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?

Mike Stone/Reuters
Cincinnati Bengals' quarterback Andy Dalton is sacked by Houston Texans' Brooks Reed (bottom) in the first quarter during their AFC wildcard game of the NFL playoffs in Houston Jan. 7, 2012.

The NFL playoffs got underway Saturday with the Cincinnati Bengals visiting the Houston Texans, and the New Orleans Saints hosting the Detroit Lions. Sunday, Eli Manning and the New York Giants face the Atlanta Falcons, while an injured Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers journey to take on Tim Tebow’s Broncos.

The winners of those games will move on to the divisional playoffs to face the Patriots, Ravens, Packers, or 49ers – the teams that won their divisions and did well enough to earn a first round bye.

The Texans, Saints. Giants, and Broncos – your host teams – also won their respective divisions, but didn’t have good enough regular season records to avoid the division-losing Bengals, Lions, Falcons, and Steelers in the wild card round.

If you believe that a berth in the postseason should be earned in the regular season, then the concept of a wild card spot can be baffling. Why give some teams the week off, and let others, who couldn’t even win against their division rivals in the regular season, squeak into the playoffs at all? Wouldn’t it just be easier to seed the division winners and let them all in on the action at the start?

The cynic would chalk it up to money, and he wouldn’t be completely wrong.  By including wild card teams and giving others the week off, the NFL gains an extra week of television and ticket revenue. It also gives advertisers and teams time to ramp up enthusiasm for the bigger games, including America’s TV holiday, the Super Bowl. Last year’s wild card weekend was the most-watched ever, averaging 32.2 million viewers per game and thoroughly trouncing everything else on TV that weekend (The lowest rated game, Saints vs. Seahawks, beat out the highest rated nonfootball offering, and episode of “Two and a Half Men,” by 13 million viewers).

But to take a gentler view, the wild card round is as intrinsic to NFL football as hard hits and elaborate touchdown celebrations. The league actually invented the playoff wild card round, a concept now used in some form by all of North America’s major professional leagues – the NHL, MLB, NBA, and MLS among them.

In 1970, the NFL reorganized itself into two leagues (The AFC and the NFC) with three divisions apiece. To make the playoff rounds even, the best second place division finisher from each league also made the postseason. At first, the NFL clunkily dubbed these qualifiers “Best Second-Place Teams.”  Presumably for the sake of  time, broadcasters began calling these teams “wild cards,” a term the NFL officially adopted in 1975.

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).

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.  

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