How will expanded NFL playoffs work? Here's what you need to know

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It’s official. NFL owners have expanded their playoff field to 14 teams, formalizing a long-held aspiration nearly a decade in the making. The decision will change the complexion of the postseason, boost league revenues by nine figures annually and perhaps provide a new level of job security for coaches.

Why make this change now? Who will benefit, and who will be disadvantaged? Can an 8-8 team win the Super Bowl? Let’s take a closer look at the key questions.


Isn’t this a weird time to be fiddling with the postseason? Do we even know whether there will be a full regular season in 2020?

We don’t. But Tuesday’s vote was connected to the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which owners and players approved earlier this month.

The league was on the verge of implementing a 14-team playoff in 2014 but shelved the plan, presumably to use as a bargaining chip in negotiating for the next CBA. The CBA includes language for salary-cap calculation of revenue from extra playoff games and paved the way for owners to make Tuesday’s decision.

How is this going to work?

The NFL has added two wild-card spots. There will now be three wild-card teams in the NFC, and another three in the AFC, for a total of seven playoff teams per conference.

The resulting six wild-card games will be played in back-to-back tripleheaders during wild-card weekend, this year on Jan. 9 and 10. One of the new games, a 4:40 ET kickoff on Jan. 10, will be broadcasted on CBS and streamed on CBS All Access. There will also be a separately-produced broadcast on Nickelodeon geared toward a younger audience. NBC and Telemundo will air Sunday’s 8:15 p.m. ET game.

The No. 7 seeds will play the No. 2 seeds in that round, meaning that only the No. 1 seed will get a first-round bye.

That seems like a big deal for the No. 1 seed.

Yup, and a pretty bad deal for the No. 2 seed.

There is annual debate about the value of a bye, but the truth is, every Super Bowl participant for the past seven seasons has received one. The last team to make it that far without a bye is the 2012 Baltimore Ravens. For that reason, the No. 2 seed has probably been devalued to a greater degree than the value of the No. 1 seed has been magnified.

No. 2 seeds have won the past two Super Bowls, and a total of five times since the postseason format last changed with divisional realignment in 2002. Any fair analysis must acknowledge that the best teams are most likely to have the best regular-season records, and thus receive either the No. 1 or No. 2 seed most of the time. Objectively, though, the No. 2 seed will face a more difficult path to reach the Super Bowl — three wins instead of two — under this format.

Won’t this just water down the playoffs?

In some cases, yes. But over time, that could be balanced out by the inclusion of conventionally qualified teams that otherwise would have missed the cut.

If you apply the new format to the fields since the start of the 2002 season, which would cover 36 additional playoff teams, you find that nine 8-8 teams — and none with losing records — would have been No. 7 seeds. Over that same period, however, eight of the nine 10-6 teams that missed the postseason would have made it under the new format. (The 2010 Tampa Bay Buccaneers still wouldn’t have made it.)

Had this format existed last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8) and Los Angeles Rams (9-7) would have been the No. 7 seeds.

Wouldn’t it be better for those teams to miss the playoffs than have an 8-8 team win the Super Bowl?

An 8-8 Super Bowl champion is always a possibility, as remote as it might be. But given the parity level of the NFL, there isn’t as much drop-off to the No. 7 seed as you might think.

When this proposal initially emerged in 2014, Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight rated the presumptive No. 7 seeds and compared them to the rest of the field. Those No. 7 seeds generally were on par with the No. 4 seed, the lowest-ranked division winner.

The chances of an “accidental champion” would increase, Paine found, if the NFL ever expanded to a 16-team field. But at the moment, that shift seems highly unlikely.

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Marcus Spears explains why he is a fan of the NFL expanding to a 14-team playoff.

I still don’t get why this had to happen. What was wrong with the 12-team format?

It comes down to one word. It starts with an “m” and ends in a “y.”

Microelectrophoretically?

Close, but no.

Money?

Bingo. The NFL has been operating a 12-team playoff field since 1990, when it added two wild-card teams to what had been a 10-team field from 1978 to 1989. It had previously used an eight-team field from 1970 to 1977.

Interest in the wild-card round has grown over the past 30 years, and in 2019 it averaged 30.5 million television viewers per game. Broadcasters and streaming services are lining up to bid for that type of audience.

During CBA negotiations, the NFL and NFLPA projected a total of $150 million in new annual revenues from broadcast rights and stadium revenue.

Will players also get more money?

Yes, in two ways. First, that $150 million will apply to the revenue calculation that determines the salary cap. In 2020, according to the CBA, players get 47% of such revenues.

Second, two more rosters of players will receive playoff shares. In 2020, the wild-card winning share equates to $33,000 per player. The losing share is $30,000.

What’s in it for coaches?

Simply put, NFL coaches are less likely to be fired when they make the playoffs.

During the previous playoff format, from 2002 to 2019, only four coaches were forced out of their jobs following a season when their team played at least one postseason game, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. They include:

Owners could recalibrate their thinking over time, of course. An 8-8 regular-season record, combined with a loss in the wild-card round, might not be enough to save an otherwise doomed coach. But for now, coaches should view this expansion as a positive development.



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