Over the past few years, the NFL has been surrounded by negative publicity due to the amount of player arrests, the rising issue of concussions, and of course, its inability to determine what constitutes a catch. Since the turn of the decade, the NFL has seen a star tight end turn into a convicted murderer, a former rushing leader miss almost an entire season following a child abuse investigation, and a Pro Bowl linebacker detained in an airport due to his involvement in a bomb threat. The league executives have seen it all.
Despite all these incidents, the league has gotten one thing right – the playoff system. Every year we gather around to watch twelve teams fight for the coveted title of Super Bowl Champions. Although the league is sometimes viewed as an evil enterprise solely interested in money, the NFL Playoffs represent the opposite of that, embodying everything that we love about the sport. There are nail biters, upsets, and record breaking performances that make fans crave playoff football each and every winter.
The players change from year to year and the contenders vary, but that’s the beauty of it all. That factor of unpredictability is unparalleled and unrivaled in any of the other major sports. Sure, some teams will have years of success and string together consecutive playoff runs, but each season, the surrounding cast is altered slightly. The match-ups change, the seeding is different, and there’s no guarantee that the best teams will automatically advance further in the playoffs.
Let’s compare the NFL season to the seasons of other professional sports. First of all, the schedule is much shorter in the NFL than anywhere else. This means that every week is absolutely imperative to the playoff hunt, even going down to the wire in final weeks of the season. Many times divisions titles are clinched and home field advantage is determined in the final week or two of the season. Week 4 is just as important to teams as week 12.
Now take a look at the MLB, NHL, and NBA. Just how important is a single game? How is game 20 any different from game 75? With the longer schedules in those leagues, teams can afford to have a bad game without it having serious effects on their playoff chances. In the NFL, teams can’t afford to just take a week off. Could you imagine if the Patriots decided to rest Tom Brady or Rob Gronkowski for a week like some NBA and MLB teams do with their starters? (Though as a Bills fan, I admit that I would like to see that.)
Continuing this comparison between the NFL and other major leagues, 16 of 30 NBA teams qualify for the playoffs while 12 of 32 qualify for the NFL Playoffs. In 2015, only 3 teams beat a higher ranked seed in a total of 15 series. Already in the 2016 NFL Playoffs, 4 teams have beaten a higher ranked seed. This could be attributed to the fact that the NBA Playoffs use a best-of-7 series for each round of the playoffs instead of a single game playoff in the NFL.
However, this could also be viewed as a testament to the level of competition in the NFL. Unlike in the NBA where top seeds are virtually given a free pass into the next round by playing underachieving teams (often times a team that is just above or below an even record), top seeded NFL teams are pitted against a team of similar caliber in every round of the playoffs. Plus, a 6-seed in the NFL, being the lowest seed in the conference, has a much higher chance to win than an 8-seed in the NBA, also the lowest in the conference. This just goes back to the set up of the NFL Playoffs. The lower number of teams increases the overall level of competition.
I remember when my hometown Charlotte Bobcats were scheduled to play LeBron’s Miami Heat back in the 1st round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs. Mathematically, the Bobcats did have a chance to win. Unfortunately, math was about the only thing that gave the Bobcats a shot at winning. Not one person I knew legitimately thought Charlotte had a chance of winning the series. The Bobcats weren’t awful that year, finishing at a record of 43-39. It was actually the best they had been in a while, especially after compiling just 21 victories the year before. But the talent level on the 2-seeded Heat was far superior compared to the 7-seeded Bobcats. It was hardly competitive; only one game was decided by fewer than 10 points. Miami swept the Cats and eventually went on to the NBA Finals that year. What was the point of even playing a meaningless set of 4 games with Charlotte? It was basically an extension of the regular season.
Now I’m not saying blowouts only happen in the NBA and the NFL Playoff system is flawless. I’m just saying that the NFL sees the unexpected happen more often, thanks to the system. The NFL is home to more unpredictability, more unprecedented outcomes, and more parity than other professional sports.
So thank you NFL. I’ll be tuning in to watch more playoff football this weekend.