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A World Cup-style NFL season could be the best solution to playing during a pandemic

The NFL and players didn’t want to go to a bubble, but the challenges in baseball cast doubt on whether football can work without one. Going to regional bubbles and larger single-elimination tournament like the World Cup makes the most sense.

Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

The NFL specializes in cutting off its nose to spite its face to the point that the league’s crest might as well be a Picasso painting. Players and league reps decided against a bubble, and of course, everyone wants to make sure the NFL can make as much money as possible in 2020 to avoid disastrous consequences in 2021 and beyond. But trying to play a 16-game schedule all across the country to try and squeeze every last dollar likely ends the same way baseball seems headed: a cancelled season.

In an effort to overcome an enemy, in this case the COVID-19 pandemic, the league will puts itself at greater harm from that very enemy. There’s still time to make this right, and I don’t mean cancelling the season.

Instead, treat this like the World Cup.

Create groups, or I don’t know, let’s call them divisions, and hold group play regionally. The NFC North plays in Minneapolis. The AFC South plays in Indianapolis. Each team plays all six games against their divisional opponents at their neutral site and the two best records in each pod move on.

At the World Cup, tiebreakers are done by goal differential. Teams in-division would still be subject to head-to-head tiebreakers first, so if a team swept another team regardless of other point differential, they’d advance. If they split games, whichever team outscored its opponents by the most total points moves on to a knockout round: 16 teams in a single-elimination tournament culminating in the Super Bowl. Make a loser’s bracket to add more games to the schedule.

One of the objections to the bubble system in the NFL is five months away from family. That’s a fair objection. Instead, this guarantees every team seven games and up to 10 for the bracket winners. What are the odds we end up seeing more than 10 weeks under the current format? And if we miss out on the playoffs because we have to cancel the season, the NFL is missing out on its biggest revenue generators.

To ensure minimum travel and maximum safety, the regional bubbles would give way to two full-on bubbles for the knockout round, one for each side of the bracket — the same approach as the NHL’s current system in Edmonton and Toronto. It’s only four rounds, so it’s a month away from family, much more feasible than the full length of the season. And while 16 teams with 53-man rosters, support staff, coaches etc. would be unwieldy at first, we cut that number in half each week until the Super Bowl.

So, yes finding 1,000 hotel rooms in close proximity to a stadium would be difficult, but not impossible. Not in Los Angeles or Las Vegas or even a place like Dallas, where Jerry Jones has a 300+ room hotel connected right to the practice facility.

Winning the division now only guarantees a knockout round spot with home-field advantage no longer an issue without fans. If we wanted to reward teams winning their division and guaranteeing a top-8 seed, the advantage would be to potentially play worse teams in the earlier rounds. In this scenario from 2019 though, the only change would be the Eagles going from the 8th seed to the 9th and the Texans from 11th to 8th. Looking at the Houston resume, that seems overly generous and that’s likely of any weak winner of their pod. Just go with straight seeding after pod play.

Based on divisional games from the 2019 season, the pods would have looked like this, with the advancing teams in italics:

Pod 1

San Francisco 49ers 5-1 (+31)

Los Angeles Rams 3-3 (+33)

Seattle Seahawks 3-3 (-15)

Arizona Cardinals 1-5

Pod 2

Green Bay Packers 6-0 (+37)

Chicago Bears 4-2 (+8)

Minnesota Vikings 2-4

Detroit Lions 0-6

Pod 3

Dallas Cowboys 5-1 ( +77)

Philadelphia Eagles 5-1 (+19)

New York Giants 2-4

Washington Pro Team 0-6

Pod 4

New Orleans Saints 5-1 (+50)

Atlanta Falcons 4-2 (+36)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2-4

Carolina Panthers 1-5

Pod 5

Baltimore Ravens 5-1 (+64)

Cleveland Browns 3-3 (+4)

Pittsburgh Steelers 3-3 (+2)

Cincinnati Bengals 1-5

Pod 6

Kansas City Chiefs 6-0 (+110)

Denver Broncos 3-3 (-31)

Oakland Raiders 3-3 (-33)

Los Angeles Chargers 0-6

Pod 7

New England Patriots 5-1 (+103)

Buffalo Bills 3-3 (+8)

New York Jets 2-4

Miami Dolphins 2-4

Pod 8

Houston Texans 4-2 (+2)

Tennessee Titans 3-3 (+39)

Indianapolis Colts 3-3 (-6)

Jacksonville Jaguars 2-4

In this scenario, the Vikings miss the knockout round with a dismal division record, while the Bears make it with a surprisingly competent season against the North. Teams like the Cowboys benefit from dominating inside their division and struggling outside of it. They’re a team whose point differential said they’re much better than their record implied. A system like this would benefit them and let’s be honest, with that offense they would have been frightening to see in the playoffs even with sub-par coaching.

The Browns sneak in after a pillow fight with the Steelers for second in the AFC North, though not as pathetic as the race between the Broncos and Raiders for second in the AFC West, fighting over which team with a 30+ point negative differential should make the knockout round. On the bright side, this would be the equivalent of a bad division winner making the playoffs and that fills hours of talk show and inches of column space. A little controversy makes for more fun.

Your final top 16:

  1. Kansas City Chiefs
  2. Green Bay Packers
  3. New England Patriots
  4. Dallas Cowboys
  5. Baltimore Ravens
  6. New Orleans Saints
  7. San Francisco 49ers
  8. Philadelphia Eagles
  9. Atlanta Falcons
  10. Chicago Bears
  11. Houston Texans
  12. Tennessee Titans
  13. Los Angeles Rams
  14. Buffalo Bills
  15. Cleveland Browns
  16. Denver Broncos

In order to protect the hub cities, we wouldn’t re-seed like the NFL playoffs currently do. Instead, everyone goes to their knockout bubble. We split the bracket into two regions, sort of like the NCAA tournament. The top half of the bracket goes to one site, the other half to the other, to ensure no travel until the Super Bowl.

The Round of 16, the one that matters anyway, would look like this.

(Made via Challonge.com)

This format would create some fun first-round matchups and some outstanding second-round matchups: Cowboys-Ravens, Packers-49ers (ouch), and Patriots-Saints, not to mention the Andy Reid bowl of Chiefs-Eagles. We may very well have wound up with the same Super Bowl given where the Chiefs and 49ers wound up in the bracket, but we also would have had some incredibly compelling matchups along the way including multiple games we actually did see last year.

There would also be a Round of 16 among the teams who missed out on the playoffs and we’d treat it like Bill Simmons’ Entertaining as Hell Tournament, where the worst teams are battling or things bad teams battle for anyway: top picks. Rather than tanking for the No. 1 pick, the “winner” of the consolation bracket gets the 5th overall pick. It’s not the first pick, but it’s also not whatever a likely 8-8 team would otherwise get.

In fact, in this scenario, the Vikings and Seahawks would be the obvious favorites to win the bracket, which would mean a team that actually made the playoffs under the old format, would have the chance at a top pick. Isn’t that infinitely more compelling that whatever Bengals-Browns game would otherwise be on in Week 16?

It’s fewer games, which hurts the NFL’s ability to generate revenue, but it creates more high-stakes situations, and essentially two playoffs. Sure, one is for a draft pick not the Lombardi Trophy, but if a team like the Vikings could steal the No. 5 pick, that creates compelling drama. This format also creates workable bubbles, not burdensome on the players and staff who will have to leave their homes to play. Fewer games also means further potential infection points and opportunities for players to contract the virus, reducing the risk for postponing or cancelling games.

The best part? Nothing fundamental about the NFL season changes. We still get divisional rivalries, still get the best playoffs in sports, and still get a Super Bowl. Winding up with 9 weeks and a suspended season in search of a 16-week schedule doesn’t make sense. Anticipating a shortened seasoned, maximizing safety and drama, does, and we already have a trusted system, one that produces as many compelling sports storylines as any in sports: the real other football.

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