NFL playoffs: Why do we need wild cards, anyway?
The NFL playoffs get underway this weekend with a slate of four wild card games. Is it just a chance to extend the season or does the presence of wild cards improve the NFL playoffs?
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In 1978, the playoffs were expanded to two wild card teams per league, and the bye week was born. It was simple: the wild card teams played each other in the first round, and all of the division winners got a week off (so NFL viewers back then only had two games to choose from, not four).Skip to next paragraph
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The playoffs again expanded in 1990, to three wild card teams, causing the division winner in each league with the worst record to lose its bye. Today each league has four divisions, and the wild card teams have been scaled back to two apiece.
The whole thing can seem unduly complicated, but in addition to the money generated for the NFL, the system actually improves the level of playoff football in tangible ways. For one, not all division winners are created equal. Why should the 12-4 Steelers, who were a close second place in the AFC North behind the Baltimore Ravens, sit out the postseason while the 8-8 Broncos, winners of the sad-sack AFC West, go to a playoff game?
The strength of each division varies wildly across the league, so the wild card round allows second-tier teams in stellar conferences a chance to take on first-tier teams in mediocre conferences. The 9-7 Cincinnati Bengals were third place in the AFC North, but they would have easily taken the AFC West, which didn’t have a single team with a winning season.
Furthermore, a wild card team going deep into the playoffs, or even all the way to the Super Bowl, isn’t an uncommon sight. Since 1970, seven wild card teams have won the whole thing, including the Green Bay Packers last year. At 10-6, the Packers were the wildest of wild cards that year, seeded sixth of six in the NFC.
So, does the wild card round benefit the NFL in a financial sense? Undoubtedly. But because of it, NFL fans get to watch more games, and, most of the time, better ones. That symbiosis between revenue and quality of play is a major reason that the NFL is far and away America’s most popular sport.