2023 NFL Owners Meetings: It’s Time To Change the NFL Playoff Format

The Chargers are the latest team to propose changes to the NFL playoff format, but the odds of passage at next week's NFL owners meetings aren't great.

The NFL Annual Meeting (known colloquially as the NFL owners meetings) begins Sunday in Phoenix, and among the issues on the agenda:

A proposal by the Los Angeles Chargers to strip the guaranteed home game for some division champions who finish with losing records.

Time To Change the NFL Playoff Format

There are a number of tall hurdles the proposed bylaw amendment must cross — including potential resistance from the NFL Competition Committee, which recommended no such changes this year — to get the necessary three-fourths vote.

But if owners truly want to do whatever reasonably possible to ensure the Super Bowl champion is actually the NFL’s best team, they should adopt the Chargers’ proposal — which is a modest first step to fix a long-flawed system.

The Chargers want to amend Article XX, Section 20.2, and Article XXI, Section 21.4 of the NFL’s Constitution and Bylaws to reflect the following:

“To seed Wild Card teams higher than Division Championships in the playoffs if (i) the Division Champions have won-loss-tied percentages lower than .500, and (ii) the Wild Card teams have four or more wins than the Division Champions with losing records.”

The proposal seeks to straddle the divide between those who believe that division champions should not automatically host a playoff game and institutionalists who don’t want to devalue the importance of winning the division.

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If enacted, the amendment would be the second significant change to the NFL’s playoff format since 2020, when the league expanded the field from 12 to 14 teams.

On Friday, PFN asked Rich McKay, who’s the chairman of the competition committee, if his group internally discussed making potential changes to the NFL’s postseason setup.

His careful response:

“I would say there was plenty of discussion about it, and I would say that I know there will probably be some discussion at the meeting about it. It’s been discussed before. This isn’t the first time we’ve talked about playoff seeding. The idea of, ‘Does winning a division ensure a home game?’ I think we’ll hold back on what that discussion was until we get there, but this is not the first time it’s been brought up — not the first time we’ve discussed it.”

Each previous discussion fell short of change enacted.

Now is the time to right that wrong.

And to be frank, if there’s no broad appetite to make even the narrowly-focused change the Chargers are proposing, it’s hard to see how there will ever be.

Home-Field Advantage Is Real in NFL Playoffs

Last season, the Chargers (10-7) were among the latest Wild Card playoff entrants forced to play a road first-round game against a team (Jacksonville) with an inferior record (9-8).

The Jaguars won that game in historic fashion, rallying from 27 points down to beat the Chargers on a field goal at the gun.

Would the result have been the same had the game been held at SoFi Stadium instead of TIAA Bank Field? Impossible to say, but certainly, NFL coaches don’t put great value on home-field advantage on a hunch.

If they didn’t value those home games, they would start protecting their players from injury the moment they clinch a playoff berth. Instead, the best teams often have meaningful final-week games — which is great for the league.

It’s no secret that home teams win at a statistically higher rate than visiting teams, although that dynamic has waned some since the pandemic.

Visitors won just three of the nine non-Super Bowl playoff games in 2022.

Granted, a case can be made that those lopsided results are more a function of the better team getting those home games than the venue itself. But bettors of all stripes bake in one to three points for home teams because that’s what history says is the advantage.

Why give that advantage to what’s clearly an inferior team?

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Put another way, why — other than tradition — should the Cowboys have had to play in Tampa this past postseason despite finishing the regular season with four more wins?

The Bucs (8-9) were one of the worst division champions in recent memory and had no business hosting a game against the far superior Cowboys.

They ended up losing.

But the Panthers in 2014 did not. Carolina (7-8-1) beat Arizona (11-5) in the Wild Card Round.

It was a fun story — that lasted all of a week. The No. 1 seeded Seahawks beat the Panthers by multiple scores in the Divisional Round.

That’s instructive. Crazy things can happen with a one-game sample size.

But a team with a losing regular-season record has never reached the Conference Championship Game.

The first one to do it needs to earn it — by winning twice on the road to get there.

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