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There is a real possibility that the 2020 NFL season could be preempted by the pandemic and the crisis the United States faces due to the coronavirus. If that hypothetical becomes a reality, the NFL will be prepared to move on to the postseason, even if not all of its teams play the scheduled 16 games.
As unanimously decided by the owners in a virtual meeting on Tuesday, the league will expand its playoffs from 14 to 16 teams, adding one team from each conference. Prior to the kickoff of the 2020 campaign, the league had already expanded to a 14-team format from 12, so this plan would actually see four additional teams make the playoffs from last year.
Commissioner Roger Goodell reiterated that the goal remains to complete the regular season as scheduled. Still, with the current spike in Covid-19 cases throughout the country, they have to plan if entire teams are affected, and games are forced to be postponed or canceled. There is no word on how many games would need to be canceled for this contingency plan to go into effect.
Spike in Cases
A report was released on Tuesday, reflecting the positive cases around the league, which mirrors the spike in the U.S.
Fifty-six employees, including 41 staff and 15 players, had positive tests come back in the first week of November. This is more than double the previous high mark between the end of September and the beginning of October.
The impetus for the original proposal was that future bye weeks could disappear with more potential positive tests and the inability to shuffle the schedule any further. And then, under this new scenario, there would be no byes for any of the top seeds. Instead, one would play eight, two would play seven, and so on.
Keep in mind that this is just a contingency in the event of future cancellations. If everything can stay status quo for the remainder of the season, the league would stick with the 14-team playoff format with each conference’s top seed earning the bye.
The NFL’s 12-team system used from 1990-2019 included first-round byes for the top two seeds in each conference, but this year’s changes were set only to give a first-round bye to the top team. Now, that first-round bye could disappear altogether, and that would lead to two more playoff games. And with the previous extra games going to CBS and NBC, these could likely head to FOX and ESPN/ABC.
It also remains unclear if they would follow a similar model to the NBA’s seeding games upon that league’s restart.
As it Stands Now
If the regular season were to end today, the top seed in the AFC would be the Steelers, who at 8-0, are the only undefeated team remaining in the NFL, so there would be no disputing their positioning. As it stands, the eighth seed would go to the Cleveland Browns, who own the tiebreaker over the Colts based on head-to-head win percentage.
In the NFC, the Saints would be the top seed (over Seattle and Green Bay based on best win percentage in conference games) with the Eagles as the 8-seed based on new formatting. Even though the Eagles would win the NFC East, they would own the worst record, and instead of hosting a playoff game during Wild Card Weekend like in the past, they would travel to New Orleans as the 8-seed instead.