The last-minute touchdown pass from Andy Dalton to Tyler Boyd in the 2017 regular-season finale knocked the Ravens out of the playoffs in one of the most painful moments in franchise history.
Under the NFL’s new proposed collective bargaining agreement, however, Cincinnati’s shocking fourth-and-12 score would have been of little consequence to John Harbaugh’s team that finished seventh in the AFC that season. According to multiple reports, the league is expected to expand the playoff format from 12 to 14 teams as early as the upcoming 2020 season, the first expansion of the field since the 1990 season. In other words, those 9-7 Ravens would have still gone to the playoffs.
The league is also hoping to increase the regular season from 16 to 17 games with the preseason being reduced to three contests.
Under the new playoff format, only the top team in each conference would earn a first-round bye with the other three division winners each hosting wild-card teams in the opening round of the playoffs, increasing the total number of first-round games from four to six. Such a change would intensify the battle for the coveted No. 1 seeds — which become even more valuable now — but it would also put more mediocrity in the playoffs as 15 of the 20 teams finishing seventh in their respective conferences over the last 10 seasons had fewer than 10 wins.
Records of NFL teams that would have been No. 7 seeds over the last five seasons: 8-8, 9-7, 9-6-1, 8-7-1, 9-7, 9-7, 9-7, 9-7, 10-6, 8-8
— Luke Jones (@BaltimoreLuke) February 19, 2020
Was there too much of an appetite for that hypothetical first-round meeting between Devlin Hodges and Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City last month? Speaking of Pittsburgh, the new format would have meant four more playoff appearances for the Steelers over the last eight seasons, which probably wouldn’t have sat too well in these parts.
Of course, playoff expansion and a 17-game regular season — while conveniently ignoring player safety ramifications — will mean more money for both owners and players, and it’d be naive to think fans won’t continue to eat it up, making dissenting opinions like this one all but moot. It’s also fair to recognize there were only 28 teams in the NFL when the playoff field increased from 10 to 12 teams three decades ago, making a one-team increase in each conference more palatable.
But there’s always the long-term concern of any sport — even the mighty NFL — hurting its regular-season product when loosening the exclusivity of its playoff field. Sure, leagues love bigger TV deals for the playoffs, but ask the NBA and NHL — and their fans — what that’s done for interest in their 82-game regular seasons over the years when more than half of their teams make the postseason. Major League Baseball is reportedly considering expanding its playoff field again after already devaluing its uniquely long regular season over the last 25 years and having significant problems with profit-hungry owners not doing all they can to try to win.
When was the last time a team you felt was deserving was left out of the playoffs?
If the NFL increases its playoff field to 14 teams, what’s to stop the league from going to 16 in a few years to generate even more TV revenue in January and February? Can you imagine the insane money if you just let everyone in and create a 32-team NCAA-like tournament?
From the players’ perspective, that’s why postseason expansion should be accompanied by an increase in team and league-wide spending requirements. Adding more playoff teams lowers the benchmark to qualify, which gives more profit-minded owners less incentive to spend to the cap. If a team doesn’t view itself as a No. 1 seed contender, why not pocket a little more money and hope 8-8 or 9-7 still gets you a hat and T-shirt by the end of the regular season? That line of thinking just became easier.
Increasing revenue is great and an extra playoff team in each conference is hardly the end of the world, but lowering the competitive bar has potential drawbacks down the road that aren’t always apparent.