Could the NFL copy the NBA's play-in tournament?
With the Chargers and Raiders set for a winner-take-all game on Sunday, could the NFL eventually adopt a play-in tournament?
Most of the games in the additional week added to the NFL season have little meaning.
However, the much-publicised 'biggest season ever' will end in dream fashion for the league, with the Las Vegas Raiders hosting what essentially amounts to a play-in game in their shiny new stadium against a Los Angeles Chargers team trying to become big business in one of the largest media markets.
It is winner-take-all, with the victor securing a place in the Wild Card round and the loser left to wonder what might have been.
And, given the teams involved, it is certain to attract monster ratings as the primetime finale to the regular season.
That begs a little-discussed question. Should the NFL, having already extended the regular season and the postseason, follow the NBA's lead and make play-in games a permanent fixture of the calendar by instituting a play-in tournament?
Sunday night under the lights…. WHO’S READY?! 🎸⚡️ pic.twitter.com/t5Jk7I4ryp— Austin Ekeler (@AustinEkeler) January 7, 2022
NBA tournament met with criticism
The NBA implemented play-in games for the 2019-20 season and expanded to a play-in tournament, contested by seeds 7-10 in each conference, for 2020-21.
It received sharp criticism from LeBron James, who said: "Whoever came up with that s*** needs to be fired."
Yet James produced the most compelling argument for the play-in tournament remaining in place as his Los Angeles Lakers met the Golden State Warriors in the 7-8 matchup and he hit the decisive three-pointer over Stephen Curry in a 103-100 thriller.
Such high-profile names delivering such high-stakes drama will have only vindicated those in the league office who backed the play-in tournament, and surely somebody among the NFL's powers that be will have paid attention.
The NFL does not need star names to be on show for people to watch. As the United States' number one sports league, primetime NFL games typically attract huge television audiences regardless of who is playing.
There is little doubt a play-in tournament would be a success in that sense, and in it would provide some hugely attractive matchups this season.
With seven teams from each conference qualifying for the playoffs, an equivalent tournament in the NFL would need to involve the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth seeds.
Were the season to end today, that would mean a bracket with the Indianapolis Colts, Chargers, Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC. In the NFC, the San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings would contest the tournament.
In other words, it would put eight franchises steeped in history into winner-take-all games in front of massive international audiences.
Additionally, it would prevent awkward tiebreaking scenarios such as the one that could come to pass in the NFC, where the Niners will miss out if they, the Eagles and Saints all finish 9-8 because of an inferior conference record, this despite them beating the Eagles in Week 2 of the regular season.
Yet a play-in tournament would likely meet stern opposition for several reasons.
The decisions to expand the playoff field to 14 and then extend the regular season by an extra game were not exactly wildly popular, and it's unlikely the NFL Players Association would be thrilled about eight teams potentially having to play two more games just to get into the playoffs.
Those teams would be at a competitive disadvantage to the rest of the field that would have the benefit of a bye week, though the counter-argument would be that winning your division - and therefore avoiding the tournament - would be more meaningful.
And beyond concerns about player safety, asking teams to possibly risk losing a playoff place to a team they outperformed in the regular season is likely to be an extremely tough sell.
The NFL is not exactly struggling for eyeballs, so at this point adding a play-in tournament would be viewed by many as needless following the recent expansion of the schedule, with the negatives in terms of player safety and potential competitive disadvantages in the early rounds of the playoffs outweighing the benefits in revenue and eliminating tiebreakers.
But, with the 17th regular-season game perceived by some as a stepping stone to an 18th, there is no guarantee the NFL is done with schedule expansion. And, nothing, not even what would certainly be a controversial play-in tournament, can be ruled out.
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