Commentary

Playoff expansion? Forget about it

First playoff weekend was close to perfect, which is why NFL should leave it alone

Originally Published: January 6, 2014
By Dan Graziano | ESPN.com

It was better than any holiday movie Hollywood threw at us, more compelling even than last week's zany run of college bowl games and light-years more entertaining than the third season of "Homeland." As pure entertainment goes, the first weekend of the NFL playoffs was pretty close to perfect. Which is why the NFL needs to leave it alone.

That's right. Please don't expand the NFL playoffs. They're too good the way they are.

In the four games played over the two days, we saw a 28-point second-half comeback and two games decided on last-second field goals. Three of the four teams that won were trailing at halftime, and the other (San Francisco) was behind in the fourth quarter. Four fan bases woke Monday morning with broken hearts, but two of them (Philadelphia and Kansas City) root for teams that finished in last place a year ago and whose 2013 seasons offered bright hope for the future.

[+] EnlargeSaints
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsShayne Graham's winning kick as time expired was just one of many thrills during wild-card weekend.

No matter which team you like, or even if you don't like any of them, the quality of the NFL product on the field and on your television screen was at its blissful best from Saturday afternoon through Sunday night. The league should embrace this, not water it down.

The NFL has said it would like to expand its playoffs. The modest initial proposal is to add a team in each conference, starting with the 2015 season, but there has been talk of further expansion. The supporters of this idea speak of broadening the excitement base -- of allowing more fan bases and more teams to hope. Both No. 6 seeds won this weekend. Each of the past three Super Bowl champions has played on the first weekend. Each year offers more proof than the last that all you have to do is get into the tournament to have a chance to win it all.

I don't argue that last fact, but I do have some questions about it. The first is whether the league really thinks we're all dumb enough to believe this is about justice for teams like the 10-6 Arizona Cardinals or, even worse, the 8-8 Pittsburgh Steelers, who just missed this year's playoff field. If the NFL expands its playoff field, it's not out of some charitable motivation to include more deserving teams. The NFL's only motivation, for anything, is revenue expansion and enhancement. This plan would make the league's owners more money, and that's why it's being discussed. Truthfully, it's why I can't believe it hasn't already been approved.

But that's fine. It's a business, as we all know, and the NFL's owners have the right to cash in on their league's towering popularity. I just think it's important for this league, as it is for any business, to consider the effect of profit-driven change on the quality of its product.

Only one of the eight teams on the field this weekend wasn't up to the task, and that was the Cincinnati Bengals. And the reason they flopped wasn't that they weren't qualified. Honestly, the Bengals have more talent on their roster than the Chargers do. They were an 11-5 division champion whose quarterback had a rotten day. San Diego ran its typically great, patient game plan, made fewer mistakes and won a game between two obviously qualified playoff teams. The way it should be.

There was no game this weekend in which a team looked overmatched -- no team in the playoff field that performed as though it didn't belong. The NFL should view this as a good thing. From a product-quality standpoint, it's better to risk leaving a strong team out of your playoff field than to invite weak ones into it. Arizona, which won in Seattle two weeks ago, may have been a worthy playoff team this year. But you can't count on a conference's seventh-best team to always be that. At some point, you're going to be forcing teams into the field that simply aren't good enough to be there.

Everybody remembers the Seattle team that won the NFC West at 7-9 in 2010, and the Tim Tebow Broncos who won the AFC West at 8-8 in 2011. Everybody remembers those teams winning their first-round games. But they both got blown out in the second round. Anybody remember those games? Of course not, because they stunk. The NFL's regular season is fraught with too many dull mismatches. As great as the game is when it's at its best, it's stone-cold boring when at its worst. Inviting the mismatches into January would be a major mistake.

This will fall on deaf ears, I am certain, because our nation's mindless hunger for the NFL and the owners' pursuit of every attainable dollar adhere to the same guiding principle: More is better. But before anyone goes rushing off to make the NFL playoffs bigger, I think we should all stop for a minute and consider whether that would actually be a positive. After what we just watched this weekend, I wouldn't change a thing.

Dan Graziano

ESPN New York Giants reporter

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