.

etc.


Make it happen, Goodell.

Fifilo
Fifilo

The product is watered down enough as it is.

ElPuno
ElPuno

How about the games with seeds 4 and 5 in each conference being played one on friday night, one on Monday? (I could go for 4 games straight Saturday and Sunday as well:)

GeorgeWoodard
GeorgeWoodard

The Titans lost 3 games by 3 or fewer points. Are you telling me that a team that goes 10-6 by managing an extra field goal to win the game a few times is so much more deserving of the playoffs than a 7-9 team that caught a few bad breaks?

GeorgeWoodard
GeorgeWoodard

Unless you're a complete and total moron, you can't argue with his point that there's not a lot of difference in quality between some 7-9 teams and some 9-7 teams. Schedule and luck can factor into that difference easily. So why punish teams that had a little more bad luck by effectively eliminating any team with less than 9 or 10 wins from playoff contention?

Tony M
Tony M

This is really a good idea.  Its the only type of thing that can take the NFL to the next level, where no other Sport has ever been yet.  

jeff4444
jeff4444

Greg, you forgot the #HotSportsTakes in your article title.

wmconelly
wmconelly

All right; I'll play along:  Let's have an NFL Sweet Sixteen.  BUT with a week off  for ALL of the 16 teams between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the play offs, in addition to the current week off before the Super Bowl.  


You want a 'level' playing field?  You want the teams at full capacity, rather than limping out of the regular season?  Let the money-mongers register some respect for the actual limits of human bodies -- instead of their bank balances -- and create a week of recuperation and build-up before the tournament begins.

Slatlantican
Slatlantican

This has got to be some of the worst logic I've ever seen from a professional writer:

Playoff expansion is actually way overdue. The current 12-team format was put in place in 1990, when there were 28 teams and six divisions. Now there are 32 teams and eight divisions.

So, because the league has added four teams, we need to add four teams to the playoffs? By this logic, if the league was to expand by eight more franchises to 40 teams, you'd say we need to add eight teams to the playoffs, giving us a playoff field of 24 teams.

NHL, here we come.

Realist
Realist

Ridiculous. There are about 350 d1 basketball teams, most of which would never play each other outside of the tournament. It is fun to see the big teams struggle against the little guys, but it is folly to assume that the best 4 teams make the Final Four.


The best team wins the Super Bowl only about half the time already. Introduce more undeserving teams that get hot at the right time, benefit from a lucky bounce, then add some incompetent officials, and the percentage goes down.


ILoveMyWife
ILoveMyWife

Unbelievably horrible idea.  Because there are 4 more teams than there were in 1990, we need 4 more playoff spots?  Where exactly is the logic in that?  If anything playoff berths should be reduced since the league is now more watered down with 4 more teams and the bottom of the field is worse than ever.  However, we'll compromise and keep it at 6.  Make it a true reward to be a number 1 or 2 seed.  It's bad enough that the 6 seed is sometimes vastly superior to the 5 seed.  Let's just send seed 6 to seed 1 in the 1st round.  No no no.  We can no longer talk about player safety and season expansion in the same sentence.

DanielDannen
DanielDannen

"The more teams in the postseason, the more assured we are that the cream rises to the top."

This is so friggin' illogical. If a team is not "cream" to begin with (i.e., it's not any good), having this team in the postseason doesn't increase the likelihood that the cream rises to the top; it increases the likelihood that a mediocre team benefiting from crummy officiating and luck will make it to the Championship or Superbowl. 

DanielDannen
DanielDannen

HORRIBLE IDEA. This turns the regular season into basically a long preseason--just a meaningless exhibition. And watch: you'll see teams with great early records playing mostly backups by game thirteen or fourteen. 

There are too many teams in the playoff as it is; we certainly don't need more. 

pickle
pickle

While I think a 16 team playoff would be fun to watch, I am very against this because that would mean half of all NFL teams make the playoffs. That is just too many, and it would dilute the NFL regular season, which is really the only interesting regular season in pro sports.

Mike26
Mike26

Why are they interviewing Indy's coach?  They lost Elvin Bethea and likely won't be worrying about the playoffs for a long time.

tomcamma
tomcamma

I'm down with this. It will make the regular season less must see, and I can stop devoting so much time to it. I may not even need Sunday Ticket anymore and can just tune into the playoffs. What's funny is that 3 of the 4 Wild Card Games didn't sell out this year. I see even less incentive to attend Wild Card games with 16 teams. What's the point? If you win, you still have to win 2 more games just to get to the Super Bowl. If you lose, well, that's a lot of money you spent on a playoff game for nothing.

Merv
Merv

I have the perfect solution.  Eliminate two preseason games.  After the Second preseason game give every one a week bye and then start the season one week early.  


Play the season as normal.  After the regular season is over give everyone a bye week.  The first weekend of the playoffs will see every team playing.  Seeded 1 vs 16, 2 vs 15 etc in each Conference  with the higher seed getting home field.


Next week the highest seeded survivor plays the lowest survivor etc.


Next week do it again, and again until only one team from each Conference is left for the SB.


Owners will love the extra games, fans in the bottom half of the league will love it. highest seeds will have most home games because they earned it in the regular season.


Added bonus is that it will eliminate all those stupid Bowl games for 6-6 teams.

skanee00
skanee00

A 12 game regular season with a 16 team postseason would be an exciting sprint to the Super Bowl. It would be healthier for the players, too.

The NFL season as it's played today seems too long. You wind up getting a lot meaningless games between losing teams the last few weeks.

GoRavens!
GoRavens!

I'm not sure why folks assume there would need to be 3 games on 1 day or a monday night game. If you take a page from the old Big East (16 teams) or the current ACC (15 teams) you can extend the playoff one more round.

For a 14 team playoff, have the 6/7 teams play during WC weekend. The 3-5 teams get a single bye and the 1-2 teams get a double bye. A 16 team playoff would work similarly with teams 5-8 playing each other, teams 3-4 getting a single bye and teams 1-2 getting a double bye.

I would be excited by the idea of having an extra weekend of 2 football games on Saturday and Sunday and I can imagine the teams in the 1-4 slots still having a reason to battle in the late season. 

I don't mind a division champion being in the playoffs w/ a lower winning record but I think the better won-loss record should get the home game.

youngnorth77
youngnorth77

I think we forget how physical a sport football is, it's great to say let's not have bye's but we forget teams try to play for the opportunity to have that week off and the ability to play on there home field when your only getting one bye earlier in the year the rest is much needed, of all the sports maybe beside's college football in the NFL the regular season matter's, why change that?

RXTT
RXTT

If you cannot win your division, then it does not, or should not, matter what your record is.  They should either expand the League to a few more cities (San Antonio would KILL for NFL) and then make it so there are 4 divisions in each conference, eliminating the "wild card" crap, OR reduce the league by 2 teams so there is no need for a wild card. That "wild card" crap was put in to supposedly mitigate the fact that some 11-5, 12-4 teams sometimes missed the playoffs because they did not win their division.  This current idea is purely to suck more $$$ out of sponsors and TV and people

I

Murraythescott
Murraythescott

I do love the idea. I've been watching and playing from many years. I've always hated the first round bye and from a players and coaching perspective I found it to be more of a detriment.

ByronHenderson
ByronHenderson

Goodell is an idiot if he thinks there is any real support for this idea outside of the owners. 


This quote is comical: “I think there’s a tremendous amount of interest in this, possibly even to the point of support". 

jamie11230
jamie11230

A 16-game regular season isn't enough to determine who's truly deserving, but a 4-round playoff tournament is?  This may be the most illogical thing I've ever read.  Sure, people love March Madness, but you know what they don't love? The previous four months of college basketball.  Only the most die-hard alumni pay attention, because for the stronger teams, nothing they do before mid-March matters.


A single elimination tournament over-rewards hot streaks, lucky bounces, bad calls.  Over sixteen games, these things tend to cancel each other out, and you can see which team has genuine merit.  

metalhead65
metalhead65

the NFL is going to screw up a good thing by doing this just so cowboys can make the playoffs. it is perfect the way it is now! nobody but the owners and cowboy fans want this. the system they have now is why it is so popular,only the deserving teams get in unlike the other sports where almost everyone but the worst of the worse has a shot.just a horrible idea.

bandit74
bandit74

It's difficult to tell if this article is satire or not.  Surely, no reasonable human being (much less football fan) could actually hold such asinine views.  Yes, let's take the worst possible post-season format and try to copy that.  Moronic.  March Madness is exciting and unpredictable.  A delight for fans, even.  It is many things.  What it is not, is a fair and effective way to determine a champion.  Also, we should believe that the answer to mediocrity is to add MORE mediocre teams to the field?  Why would anyone believe that an 8-8 or 7-9 team deserves a shot at being champion?  Heck, even 9-7 teams haven't fully made their case for that, lol.  We've had enough mediocre champions as of late (I'm looking at you Eli Manning), do we really need more?

DCotoz
DCotoz

Whoever wrote this article didn't think it through. In order for this to work and still have a SuperBowl  in February teams are going to have to play at least 2 games per week, does he have any idea how long does it take to recover from a football game? And if we do one game per week we're gonna have the Superbowl in March

dajaba75
dajaba75

I'd rather see them make the simple change so that the first three and last three games of the season are always divisional before adding to the playoffs. Who needs a 7-9 team in the playoffs? 

BY
BY

@Realist  Thank you! I was thinking exactly the same thing. More mediocre teams only ensures more of a chance for an upset, while making the regular season (body of work) MUCH less important.

DanielDannen
DanielDannen

@Merv  

"Perfect solution"??? What a joke. So you're suggesting we turn the regular season into just an incredibly long preseason--how boring; why even play it? 

Before you suggest a solution, you should make sure there's a problem.

DanielDannen
DanielDannen

@skanee00

Pfff, "a lot of meaningless games"??? The NFL has the fewest "meaningless games" of any professional sports league. Try watching baseball, where 90% of the games are meaningless and you're getting them every day of the week for half the year.

Mike26
Mike26

@skanee00  You have some really silly ideas and shouldn't be so excited about posting them here on a national forum.  Before you know it, JoeCabot will be here critiquing you like he does everyone else = the critic without an original opinion of his own.

ILoveMyWife
ILoveMyWife

@GoRavens! While you're idea is better than the OP's, a 2 week bye could be a disadvantage.

Mike26
Mike26

@RXTT  San Antonio, while growing, is a poor cowtown.  They are lucky to maintain the Spurs.  The rest of your ideas about contraction, eliminating wild cards, etc. will never happen so why did you post them here?

KristianColasacco
KristianColasacco

@ByronHenderson Unfortunately the owners are the only ones that matter and they know that no matter how many fans complain about the idea, they're still going to watch. 

We're sheep and lion's don't concern themselves with our opinions.

DanielDannen
DanielDannen

@jamie11230  

THANK YOU. You're exactly right. The one flaw in the great game of football is that you obviously can't play a five or seven game playoff series--playoffs must be sudden death--and this maximizes the chance that some mediocre team will "luck" it's way through a couple of playoff games and make it to the Superbowl. 

ByronHenderson
ByronHenderson

@jamie11230  I completely agree. I despise the idea of expanding the playoffs. We don't need half the teams in the NFL in the playoffs--what a load of crap. There won't be any reason to watch the regular season anymore. Goodell and the owners are greedy idiots. 

BrewFry
BrewFry

@bandit74 It's difficult to tell if this is written by a human being or a monkey. Are you afraid of an 8-8 team? Most likely they will be beaten soundly by the #1 seed. The AFC had 3 teams that could have made the playoffs last year that didn't due to tiebreakers. The Steelers were coming on at the end of the year and could have done something in the playoffs. The 10-6 Cardinals didn't even get a shot! 

bandit74
bandit74

@DCotoz  What are you talking about?  No extra weeks would be necessary.  It's still a stupid idea though...

DCotoz
DCotoz

@dajaba75 remember when the Seahawks made the playoffs a couple of years ago with a 7 - 9 record? Everybody was outraged

skanee00
skanee00

I'm guessing maybe you've got this opinion because you don't live in the Midwest. You haven't really lived until you've been stuck watching the 2-12 Browns playing the 4-10 Bengals in the middle of December.

RXTT
RXTT

@Mike26 @RXTTbecause I felt like it?  It is an irrational article anyway.  Might as well pile on the BS

DanielDannen
DanielDannen

@Mike26 @RXTT  

I'm pretty sure if Florida can support three NFL teams, so can Texas (a much more populous state where football is a religion). Poor or not, there'd be plenty of TV's in the San Antonio area tuned in to watch on Sundays, and that's the main thing.

DanielDannen
DanielDannen

@BrewFry @bandit74  

You need to keep your stupid ideas to yourself, bud. The "8-8 team" you write of could easily get lucky in one game or benefit from horrible officiating or have gotten healthy at the right time, and beat the #1 seed. NO TEAM in the AFC that didn't make the playoffs deserved to make the playoffs--period.  

John H
John H

@BrewFry If the Steelers or Cardinals wanted a shot, they should have won their divisions. Arizona was a third-place team in a four-team division. If you can't finish in the top half of your division, you don't deserve a shot. If you and Mr. Bedard want the truest champion, then only champions should make the playoffs.

Mel
Mel

@BrewFry Are people afraid of 8-8 teams? No. Playoffs are meant to be a reward for a good (and WINNING) regular season. But hey let's do it your way. Let all the 8-8 teams in. And those 7-9 teams just missing the playoffs, just isn't fair. Should let all of them in too. How about the 6-10 teams? 5-11 teams?. Better yet let's just let all of them in. Go 0-16 and get in the playoffs. Gotta reward everybody right....

Mike26
Mike26

@skanee00  The NFL still has fewest amount of meaningless games of any league.

Mike26
Mike26

@DanielDannen @Mike26 @RXTT  Florida does a very poor job of supporting 3 teams - look at all the tarped seats at Jacksonville and fair-weather fans in Miami.  Bad comparison - and no, Texas could NOT support 3 teams.

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