It’s good to learn from your mistakes, but it’s better to learn from the mistakes of others. Last weekend, I think the NFL made a mistake, running the first Super Wild Card round after moving to a 14-team playoff. I genuinely like the old, 12-team system — every seed has a distinct advantage over the next lower one, meaning the better teams get rewarded, but everyone has an incentive to try the whole season.
The 14-team system, where only the top seed gets a bye, saw some pretty poor teams sneak in at the bottom of the field, and that disparity in talent was borne out in the quality of games. The average margin of victory was 17.2 points, the third-highest in the history of the NFL’s first playoff round, and really, only two games were competitive. Critically, the two lowest seeds, the teams that would not have made the playoffs under the old system, were blown out by a combined 37 points.
Now sometimes blowouts happen — I’ve often felt that football is the sport with the widest variance in game quality, you get just as many snoozers as you do close, dramatic spots. The New England Patriots were a pretty decent team in the regular season, finishing with the second best point differential in the AFC, and they were beat like dogs, losing by 30 to the Bills. Sometimes, blowouts just happen.
But the lack of competitiveness in those 2-7 matchups exposes the problem with expanded playoffs: if you expand them enough, some pretty mediocre teams start to find their way in. With MLB due to expand their own postseason as soon as this season, the lesson of the Super Wild Card weekend should be clear.
This is why I’m so in favor of a 12-team playoff for MLB. The 16-team nonsense we saw in 2020, even in a weird, emergency season, cannot happen again. 14 teams, we just saw in the NFL, still allow for a blah team or two to make it in, which both lowers the quality of the first round of the playoffs and reduces the incentive to actually try hard down the stretch — to paraphrase Peter Brody, the Steelers made it in because the rest of the division just gave up.
Of course, the counter argument is that the NFL, and the MLB, aren’t particularly concerned with making the first round as competitive as possible, but rather, as profitable as possible. I opened this post talking about learning from the mistake the NFL made, but from the league’s perspective, I’m sure they don’t think they made a mistake.
The NFL got to broadcast two more playoff games, the richest part of the $15 or so billion in revenue the league pulls in annually. That’s really all that matters, and it’s why, despite a really underwhelming Super Wild Card round, 14-team playoffs are going to stick around in the NFL. It’s also what MLB has realized, and while we might not be subject to the 2020 Blue Jays-Rays Wild Card series, a more competitive season and post-season is a secondary concern.