Hot Reads - Week 16
by Jeff Pasquino
December 19th, 2012

Welcome to "Hot Reads". The general purpose of this column will be to collect some of my thoughts and observations throughout the NFL season as we go along - from waiver wire comments, how to get the most out of the Footballguys site, or anything else football related that comes to mind. It will mostly be a free-flowing, stream of consciousness - that means that there's no predicting what I might talk about in a given week. So...welcome to my world...

Playoff Expansion – You Heard It Hear First!

So I have been hearing lately about how the NFL is contemplating playoff expansion. Funny – I was pretty sure that I wrote about that a year or two ago, so I started digging through my old articles – and I did find the one in which I talked about it. Sadly (or encouragingly, maybe) it was all the way back in Week 11 – of 2008. Yikes, how time flies (and thanks to all of you who have read my column over the years). With your permission (which I assume is a yes, since you can't say no) I am going to re-post this write-up from 2008 (just keep in mind that some changes would likely occur if I add 2008-2011 seasons):

At first glance, you would think that if the NFL would expand the playoffs, they would go from six teams per conference to eight. I'm here to say that you're half right - exactly half. They will go to seven teams, not eight. First, we have to talk about why they would expand.

How can you justify expanding the postseason? Ironically, this will actually help the NFL. This is simply because that extra team will be one more good team that makes it versus a so-so division winner. Currently the NFL has four divisions of four teams in each conference, which has been the league format since 2002. In that time, there have only been four teams that won a division at only 9-7 (Seattle twice in 2004 and 2006, Tampa Bay in 2007 and the Jets back in 2002). At some point, however - and possibly this season - a team will win a division at 8-8 or worse. It is pretty inevitable, and to give that team a #4 seed seems pretty ridiculous. It is one thing to give an 8-8 team the last wildcard (which has happened as well) but that team doesn't get a home game. Moreover, that 8-8 club proved to be better than 10 other teams across the conference, while the division winner only had to top three. That's a pretty strong argument to expand the playoffs right there. So despite adding two teams to the playoffs, the NFL is unlikely to dilute the product and may even enhance the postseason.

So why seven teams and not eight? Looking again at NFL history, when the league expanded from 14 to 16 games way back in 1978, the league added an additional wild card team for each conference. Not two, but one. Prior to this, there were three division winners and one wild card, so adding that fifth team gave two more teams a shot at the Lombardi Trophy. This helped to keep fans hooked on the NFL as more teams had a shot to get into the playoffs, which is never a bad thing if you want to keep your fan base engaged. The NFL is not prone to big sweeping changes, so adding only one team per conference preserves a bye week for the top team and still adds more teams that get a chance at going to the Super Bowl. That's the NFL having their cake and eating it too.

What would the players think? I can't see why they would be against this. They get two more teams in the playoffs and two extra games to get paid. More players get postseason experience and everyone in general has more to play for during the regular season. The owners will be all for this as well - two more home games across the league, more eyeballs in the postseason - it's a no-brainer for them too. Add to all of this that the NFL has had 12 playoff spots since it had 28 teams and now that they have four more and the argument gets even stronger for playoff expansion.

The extra bonus at making it seven teams and not eight is that the #1 team still gets the bye week, which is a huge advantage. Having only to play two home games to get to the Super Bowl is the easiest road to the championship, so keeping that carrot out there for the top team is a big plus. This also helps NFL fans as the likelihood that a top team will treat Week 17 as a bye week diminishes since only one team, not two, can clinch the bye and a week off, so top teams are more likely to push harder until the end of the regular season. Removing that "virtual bye" of Week 17 is impossible though since some divisional champs will still give players time off, but removing a bye would certainly help that issue.

So to review the reasons so far before I delve into the real reason that the new playoff system will be 14 teams:

  • More teams have a shot at the postseason
  • The league has had 12 playoff spots for 28 teams, and now they have 32 franchises
  • Less likelihood to have a good team on the outside looking in for the playoffs
  • Fewer teams would take Week 17 off as only one team will get a bye
  • More teams are "in it" later into the season
  • Television
  • Oh yes, television. How can we forget about the elephant in the room? Television affects many decisions by sports franchises and leagues, and the top television sport in the United States is no different. TV rights will determine how many teams get into the playoffs more than any other reason.

    Before the NFL started to adjust their postseason schedule a few years ago, all first and second round playoff games started either early or late afternoon on Saturday or Sunday. Then came the networks who wanted a Saturday night game, and the schedule was adjusted to a 4:30 and an 8:00 Eastern kickoff. That has worked well (and proven that NFL fans will watch a playoff game whenever it starts). Now factor in the addition of Sunday Night Football, which has become the biggest prime time NFL game all week during the regular season. Put it all together and you see that three games are viable on BOTH Saturdays and Sundays. A triple-header lineup of playoff action at about 1:00 PM, 4:30 PM and 8:00 PM gives the networks six games on Wild Card Weekend, a perfect answer to NFL playoff expansion.

    Looking at that math, the answer becomes clear - six games means three wild card games are needed. Give the top seed a bye and then have the rest of the teams square off and voila - fourteen teams make the NFL postseason. Adding two more would make scheduling two extra games difficult. Even if you said that you could have two Monday Night Football contests, that creates a short week for the winners (even if they play only on the next Sunday) and also forces two games to squeeze into one evening of prime time viewing. It barely works in Week 1, so I doubt that the NFL goes there during the playoffs. Maybe when they decide on going to 16 teams down the road they might think about this more, but I doubt this happens anytime soon.

    The last point I will make again addresses television. While the NFL has a strong TV package through 2011, there will be plenty of concerns on who would televise these two extra games. There's a certain "NFL Network" that would LOVE to get their hands on a playoff game, and do not put that past the NFL to try and force cable companies and providers to take the elusive NFL Network onto their systems to get this game to NFL fans. ESPN has also been a solid network to the NFL over the years and they may also get a game, but expect that the next TV contract to include these two games as juicy enticements to make the networks bid as high as possible. Nothing drives TV numbers quite like the NFL.

    This offseason will be the perfect time to look at making a change like this. We have two divisions that are both over .500 (NFC East and AFC East) and a third (NFC South) is not far behind. Two other groups have only one team over that mark (AFC West, NFC West) and the NFC North is not much better. While it is not a lock for any team to win a division this year at 8-8 or worse, it just shows that the possibility really is out there. Finding another way to get a better team into the postseason would help the league. Couple this with the TV network and NFL greed (spurred on by owners) and I think that at the very latest the NFL will have 14 teams in their playoffs in 2012 with the new TV contracts. I have no doubt in my mind that it is coming by then, if not sooner....

    Well, that was pretty good, wasn't it? I didn't get everything right, but Denver did sneak in at 8-8 and beat a 12-4 Pittsburgh team, right? And now we're talking about 14 or 16 teams in the playoffs, and it does make sense. That guy four years ago was pretty smart.....

    Contenders and Pretenders – Week 16

    Continuing from last week, this time with just comments to the Contenders and Pretenders. The rest can all fall off the wayside now as we start to see who is really who, and who we should not discuss (aside from one team):

    AFC Week 16

  • AFC Contenders (4) – New England, Baltimore, Houston and Denver. Let's cut right to the chase here – New England, Houston and Denver have won their divisions, and Baltimore is already in the postseason despite tripping all over themselves the past few weeks. They are the fourth of the four teams here. In an ironic twist, if the Ravens lose (again) this week, they become Steelers fans as a Pittsburgh win gives the Ravens the AFC North title.
  • AFC Pretenders (3) – Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Two of these three get into the playoffs, and Cincinnati has a shot at the AFC North. Pittsburgh needs to win twice, but they host the Bengals and Browns, so it is very possible. The Colts only have to beat Kansas City this week, and even if they lose they might still clinch. Indianapolis and the winner of the Bengals-Steelers game are your likely Wild Cards.
  • No need to talk about the rest of the teams.
  • NFC Week 16

  • NFC Contenders (4) –Atlanta, Green Bay, San Francisco and Seattle. Major changes here as Seattle jumps up while the Bears and Giants fall down a rung. If Atlanta wins in Detroit then the road to the Super Bowl goes through Atlanta this year. Green Bay has won the NFC North, but the Seahawks have done something no team has done since 1950 – win two games in a row by scoring over 50 points. That's remarkable. Now they host the 49ers with the division very much at stake. A Seattle win pushes the 49ers to have to win in Week 17 at home against the Cardinals, which should be a walkover, but still – Seattle is a very dangerous team. That win by San Francisco over New England will look huge if the 49ers cannot win at Seattle.
  • NFC Pretenders (5) – New York Giants, Washington, Dallas, Minnesota, Chicago. One of the first three wins the NFC East, while one of the other four gets a Wild Card berth. Who will it be? Chicago has fallen apart and they go on the road to Arizona and Detroit – two winnable games – but their confidence has to be shot. Minnesota has to win at least once at Houston or home against Green Bay – that doesn't sound easy. The Giants travel to Baltimore then host the Eagles, who have a spoiler role as they face Washington this week with Dallas hosting the Saints. A possible play-in game looms for Week 17 with Dallas visiting the Redskins, which could easily be your Sunday Night Football flex matchup if there is a playoff spot on the line. I think Chicago takes the second Wild Card at 10-6 with the NFC East going to a surging Washington Redskins team – leaving the Giants out in the cold.
  • No need to talk about the rest of the teams.
  • That will do it for this week. I hope you enjoyed this window into my world. Until next time...

    As always, questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to pasquino@footballguys.com.

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