NFL’s 12-team playoff format was enacted 25 years ago this week

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As PFT’s Mike Florio reported last month, the NFL would like to expand the postseason field in 2016. Any addition of playoff entrants would be the first such change made by the league in at least a quarter-century, and it would undoubtedly lead to an increase in television money for the NFL and its clubs.

The NFL last moved to expand the postseason field 25 years ago this week. On March 1, 1990, the league added two teams to the playoff pool, increasing the number of entrants from 10 to 12 — six per conference. The expansion went hand-in-hand with the league striking a new broadcast rights deal with NBC, ABC, Turner, ESPN and CBS.

At the time, the NFL had three divisions per conference (West, Central, East), making the sixth postseason entrant a third wild-card club. Twelve years later, the NFL added one division per conference and reduced the wild-card entrants by one per conference, keeping the total field at 12 teams.

All things considered, the addition of the sixth postseason berth worked out well for the league and its teams. For one thing, the extra playoff games gave the NFL more content to sell to the networks.

Also, the expansion has allowed 25-of-32 NFL clubs to garner a playoff berth they otherwise would not have earned under the old system. The Vikings have used this final playoff spot to make the postseason on four different occasions since 1990, with the Jets, Falcons, Chiefs, Dolphins, Lions, Ravens and Washington all earning the sixth seed three times.

No. 6 seeds have been especially competitive in recent years. Since divisional realignment in 2002, the final wild-card teams are 21-24 in postseason play, with at least one No. 6 seed winning in 8-of-13 seasons (2002, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014).

Two No. 6 seeds have won Super Bowls — the 2005 Steelers and the 2010 Packers. Three other final wild-card entrants have won multiple games: the 2008 Ravens and Eagles and the 2010 Jets.

This is not to say No. 6 seeds have been smashing successes. Overall, they are 28-48 in postseason play. Indeed, most of the final wild-card entrants have gone tamely.

Still, without the sixth playoff spot, we wouldn’t have had Brett Favre heaving a cross-field bomb to Sterling Sharpe to beat the Lions in the Pontiac Silverdome in 1993, or Michael Vick leading a memorable upset in the snow in Lambeau Field in 2002, or the 2010 Jets knocking off the heavily favored Patriots in Foxborough.

Looking forward, the question is whether the seventh-seeded teams can provide these little bursts of drama, too. They will probably get their chance before long. We know this much: the playoff ranks aren’t getting any smaller, given the popularity of the NFL and the amount of money the league’s games can draw.

8 responses to “NFL’s 12-team playoff format was enacted 25 years ago this week

  1. I personally would not like to see the playoffs expanded. Even at 12 teams, we see sub .500 teams getting in. There’s just nothing right about that!

  2. Of course the playoff format will continue to grow, not because it’s good for the game, but because it’s always about making as much $$$$$$$$$ for the N.F.L.

  3. I’m not necessarily saying I am in favor of an additional team per conference but the .500 and below argument is not convincing. There have been 4 teams that were 8-8 or worse to make the playoffs since 2008, but they were all division winners. The first team out of the playoffs seems to have a better record than the worst division winner a lot of the time.

  4. Since 2002, which is when the league last expanded, there would have been six 8 win teams and six 10+ win teams that would have made the playoffs had the field been 14 teams rather than 12. There never would have been an additional team with a losing record make the field. If you want to get rid of the possibility of a 7 or less win team getting in, the best thing to do would to eliminate the automatic playoff berth for division winners. If the field were 7 per conference with no division winner guarantee, there would have never been a sub .500 team in the playoffs.

  5. I am so tired of this sports mentality that makes the regular season more and more useless. If a freaking team can’t win during the regular season they should not be in the playoffs. Teams that are 7-9 or 8-8 ruin the playoffs if they beat a team that was 12-4 say. Leave things the way they are just let a wild card team with a better record be the home team.

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