Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) gets off a pass under pressure from Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (91) in the NFC Divisional Game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, PA on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. 
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

In a time of contraction, the NFL playoffs grow

The NFL has kept us going in our time of social distancing. Free agency! Tom Brady to Tampa Bay! DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona! Todd Gurley to the Falcons! (Maybe. The deal still hasn’t been announced, pending a physical exam delayed because other physical exams are more pressing.) A new CBA! The pending institution of a 17-game regular season! And now … 

A new playoff grid.

Credit where it’s due: We all had but awarded the trophy for Best Offseason to the NBA in perpetuity, but the NFL has come up strongest in a time where every sport is in a de facto offseason. All hail the Shield!

As for that last bit of breaking news: The NFL is moving to a 14-team tournament. This is up from 12. This means three wild cards per conference, as opposed to two. This means the NFL will play 16 games to eliminate 56.3 percent of its membership. (Still better than the NBA, which plays 82 games to eliminate not even half of its.)

Was there a crying need for bracket expansion? No. Had the 14-team field been in effect last season, the 8-8 Steelers and the 9-7 Rams would have been the beneficiaries. (The league would have had to stretch to a 20-team playoff to accommodate the 7-9 Falcons, alas.) Did anyone look on those teams – one working without Ben Roethlisberger, the other having yielded 55 points to the Buccaneers, 45 to the Ravens and 44 to the Cowboys – and say, “Those look like Super Bowl contenders”? Um, no. So why 14, and why now?

The NFL is at high tide, commercially speaking. Demand for NFL games has never been greater. As ESPN’s Kevin Seifert notes, the average wild-card game last year drew 30.5 million viewers. The LSU-Clemson College Football Playoff final drew 25.6 million. The NFL has plunged into streaming, airing Thursday games on Amazon Prime. One of the six wild-card games will be streamed on that noted sports outlet Nickelodeon. Rule of thumb: You don’t pare programming when everything you air is gold.

Financially, the NFL is being smart. Competitively, it’s adding to something that didn’t require add-ons. Yes, wild-card teams have won the Super Bowl, but the last time it happened was in 2010, when sixth-seeded Green Bay won three road games, one in the Georgia Dome, en route to its title. Since 2012, no team that played in the wild-card round — not even a division winner starting at home — has reached the Super Bowl. Over the past six seasons, all 12 Super teams drew a Round 1 bye.

That will surely change with this format. Now only the No. 1 seeds get byes. The No. 2s must start on wild-card weekend, which will grow from four games to six. If you don’t think that’s important, we cite the oft-cited case of Belichick/Brady: All nine of their Super Bowl runs began with a home game in the divisional round. Brady’s final game as a Patriot came against Tennessee on wild-card weekend, which only happened because New England blew the No. 2 seed by losing to Miami in its final regular-season game.

The Patriots of B&B were 20-4 in home playoff games; they were 4-4 in road games. Yeah, there’s a difference.

That the NFL plans to implement its 14-team postseason matrix come January suggests that the NFL is planning on playing the 2020 regular season in its entirety. In a conference call Tuesday, executive VP Jeff Pash told reporters: “All of our discussion, all of our focus, has been on a normal traditional season, starting on time, playing in front of fans, in our regular stadiums, and going through a full 16-game regular season and full set of playoffs.”

Also from Pash: “Am I certain of that? I’m not certain I’ll be here tomorrow. But I’m planning on it, and in the same way, we’re planning on having a full season.”

On March 3, the NCAA offered this statement: “We are planning to conduct our championships as planned; however, we are evaluating the COVID-19 situation daily and will make decisions accordingly.”

On March 11, the NCAA announced its basketball tournaments would be played without fans. The next day, it canceled all its tournaments through the rest of the sports year, which carries into June. The point being: Things are changing on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

That being the case, I’m not sure any league needs to be adding to anything until we get a grip on COVID-19. I know January 2021 seems a ways off, but I’m also wondering — apologies for repeating myself — if the NFL is apt to play more than a partial season. Wouldn’t an expanded playoff after a shortened regular season be a bit incongruous?

Then again, the biggest-ever NFL playoffs came as a function of truncation. Owing to a two-month players’ strike in 1982, the league held a 16-team tournament. There were no byes. The No. 8 seeds each had gone 4-5. The 5-4 Falcons were the No. 5 seed; they lost at Minnesota. It was Leeman Bennett’s last game as Falcons coach. Rankin Smith decided his team had plateaued and hired Dan Henning, the offensive coordinator for Washington, the newly minted champ. He lasted four years. He had no winning seasons.

Might such a precedent augur anything re: Dan Quinn, whose team seems to have perched itself atop a similar mesa? We figured missing the playoffs last year would trigger a regime change. It didn’t. Now you’d think that not qualifying for a postseason that just got bigger wouldn’t sit well with Rankin Smith’s successor. But these are the Falcons, so who the heck knows?

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About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.
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