NFL playoff expansion: Teams from AFC, NFC that would have been No. 7 seed if new format was in place


The NFL playoff expansion is happening, a decision that will alter the landscape of the league’s regular season and postseason. Under the 14-team format, seven teams from each conference will make the playoffs with only the No. 1 seed earning a first-round bye. Seeds 2 through 7 will play on Wild-Card Weekend, as the division winners will be seeded 2 through 4 and the wild-card teams will be seeded 5 through 7. 

Under the 14-team format, 43.8% of the league qualifies for the playoffs (an increase from 37.5% from the 12-team format that instituted all 32 teams since 2002). There were 28 teams in the league when the NFL last expanded its postseason format in 1990, which equated to 42.9% of the league making the playoffs. There wouldn’t be much difference in percentage of teams qualifying for the postseason from the last time the format expanded. 

The question on everyone’s mind regarding the expanded playoffs isn’t the two extra games played. Will the postseason be diluted with two more teams entering the equation? Based on the No. 7 seeds that would have entered the tournament since 2000, the answer is no. 

No team that qualified for the postseason as a No. 7 seed in either conference had a losing record. Some of these teams were even good enough to make a postseason run of their own. Some of these teams entered the postseason on crazy NFL tiebreakers that will need to be explained every December thanks to this expanded format. 

The NFL postseason expansion makes the regular season and postseason better. The last 20 years prove it as we take a look back at which teams would have been the No. 7 seeds in a 14-team playoff. 

2019
AFC — Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)

This Steelers team with Devlin “Duck” Hodges at quarterback and the 30th-ranked offense would have qualified for the postseason. Sure Pittsburgh’s defense would have made the Steelers a tough out, but they weren’t beating the Chiefs in the wild-card round. 

NFC — Los Angeles Rams (9-7)

A seven-team tournament in the NFC would have gotten the Rams in, a team that went just 2-5 against teams with winning records and were topsy turvy all season. Let’s not even get into the Todd Gurley saga. 

Still, the Rams would have played the Packers in the wild-card round. Sign me up for that one. 

2018
AFC — Pittsburgh Steelers (9-6-1)

The Steelers were born to be the No. 7 seed in the expanded format, giving head coach Mike Tomlin even better job security than he currently has in Pittsburgh. This was the Steelers team that had the Antonio Brown drama in Week 17.

Guess who they would be playing in the wild-card round? The Patriots. 

NFC — Minnesota Vikings (8-7-1)

All this Vikings team had to do was beat a Bears team that was debating on resting its starters (Chicago had the NFC North clinched). They would have made the playoffs as a No. 6 seed. Minnesota failed to accomplish the task, letting the Eagles in as the No. 6 seed that season. 

The Vikings would have played the Rams, who beat them 38-31 in Week 4. A rematch would have been fun, especially with Kirk Cousins leading Minnesota to the postseason in the first year of an $84-million guaranteed contract. 

2017
AFC — Baltimore Ravens (9-7)     

The Ravens made the playoffs over the Chargers via a better conference record. Remember they missed the playoffs based on the miracle fourth-down conversion by the Bengals in Week 17 that ended up being a touchdown in the final seconds. 

Baltimore would play Pittsburgh in the wild-card round and I’m all for Ravens-Steelers III. Of course, the Ravens making the playoffs probably means they don’t draft Lamar Jackson the following year. Probably a good thing the Cincinnati play happened. 

NFC — Detroit Lions (9-7)    

The Lions fired Jim Caldwell for going 9-7. Considering what they have now in Matt Patricia, 9-7 seems pretty good. 

Detroit makes the playoffs via the conference record tiebreaker over the Seahawks and Cowboys and would have played the Vikings. They split in the regular season. 

2016
AFC — Tennessee Titans (9-7)  

The Titans get in the playoffs via a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Broncos, but Matt Cassel would have started the playoff game as Marcus Mariota’s season was over. They would have played the Chiefs in the wild-card round, a vulnerable unit with Alex Smith at quarterback. 

NFC — Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)

Jameis Winston would have started a playoff game! The Buccaneers would have played the Falcons in the wild-card round, as Winston had seven touchdowns to just one interception against them that year. This is a game I would watch live and later on GamePass just to believe Winston was in the postseason. 

2015
AFC — New York Jets (10-6)

Todd Bowles and the Jets were good enough to make the playoffs that season, which would have meant we would have seen Ryan Fitzpatrick start a playoff game! I’m all in for this expanded postseason with these quarterbacks on Wild-Card Weekend. 

The Jets would have played the Patriots. They seem to always give New England fits in the postseason. 

NFC — Atlanta Falcons (8-8)

Julio Jones had 136 catches for 1,871 yards in 2015. We would have been treated to one extra game of his dominance, even though this Falcons team greatly underachieved. Atlanta would have played Carson Palmer and the Cardinals. 

2014
AFC — Houston Texans (9-7)   

Bill O’Brien makes the playoffs in his first season as Texans coach, beating out the Chiefs and Chargers via the conference record tiebreaker. Case Keenum would have started this playoff game against the Broncos (and Peyton Manning still at a MVP level). 

This would have been the 4:30 p.m. Saturday wild-card game, also known as the wild-card game no one cares about. 

NFC — Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)

This Eagles team lost three of their last four games in December to miss the playoffs entirely. Mark Sanchez was their quarterback as Nick Foles was lost for the regular season with a broken collarbone. 

If the Eagles made the playoffs, Philadelphia gets a longer Chip Kelly stay (which would have divided the city even more) and Howie Roseman would have still been in the back corner of the NovaCare Complex. There would be no Super Bowl in 2017 either. 

Philadelphia would have played Green Bay, a team that scored a 50-burger off the Eagles in November. 

2013
AFC — Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)    

This is confusing. The Steelers would have made the playoffs over the Ravens, Jets and Dolphins. Pittsburgh makes it over Baltimore thanks to a better division record (Steelers 4-2, Ravens 3-3). 

Now, here’s how Pittsburgh makes it over Miami and New York. The Steelers won the tiebreaker over the Jets based on head-to-head win percentage. Division tiebreaker was initially used to eliminate Miami (Jets win tiebreaker over Miami based on best win percentage in division games). Baltimore earned the tiebreaker over New York since the Ravens beat the Jets. 

Got it? Understand it? The Steelers play the Patriots in the wild-card round. 

NFC — Arizona Cardinals (10-6)

Bruce Arians makes the playoffs in year one as Cardinals head coach after going 6-2 in the second half of the season. This Cardinals team could have beaten the No. 2 seeded Panthers, even though Cam Newton had a phenomenal year.

2012
AFC — Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)

We’re going to start calling the No. 7 seed the “Steelers seed.” They were born to be the last team in. 

We get another Steelers-Patriots wild-card matchup. It’s like the one-year membership to the “jelly of the month” club. 

NFC — Chicago Bears (10-6)

The Bears were deserving to make the playoffs in 2012, especially with the third-ranked defense. They missed the playoffs based on a division record tiebreaker against the Vikings, who got in as the No. 6 seed. 

Chicago would have played San Francisco, a game that has an 80s feel to it. Oh, and Lovie Smith would have kept his job. 

2011
AFC — Tennessee Titans (9-7)

Matt Hasselbeck started all 16 games for the Titans in 2011 (raise your hand if you forgot he played for the Titans). Perhaps Tennessee doesn’t rush Jake Locker and go with Hasselbeck a bit longer in 2012 (or Locker doesn’t play at all). 

The Titans would have played the Ravens. 

NFC — Chicago Bears (8-8)   

Another confusing playoff scenario, which is why we endorse the No. 7 seed. This is how the Bears made the playoffs over the Cardinals, Eagles and Cowboys.

Chicago wins the tiebreaker over Arizona based on best win percentage in common games. The Bears win the tiebreaker over Philadelphia based on beating the Eagles in the regular season. Division tiebreaker was initially used to eliminate Dallas (Philadelphia wins tiebreaker over Dallas based on head-to-head win percentage). 

Confusing? You bet it is! All to play the 49ers in the wild-card round.  

2010
AFC — San Diego Chargers (9-7)

Those underachieving Norv Turner Chargers’ teams did gain new life with an expanded postseason, at least in 2010. The Chargers had the No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense that season, so they were a very dangerous team in an expanded postseason. 

San Diego would have played Pittsburgh, the best game of the weekend.

NFC — New York Giants (10-6)   

The Giants get in over the Buccaneers based on win percentage in common games. The Packers actually had the same record as the Giants and Buccaneers but won the tiebreaker based on strength of victory (Green Bay won the Super Bowl). 

Why not the Giants? Never mind, Eli Manning threw 25 interceptions in 2010. Playing the Bears in the first playoff game isn’t ideal. 

2009
AFC — Houston Texans (9-7)  

The Texans make their first playoff appearance in franchise history. Houston gets in over Pittsburgh based on best win percentage in conference games. A team with Steve Slaton and Ryan Moats as the leading rushers would have faced the Chargers. 

NFC — Atlanta Falcons (9-7)

The Falcons make the postseason in back-to-back years. Matt Ryan and crew would have faced Brett Favre and the Vikings. 

2008
AFC — New England Patriots (11-5)

This was the year the Patriots won 11 games with Matt Cassel. I wouldn’t bet against Belichick, even though it would still be tough for him to win without Tom Brady (still saying that in 2020). 

New England would have played Pittsburgh, even though the Steelers beat the Patriots 33-10 in the regular season. Patriots are peaking at the right time with a four-game winning streak — just saying. 

NFC — Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7) 

Jon Gruden doesn’t lose his job. Tampa missed the playoffs because they lost to the Raiders, which allowed the Eagles to demolish the Cowboys later that day and sneak in as the No. 6 seed. The Buccaneers get in after winning a tiebreaker over the Bears and Cowboys based on best win percentage in conference games. 

Jeff Garcia and company play the Panthers in the wild-card round. There’s huge potential for an upset. 

2007
AFC — Cleveland Browns (10-6)

The Browns actually make the playoffs! This was the team with Derek Anderson at quarterback (Anderson made the Pro Bowl that year) and Braylon Edwards had 16 touchdowns. Cleveland would have played Peyton Manning and the Colts, a must watch playoff game especially given how bad the Browns have been since. 

NFC — Minnesota Vikings (8-8) 

We would have been treated to Adrian Peterson making the playoffs in his rookie year, one which he led the league in rush yards per game. The Vikings make it over the Eagles and Cardinals based on best win percentage in conference games.

Minnesota plays Brett Favre and the Packers. Don’t think Tavaris Jackson can lead them to victory. 

2006
AFC — Denver Broncos (9-7)

Jay Cutler takes over for Jake Plummer and takes the Broncos to the playoffs in his rookie year. Denver plays Steve McNair and the Ravens in the wild-card round. 

Perhaps the Broncos don’t give up on Cutler so soon. 

NFC — Green Bay Packers (8-8)

Brett Favre takes a mediocre Packers team to the playoffs, further delaying the Aaron Rodgers era in Green Bay. The Packers play Drew Brees and the upstart Saints, one year after Hurricane Katrina. That Saints team was not going to lose their first playoff game in the Superdome since 2000. 

2005
AFC — Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)

Dick Vermeil makes the playoffs in his final season as a head coach. Larry Johnson rushed for 20 touchdowns in 2005 and Eddie Kennison had 1,102 yards. Kansas City gets Denver in the wild-card round, a game we all want to see. 

NFC — Minnesota Vikings (9-7)  

The Vikings get in over the Cowboys based on conference win percentage. Perhaps Mike Tice remains as the head coach and 37-year-old Brad Johnson continues to be the starter over an injured Dante Culpepper. 

The Vikings would have played the Kyle Orton-led Bears in consecutive weeks. So exciting, I know. 

2004
AFC — Jacksonville Jaguars (9-7)   

Byron Leftwich and the Jaguars make the postseason, getting on over the Ravens and Bills. Jacksonville won the tie-break over Baltimore based on best win percentage in common games and won the tie break over Buffalo based on head-to-head matchup (Jaguars beat Bills in Week 1).

Fred Taylor was still good, but it would have been very difficult for the Jaguars to beat the Patriots (their playoff matchup). 

NFC — New Orleans Saints (8-8)

Perhaps Jim Haslett keeps his job if New Orleans makes the playoffs, even at 8-8. Joe Horn had his best season as a pro (1,399 yards) even with Aaron Brooks has his quarterback (remember him). 

The Saints would have played Mike Vick and the Falcons, who they beat in Week 16. This matchup would have been very intriguing. 

2003
AFC — Miami Dolphins (10-6)

Dave Wannstedt had a bad reputation with the Dolphins, but this 10-win team would have been playoff bound. Jay Fiedler led an offense that featured Ricky Williams, who rushed for 1,372 yards that season. The third-ranked defense gave the Dolphins a shot against the Chiefs, especially with four Pro Bowlers on the squad. 

Williams would have also made the playoffs before his first retirement — in his prime. 

NFC — Minnesota Vikings (9-7)

Mike Tice and the Vikings make the playoffs (told you he would last longer in Minnesota). This Vikings team would have played a shootout against Marc Bulger and the Rams, who were in their last year of “The Greatest Show on Turf.” 

2002
AFC — Denver Broncos (9-7)    

This was just one of two seasons since Tom Brady became the Patriots starting quarterback New England didn’t win the division.  The Patriots lose a tiebreaker to the Broncos as Denver beat New England in Week 8 (New England won the division tiebreaker over Miami based on division record). 

We would have been gifted with Brian Griese starting a playoff game, even though Rod Smith, Ed McCaffrey and Shannon Sharpe were Broncos (Sharpe was in second stint). The Broncos would have played the Titans in the wild card round (Clinton Portis vs. Eddie George). 

NFC — New Orleans Saints (9-7)

The early 2000s Saints teams were better than people think. Aaron Brooks and company would have played the Buccaneers, who the Saints swept in the regular season. There may be no Super Bowl for Tampa that year, changing the legacy of a lot of players on that team. 

2001
AFC — Seattle Seahawks (9-7)

Remember when the Seahawks were in the AFC! They make the playoffs in their final year in the AFC (they played in the AFC West), as Matt Hasselbeck and a young Shawn Alexander play the Patriots, who weren’t “the Patriots” yet. 

NFC — Washington Redskins (8-8)

Marty Schottenheimer makes the playoffs in his lone season as Redskins coach. Maybe Dan Snyder doesn’t fire him! Tony Banks makes the playoffs one year after losing his starting job to Trent Dilfer in Baltimore. 

The Redskins play Jim Miller and the Bears. Fun times indeed. 

2000
AFC — New York Jets (9-7)    

The Jets make the playoffs thanks to a head-to-head win over the Steelers, which means we get Vinny Testaverde and his 25 interceptions in a playoff game. Maybe Bill Belichick should have taken the Jets job.

New York would play Oakland, back when the Raiders were actually good. 

NFC — Green Bay Packers (9-7) 

The Packers get in over the Lions based on better division record, depriving us of Charlie Batch starting a playoff game. This Green Bay team wasn’t good, but the Packers would have played a Vikings team they swept in the regular season. 

That’s the beauty of the No. 7 seed. You just never know. 





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