14-Team Playoff Would Be NFL “Fairness Doctrine”

Once upon a time, the FCC observed this regulation called the Fairness Doctrine on first radio and then also television stations, to ensure that all sides of any political debate would be adequately represented. But by the 1980s, the doctrine began to rapidly fall out of favor — although, like the Holy Roman Empire, it took its sweet time dying an official death, which did not occur until 2011.

But the NFL can introduce its own fairness doctrine by expanding its playoff field from the current 12 teams to 14.

First, let's deal with the problem at the top: should the difference between being a 2 seed and a 3 seed be greater that the difference between being a 1 seed and a 2 seed? That is clearly the case now, in that the 1 and 2 seeds get both a first-round bye and home field in the divisional playoffs, while the 3 seed gets neither. Also, in the current playoff format, in no case can a team that didn't win their division get home field advantage in the playoffs against one that did. So why should a team that didn't win their conference get a first-round bye?

Which brings us to the problem in the middle: as pointed out above, a wild card can never get home field against a division champion, even if the wild card finished with a better record — something that has happened a whopping 23 times (including once in the conference championship game — Philadelphia at Arizona in 2008) since the current playoff system was implemented in 2002; worse yet, in two of the cases, a 6 seed had a better record than a 3 seed (the N.Y. Jets over Indianapolis in 2010 and New Orleans over Philadelphia in 2013).

And even if nothing is done about this, with seven teams in each conference making the playoffs, it becomes possible for a 5 seed to host a divisional playoff game, which would in fact occur if the 2 (which would no longer get a first-round bye), 3 and 4 seeds all got upset in their wild card games; in that case, the 1 seed would host the 7 seed in the divisional round while the 5 seed, which did not win its division, hosts the 6 seed.

Last, and most serious of all, is the problem at the bottom: teams missing the playoffs with the same or better record than teams that make it. Had seven teams from each conference made the playoffs since 2002, 12 "seventh seeds" finishing with outright better records than the playoff team with the worst record that season regardless of conference would have gotten in; and in nine of the 15 seasons, neither of the seventh seeds finished with a worse record than the worst team that actually did make it — debunking the myth that adding the seventh seed would be "rewarding mediocrity" to any significantly greater degree than it is being rewarded now.

And from 1990 through 1994, 12 out of 28 NFL teams made the playoffs, or 42.9 per cent — and did the sky fall? Fourteen out of 32 would be 43.8 percent, a difference hardly worth getting worked up over.

With both TV ratings and attendance at games tanking like an NBA team seeking more ping-pong balls in the lottery, the NFL needs something to take the fan base's minds off all the negativity, just like when the NHL instituted the shootout and baseball chose to look the other way while players used steroids to help the fans move beyond the labor strife in their sports. And this move has no downside whatsoever for the NFL.

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