Blowouts a black eye on NFL’s expanded playoffs

NFL

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Coming into this past weekend, we only had 13 NFL games left until September, so complaining about any of them seems a little ungrateful. But let’s be honest … several of the allegedly “super” wild-card matchups in the NFL playoffs stunk like those Thanksgiving leftovers you just discovered in the back of the fridge.

Sure, two of the games came down to the last possession. But two others were all but unwatchable from the jump. The Bucs and Bills hung a combined 58 points – Tampa Bay 31, Buffalo 27 – on the scoreboard before their opponents, the seventh-seeded Eagles and sixth-seeded Patriots, even scored. In the Sunday nightcap, Kansas City started slow but dropped 35 points on the utterly lost seventh-seed Steelers in less than 12 minutes of game clock en route to an easy victory.

Recapping the specific failures of the Patriots, Eagles and Steelers would not be appropriate for a family publication. This was a bad weekend for Alabama quarterbacks, and an ugly (presumed) career finale for Ben Roethlisberger. In short, the last teams to make the dance really stunk up the joint.

Obviously, the sixth-seeded Patriots would have been in even in a pre-expansion playoffs. And yes, the Bills would’ve beaten the ‘72 Dolphins and ‘85 Bears playing the way they did Saturday night. But still: neither Pennsylvania team remotely looked like they belonged on the same field as last year’s Super Bowl teams. In 2021, expansion improved opportunities but destroyed competitiveness.

In other words: Thanks to playoff expansion, get used to a whole bunch more early-round blowouts and pig-wrestling matches.

The NFL’s motivation for expanding the playoffs is obvious: money, money and more money. Postseason NFL games are regularly among the most-watched telecasts of any year — they comprised the top 5 telecasts even in the weird year of 2020, for instance — so a right to broadcast a postseason game is a right to print money, both for the networks and the league. 

Tampa Bay belongs in the NFL playoffs. Philadelphia did not. (Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports)
Tampa Bay belongs in the NFL playoffs. Philadelphia did not. (Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports)

Earlier this year, the league and its broadcast partners finalized an 11-year, $110 billion broadcast rights deal starting in 2023. A key element of that for one important broadcaster: the right for ESPN/ABC to broadcast postseason wild-card and division games.

The NFL has the ability to magically create more of its most valuable inventory — and, thus, revenue — just by drawing another line on a bracket, and it’s taking full advantage. There may be an upper limit for the appetite for NFL football, but we haven’t hit it yet.

The expanded playoffs also juice up the competitive element of the regular season. Adding another playoff spot opens up playoff hopes for a whole new swath of rank sub-.500 teams. With two weeks left in the 2021 regular season, only six teams had been formally eliminated. More teams in the hunt = more fanbases engaged for reasons other than fantasy or betting.

The problem is that just because you can sneak in the back door doesn’t mean you belong at the party. The “any given Sunday” ethos applies well enough in the regular season — I still can’t believe the Jaguars beat the Bills — but once you get to the postseason, the blue chips tend to run the table.

Last season, Tampa Bay was the first wild-card team to win the Super Bowl in a decade. In the 43 years since the wild card was expanded, only seven Super Bowl victors came from outside the pool of division winners.

The league began seeding teams in 1975, and since then, the No. 1- or 2-seeded team has won the Super Bowl more than 75 percent of the time. Shocker: Teams that play well in the regular season also play well in the postseason.

Thing is, the NFL isn’t going back to a smaller postseason. Ever. The money isn’t on the table anymore; it’s already in the league’s pockets through 2033. Much more likely: an eventual expansion to eight teams. (The league even drafted a proposal for this last season because of COVID protocols.)

Granted, complaining about extra football is like complaining about extra ice cream. Don’t like it? Don’t indulge. Still, with so few games left in the year, it’s a shame that the wild-card round is setting up to be an array of blowouts and slogs. The divisional and conference championship weekends are some of the best days of the sporting calendar; the wild-card weekend is something we’re just going to have to wade through to get there.

More isn’t always better. Sometimes, it’s just more of a mess. Save us, Rams-Cardinals. 

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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