The NFL has moved into a fairly active period of change, especially regarding the playoff format and schedule. For years, there was a pretty standard playoff expectation with the top two seeds receiving a bye and the bottom two divisional winners facing the next two non-division winners in the Wild Card round. Those games were played on the weekends, split between Saturday and Sunday.
COVID-19 provided the excuse for the NFL to expand the playoffs to include a seventh team in each conference; awarding only each Conference’s top regular-season team to have a bye. This leaves the remaining six teams to play, with the lowest remaining seed to face the top seed. It also has created two extra playoff games during Wild Card week.
Last year, those games were split evenly, with three falling on Saturday and three on Sunday. This season, the NFL moved one of the games to Monday night, which allowed for a third primetime game on Wild Card weekend. It also meant another Manning Cast, which has become a fan favorite as an alternative to traditional game broadcasts.
While there could be more changes to in-game rules, it won’t be surprising if the NFL is settling in on a playoff format and schedule that might stick around for a while.
This season, the playoffs have reached the Divisional Round. There are plenty of juicy matchups but fans have chosen Sunday night’s showdown between the AFC’s Chiefs and Bills as the one they’re looking forward to most.
It’s not hard to understand why. Coming into the season, the expectation was that Patrick Mahomes would get some company at the very top of the NFL’s elite quarterback rankings, with Josh Allen showing ridiculous talent and his connection with Stefon Diggs a season ago.
While the season hasn’t played out as some might have expected for either quarterback, they’ve still managed to collide in the NFL playoffs on teams that fans would enjoy watching in advance to the Super Bowl. I suspect most had hoped this meeting would have happened in the AFC Championship.
Looking back to Wild Card weekend, fans appeared to enjoy the 49ers and Cowboys game above the rest of the slate. It’s not hard to see why, as the Cowboys were favorites, at home, and had the ball with a chance to win on their final possession. The fact that Mike McCarthy and the offense drew up what has become one of the most controversial or comical plays the NFL has seen late in the clock in a playoff game years added to the drama.
There is also the possibility that a pretty large subset of the NFL fan community finds Cowboys fans obnoxious - rightly or wrongly (no stance here). Underdog, winning on the road, against a franchise that a lot of fans like to see fail - check.
Back to the original discussion, it’s interesting to note that responding fans are in favor of the new playoff structure but not overwhelmingly. From this writer’s perspective, it’s hard to understand why.
Divisions vary in strength. There have been discussions of removing the division title from the playoff calculations and that feels like a wrong move. However, expanding the playoffs to include a third team that didn’t win their respective division, and giving them a chance to knock off one of the divisional champions in the Wild Card Round means more balance.
Late-season football is now even more exciting to watch. The last two weeks of this season saw over a dozen playoff-hopeful teams with something to play. The drama of those late-season games amounts to a further extension of the playoffs because each of those games has very obvious, mathematical implications on the postseason.
For such a minor change to create two more playoff games, another primetime playoff game, and extend the playoff drama to include more teams in the final weeks feels like a win for everyone. If the last team in wins a Super Bowl in the future, which will likely happen if this format remains, it will add even more to the excitement.
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