Expanded NFL playoffs were a popular topic on Monday with Dan Patrick saying the NFL planned to add a wild card team next year and the league denying that claim shortly after. A final resolution on the subject won't come until at least March when the teams can vote at the annual meetings.
While we'll have to wait for a verdict until then, that doesn't prevent us from taking a look at how the change would have impacted this season. The exact format is still unknown with the NFL likely either going to a play-in game between the No. 6 and No. 7 seeds, or the No. 2 seed no longer getting a first-round bye.
Here's a look at how both scenarios would have played out this season.
There wouldn't be much additional drama in adding a seventh playoff team in the NFC this season. The 10-6 Cardinals would have secured the spot easily, with Dallas, Chicago and others still on the outside looking in. Assuming the No. 6 seed would host, Arizona would have been forced to travel to New Orleans. That didn't turn out very well for the Cardinals in Week 3 when New Orleans came away with a 31-7 victory.
A lot changed in the weeks in between, but the Saints were a dominant home team, so let's go ahead and assume they come away with the win. That would leave the NFC with the same wild card matchups as this season, although there would be one key difference: the play-in game would push the wild card round back a week and give the other five teams an additional week of rest. Would New Orleans, fresh off its 17th game, still have beaten a well-rested Eagles team in Philadelphia? Maybe, but not necessarily.
Let's assume the week off for Philadelphia and the quick turnaround for New Orleans is enough to push the Eagles over the top. In that case, the entire playoff landscape would be altered. Seattle and San Francisco would be preparing for a rubber match in the divisional round while the Panthers would host the Eagles.
The bottom of the AFC playoff standings were a jumbled mess as is, but it would get even more complicated with a seventh playoff team. The Steelers, Ravens, Jets and Dolphins would all be tied for the No. 7 spot at 8-8. The Dolphins would be eliminated based on a division tiebreaker with New York having a better record in the AFC East. The Ravens would be eliminated for similar reasons with the Steelers edging them out thanks to a better record in the AFC North. That would leave New York and Pittsburgh, with the Steelers getting the spot thanks to a head-to-head win against the Jets.
That would mean the Steelers head to San Diego to face the Chargers in the play-in game. Few AFC teams were playing better than Pittsburgh and San Diego down the stretch, leading to a potentially-classic battle in San Diego. The winner would have traveled to face Cincinnati. The extra rest and possible opponent change may have been enough to allow the Bengals advance, but with Cincinnati's recent playoff issues, things could have easily played out the same with either the Steelers or Chargers advancing.
Three wild card games
This is where things really get interesting. Under this format, Carolina would have hosted Arizona, with the other two matchups the same as they were last weekend. The Cardinals smoked the Panthers, 22-6, in Arizona this season. Arizona beat the Seahawks in Seattle in Week 16 and played San Francisco down to the wire in Week 17. The Cardinals would have been an extremely tough out for the Panthers and are fully capable of pulling the upset, especially if Steve Smith was unable to play.
If the Panthers won, the divisional round would be the same as it is. The exception, of course, being the fact the Panthers would be coming off a physical game against the Cardinals, instead of a week of rest. San Francisco surely wishes that were the case this week.
If the Cardinals pulled the upset, the entire divisional round would change. Seattle would host the Cardinals in a rematch of Week 16, fully aware the Cardinals are capable of pulling the upset in Seattle. With both wild card teams pulling upsets, the 49ers would be hosting the Saints, setting up the very real possibility of a all-NFC West NFC Championship.
New England's Week 15 loss to Miami would really come back to bite the Patriots. Instead of a bye, New England would be forced to host the Steelers. The Patriots blasted the Steelers, 55-31, in Week 9, but at the very least, we'd get to add a chapter to this rivalry.
Assuming the Patriots took care of business, the matchups would be the same as they are this weekend. New England wouldn't be coming off a bye and would likely be less than the 7-point favorite it is against the Colts this week.
If the Steelers got revenge for 2002 and 2005, upsetting New England at home, things would change dramatically. Denver would host the Steelers in a rematch of 2012, with Peyton Manning playing the role of Tim Tebow. The Colts would go from a big road underdog at New England to hosting the Chargers. San Diego beat Indianapolis, 19-9, earlier this season. If they had a repeat performance, the No. 6 Chargers could be well on their way to the AFC Championship, possibly as the host.
There will be a lot details to work out if the NFL does indeed opt to add a seventh playoff team. Regardless of the format, this season is a great example of how dramatically things could change with another playoff team, even with just a play-in game. Until then, NFL fans will have to settle for just four terrific wild card games.