Why Are There More Teams in the NFL Playoffs?

While the New England Patriots made it a habit of making the NFL playoffs during the last two decades, they won’t be one of the final 14 teams competing for the Lombardi Trophy. Of course, the 2020 NFL playoffs represent the first time seven teams from each conference will make the postseason.

But did you know that there have actually been several expansions of the NFL playoff format? Let’s take a closer look at the history of the postseason before we examine why there are more teams in the NFL playoffs than ever before.

The NFL playoffs expanded to 10 teams in 1978

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The first Super Bowl took place in 1967 between the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs. However, the two franchises represented entirely different leagues. But when the National Football League (NFL) and the American Football League (AFL) merged in 1970, that gave way to an entirely different structure of competition.

From 1970 to 1977, eight teams qualified for the NFL playoffs. This format included three division champions and one wild-card team per conference.

During that stretch, the Miami Dolphins and the Pittsburgh Steelers both won multiple Super Bowl titles.

But in 1978, the NFL expanded its regular-season schedule from 14 to 16 games. As a result, the league added another wild-card team to each conference to bring the total number of qualifying playoff teams to 10.

It didn’t take long for the new system to pay off for one team.

On Jan. 15, 1978, the Oakland Raiders won Super Bowl 8 to become the first wild-card team in league history to accomplish that feat.

Of course, the ’80s also saw the emergence of the San Francisco 49ers as the NFL’s next dynasty. But right as Joe Montana started to decline, the league changed its playoff format again.

A 12-team playoff field has been the standard since 1990

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After having 10 teams in the playoffs for more than a decade, the NFL expanded the postseason field in 1990.

The league added a third wild-card team for each conference. In total, 12 teams have qualified for the playoffs every year since that change occurred.

However, there have been some tweaks to the overall format.

In 2002, the Houston Texans joined the NFL as an expansion team. That led to a major overhaul of the structure of the league.

The 32 teams got divided into eight divisions (four in each conference) with four teams per division. The Seattle Seahawks moved from the AFC West to the NFC West. The AFC Central and NFC Central divisions got replaced with the AFC North and NFC North, respectively.

Under the 12-team playoff format, the top two seeds in each conference received a coveted first-round bye. However, since 2013, not a single wild-card team has reached the Super Bowl.

Although that 12-team system had been in place for decades, the NFL playoffs expanded again in March 2020.

Why are there more teams in the NFL playoffs?

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About a month before the 2020 draft, NFL owners approved a plan to expand the number of teams that qualify for the postseason from 12 to 14. However, only the No. 1 seed in each conference gets a first-round bye.

So why are there more teams in the NFL playoffs than ever before?

According to ESPN, it boils down to one word: money.

In 2019, the wild-card round reportedly averaged 30.5 million TV viewers per game. Clearly, there’s a huge market out there, which makes broadcasters and streaming services quite interested in capturing that audience’s attention and money.

By adding two more wild-card teams to the mix, that means two more opportunities to generate revenue. In fact, the NFLPA estimated that the expansion of the postseason will generate about $150 million.

NFL players get a payoff, too. At least, in some small way.

With two more rosters of players eligible to receive playoff shares, that can make a world of difference for end-of-the-roster types who don’t have lucrative contracts.

This season, the wild-card winning share comes in at $33,000 per player.

Losing isn’t so bad, though.

The wild-card losing share for the 2020 NFL playoffs checks in at $30,000 per player.

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