Yet, as most learn in Statistics 101, a smaller sample size will lead to more random outcomes. The other leagues’ five and seven game series at each step of the process force teams through a post-season gauntlet. The rigor of these drawn out post-seasons goes a long way to minimizing randomness, which is likely why a seed higher than three has only won the NBA Finals twice in the league’s history. But in the NFL, where the phrase “any given Sunday” stands as a testament to the randomness of any single game, no such barriers exist. This leads to results such as Super Bowl XLVI, in which the Green Bay Packers, who held the league’s 10th best record, were crowned league champions.
In an attempt to mitigate the impact of this randomness, the NFL awards byes to the best two teams in each conference, requiring them to win three games rather than four in order to be crowned champions. However, this precaution is not enough. In the 24 editions of the NFL Playoffs since the field was expanded to 12 teams, a team seeded higher than two has won the Super Bowl eight times. It is important to note that there is a team for each seed from each of the two conferences, so on eight occasions, a team presumably outside of the top four regular-season performers has been crowned champion.
The rationale behind the single-game system is simple: the players’ bodies can only handle so many games. In a league where a complete season consists of 16 games, even utilizing a best-of-three game series format in the post-season seems unreasonable. The NFL has considered expanding its regular season schedule from 16 to 18 games, and there has been considerable push-back from the players union. Thus, it seems that a significantly expanded post-season is off the table.
There is, however, another option. In Australian sports leagues, including the National Rugby League and the Australian Rules Football League, the post-season is conducted using what is known as a McIntyre System. In a McIntyre Playoff, the best teams face off earlier in the competition than they normally would, but are rewarded by not facing immediate elimination. An example of the McIntyre system applied to the NFC-portion of the NFL Playoffs is shown below (winners are listed in bold).
This system ensures that either the 1 or 2 seed in each conference is guaranteed to play in the Conference Championship. Furthermore, the losing team has a second chance to qualify for the Conference Championship. This playoff structure rewards those who perform well during the regular-season more generously and, by increasing the rigor of the post-season, reduces the likelihood of mediocre teams being crowned NFL Champions.
The system would also benefit the league financially. By inserting an extra week into the post-season that includes two games, the NFL will have an increased amount of content, allowing it to negotiate more lucrative television deals. This extends the NFL season during its most profitable time without watering-down the quality of the playoffs by adding more teams or increasing the number of games for the vast majority of players. By switching to a McIntyre playoff, the NFL could increase revenue and ensure a more deserving champion, killing two birds with one stone.