Tim Benz: NFL playoff expansion actually makes some sense | TribLIVE.com
Tim Benz, Columnist

Tim Benz: NFL playoff expansion actually makes some sense

Tim Benz
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin holds the AFC Championship trophy after a 24-19 win over the New York Jets on Sunday, Jan. 23, 2011, in Pittsburgh.

In a perfect world, the National Football League would trim its preseason by at least two games, keep its regular season at 16 games and leave the playoff bracket alone.

But it’s far from a perfect world, even in the NFL.

The collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2020 season. Discussions have already begun about how to extend it.

The players are going to want a bigger slice of the pie. And the league’s financial intake needs to adjust as the changing media landscape may shift how ad dollars are raked in via network television contracts.

In other words: Yes, even the NFL is trying to figure out ways to make more money.

Two options include extending the playoff bracket to seven teams per conference and extending the regular season to 18 games.

Both ideas would bring in more TV money.

Presumably, the longer regular season would come at the expense of two preseason games. But with the NFL, you never know. They may try to go to 22 weeks plus the playoffs.

“To add two more regular season games, you beat guys down,” Steelers offensive lineman Ramon Foster said. “You are shortening careers if that’s what you do. You might get a higher profit margin, but the product might not be as good. Plus, you may get some oversaturation if you add two more games.”

I agree with all that — particularly the “oversaturation” point Foster makes. Sixteen games feel like just the right amount to eliminate 20 of the 32 teams while keeping every game meaningful.

The regular seasons in the NBA, MLB and NHL are all far too long. In a once-a-week sport, every game should yield significant consequences. If you get to 18 games, that starts to wobble.

Especially if the league decides to expand the playoff tree to seven teams per conference.

“I like it the way it is,” Steelers defensive back Mike Hilton said. “The top six teams getting in there gives everybody a fair shot.

“If you earn it throughout the season, I feel like six teams is a good number.”

It is. It has been since 1990. And my preference is to leave well enough alone.

However, let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment.

Granted, some fans complain that at least one team per conference that doesn’t belong sneaks into the postseason every year. Unfortunately, though, that’s often a 9-7 or 8-8 winner of a soft division.

That club’s presence often squeezes out a more deserving wild card. From that standpoint, the seventh team per conference could promote greater equity.

If the league is going to do this, here is how it should work.

Each conference top seed gets the lone bye. Getting home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and the only bye is a tremendous advantage and would attach more importance to the regular season, offsetting its dilution should the calendar go to 18 games.

Also, one thing I dislike about the current format is the second seed getting the same bye as the top seed.

For example, why does finishing second at 11-5 via a tiebreaker over an 11-5 third-seed conference team return the same, massive benefit of a bye that the 14-2 regular season champ gets?

I’ve never liked that. It’s intellectually inconsistent.

Hence, if the league sets things up right, that problem would be solved. The division winners with the best records — AFC/NFC regular-season champions — get the byes and home field throughout.

The second-best team would play the seventh-place team at home. Then — as is the case now — the third-place team hosts No. 6 and the fourth-place team welcomes No. 5.

In theory, Steelers fans should love this idea. In three of the four seasons Mike Tomlin has missed the playoffs as head coach, the Steelers were the last team eliminated, finishing in seventh place.

The other year, 2009, they were bounced as the eighth-place team via a three-way tiebreaker.

As far as too many mediocre teams making the postseason as it is, I know it may feel that way. But a quick check back through history tells a different story.

The current format has been in place for 17 seasons. In 11 of those seasons, the last AFC wild card team into the bracket needed at least 10 wins. This has occurred 10 times in 17 seasons on the NFC side.

Furthermore, since that 2002 bracket was created:

• Just twice has an AFC division winner been 8-8.

• Every AFC wild-card team has been at least 9-7.

• There has never been an AFC playoff team with fewer than eight victories. That has happened twice in the NFC with the 2010 Seahawks and 2014 Panthers winning remarkably weak divisions.

So concerns over substandard teams continually getting into the playoffs may be a bit overblown.

And there is room for one more game per day on NFL Wild Card Weekend if the league decided it wants to run three games on Saturday and Sunday.

Which it will.

Am I talking myself into this whole thing?

Not quite. Things are fine the way they are.

But as compared to some of the other scheduling ideas the NFL is kicking around, expanding the playoffs by one team per conference isn’t as bad of a notion as you may have originally thought.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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