Many casual observers will tell you that “wildcard weekend” is the best weekend of NFL action. There is usually a red-hot team that has snuck into the playoffs hitting the road to try and take down a division winner in their own backyard. This year’s wildcard weekend saw no fewer than 3 of the “lower seeded” teams progress to round 2 of the playoffs with the Colts, Chargers and Eagles all progressing. Only the Dallas Cowboys of the higher seeds progressed after a close game with the Seahawks. One week later however, all four of the said teams have now been eliminated as the top seeds entered the picture following their first-round bye. That first round bye is earned throughout the season, however is its impact getting too much, that revising the playoff format is required?
Looking back to recent history, every participant in the Super Bowl dating back to the 2012 season has been a team that got a first-round bye. Since the playoffs were expanded to 12 teams in 1990, teams with first-round byes have had a 39% percent chance of making the Super Bowl. By comparison if you secure the number 5 or 6 seed and have to go on the road to make it through to the Super Bowl then you only have a 2% chance of making it through.
Home-field advantage means more in the NFL than in any other sport: Since 2000, teams have won 57% percent of their home games during the regular season and 65% percent of their home games during the postseason. In theory, the NFL has developed a relatively fair way of rewarding regular season success. The two division winners with the best records get first-round byes, the other two division winners get to host games in the first round of the playoffs, and the two wild-card teams are forced to go on the road.
Hypothetically, this format gives the most deserving teams the easiest path, a notion that is reflected by the numbers.
But that isn’t always the case. It often works out that the four division winners are not the four teams with the best records in a conference. That means sometimes a wild-card team is forced to play a road game against a division winner with a worse record. Exactly what happened to the LA Chargers this week.
Does the NFL overvalue division championships in its playoff format? A division champion definitely shouldn’t receive priority over a wild-card team with a better record for those mega-important first-round byes. If anything, it’s more impressive that teams like the Chargers can manage such stellar records despite having more games against tougher competition. Should it have been Patriots hosting Ravens in wildcard week with Rivers and company getting a week off? You could then still play the divisional round game in New England if you didn’t want to change that element, but the Patriots would not have got the double advantage of home field and extended rest.
Sadly, there hasn’t been much talk of change. Nobody has proposed a modification to the current NFL postseason format since 2008, when a pitch to allow wild-card teams to host division winners with lesser records was rejected. Leading the charge against the potential change? Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who argued that “if you win a division, it’s good for your fans to know you will have a home game.”
The Patriots have built their dynasty around first-round byes. They’ve gotten eight in a row, dating back to 2009. In the 12 seasons since 2001 during which New England has secured a first-round bye, it has made eight Super Bowls. In the three seasons the Pats have made the playoffs but failed to get a first-round bye, they have made the conference championship game only once. Believe it or not, the Patriots are a measly 3-4 in road playoff games during this dynasty era. The Patriots already have everything going for them: the greatest coach of all time, the greatest QB of all time, and a mediocre AFC East division in which to contend. Surely, they don’t need any more help?
This article isn’t a dig or a moan about the Patriots, they just happen to be the team that has benefitted because of this situation this weekend. I wanted to write the article because as a neutral fan I have to say I was a little bit disappointed with this weekend’s action. I expected the Colts and Chargers to perform much better than they did, but maybe I just needed to write this article before the weekend to see that quite possibly the writing was already on the wall. Maybe if the Browns ever secure a home field playoff game I will not care as much.
Is the answer to reduce the playoff field to just 8 teams? Expand it to 16 teams? Lets debate
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