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A modest proposal for the NFL playoffs

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  December 17, 2010 12:27 PM

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Forget Major League Baseball expanding its playoffs, it is the NFL that needs to super-size the road to the Super Bowl.

The league is fixated on expanding to an 18-game regular season, but it needs to fix a loophole in the current playoff format as well.

Why the outcry for reform? Look West. With three games to go in the season there is the real possibility that the "winner" of the NFC West is going to finish with an 8-8 or 7-9 record. The co-leaders of the division, which should be re-named the NFC Worst, are 6-7 St. Louis and 6-7 Seattle. Both would have to win out to finish with winning records. That's not possible since they play each other in the regular-season finale in Seattle.

This situation has already sparked talk of tweaking the playoff format. Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, the co-chairman of the NFL's Competition Committee, which recommends and oversees rules changes, said on Wednesday he is in favor of seeding the playoffs by record instead of automatically making the four division winners in each conference the top four seeds, with two wild card teams automatically slotted into the fifth and sixth seeds -- and first-round road games.

This is the equivalent of rearranging the furniture in a room with a hole in the wall. NFL decision-makers should expand the playoffs from 12 teams to 14 (from six berths per conference to seven).

Seeding is an easy fix, just like NFL overtime, simply change the rule so that a division champion must finish with a winning record to be a top-four seed. But the larger issue is rewarding mediocrity by geography.

The current four-division setup, which the league went to in 2002, has watered down being a division champion and has created a mechanism to possibly penalize more teams simply because they're in the wrong geographical grouping in a given year.

We know this firsthand here in New England. In 2008, the Patriots went 11-5 and watched the playoffs on their flat screens, while the 8-8 AFC West champion San Diego Chargers were postseason participants. This year it could be an NFC team like the Green Bay Packers, the Patriots' opponents this week, that gets left out.

This is what Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein would term a "fatal flaw."

The NFL has had a 12-team playoff set up since 1990, when a third wild card team in each conference was created. At the time, the league had three divisions per conference (East, Central and West), so there were three division champions and three wild cards. However, a wild card berth was sacrificed with the realignment to a four-division format -- so was playoff format fairness.

The league should restore the third wild card and keep the four division winners. It's a win-win. It would create more content for the NFL owners to profit from by virtue of an additional playoff game per conference (how about a playoff game on NFL Network?) and allow more teams to have a chance at lifting the Lombardi Trophy.

How would a 14-team playoff work?

The major change would be that instead of two first-round byes per conference there would just one, which could help the league with another problem -- the tanking of regular season games by teams that have locked up byes. Fewer teams would be able to routinely shut it down in the final two or three weeks -- I'm looking at you, Indianapolis Colts -- because they clinched a first-round bye.

Reducing tanking would result in what the NFL is billing an 18-game slate as -- an "enhanced season" -- because more would be at stake later in the year and having the best record in the AFC or the NFC would be a truly significant feat worth fighting for.

The primary concern with a 14-team postseason format is that the teams in each conference who earned the bye would have too much of an advantage.

However, playing on Wild Card Weekend is far from a Super Bowl death sentence. Since 2000, four Super Bowl winners and six Super Bowl participants have played in the first round, including a stretch of three straight seasons (2005, 2006 and 2007) where the Super Bowl champion didn't have the benefit of a bye.

The 2005 Steelers, 2006 Indianapolis Colts and the, ugh, 2007 New York Giants all won it all without any idle time.

The most recent team to play on Wild Card Weekend and end up playing on Super Bowl Sunday was the 2008 Arizona Cardinals, who were 35 seconds -- and Santonio Holmes's tippy-toes -- away from being Super Bowl champions.

In a league that prides itself on parity and already has bye weeks worked into the regular season, having only one bye per conference shouldn't be enough of an argument against playoff expansion.

There is also the matter of historical precedent. The last time the league expanded the regular season, going from 14 games to 16 games in 1978, they added an additional wild-card berth in each conference.

The NFL has actually entertained a 14-team playoff. Patriots owner Robert Kraft co-sponsored a rules proposal with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2003 that would have expanded the playoffs to 14 teams. But the proposal was never voted on by the teams and was withdrawn due to lack of support.

It takes a yea vote from 24 of the NFL's 32 teams for a rules proposal to be passed.

But the league should take another shot. With a new collective bargaining agreement on the horizon it's the perfect time to expand the NFL's playoff horizons.

MLB's combined regular and postseason are already bloated with too many games, but the NFL still has room for improvement.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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