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NFL primed to expand playoffs, drive competition

ATLANTA -- When the Seattle Seahawks won the NFC West with a 7-9 record in 2010, the question was whether a team with a losing record should be allowed to host a game against an opponent with a better mark. The Seahawks might have supplied the answer when they beat the New Orleans Saints in the wild-card round.

But that victory might deserve another glance from NFL owners now. It could be the one that quashes some of the lingering concerns about watering down the playoffs when the postseason field expands, a concern that was best articulated by New York Giants president John Mara on Tuesday.

"I'm just afraid that you're going to get more 7-9 and 8-8 teams in and I'm not sure that is beneficial to us," he said.

NFL owners did not vote on the expanded playoffs at their meeting here Tuesday. But despite Mara's concerns, there is now widespread support for the idea, and Commissioner Roger Goodell said Tuesday that he expects it to be approved in time for the 2015 postseason.

Owners will revisit the topic at their fall meeting in October, but they decided to forgo the expansion for the 2014 campaign because they want to wait to see the competitiveness of the final weeks of the season. They also want to see how the advertising marketplace absorbs the additional football inventory created by CBS broadcasting a share of Thursday night games this season.

"We looked at competitive issues, ticket-sales issues, issues with respect to the advertising market," Goodell said. "Our general view here is we should proceed with the Thursday night focus this year. This makes the most sense."

There had been considerable hesitation when the league first started considering playoff expansion, but even franchises that usually lean more toward tradition on other matters, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers, are open to expanding the field by two teams, one in each conference, for a total of 14. It might not be a coincidence that the Steelers, at 8-8, would have been the extra AFC team to make the playoffs if the expanded field were in place last season.

"And we had a team that was worthy of being a playoff team, I think," Steelers owner Art Rooney II said.

The reality is that there are more worthy teams being left out than might be expected. According to Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, a member of the Competition Committee, part of recent discussions about the expansion of the playoff field included a breakdown of what it would have meant had two additional teams been eligible over the past 10 years. Of the 20 teams that would have been added, their records were:

» 11-5 (one)
» 10-6 (five)
» 9-7 (eight)
» 8-8 (six)

The conclusion, Lewis said: The number of teams that finished on the low end at 8-8 was the same as the total of those that were on the high end at 11-5 and 10-6. The most teams came from the pool of those that went 9-7.

"You weren't watering it down," Lewis said.

Goodell has proven that he is willing to tinker with the NFL to boost interest. On Tuesday, the NFL chose a working group to explore the possibility of altering the structure, time and location of the draft because, Goodell said, the league believes there is room for growth in fan interest for the event. The NFL has already altered its regular-season schedule, playing division games in the final week to ensure that more contests are meaningful in the chase for playoff spots. The addition of two teams to the playoff pool would, in turn, keep even more teams in the hunt and presumably boost interest in more markets.

"Playoff football is the best football we have," Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy said.

For Lewis, who supports the expanded field, and likely most coaches, the only drawback of more playoff spots is that only one team in each conference will earn a first-round bye, instead of the current two. For owners -- and almost certainly for television executives -- the most pressing issue now is figuring out the schedule. The addition of more wild-card teams means that games would be available for Sunday night and Monday night, barren spots on the playoff schedule that likely would draw huge ratings -- and the huge rights fees the NFL could get from the networks. The NFL likely would have to figure out a schedule to assure that the team that wins a Monday night playoff game would not have to play the following Saturday, because of the competitive disadvantage it would create.

Goodell said he already has talked with NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith several times (as recently as two weeks ago) about expanded playoffs. The union maintains that the league needs the players' approval to expand the postseason field because it would amount to a change in workplace conditions. Goodell said he expects to continue talking to the union about the subject.

The players, of course, will get a slice of the additional revenue that the extra playoff games will generate. That almost surely will sway them to support it, just as it ultimately has the owners.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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