That Was A Bad Weekend For Expanded Playoffs
11:23 AM EST on January 17, 2022
Whew. There sure was a lot of football to watch this weekend, wasn't there? Lotta football. And there's more tonight! If you are the type of person who wants to gorge on playoff football of any variety until you are dragged out of the Buffalo Wild Wings with an ice bucket on your head, this is the best time of year for you. If you would prefer, however, that all the playoff football you are offered be entertaining and compelling, it's likely that the wild card weekend was a bit of a slog.
This is the second season in which we've been treated to an expanded playoff bracket, which calls for a third wild card team to be thrown into the wood chipper against the No. 2 seed in each conference. This year we got the 9-8 Eagles taking on the Buccaneers in the NFC, and the 9-7-1 Steelers dragging themselves to Kansas City to face the Chiefs in the AFC. The Bucs won their game 31-15, and the Chiefs prevailed 42-21. Both games were over by halftime.
A playoff blowout can be fun, but the charms a lopsided result has to offer are greatly diminished when that result is entirely expected. Watching Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes carve up two teams that couldn't even win 10 games in the regular season didn't tell us anything we didn't already know, which is that neither the Eagles nor Steelers belonged in the playoffs. Both game felt perfunctory, which is another way of saying they were total wastes of time.
Objectively bad teams earning playoff berths for no other reason than forcing a clearly superior team to play a warm-up game instead of enjoying a bye week is something that will continue to happen so long as the NFL's playoff bracket stays expanded. There have been four No. 2 vs. No. 7 games since the NFL added the third wild card team, and three of them have been total duds. (Remember when Mitchell Trubisky led the 8-8 Bears to New Orleans and got beat 21-9? No, that really happened! I swear! Please stop trying to punch me in the face.) The one decent game the extra wild card has given us was last season's matchup between the 13-3 Bills and 11-5 Colts, which Buffalo eked out, 27-24. That game will always stand as an argument in favor of the expanded playoffs, but how many games like that one are we going to get in the years to come? There are far more badly run organizations in the NFL than there are competent ones, which greatly reduces the odds of any No. 2 vs. No. 7 game being worth a shit.
There's no use worrying too much about this problem, though, because from the NFL's point of view, it isn't really a problem. The league wants to put as much football in front of as many eyeballs as possible because it wants to make as much money as possible, and even if a meaningful number of fans and players groan about the 18-week regular season and crummy playoff games, none of it matters as much as the checks clearing. Besides, getting mad about having to watch Jalen Hurts and Ben Roethlisberger litter a playoff game with wobbly and inaccurate throws will seem quaint in 2034, when we're all settling in to watch a Week 21 matchup between the Bears and Lions, the winner of which will improve to 7-12-1 and claim the No. 10 seed for the playoffs.