The NFL isn’t resting on its laurels when it comes to COVID-19. Even though there hasn’t been another team-wide outbreak like the Tennessee Titans had earlier in the season, the league wants to be prepared in case it happens again — and in case it affects the upcoming playoffs.
NFL team owners will vote Tuesday to approve a COVID-19 contingency playoff plan that would be enacted only if a meaningful game is canceled. The plan throws out the current format, replaces it with a seeded bracket, and expands the total number of playoff teams.
What’s the plan?
If a team can’t play all of its regular-season games, the plan is to expand the number of teams that make the playoffs from each conference from seven to eight, which allows for a seeded bracket to replace the traditional format. Each division winner will make the playoffs, and four additional teams with the best record in their respective conferences will also make playoffs. (Ties will be broken using at least 10 different metrics, including head-to-head record, conference winning percentage and strength of schedule.)
Once the playoff teams are decided, winning the division ceases to matter. Each conference will seed their teams by winning percentage. Then, instead of the normal wild-card round (and a first-round bye for the top team), all eight teams will play each other using a bracket format. The first ranked team will play the eighth ranked team, the second team will play the seventh, and so on.
That format will continue in the second round, with the highest seeded team playing the lowest seeded team and the two remaining teams playing each other. The two highest seeded winning teams from each conference will host the divisional games.
When would this take effect?
This playoff contingency plan would be enacted only if a meaningful game cannot be played. We can’t know how likely it is that a meaningful regular-season game won’t be played, but the NFL is already taking steps to make sure this plan is used only in a football emergency. The league has already planned for a possible Week 18, which would be used if there’s another Titans scenario — i.e. if a team-wide outbreak causes a postponement and a major schedule disruption.
That extra week would allow postponed games to be rescheduled, which reduces the chances that a game would have to be completely canceled due to scheduling conflicts (and reduces the chances that this playoff plan would kick in).
How long would it last?
Here’s the good news for anyone who is deeply dissatisfied with this plan: these changes aren’t permanent. The proposal clearly states that these changes are “for the 2020 season only.” So if you’re an NFC East fan who is preemptively annoyed that your team will almost certainly be seeded eighth if they win the division, don’t worry. It should all go back to normal next year.
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