- From the 12 teams to the single elimination to the wild-card teams to the re-seeding, the NFL playoffs is perfect.
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Nothing grinds my gears more than when Roger Goodell or an NFL owner floats the idea of expanding the NFL playoffs. Heck, I’ll take double the retired jersey numbers in the NFL if it means protecting the sanctity of the league’s 12-team, single-elimination playoffs.
It took some time to get here, but the NFL playoffs are perfect—as perfect as the dry-aged ribeye I had this weekend at Hall’s Chophouse in Charleston.
The size of the NFL playoffs has slowly increased, going from just two teams in the NFL Championship Game as late as 1966, to four, to eight, to ten and finally 12 teams in 1990—about 38% of the league. I’m fine with that percentage, but I don’t want it to go any higher. Contrast that against the NBA, whose playoff system puts 16 of the 30 teams in the postseason. More than 50% of teams making the postseason? No, thank you.
(Side note: I love the NBA and regularly write about how the NFL could and should adopt some of the NBA’s ideas, like here and here. So please don’t take this as a “typical NFL writer hating on the NBA.” But I believe the NBA playoff field is too large, and I especially believe the first round is too long. Please go back to a best-of-five first round, Adam Silver. Only two of the eight first-round matchups went longer than five games this season, anyway.)
I think we take for granted the simple perfection of the NFL playoffs—the four division winners, the two wild cards, the first-round byes and the re-seeding after each round couldn’t be better. There’s never been a consideration to make each matchup a series, because that would be insane, and there’s no fixed bracket system, which is yet another genius stroke. It adds intrigue to the wild-card weekend while not giving the team with the first-round bye too great of an advantage. I love that the two teams who earned a bye get a week of rest and that the No. 1 seed draws the lowest remaining seed. The 16-game regular season is difficult enough, and you should be properly rewarded for being the best in your conference.
Some people take issue with seeding a division winner with a lesser record above a wild-card team with a better record. In 2010 that happened with the 7–9 Seahawks hosting a playoff game and again with the 7-8-1 Panthers in 2014 hosting the 11–5 Cardinals. First of all, if you were that good you should have won your division. If you start giving out home games to second-place division finishers then it takes away from the true division champ also getting a home game. Additionally—and I’m not saying it about the 2010 NFC West or ’14 NFC South necessarily—a division can be so dominant top-to-bottom that a .500 season could prove how difficult the division was to win in the first place.
My colleague Gary Gramling got it totally wrong with this bad take from Bad Takes Week. Not only does he want to do away with wild cards, but he posits a tiebreak game after the season is finished. Ah yes, what’s one more opportunity to sustain injury for what could be the Super Bowl champs? What a fantastic but silly man Gary is.
Additionally, the timing works out perfectly. Once the final regular season game is complete Sunday night of Week 17, we have to wait just six days until playoff football begins. The week off between the conference championship game and Super Bowl is both deserved and necessary for player health. And though we all sometimes complain “let’s just play the game” during Super Bowl week, that buildup almost always pays off once kickoff comes.
In truth, there is one thing I fear. I don’t want the league to change the overtime rules for the postseason only. You’re playing football, and the game should be uniform from the regular season to the postseason. I’m fine with regular-season ties to preserve player health, and I understand you have to keep playing in the postseason to determine a winner. But what I don’t want to see is a change to the overtime rules for just the postseason—like both teams getting the ball no matter what—while the regular-season rules stay the same.
Finally, the NFL playoffs system almost always gets it right, and what’s more important than that? As much as we love the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, it’s fair to argue that often times the best team in the nation doesn’t win the title. Almost always the best team in the NFL rises to the top come early February.
In the last 10 years, we’ve only had one Super Bowl that wasn’t competitive into the fourth quarter (thanks, historic Seahawks defense.) That, to me, shows how perfect the system is and why we must encase the NFL postseason in bulletproof glass surrounded by reinforced concrete from now until forever.
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