- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 18, 2022

The NFL’s marketing department may need to rename “Super Wild Card Weekend.”  Beyond the fact that Monday’s playoff game between the Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals undercut the whole weekend premise, there wasn’t much that was “super” about the opening round of the postseason. 

In the second year of the NFL’s expanded playoff field, the additional games did little to justify the league’s decision to expand the postseason from 12 to 14 teams — from an entertainment standpoint, at least. 

Four of the six games were blowouts — with the average margin of victory in those contests coming by a combined 90 points, or an average of 22 ½. The other two games came down to the final seconds, but even those had their lull points.  In all, none of the six games saw a lead change in the second half.

That’s perhaps not what NFL executives quite envisioned when the field grew in 2020. A year ago, adding a seventh seed turned out to work wonders. The Buffalo Bills squeaked by the seventh-seeded Indianapolis Colts in a three-point game, while the New Orleans Saints literally fought with the seventh-seeded Chicago Bears in a closer-than-it-seemed 12-point affair. 

But this year, the seventh seeds were horribly overmatched. In the NFC, the Philadelphia Eagles were outclassed by Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, making it so the only drama in that game was whether the Eagles would somehow cover the 8½ point spread in the final minutes (They didn’t.)  The Pittsburgh Steelers, meanwhile, had no chance to keep up with Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looked to be on his last legs. 

Blowouts can happen in any year. But according to The Associated Press’ Josh Dubow, this season had the fourth-biggest margin of victory in the wild card round since 1990, when the NFL expanded to 12 playoff teams.  The only years that saw a bigger difference were 2016 (19 points per game), 1996 (17.5) and 17.3 (2005). 

Still, this year’s margin of 17.2 points per game doesn’t make for compelling television. 

So what’s the solution? Well, contraction doesn’t seem to be on the table. After all, the league’s regular-season schedule went from 16 to 17 games this season. And by having the field set at 14, more teams are in the mix down the stretch. That creates drama, which, in turn, can lead to more interest — and ultimately more money. 

And money, of course, appears to be the driving force behind the expansion. The league sold the players on a 17-game season in part because of what it meant for the bottom line.  In March, the league struck an 11-season deal worth $113 billion with its media partners that begins in 2023 — a package that nearly doubles the league’s media revenue.

But the overall public has responded with interest. This past regular season, the NFL saw its ratings jump 10% — making it the highest-rated season average since 2015. Though that number is boosted by out-of-home viewing — a metric that wasn’t included back in ‘15 — the NFL still dominated the television landscape as the league accounted for 41of  the 50 most-watched broadcasts, according to Spotrico. 

The viewership ratings for the wild card round were not yet publicly available as of Tuesday, so it’s not yet known whether the blowouts hurt the NFL’s viewership. 

Perhaps this year was an anomaly, a sign of the great contenders vying for a Super Bowl. Competitive balance can vary from year to year. Look no further than the season that followed after the lopsided wild-card round of 2016: The average margin of victory in next year’s wild-round was just 6.5 points, or a one-score game. 

But, at the very least, the NFL can drop the “Super.” Just to be safe. 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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