“Teams can go from 9-7 to the Super Bowl, as we’ve seen,” said Mara, whose team did so to win the 2011 title. “Can they do it from 7-9 or 8-8? I don’t know. You tell me.”
They might get the chance to try, because it is clear that the league is going to increase the number of playoff qualifiers to 14, almost certainly for the 2015 season.
Sure, the extra two spots could wind up going to teams like last season’s Arizona Cardinals, who missed out at 10-6. But they also could fall into the laps of a .500 squad — Pittsburgh would have gotten the extra berth in the AFC if it existed in 2013. Or worse, a repeat of what Seattle achieved in 2010, albeit as a division winner, with a 7-9 record.
Commissioner Roger Goodell supports two more wild-card teams. So do most owners, although the league is proceeding cautiously by delaying until October an actual vote.
The TV partners will love the idea of more playoff games, and the prospect of playing both of the additional wild cards in prime time is a juicy one. Indeed, those games could wind up being on a broadcast outlet not yet affiliated with the NFL, such as Turner.
Given the records the NFL has been setting on television lately, from the regular season to the postseason to the draft, there’s no reason to believe it won’t receive the same $100 million for each additional playoff game ESPN is paying to get in on the party next January.
“I do believe it will be approved for the 2015 season,” Goodell said. “We want to see how it will impact in a positive way from a competitive standpoint. Will it create more excitement, more races toward the end of the season? Who will ultimately qualify for the playoffs?”
The new setup won’t put much more strain, if any, on the postseason schedule. It also would make having the best record in the conference even more valuable: Only that team will get a first-round bye.
Right there, Goodell’s league could have plenty “more excitement” down the stretch.
With three wild-card games, the NFL could fill up the first weekend in January from early afternoon until midnight.
Or, as Mara mentioned, one of the games figures to land on Monday night.
Goodell said the NFL wants to see how its concentration of games on Thursday night works out this year before proceeding with more playoff teams. That’s understandable, but the main reason for delaying the inevitable is that the players’ union has to sign off on the expansion.
Considering the added revenue that would accompany two more wild-card games, would the NFLPA really balk? Goodell said he spoke with union boss DeMaurice Smith two weeks ago and didn’t get any pushback.
“This is something I’ve had numerous conversations with DeMaurice about,” Goodell said. “I think there are a lot of benefits to the players, but that’s something they’ll have to evaluate. They are our partners, and I’ve said on many occasions before that we are going to have a dialogue with all of our partners to make sure it can be done the right way.”
Goodell also noted that the players would receive 55 percent of the revenue generated by two more postseason games.
For NFL owners, the additional dollars also might eliminate their currently dormant proposal for an 18-game regular season, something the union says won’t ever happen.
Meanwhile, Mara, a trusted adviser to Goodell and one of the league’s most influential owners, appears to be leading a losing battle for the status quo.
“I just like it the way it is right now,” he said of the playoff structure that has existed since 1990. “I think we’re diluting it too much. It also creates other issues. You’re going to play one of those games on a Monday night, and the prospect of doing that in January is not all that appealing.
“We had a great opening wild-card weekend this year and it seems like we have that every year, and I’m not sure what this is going to bring.”
It will bring more money to the owners and players, more football for the fans, more eyeballs for the networks.
And it is coming.