Among the ideas being discussed and bantered about in the collective barganing agreement negotiations between the NFL and the NFL Players’ Association, one of the most prominent involves the adjustment of the league’s playoff format. The new proposal would add two playoff teams, one to each conference, and force the second-seeded team to play this new 7th seed on Wild Card weekend.
The general format for the playoffs has been the same since 1990, when the NFL expanded from five playoff teams per conference to six. That was done with 28 teams in the league and six divisions, but the format remained roughly the same in 2002, when the NFL finished its latest expansion and realigned to 32 teams in eight divisions.
This new proposal would leave only one playoff bye per conference for the top seed, with matchups between seeds 2 vs 7, 3 vs. 6, and 4 vs. 5 on Wild Card weekend. But if this were in place starting in 1990, there are several seasons that would have seen different results for the Green Bay Packers in January.
The Packers have been the NFC’s second seed four times in that span, meaning that would have been four more home playoff games — but four more chances to bow out early. Only one of those came in a year when the Packers made the Super Bowl, however. Green Bay also would have added playoff appearances as the 7th seed on three occasions, and they went on the road to play the second-seeded team four more times, resulting in 11 years out of the last 30 that the team would have been in some way directly affected by an extra postseason berth.
Here’s a look at each of those 11 seasons.
Playoff Byes Taken Away (2 seeds)
The Packers have been the second-seeded team in the NFC a handful of times since 1990. In each of those instances, they would have played on Wild Card weekend against the #7 seed instead of receiving a bye into the divisional round.
The Packers hosted the 5th-seeded Seattle Seahawks on Divisonal Sunday this past January. However, in a 7-team playoff, they would have hosted the Los Angeles Rams on Wild Card weekend instead. The bye was a big help for the Packers this year, however, as an illness ran rampant through the locker room during Wild Card week. The Packers probably would have had a few key players out had they played on the first weekend of the postseason this year.
The 2014 Packers finished with the #2 seed thanks to a loss to the Seattle Seahawks (the top seed) in week one. The Packers drew the 3rd-seeded Cowboys in the Divisional round. However, they would have faced the 10-6 Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card round instead. Green Bay beat Philly 53-20 in the regular season that year, thanks in large part to four turnovers by Mark Sanchez (including two returned for touchdowns).
Ah, the 2007 season. It was Brett Favre’s last year in Green Bay and Mike McCarthy’s second season. The Packers beat 3rd-seeded Seattle in the Divisional round’s snow bowl, then lost in overtime to the fifth-seeded New York Giants — who beat #4 Tampa Bay and the top-seeded Cowboys — in the NFC Championship. However, Green Bay would have drawn a divisional matchup with the 8-8 Minnesota Vikings on Wild Card weekend instead. The Packers beat Minnesota twice that season, 23-16 on the road in week 4 and 34-0 at home in week 10.
The year that saw the Packers make their second straight Super Bowl appearance in the Mike Holmgren era would have required an extra game. With the 49ers earning the top seed based on conference record, Green Bay would have faced a 7th-seeded Washington squad that went 8-7-1 in the regular season before facing the 10-6 Buccaneers.
Additional Playoff Appearances (7th seed)
There are three instances where the Packers would have made the playoffs as the seventh seed under this format. In a fascinating twist, these three years were the rookie years for head coaches Mike McCarthy, Mike Sherman, and Mike Holmgren.
Mike McCarthy’s first season could have ended with a postseason berth in this instance. The Giants were the 6th seed at 8-8, beating the Packers on a strength of victory tiebreaker, while the Packers were ahead of Carolina and the Rams on conference winning percentage. Green Bay would have had a date with the 10-6 New Orleans Saints, the NFC South winners and second seed.
The Packers gave the Saints all they could handle in the Superdome in week two that season. After pulling tied at 20-20, the defense gave up a pair of touchdowns in quick succession, sandwiched around an Ahman Green fumble. A late Noah Herron TD pulled the Packers back within a touchdown at 34-27, and the team had a chance to tie the game, crossing midfield with just over two minutes left. However, four straight incomplete passes by Brett Favre from the Saints’ 44-yard line let Drew Brees kneel out the clock.
The Saints ended up beating the Philadelphia Eagles in the Divisional round before losing to the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship.
With rookie head coach Mike Sherman, the 9-7 Packers finished tied with the Detroit Lions for third in the NFC North this season, but were the last team out of the playoffs thanks to a better division record. That would have set up a tough matchup with the NFC North-winning Minnesota Vikings, who finished 11-5 and in the second seed.
However, the Packers swept Minnesota that season, beating the Vikings in overtime in week 10 — thanks to the famous “HE DID WHAT?” Antonio Freeman catch — and then on the road in week 16 by a 33-28 score. After beating each of the other four NFC Central teams in the final four weeks of the season, the Packers might have found a way to give the Vikings a playoff shock in the Wild Card round instead of beating the Saints on Divisional Saturday before dropping a 41-0 egg at the hands of the top-seeded New York Giants in the NFC Championship.
Just imagine if the Packers had made the postseason in Brett Favre’s and Mike Holmgren’s first year in Green Bay. It probably would not have gone well, to be fair; the 13-3 Dallas Cowboys finished as the second seed, and they obliterated the 11-5 Eagles 34-10 in the Divisional round before beating San Francisco on the road in the NFC Championship 30-20 and blowing out the Bills in the Super Bowl. Still, it would have been fun to see what a rookie Favre with Mike Holmgren in his first year as a head coach could have pulled out of their bag of tricks for this game against an NFC powerhouse.
And who knows — maybe an extra game of playoff experience against Dallas might have pushed them over the struggles they experienced there a bit earlier, giving them a better shot in the 1995 NFC Championship (which will come up once more below).
Tougher Roads for Divisional Opponents
In a handful of cases, the Packers played on the road against the second-seeded NFC team in the Divisional round. These years would have seen that opposing team required to win a home game in the Wild Card round to advance instead of getting a bye before playing the Packers.
With a battered receiving corps and a sputtering offense, the Packers made the playoffs as the fifth seed in 2015. When they beat Washington and #6 Seattle beat Minnesota (on Blair Walsh’s doink), Green Bay headed to Arizona to play the second-seeded Cardinals. In this setup, however, Arizona would have needed to beat an 8-8 Atlanta Falcons team to earn that home game against Green Bay. Perhaps a week less of rest would have give them a little less juice to respond to Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary antics.
It’s nice to imagine what life would be like if Colin Kaepernick never ran wild on Dom Capers’ defense in the 2012 postseason. Green Bay played the 49ers in the Divisional round that season, but a 2 v. 7 matchup would have forced the Niners to host the Chicago Bears and their top-five defense on Wild Card weekend. Chicago did lose big in San Francisco earlier that year, however, falling 32-7 in week 11 behind backup QB Jason Campbell.
The third-seeded Packers beat the Falcons 37-20 before knocking off the #2-seeded 49ers at Candlestick Park in the Divisional round. In this case, San Francisco would not have had a bye, instead hosting a 9-7 Bears team in the Wild Card round. Still, the Packers won this game anyway, setting up a date in Dallas for the Favre/Holmgren Packers’ first NFC Championship Game appearance.
In this season, the 9-7 Packers hosted the 9-7 Lions in the 4-5 game, with second-seeded Dallas waiting on deck. The Packers won an ugly 16-12 game over Detroit, then got blown out in Dallas 35-9. The Cowboys would have played a 7th-seeded New York Giants squad (also 9-7), giving them back-to-back matchups with their NFC East rival. The Giants beat Dallas 15-10 in week 17, with the Cowboys limiting the playing time for a number of their key players (particularly Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith) with the second seed already locked up.
It’s impossible to know the strategy the Cowboys would have used if they knew they would be playing again on Wild Card weekend, possibly against the Giants again. But it seems likely they still would have sat those players down to give them some rest, particularly in ugly weather in New Jersey. Another game for Smith, who was banged up at that point in the season, may have made some difference if the Packers still faced the Cowboys in the Divisional round.