On Sunday, Seattle kicker Blair Walsh missed a 48-yard field goal with 32 seconds left, ensuring that the Seahawks would lose to Arizona, fall to 9-7 and miss the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Even before the kick, Seattle knew its playoff fate was sealed thanks to Atlanta clinching the last playoff spot with a win over Carolina in a game that had just wrapped up.
But what if Walsh’s kick had been the difference between Seattle making the playoffs and the Detroit Lions, who also finished 9-7, getting into the tournament as a seventh seed? Lions head coach Jim Caldwell certainly wouldn’t have been fired on Monday if his team were in the playoffs for the third time in four years. Walsh’s kick would have carried so much more pressure that he probably would have been even wider right on the miss.
That type of memorable finish in Week 17 is just part of what the NFL has in mind when talking about the idea of playoff expansion. In May 2014, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell expected the league to expand the playoff field from 12 to 14 teams for 2015. It never happened, and despite Goodell’s statement in 2016 that it would likely happen at some point, all is quiet on the playoff expansion front.
But does the NFL really need more playoff teams? The NBA and NHL use 16 playoff teams, but that makes some of the first-round matchups a chore (and a bore) to watch. NFL teams already play only 16 games a season, so that exclusivity with only 12 teams qualifying should be considered a positive, not a problem.
This is the 16th season with the current playoff format of 12 teams making the tournament from eight divisions. That actually makes this the longest-running playoff format that the NFL has used since the advent of the Super Bowl, and it’s hard to argue with the success the NFL has enjoyed in the current makeup. Some sixth seeds in this era, such as the 2005 Steelers and 2010 Packers, went on incredible runs all the way to championships. The four coveted first-round byes tend to produce a fascinating divisional round weekend where fans can usually count on at least one shocking upset.
Is the system perfect? Of course not, but it has been working quite well at creating memorable postseasons and deserving champions. Aside from the potential logistical problems of an expanded field — a 14-team playoff, for instance, would require six games played on wild-card weekend — the biggest argument against expansion is that the league can barely put 12 quality teams into the tournament as is. This is a brutal sport with plenty of significant injuries that inevitably weaken contenders come January. Just last year, the AFC playoffs featured games started by Matt Moore (Miami), Connor Cook (Oakland) and Brock Osweiler (Houston) because of late-season injuries to starting quarterbacks. We’re getting Nick Foles on the top-seeded Eagles this year because of Carson Wentz’s injury, and LeSean McCoy’s status is up in the air for the Bills this weekend.
Now that could be brushed off as bad luck, but the statistics also show the drop in quality of teams once you get to a hypothetical seventh or especially eighth seed in each conference. Football Outsiders uses Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, or DVOA (further explained here), to measure a team’s efficiency. We charted the average DVOA for a team by its conference seed since 2002, and we found that seventh and eighth seeds were clearly a notch below wild-card teams.
One of the key findings is that the average No. 4 seed has a DVOA of just 6.0 percent, which is roughly half of the average No. 5 (11.1 percent) and No. 6 seeds (12.3 percent). This is still higher than that of the average No. 7 (4.9 percent) and No. 8 seeds (3.5 percent). This suggests that the move from three divisions to four may not be working out too well, since the final division winner that gets the No. 4 seed is often an unimpressive team. The 2010 Seahawks infamously went 7-9 (30th in DVOA) but, with their home-field advantage, still knocked off the Saints in the playoffs that year. The 2014 Panthers made the playoffs with a 7-8-1 record (24th in DVOA) and won a playoff game over an Arizona team that had the dreadful Ryan Lindley at quarterback because of injuries to its top two passers.
Would we really be adding more quality teams with extra seeds? The following table shows the top 20 teams in DVOA that would have been seeded seventh or eighth since 2002.
The 2008 Patriots, with Matt Cassel at quarterback in place of an injured Tom Brady, are the only 11-5 team to miss the playoffs since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990. Out of the 64 teams who would have been a seventh or eighth seed, only 10 won at least 10 games, and 26 failed to win at least nine games. In most years, an expanded field would just add some marginal 9-7 teams.
This season, the Lions and Seahawks would have made the playoffs in the NFC and the Ravens and Chargers would have made it in the AFC as seventh and eighth seeds. The quality of those extra playoff teams wouldn’t be too bad, but it’s not the norm. As you can see from the table above, the 2017 Ravens have the fourth-highest DVOA (18.5 percent) for a hypothetical seventh or eighth seed since 2002. Yet are we really going to miss not seeing a struggling Joe Flacco-led offense and a defense that couldn’t stop Andy Dalton on a 4th-and-12 with the season on the line?
If there is an argument against the current playoff format, it would be the usage of tiebreakers. In the AFC, the Ravens, Chargers, Titans and Bills all finished with 9-7 records, but only two teams could claim the wild-card spots. It just so happens that the two teams that were outscored by their opponents (Tennessee and Buffalo) got in, while the two teams that outscored their opponents, each by more than 80 points, were left out. That’s a problem.
Conference record was what saved the Bills and Titans here, but that ignores 25 percent of the schedule. If the NFL wants to promote winning at all costs and that every game counts, then performance in all 16 games should matter more. We don’t expect DVOA to come to the forefront of deciding which team goes to the playoffs, but maybe a simple rule that you can’t make the playoffs if you were outscored by 57 points like Buffalo was wouldn’t be so bad. In Week 11 against the Chargers, Buffalo benched Tyrod Taylor for Nathan Peterman, who proceeded to throw five interceptions on route to a 54-24 drubbing. And yet the 9-7 Bills are playing this weekend, while the 9-7 Chargers (plus-83 scoring differential) are at home. Something is off there.
The next step in improving the NFL playoffs shouldn’t be getting more teams in but making sure the best teams are getting into the tournament. Let’s hope Goodell steers the conversation that way the next time this inevitably comes up.
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