Roger Goodell has indicated the NFL is considering expanding its playoff system from 12 teams to 14 teams as early as next season. He is promising more competitive matches at the end of season as well as more memorable moments for fans. He didn’t give any specifics, but it’s likely that the expansion would come from a third wild card team in each conference. The second seed would lose its bye and play the seventh seed.
Last year, when this proposal was first mentioned, I decided to study what this change would mean for competition.
Looking at this from an unbiased perspective, what will we see in terms of competitive matches? I’ve updated my analysis to include the 2014 season.
I broke my analysis into three areas of study:
1. What quality will we see from the seventh seed? What will the new 2/7 matchup look like?
2. How will this change playoff contention going into week 17? How many teams will have locked up playoff berths, and how many teams will be in contention?
3. How will this affect the number of teams that are locked into playoff tiers going into week 17? These teams have incentive to rest star players and run vanilla game plans in week 17.
The scope of the study is the last 13 seasons. Houston was added to the NFL 13 years ago, and with it came the modern format of eight divisions of four teams, with four division winners and two wild cards per conference.
The Seventh Seed
The average seventh seed has a record of 9.12-6.88. Of the 26 teams that would have been granted playoff berths over the last 13 seasons, one (New England in 2008) had an 11-5 record, seven were 10-6, twelve were 9-7 and six were 8-8.
The 2014 season, where Houston (9-7) and Philadelphia (10-6) would have been added, is typical. While it’s possible that a 7-9 wild-card team could reach the playoffs under this format, it’s as unlikely as an 11-5 New England team in 2008 missing the playoffs. Maybe even a little more rare.
Since we’ve had a 7-9 division winner in the playoffs recently (Seattle in 2010) and a 7-8-1 division winner last season (Carolina), it’s hard to make an argument that the seventh seed will fundamentally change the quality of playoff teams. In fact, both of those seven-win teams won a game before bowing out in the divisional round.
The average second seed over the last 13 seasons has a record of 12.08-3.88-0.04. These games, then, would, on average, feature a team visiting an opponent with three more wins.
Columns I’ve read have dismissed the chances of a road team with a three-plus game win deficit as immaterial. So I looked at all the playoff matchups over the last 13 seasons where a team visited a higher seed with three (or more) more wins.
Usually, these are not wild-card games. Only three of the 33 playoff games in this category were wild-card games.
That’s because only the third- and fourth-best division winners are playing wild-card games. The top seed was the host 20 times. The second seed was the host nine times (and the visitor once) and the third seed was the host three times (and the visitor twice) The results were a little surprising.
Six wins difference: Home Team 0, Visiting Team 1 (New York Giants at Green Bay, 2011 season).
Five wins difference: Home Team 8, Visiting Team 0.
Four wins difference: Home Team 4, Visiting Team 2.
Three wins difference: Home Team 9, Visiting Team 9 (2-1 when it’s a 3/6 matchup).
That’s not a misprint. The columnists are likely wrong; these 2/7 matchups are not trivial by any stretch of the imagination. Some have theorized that a bye week might be a disadvantage, but no analysis has confirmed this theory. In fact, regular-season bye weeks give teams a significant advantage, according to an ESPN report last year (http://espn.go.com/fantasy/football/story/_/id/9748736/qbs-home-d-sts-road-show-most-improvement-coming-bye-weeks).
The numbers show fairly clearly that we will have to get used to the occasional seven-seed beating a two-seed. I’m sure coaches will take these games quite seriously. And fans will have to adjust to these upsets.
To look at how the change would affect playoff contention, I analyzed the standings going into week 17 of the last 13 seasons. I divided teams into three categories: playoff berth secured, still in contention and eliminated. I made this analysis both for two wild cards and three wild cards in each conference (to do this, I made a slight change to my standings analysis tool – these results are based on the NFL’s playoff tie-breaker algorithm. I see no reason to believe tie-breaking will change if another wild-card team is added.
Current System: 114 out of 156 berths secured going into week 17 (3.23 berths in contention per season).
Proposed System: 133 out of 182 berths secured going into week 17 (3.77 berths in contention per season).
The argument that this will open up more available playoff berths in week 17 is convincing.
Current System: 100 teams competing for 42 open berths going into week 17 (7.69 teams per season with their fates on the line).
Proposed System: 105 teams competing for 49 open berths going into week 17 (8.08 teams per season with their fates on the line).
The argument that more teams will be fighting for their playoff lives in week 17 is a little harder to make. The additional teams at the bottom fighting for their lives are essentially replacing teams with better records that would be fighting for their lives.
I took a longer look at the 23 teams that would have had a chance to reach the playoffs going into week 17 with the new system. These 23 teams were eliminated from the playoffs under the current system.
So that’s almost two teams every year that would still be alive going into week 17. Their records after 16 weeks:
9-6: two teams.
8-7: seven teams.
7-8: twelve teams.
6-9: two teams.
Average Wins: 7.39
When we look at the teams that we would add to the mix with this change, these teams are, by and large, 7-8 more often than not. Now they would, most likely, finish 8-8 and be quite dangerous in the playoffs if they somehow made it. But when we talk about increased competitive opportunity, these are the teams we’re talking about.
Locked into Tiers
One factor that always throws a wrench into week 17 is the teams that have locked up a bye, or can’t improve their playoff position. These teams often play it safe in week 17, creating bad games. The notable exception to this rule is the 2007 New York Giants, who had locked up a wild card spot, couldn’t win their division, and decided to play all-out against New England in week 17, losing a close game. Tom Coughlin was raked over the coals. Coughlin, as we remember, had the last laugh, ruining New England’s attempt to become the first 19-0 team in NFL history a few weeks later.
Most of the time, however, locked teams play it safe. The proposed change would create very different playoff tiers.
Current System: 67 locked teams (5.15 per season).
Proposed System: 82 locked teams (6.31 per season).
The proposal increases the teams in contention for the playoffs, but also increases the number of teams locked into tiers by about one per season.
I have a hard time saying one system is better than another when it comes to competition. The proposal would give a couple of new 7-8 teams, on average, something to play for in week 17. There would be 0.5, on average, more playoff berths in contention going into the final week.
It would also increase the number of teams locked into playoff tiers by more than one. Those games are often quite distracting in week 17. In 2013, we had two such games. Kansas City, locked into position five, showed us a future with Chase Daniel at quarterback. Denver, which had secured a bye, played hard as the first seed was on the line.
Perhaps I overestimated the number of locks in the current system, as I didn’t differentiate between 1 and 2 (these would be separated by tier in the proposed system).
This past year, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and New England were all locked into playoff tiers. Backup Matt Hasselback led the Colts over Tennessee. New England showed off Jimmy Garoppolo as the Patriots sacrificed a game to Buffalo, which would have been fighting for a seven-seed under the new system. In the NFC, Philadelphia would have already locked up the seven-seed in week 16.
Either way, the numbers aren’t convincing. I don’t think the proposal either adds or detracts from competitiveness late in the season.
An argument against the proposal is tradition. We have had 25 seasons with the 12-team playoff format. We’re used to a balance of 38% of the teams in the NFL reaching the playoffs. Would it detract from the regular season to increase that number to 44%, an all-time NFL high? Why alter a balance that’s seen the NFL grow as successfully as it has? Does the NFL want to risk going the same route as the NHL, which has such a long, thorough playoff system that many people won’t tune in until the playoffs begin?
A 16-game season is not enough to accurately seed teams. So much is dependent on the schedule. We’ve seen wonderfully competitive Super Bowls over the last 13 seasons – some between teams with very different records.
I don’t see anything that indicates that adding a seventh seed will spoil the overall competitiveness of the playoffs. In fact, I’d expect those seventh seeds to win about 1/3 of their games.
So the question here probably boils down to credibility and balance. Is the possible angst over the success of 9-7 seventh seeds and the inclusion of 7-8 teams in important week 17 games worth the extra revenue those two new playoff games will bring? Will this reduction of the importance of the regular season outweigh that revenue?