If the NFL can make it through the regular season, there’s a reward waiting at the end for two more teams than usual.
Starting this year, the playoffs will be expanded to include 14 teams, after owners voted in March to add a wild-card team to each conference.
Instead of the top two teams in each conference earning a bye, it will now be just the No. 1 seeds that get the first week of the playoffs off. The rest of the division winners will host first-round games against the wild cards — No. 2 vs. No. 7, No. 3 vs. No. 6 and No. 4 vs. No. 5 — making for a jam-packed wild-card weekend on Jan. 9-10 with six games on the docket.
“Obviously the two extra games will be a huge handle,” said Nick Bogdanovich, the head linesmaker at William Hill.
The top seeds will then join the playoffs the following weekend in the divisional round, so finishing with the best record in the AFC or NFC will take on an added importance.
“What it really does is really help the one seed,” Bogdanovich said. “The one and two seeds were a little more on equal footing, but with that one seed getting the extra week off while the two seed goes through another physical war with the risk of injury, that deep into the season you’re worn out as it is.”
The change in format marks the NFL’s first postseason expansion since 1990, when it went from 10 to 12 teams qualifying for the playoffs.
While some believe the 14-team field will water down the playoffs, 44 of the 60 teams that would have been the seventh seed in the past 30 years had winning records, according to NFL.com. Only one would have made the playoffs with a losing record. In the same time span, more teams with losing records have won their divisions (two) and made the playoffs anyway.
Had the new playoff format been used last season, the Steelers (8-8) and Rams (9-7) would have been the beneficiaries as the No. 7 seeds in their respective conferences. The eventual Super Bowl champion Chiefs would not have gotten the first-round bye they enjoyed and instead the No. 2 seed in the AFC would have faced the Steelers in the first round.
“It helps the mid-range teams that were 40, 50, 60/1 [Super Bowl odds], that they get an extra shot in there to have a puncher’s chance,” Bogdanovich said. “But that team’s still gotta go on the road and trying to win on the road in the NFL playoffs is no easy bargain. So probably all those teams that were 60 or 75/1 were chopped a little — 55 or 60, very minimal adjustment. But it does give those fringe playoff-type of teams more of a puncher’s chance.”
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