By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
You'd think the NFL would have learned it's lesson from Thursday Night Football. We love to watch the sport, but at a certain point shoving games with no competitive value in our collective faces becomes a turn off.
The same will be true if the league expands to a seventh playoff team and removes a first-round bye, which is reportedly the plan in the new CBA. Did anybody really need to see the Chiefs play the Steelers or the Packers play the Rams this season? No. Not a single person outside of either of those fan bases asked for that.
The NFL has (or, had) the best playoff format in all of sports. They keep it to a limited number of teams (looking at you letting over half of your teams in, basketball and hockey) and the first-round byes create reward teams not just for winning their division, but finishing strong in their respective conference as well. By including the seventh playoff teams in the CBA, the NFL would take a step towards lessening the impact of both of those factors.
Let's start with the adding of the seventh team in each conference. Will that create two more competitive football games on Wild Card Weekend, or just more three-hour time slots for the league to sell ads? Going back to 2002 (when the league realigned following the addition of the Houston Texans) the seventh place teams in each conference (36 total) finished with nine or fewer wins 26 times (or 72 percent of the time). Meanwhile, the number two seed has finished with 12 or more wins in 28 of 36 instances (77 percent).
Basically the NFL is giving us two extra playoff games between a 9-7 team and a 12-4 team. Does that interest anybody enough to sacrifice those epic late-season games between elite teams with bye weeks on the line? Remember, giving up the extra week off would distill a lot of the December drama at the top of the pack.
It's also important to consider how much eliminating the second bye helps the top overall seed. While earning the No.1 seed does deserve its perks, history tells us this rule change could make it a de facto golden ticket to the Super Bowl.
Earning a bye week in the playoffs is wildly important, even more than some may realize. It's been seven years since a team that played on Wild Card Weekend played in the Super Bowl (2012 Ravens). Since realignment in 2002, only nine of the 144 teams that have played in the Wild Card round have reached the Super Bowl. That's 6.3 percent for those following along at home. Keep in mind that includes not just Wild Card teams, but the three and four seed division winners who play that weekend as well.
To put it another way, there's never been a Super Bowl between two Wild Card Round teams in that same timespan. If that trend continued under the new rules, every Super Bowl from here on out would be top seed versus top seed. While that may seem enticing as the best possible game, such isn't always the case, and it takes a lot of the fun out of the previous rounds.
The one fault in the NFL's current playoff system is it tends to be predictable, as explained above. Now the league wants to take a massive advantage and give it to only one team on each side of the bracket, while adding a lopsided game in the process.
In the last 20 years, the NFL has jumped to a level of popularity previously thought to be impossible. They have a formula that works. In fact, it's the only playoff format in sports that seems to be without any sort of controversy. They'll end up making this change, because two extra playoff games ultimately mean more money in the owners' pockets, but it's unfortunate to see the league backslide like this. As the saying goes...If it ain't broke, don't fix it (unless the fix can make you billions of dollars).
Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Hate mail? Let him hear it on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at [email protected].