Playoff expansion: 10 big questions

By definition, the postseason would be less exclusive and have a higher risk of handing out undeserving berths. Would playoff games be of lesser quality? Not necessarily, given how close in talent the middle of the NFL really is. And "undeserving" can mean different things.

The final two entrants into a 14-team field last season would have been the Arizona Cardinals (10-6) and Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8). Few would deny the Cardinals had a playoff-caliber team. On the other hand, the fear of an 8-8 playoff team is acute among critics, but it's fair to point out the Steelers won six of their final eight games, including two against playoff teams in December.

Here is a bigger picture: In the past 11 years, none of the 22 presumptive No. 7 seeds would have had a losing record. Sixteen would have been 9-7 or better, and six would have been 8-8. (Remember, the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks made the playoffs in 2010 as NFC West division champions, not a wild card.)

With 43.8 percent of its teams in the playoffs, the NFL would have a more inclusive field than Major League Baseball (33.3 percent) but would still be more selective than the NBA and NHL (both at 53.3).

7. Wouldn't this increase the odds of an "accidental champion?"

The fear is legitimate, but data suggests it's already a real possibility in a 12-team single-elimination field.

Any comparison between the NFL postseason format and those from the NBA and NHL must include an important caveat: The latter two play seven-game series. Protected from a fluke elimination, the best team usually wins over the long haul. Speaking this winter at the annual MIT/Sloan Analytics Conference, New York Knicks president Phil Jackson said: "We really don't have accidental champions" in the NBA.

That's not the case in the NFL, where a bad day can end a Super Bowl dream or a hot team can defeat opponents who performed much better in the regular season. In a worst-case scenario, an ordinary regular-season team wins the Super Bowl. So would 14 teams fighting for the Super Bowl make it that much harder for a "favorite" -- i.e., the regular-season's best team -- to win it?

Preliminary analytic studies suggest it would not -- in part because the randomness of NFL champions is already pretty high. According to Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight, the "best" NFL team based on previous performance wins the Super Bowl less than half the time. A case in point: the 2010 Packers, who won Super Bowl XLV as the NFC's No. 6 seed. According to Paine's projections, a 14-team bracket would face similar -- but not increased -- chances for randomness.

Finally, there is no evidence that the NFL puts high value on the top regular-season teams winning the Super Bowl. Instead, it embraces the unpredictability of its playoff tournament.

8. If money trumps prestige, why 14? Why not 16?

Don't laugh. For all we know, a 14-team postseason is a trial run for something larger and more lucrative. But simple and advanced data tell us that the gap between 14 and 16 NFL playoff teams is the difference between a tweak and an overhaul.

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