There were a lot of skeptics when the National Football League introduced wild-card participants into its postseason playoff format.
"Nothing but a gimmick! They're just hyping the television ratings! It will turn the NFL playoffs into the same kind of almost-everybody's-eligible frolic as the NHL or NBA! All it does is diminish the importance of the regular season!"
All of the arguments might have some merit, but in its 16 years of existence, that method of broadened participation has proved that the NFL acted wisely when it began inserting wild cards into the playoff deck in 1970, the year it merged with the old American Football League.
Neither did expanding the procedure from two to four wild-card teams in 1978 cheapen the quality of competition in pro football's postseason tournament. While wild cards have made little impact on the Super Bowl, statistics provided by the league office prove the system of tremendous benefit in sustaining interest among fans and, even more importantly, among players.
While only two wild-card entries have made it to the game with the Roman numerals--Dallas in 1976 (when it lost to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl X) and Oakland after the 1980 season (when the Raiders beat Philadelphia for the championship)--the number of teams still in the postseason picture going into the final week of the regular-season shows how well the thing works.
Since the NFL went to two wild cards for each conference in 1978, no fewer than 12 teams have had playoff aspirations--either having clinched appearances or having a mathematical possibility to be involved--going into their last regularly scheduled games.
There were 12 teams still alive in '78 and '80; 13 in '79 and '84; 15 in '83; 16 in '81, and 22--that's all but six, folks--in the strike-shortened season of '82.
The number is 13 again this year--lucky 13, of course, for the Broncos, whose only hope of extending their season beyond Friday's game at Seattle is a wild-card spot they could gain by defeating the Seahawks and having either New England or the New York Jets lose Sunday.
Sure, the formulas can seem convoluted, when things get to the 15th tiebreaking procedure and it seems as though that the Cincinnati Bengals, say, have a better playoff chance than the Cleveland Browns because they lost fewer games on cloudy days or because they had played more teams whose coaches since have been fired.
Those who don't understand all the variables ought not to feel bad.
I suspect that the members of the committee that devised all the tiebreakers now share a rubber room somewhere, and that only the gang over at Apple or IBM knows or cares about all the playoff possibilities.
Obviously, not even all the NFL players themselves are up to date on what might happen.
Example: Giants quarterback Phil Simms, who was slumped near his locker in Cowboys Stadium Sunday after New York had lost to Dallas and clinched the NFC East title for the Cowboys.
A reporter, perhaps trying to console Simms, brought up the fact that the Giants would be in the playoffs as a wild card if they beat Pittsburgh Saturday, and that they could gain a spot even if they lose, provided that a couple of other games in Week 16 go the right way.
"We can still get in?" responded Simms, his mood brightening quickly, according to a report from Dallas. "No joke? I didn't know that. You sure? Really?" he asked incredulously.
Yeah, really, Phil.
And so it is for the Broncos, the Jets, the Patriots, the 49ers and the Redskins as well, Phil.
That handles just the teams whose primary concern this weekend is in the wild-card round. There are also such items to be resolved this weekend as the champion--OK, then, the survivor--in the NFC Central Division (Cleveland or Cincinnati), the winner of the NFC East (Miami, New England or the Jets) and such nuances as home-field advantages for playoff competition.
Whether there is a superior playoff format in the pros is unlikely.
If anything, baseball's system is too confining, although the closeness of pennant races helps justify that division-champs-only formula.
The NBA and NHL, on the other hand, not only qualify too many teams, they do despite lengthy regular seasons that should do more than the NFL's 16-game campaign to determine the most worthy teams. And, even though I wouldn't want Pete Rozelle to know I think this way, I submit that the NFL parity he so often crows about is far superior to the balance in either hockey or basketball, further justifying an expanded guest list for the league's postseason party.
Where would we be without the wild-card system?
There might be visions of sugar-plums dancing in our heads Friday night instead of the implications of the Patriots-Bengals game. Perish the thought.