NFL expanded playoffs, explained: How many teams would make playoffs, what else to know

The NFL’s current playoff format is largely considered one of the best in sports. The number of teams is ideal. Those with the best records are rewarded with byes and matchups against the lowest seeds. Upsets are inevitable, but generally, the champion the bracket produces is deserving and representative of its true superiority over the rest of the league. Beyond some issues with seeding, the NFL’s playoff format is perfect.

So obviously it’s time for a change.

As the NFL and the NFLPA work to finalize a new collective bargaining agreement, ESPN reported Wednesday that within the terms of the proposed CBA is a change to the league’s playoff format. The NFL wants to add two games to the postseason schedule, one game (and one team) per conference. “Add two games to the postseason schedule,” of course, is slang for “add chances to collect more bread.”

A source told ESPN the playoff format change has been “agreed to for a long time,” and “there wasn’t a lot of disagreement” around the idea of expanding the field for the postseason. But the league is not just adding a couple games to the playoffs; more changes will come if this edition of the CBA is finalized and an agreement is reached.

Below are all the changes detailed in ESPN’s report.

How many teams would make the NFL playoffs?

The new format would add one team to the playoff field in both the AFC and the NFC, making it a 14-team postseason (seven teams per conference) rather than the current 12-team format. As ESPN notes, had the proposed playoff format been in place in 2019, the Steelers would have reached the AFC playoffs, and the Rams would have been included in the NFC field.

Here is how last season’s playoff bracket would have looked under the proposed format, assuming the NFL’s current seeding tactics (four division winners get top four seeds) remain in place.

The question critics of this proposal will raise: Did Pittsburgh (which limped to the end of the season after a series of QB injuries) and Los Angeles (which finished third in its own division) deserve to make the postseason?

When will NFL playoffs expand?

According to ESPN, the new playoff format could be installed as early as the 2020 season.

However, that’s assuming the current CBA negotiations are wrapped up soon without delay. If there is no new CBA in place, the 2020-21 NFL postseason will be played under the current format.

Only one team from each conference gets a first-round bye

The current playoff format, of course, allows two teams in each conference to benefit from first-round byes. That’s why the 49ers’ goal-line stand against the Seahawks in Week 17 last season was such a massive play; it allowed the Packers to jump the Saints for the No. 2 seed. New Orleans ended up losing its wild-card game to Minnesota, and Green Bay reached the NFC title game.

This is a great reward for the top seed in each conference, but some are wondering whether it’s too strong of an advantage.

Six games on wild-card weekend

Here’s the money-maker. The addition of a playoff team and the subtraction of a first-round bye in each conference means two extra playoff games on wild-card weekend. According to ESPN, “the players on the teams that earn a first-round bye will receive postseason pay for that weekend,” too.

Yet, as NFLPA executive committee vice president and current 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman notes, “it’s never that simple.”

A six-game weekend for the wild-card round is obviously intriguing to viewers. Presumably, the No. 2 seed would face the No. 7 seed, No. 3 would play No. 6 and No. 4 would draw No. 5. What’s unclear is how the NFL would determine that seeding, which is the biggest issue with its current playoff format.

Regular season increased to 17 games; preseason shortened to three games

This is a proposal by NFL team owners that has received significant pushback from the players, with the health and safety risks associated with another regular-season game being their biggest concerns. The league’s balancing act of subtracting a preseason game to make up for the regular-season addition is generally pointless to the regular starters who don’t play in Week 4 preseason games, anyway.

Likely an effort to convince the players to agree to a 17-game schedule, according to ESPN, “players (as part of the deal on the table) would go from a 47 percent revenue share under the current deal to 48 percent share at 16 games, and then to a 48.5 percent share if they go to 17 games.”

This is one of the “final issues” on which the players have not signed off during negotiations, per ESPN. A 17-game regular-season schedule “has yet to be agreed to, and it would not take effect until 2021 at the earliest.”

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