The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The NFL chose quantity over quality, and its product suffered

Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers were no match for the Chiefs in the opening round of the NFL playoffs. (Reed Hoffmann/AP)
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Let’s stop with the “Super Wild Card Weekend” nonsense. No amount of clever NFL marketing could make the oversaturated start to this postseason more palatable. In the second year of the expansion from 12 to 14 playoff teams, more competition did nothing but accentuate a lack of competition.

This tournament may end up being incredible, but its three-day opening act could not have been less gripping. Four of the six games were clear blowouts early, with halftime scores of 27-3, 17-0, 21-7 and 21-0. In the two close games, you will remember the inadvertent whistle during Bengals-Raiders and the late-game debacle during Cowboys-49ers as much as the playmakers who made a difference. And it was hard to marvel at the dominant performances of the teams that advanced because several of them suffered injuries that could diminish their championship hopes.

Other than that, it was a glorious long weekend.

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Lopsided results happen, of course. Kyler Murray isn’t the first young quarterback to fall apart in his playoff debut (though few of his caliber have played as poorly as he did Monday night). Bill Belichick was probably due for a big-game beatdown. If this were the old 12-team playoff bracket, those games — the Los Angeles Rams’ 34-11 victory over Arizona and Buffalo’s 47-17 pounding of New England — simply would have represented the disappointing half of a four-game first round in which the other two games held intrigue into the fourth quarter. But why have two duds when you can oversaturate the field and double the boredom?

The weekend felt like a slog because, for the first time, the negative effects of enhancing the playoffs surfaced. You saw Kansas City and Tampa Bay, both No. 2 seeds that would have been enjoying a bye in the old format, facing No. 7 seeds whose play showed they didn’t belong. Don’t blame Pittsburgh (9-7-1) and Philadelphia (9-8) for finding a way to make it onto the stage. But their performances didn’t showcase anything about the NFL except for its laughable insistence on trying to present mediocrity as compelling parity.

A year ago, this new 14-team playoff setup worked out better than expected. The No. 2 vs. No. 7 game in the AFC was decided by a field goal. In the NFC, the result was a tolerable 12-point margin. But this time, the extra games made the opening round seem like a joke.

With 14 of the league’s 32 teams qualifying for the postseason, the NFL still has a difficult playoff standard. At just 12 teams, though, it was ideal. While the expanded format allows most franchises to remain in contention deeper into the regular season, it also inspires false hope. The rewards of seizing more attention and generating more revenue do not outweigh the risk of inviting fraudulent teams to your most important party.

The NFL thinks it is invincible because our American football obsession is so strong and the physical nature of the game dictates the demand for action will exceed what the sport is capable of producing. It’s the perfect situation: short season, intense interest and a constant desire for more. And every so often, when the league and its players see an opportunity to make more money, they stretch the product a little, adding to the season and postseason, feeding the can’t-get-enough crowd and figuring fan passion will make up for any weakening of quality.

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This season, the NFL added a 17th regular season game to go with its bigger playoff field. And more was less. More yawns, less fervor. More apathy, less momentum. The anticipation will return as this week progresses. Plenty will convince themselves that this past weekend was merely indicative of how great the remaining teams are. The regular season didn’t offer substantial evidence of this greatness, but plenty will ignore that. And perhaps the slate in the divisional round will cure all.

The concern isn’t merely in reaction to the present, however. The league is married to this money grab. There will be seasons in which the No. 7 seeds will be worse than the Steelers at the end of the Ben Roethlisberger era and the Eagles at the start of a retooling. If you thought the rare division winner with a losing record was an eyesore, wait until you get that in addition to frequent 8-9 wild-card teams. There will be more blowouts, and there will be more injuries during these games that shouldn’t be played.

There’s no going back, either. If anything, the NFL will stretch itself even more, and it might do so faster next time. I’m almost resigned to expecting an 18-game regular season in about a decade. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the playoff field grew to 16 in my lifetime. This is an age of excessive entertainment inventory, and in the pursuit of all these television and streaming dollars, it’s getting more difficult for all leagues to make decisions that respect the purity and quality of a sport.

This past weekend should have been a small reminder to the NFL that it needs to be careful. After the longest regular season in history, it looked like a haggard, overextended league. It was a super time, all right. Super dull.

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