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Charles McDonald: Expanding the NFL playoffs to 14 teams would dilute a system that isn’t broken

NEW YORK – On Wednesday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the NFL owners proposed to expand the playoffs to seven teams in each conference as a part of a new collective bargaining agreement. It isn’t official yet, but the change would result in only one team receiving a first-round bye.

What a heinously awful idea.

The truth of the matter is that there are barely enough quality teams to fill out the current 12-team bracket that exists. Outside of rare exceptions like this past season and the Giants’ second Super Bowl win against the Patriots in 2012, the sixth-seeded teams rarely win playoff games. Now we’re going to put in a team that’s even worse than the teams that struggle to win? What sense does that make?

If the AFC had seven teams in the playoffs this past season, NFL fans would’ve been treated to the Pittsburgh Steelers, led by Duck Hodges and Mason Rudolph, traveling to Arrowhead to take on the Kansas City Chiefs in the first round of the playoffs. The Steelers had a point differential of -14 last year. The Chiefs had a point differential of +143.

That’s an extreme example of the disparity between teams in potential playoff matchups, but everyone intuitively knows that the teams currently missing the playoffs aren’t very good. This proposal would also mean that nearly half of the league makes the playoffs each year.

Let’s look at this further through the lens of the 2019 season. The Steelers would have made the playoffs, but the Broncos, Raiders, Colts and Jets would have been “in the mix” for the seventh AFC playoff spot. All of those teams finished the season with a losing 7-9 record. The NFC side isn’t quite as ominous: The Rams would have made the playoffs at 9-7 with the Cowboys and Bears just missing out with 8-8 records.

Of course, the NFL knows that people would watch and consume these games because they’ve created a product with infinite popularity. Doesn’t the quality of the highest-profile games mean something here? Outside of the clear money grab that comes with more playoff games, is it necessary to dilute these matchups?

A 14-team playoff with no conference distinctions could work, but it’s not ideal with the current quality of the AFC versus the NFC. Simply taking the teams with the best 14 records is a way to make the on-field action more compelling, but that would eliminate the need for the AFC and NFC to exist if all the teams would be placed into one overarching playoff pool.

This proposal is paired with the idea of playing a 17-game season, which is an entirely separate issue that the players and owners will have to figure out. More isn’t always better and the NFL already has a smooth playoff format that creates top-tier action while rewarding the teams at the top of each conference.

The NFL needs to come to its senses and protect the playoffs.

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