Close your eyes. Flip the calendar one year into the future. The 2015 regular season has concluded, and the postseason is looming.
The top seeds from each conference -- the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots -- have the week off. Instead of joining those teams on a bye, however, the No. 2 seed Green Bay Packers are hosting the No. 7 Philadelphia Eagles in the first round. The AFC's No. 2 seed is also in action, so the Denver Broncos are preparing to host the No. 7 Houston Texans.
You don't need a wild imagination to envision that scenario, which mirrors the presumed structure of the NFL's long-anticipated postseason expansion. Commissioner Roger Goodell has targeted the annual owners meeting, scheduled for March 22-25, to address a measure that would increase the field by two teams for the 2015 postseason.
The idea of a 14-team field engenders support from a cross section of the league. Owners want the revenue generated by ticket sales and two additional television broadcasts. Players know it's a way to increase their compensation -- indirectly, via a higher salary cap -- while minimizing exposure to additional injuries.
"And I can tell you this: There isn't a coach or GM in the league who wouldn't be in favor," former Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager and current ESPN analyst Mark Dominik said. "Playoff berths save jobs. No one wants to get fired. It sure seems like a 14-team field is right around the corner."
An ESPN SportsNation poll earlier this year revealed substantial fan resistance to disrupting the tradition and balance of the 12-team format, but those sentiments aren't likely to influence the league's plans. Change is coming, and we have a decent idea what it would look like. But as we stand waiting for what is likely the league's final 12-team field to launch its run to Super Bowl XLIX, it makes sense to examine other possibilities for the best format, structure and goal of its successor.
Is 14 teams the right number? What about 16? How should teams be seeded in light of the Carolina Panthers becoming the second sub-.500 division winner in five seasons? And how much, if at all, should the NFL reward the regular season's top teams? Should its goal be to grease a path for the best team? Or should the playoffs provide a "second season" for all above-average teams to compete tournament-style for a title?
Is 14 the right number?
After more than a year of public and private discussions, there is a general consensus on how the NFL is most likely to implement this change. Each conference would add a third wild-card team, bringing its total to seven seeds apiece and dropping the bye week for No. 2 seeds.
Wild-card weekend would feature six games instead of four. The second seed would play the No. 7 seed, the No. 3 seed would play No. 6, and No. 4 would host No. 5.
"I guess you could use the argument that if it isn't broke, don't fix it," Dominik said. "But 14 teams creates a new level of competition, and that's what the league wants. You have more competition for that No. 1 seed, because it gets the only bye, and more teams competing for that final spot as well. A 14-team field would bring out the best in NFL competition."
Initial public reaction has focused on the fear of watering down the field. But historically, the presumptive No. 7 seed has fit into the quality range between the top six seeds, according to Pattani's analysis. It's also worth noting that during the past 12 years, none of the 24 teams that would have been seeded seventh had a losing record. Eighteen would have been 9-7 or better, and six would have been 8-8.
Pattani, an analytics specialist for ESPN Stats & Information, created the "NFL team rating" graph you see above as a way to measure the quality of each team in a given seed over the past decade. The numbers represent how much better the team in that seed has been relative to the average NFL team, based on Pro Football Reference's simple rating system.
The takeaway: The No. 7 seed has been a step below the other two wild-card teams but about equal to the No. 4 seed (the lowest-rated division winner) in terms of quality.
"There is a lot of parity in football," Sullivan said. "The difference between the bad teams and the really good teams isn't really that much in terms of talent. In terms of execution, there can be -- but not in terms of good teams that have a chance to win the Super Bowl every year that get left out, every single year.
"We see wild-card teams go all the way through. The Steelers have done it, the Giants have done it, the Packers. ... You never know. As long as you think that those next couple of teams in would feasibly have a chance to win the Super Bowl, which I believe they do, I don't see any reason not to do it."
As it turns out, the hidden swing in this scenario is not so much the addition of a seventh seed as it is the new burden placed on the No. 2 seed. Pattani's analysis shows that a 14-team format in which only the No. 1 seeds earn byes lowers the second-seeded team's chances of reaching the Super Bowl from nearly 30 percent to 20.6 percent.
Players on a second-seeded team would have to take the field one additional time to make the Super Bowl under this format. However, playoff expansion hasn't generated the same pushback as discussion of an extended 18-game season in terms of potential injury risk.
"I don't see how it's any more dangerous from a volume standpoint than the current playoffs, unless you're talking about adding a round," Sullivan said, "If you're talking about the current round system and just expanding the number of teams, as long as nobody's playing an extra game beyond the maximum amount of games in the current playoff system, I don't see any issue with it."
As Pattani's analysis shows below, this 14-team format gives the No. 1 seed a sizable advantage in probability. A 16-team format without byes, on the other hand, would level out the field considerably and create more of a tournament-style playoff.
Adding an eighth seed to each conference -- a team that would be slightly better than the average NFL team, per the NFL team rating graph -- would eliminate all byes and force the No. 1 team to win four games to clinch a title. As the chart above shows, the additional game would drop the top-seeded team's chances while raising them for the teams at Nos. 2-6, compared to the 14-team format.
Dominik reflects a conventional NFL view of the more radical 16-team idea.
"It doesn't seem like a big difference between 14 and 16," he said, "but I think there would be. Then all you have to be is 50 percent to get there. That doesn't seem to be something the league would want to reward. I would strongly oppose ever seeing a 16-team playoff. The first-round bye is something to shoot for. It keeps competition going. You don't want it to feel diluted with more 8-8 teams."
Seeding and structure possibilities
We noted earlier the disparity in historic quality between the No. 4 seed and those at No. 5 and No. 6 during the past decade. That data supports the widespread intuitive sense that, in the current format, winners of low-performing divisions receive an unfair advantage over wild-card teams.
Teams with seven victories have won division titles in 2010 (Seahawks) and 2014 (the Panthers), in each case hosting an 11-5 wild-card team in the first round. To alleviate that discrepancy, according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, the NFL is considering a new seeding system in a 14-team format.
A popular internal idea has been to give the No. 1 seed its bye and then grant first-round home games to the next two division winners with the best records. The final home game would go to the remaining team with the best record -- either the fourth division winner or the top wild-card team.
Had that structure been in place for this season's 12-team format, the wild-card Arizona Cardinals (11-5) would be hosting the NFC South-winning Panthers (7-8-1) rather than the other way around. The AFC's seeding would have remained the same.
"I think that's fair and the right thing to do," Dominik said. "You win your division, you're still getting a reward. You automatically get a ticket to the dance. But if your record is worse than a wild-card team, you're on the road. We already reseed teams after the first round. It makes sense to use that approach from the start. If that division winner is good enough to get to the Super Bowl, make it earn its way there."
There are other ways to structure and seed a 14- or 16-team field. If the NFL wanted to preserve the probability of the current 12-team structure, it could create a "play-in game" that would match up the No. 6 and No. 7 seeds a week before the actual wild-card round. The winner would fill the role of the traditional No. 6 seed and restore the probability of the top two seeded teams' chances of winning the Super Bowl.
Two play-in games could apply to a 16-team structure for similar reasons. Ultimately, play-in games would address concerns about a watered-down field while still giving more teams a (small) chance at reaching the Super Bowl. An idea this radical is unlikely to gain support among NFL officials, of course, and players almost certainly would balk at the extra week.
"If you're a wild-card team right now, you have to win four games to win the Super Bowl," Sullivan said. "But I'm not in favor of anything more than that. I'm not in favor of pushing a team to win more games to get there, and I'm not in favor of pushing back the schedule to where you're having the Super Bowl a week later than it already is. That eats into the offseason."
One of the most difficult mental hurdles of playoff expansion is the idea that a low-seeded team could slip into the postseason, get "hot" and "steal" a Super Bowl title from teams that performed better in the regular season.
Much of this quandary is philosophical. Who should be the NFL's champion? The best team over the course of five months? Or the team that is playing best when the postseason arrives?
In some seasons, there might not be a difference. This year, the top-seeded Seahawks enter the playoffs with the NFL's longest winning streak (six games). Since 1970, however, 10 wild-card teams have advanced to the Super Bowl. Six have won it, including three in the past 10 years.
Longtime NBA coach Phil Jackson, now president of the New York Knicks, has referred to the scenario as an "accidental champion." The NFL could increase or decrease the chances of it happening based on the format and structure it chooses.
Paine, a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.com, published research earlier this year suggesting that a 16-team format would increase the randomness of champions far more than a move to 14 teams. In a more recent post in conjunction with this story, Paine used Elo ratings as a measure of team quality to examine the impact of playoff expansion.
Similar results emerged: If the NFL wants a playoff "tournament," where the championship odds of all seeded teams are as close as possible, it should expand the postseason to 16 games. If it wants to provide incentive to finish with a conference-best record and guide the top seeds to the Super Bowl, it should stop expansion at 14.
"Based on my research, 14 teams really does appear to be the sweet spot between letting teams settle it on the field and putting the better team in position to succeed," Paine said.
Logic suggests the NFL will seek balance. It wants to give its top teams an advantage, but it will also want to preserve the drama and anticipation of an upstart team, one of many reasons it appears to favor the 14-team format.
We know this much for sure: Change is coming. Fighting for the current format seems pointless. The possibilities are endless, both from a format and seeding perspective, but we have a pretty good idea of where it's going. Just close your eyes and you'll see it.