ESPN’s Adam Schefter is reporting that the National Football League (NFL) is considering some changes to its playoff structure in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. The NFL’s CBA could be finalized as soon as next week, and it appears that the biggest change will be expansion of the playoffs from 12 to 14 teams.
Traditionally, the NFL has rolled with a 12-team playoff, with six representatives from each of the two 16-team conferences. In each conference, the No. 1 and No. 2 seed enjoy a bye week for the first round of the playoffs, then each play the winner of either the first weekend’s No. 3 vs. No. 6 or No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup.
To accommodate a seven-team playoff, the league will add another wild card slot and take away the No. 2 seed’s first round bye. The No. 1 seed will retain a first-round bye, and you’ll have a 2/7, a 3/6, and a 4/5 game. If the new structure is otherwise consistent with the current model, the lowest-advancing seed (in order: No. 7, No. 6, No. 5, No. 4) will play the No. 1 seed in the second round, while the other two advancing teams will play one another. If the new structure is otherwise consistent with the current model, the lowest-advancing seed (in order: No. 7, No. 6, No. 5, No. 4) will play the No. 1 seed in the second round, while the other two advancing teams will play one another. As such, the league gets to add a game to Wild Card Weekend (the first round of the playoffs) and give another team a foot in the door.
The proposal does not seem to be a contentious one. Indeed, Schefter’s article quotes a source who stated about the playoff expansion: “That’s been agreed to for a long time. There wasn’t a lot of disagreement to that issue.” The contention between the league and the players union (the two relevant parties for ratification of the new CBA) is likely to come from the prospect of expanding the regular season from 16 to 17 games. The owners are offering to bump the player revenue share from 47% to 48.5% if the players will agree to another game. There is likely a wage premium at which the players would agree to the shift, but it’s unclear what the number is.
As for the playoff expansion, it’s obvious why the NFL is making the move. This year, viewership for the NFL’s Wild Card Weekend reached a four-year high. Fan interest in these games is increasing, and the NFL is well-positioned to increase the supply of postseason games given the obvious demand. Adding two playoff teams allows the league to keep two more markets engaged for another (particularly significant) weekend of football, and could further increase league parity.
Other leagues feature large playoffs. More than half of the teams (16 of 30) in the National Basketball Association make the postseason, and Major League Baseball (another 30-team league) just proposed moving to a 14-team playoff format of its own. To be sure, there is probably a point for the NFL at which the number of teams in the playoffs diminishes the importance of the regular season, undermines the impressiveness of a postseason berth, and hurts the league. 14 teams is probably not it, but 16 might be and 18 almost certainly is.
Let’s look at the last five years (The Ringer looked at the last ten, which basically tracks with the below observations): In 2019, the AFC and NFC additions would have been the 8-8 Pittsburgh Steelers and the 9-7 Los Angeles Rams. In 2018, the No. 7 seeds would have been the 9-6-1 Steelers and the 8-7-1 Minnesota Vikings. The 9-7 Baltimore Ravens and 9-7 Detroit Lions would have made it in 2017. 2016 would have seen the 9-7 Tennessee Titans and the 9-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And the two extra teams in 2015 would have been the 10-6 New York Jets and the 8-8 Atlanta Falcons. Fortunately for the proposal in question, a strong majority of these teams had winning seasons; the two teams that didn’t were both .500.
But in three of those five seasons, if the playoff had been 16 teams, one of the No. 8 seeds would have been a team with a losing record. Expanding to that point would cheapen the playoffs; the NFL’s sweet spot for playoff expansion is probably 14 teams.
Owners recently voted (though not unanimously) to advance the CBA, and now the players will consider the proposal. While the two sides iron out other issues, the playoff question appears settled. So get ready for bigger graphics on ESPN from Weeks 14 to 17, depicting which NFL teams are still fighting for playoff spots—with this shift, more football clubs will now be listed in these graphics under my favorite phrase in football: “In the Hunt.”
Eli Nachmany is a Sports Highlight Contributor for the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law and a current first-year student at Harvard Law School (Class of 2022).
“Open end to the Allegheny River” by R.A. Killmer is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0