NFL owners approve contingency plan to expand playoffs to 16 teams if COVID-19 causes cancellations

NFL International Series-Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL already expanded its postseason in 2020 — and could be on the verge of another playoff makeover if the regular season sees an unequal number of games played due to COVID-19 issues. CBS Sports NFL Insider Jonathan Jones confirmed that NFL owners unanimously approved amending the postseason from 14 to 16 teams should all meaningful games not get played in 17 or 18 weeks. The NFL approved an extra week of football — meaning the postseason could be delayed by a week — but won’t play past a Week 18. The league created this extra week with the cancellation of the 2021 Pro Bowl, so the Super Bowl would still be played on Feb. 7.  

There would be numerous changes if an expanded postseason contingency plan becomes necessary. Here are the key aspects of the 16-team expanded postseason:

  • The playoffs will expand to 16 teams only if meaningful games are canceled due to COVID-19: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a conference call with the owners, “The resolution passed today established criteria for postseason eligibility in the event that all clubs cannot play the same number of regular season games.” Any game that has an impact on the postseason is declared as “meaningful,” regardless of the other team’s record. 
  • No team would would get a bye: The NFL would seed the teams 1 through 8 in each conference, with the highest-seeded team playing the lowest-seeded team (1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6, 4 vs. 5). The second round would follow the current postseason format where the highest seed remaining would play the lowest seed remaining (as an example, the No. 1 seed plays the No. 7 seed if the No. 7 upsets the No. 2 seed in the wild-card round). 
  • Division winners would still get home games: Division winners would automatically qualify for the postseason, and would be awarded with a home game in the first round. The teams — the four division winners plus the four best records between teams that didn’t win the division — won’t be re-seeded.

Teams could play an unequal number of regular season games if postponed games can’t be rescheduled. If a game is cancelled, a team’s standing in a division or its conference will be determined on the basis of its final record. If necessary, playoff tiebreakers will be calculated according to a per game average of all teams. 

Goodell confirmed the news of the contingency plan for an expanded postseason, but said the league is determined to play all 256 games on its schedule.