On Thursday, CBS Sports reported that there is a significant amount of momentum going into March’s NFL owners meetings regarding the prospect of playoff expansion. According to the report, which references a source’s comments to the Washington Post, there may be a push made to increase the number of teams that make the playoffs from 12 to 14. The changes, if approved, could be implemented as soon as 2015.
Under this proposed format, each conference will land one more team in the postseason, and only the no. 1 overall seed will receive a first-round bye. The remaining six teams in each conference will play in the traditional Wild Card Weekend games, except this time the no. 2 overall seed will have to earn their spot in the second round. Obviously this stands to benefit every fringe team in the league with dreams of postseason play, but in an immediate sense, the Rams stand to be among the major benefactors of this format change should it go into effect.
The Rams, as we all know, ply their trade in the NFL’s most difficult division, the NFC West. This past season, the NFC West finished with an overall record of 42-22, which tied it with the 2007 AFC South for having the best record since divisional realignment in 2002. They don’t appear to be getting weaker either. The Seahawks just steamrolled the Broncos 43-8 in the Super Bowl on the strength of their ruthless defense and their young signal-caller, Russell Wilson. The 49ers made it to the Super Bowl two seasons ago, losing to the Ravens 34-31, and have appeared in three straight conference championship games. The Cardinals, who finished 10-6 this past season and came just short of a playoff berth, performed well above expectations. Their continued success moving forward, however, will hinge on quarterback Carson Palmer’s aging arm.
The point I’m trying to make is that, as the reign of the NFC West begins to peak, it is to the Rams’ benefit for the league to input an extra playoff spot. They are a talented team that appears to be on the rise, no doubt, but the Seahawks and 49ers have evolved into league heavyweights and look poised to battle it out for the division crown and a wild card spot for the next few years at least. The Rams have a large pool of young talent and will expand it in May’s draft.
However, that developing talent will have to compete with the more complete teams in Seattle and San Francisco (and Arizona, to a lesser extent) for a limited number of playoff spots. Adding a seventh team to the playoffs means that, despite their status as a developing team, the Rams have as good a shot as anyone at grabbing a spot in the postseason should they muster up a few wins against their NFC West counterparts and fare well outside the division.
Obviously the Rams’ goal will be to win the division outright, but in an immediate sense, a playoff berth from any route would be a very welcome accomplishment. The Rams have matched up well with the Seahawks and 49ers the past two years, but are still not quite on the same level. A playoff expansion gives them some wiggle room to take a few punches from the NFC West and still qualify for the postseason. They went 6-4 against non-division opponents in 2013 and blew out some playoff-contending teams after the offensive approach changed to a run-first scheme in quarterback Sam Bradford’s absence. If that is a trend the team is able to continue (and build upon when Bradford returns), the Rams should be right back in the playoff mix next season and even moreso in 2015 if there is an expansion to the current system. It will benefit the Rams more directly due to their current position in the divisional hierarchy, but it stands to work in the favor of the entire division. Could the NFC West potentially get all four teams into the playoffs in the not-too-distant future?
It’s all speculation at this point, but it’s worth considering. Playoff expansion coupled with the strength of the NFC West will mean that the Rams will have to figure out how to beat their division rivals consistently, because they likely won’t be escaping them in the postseason.