Two more teams.
That didn't seem like much of an addition to the playoffs when the NFL first announced it. It's still just 12 of 28, not 16 of 21 like the NHL or even 16 of 27, like the NBA.But the impact became clear this week, when people suddenly realized that if the season had ended last week, DALLAS would be in the playoffs. That's Dallas. As in 1-15 last year Dallas.
OK, so the JJs are improved.
But not THAT improved.
In reality, with the NFL season approaching the halfway mark, the new format means that NOBODY is out of the playoff race, which is just what the NFL wants. It change may have occurred at just the right time as seven of last year's 10 playoff teams under .500 and if only division winners made the playoffs, everybody could just about go home.
"We have enough talent to win 10 straight games," says Chris Doleman of 1-5 Minnesota. "I really believe that. We've lost a lot of tough games. Things are bound to change."
But the Vikings are only one example of playoff parity.
San Francisco, at 6-0, is already four games ahead in the NFC West. The New York Giants, at 6-0, can just about lock up the East if they beat Washington on Sunday and Chicago can do the same next week in the Central by beating Tampa Bay.
The principal concern of the Giants and 49ers may be not only to get home-field advantage for the playoffs, but to avoid becoming the third-best division winner - the one that must play the wild-card week.
That's one of the other problems with the new system - it puts a team that wins a stronger division at a disadvantage, like the Chicago Bears of 1986, '87, and '88, who were guaranteed six wins against Detroit, Tampa Bay and Green Bay, then at the absolute bottom of the league.
In the AFC, there could be some nice races between Miami and Buffalo in the East and Cincinnati, Houston and perhaps Pittsburgh in the Central. But the Los Angeles Raiders, at 6-1, are two games up on Kansas City in the West and don't look very catchable.
But everyone's in contention for the three wild-card spots in each conference, even such disappointments as 2-5 Cleveland and Minnesota.
Says coach Buddy Ryan of the 2-4 Philadelphia Eagles, an 11-5 team last season:
"We've been a little snakebit this year but we'll be in the playoffs."
He's probably right and Doleman could be, simply because it may not take more than 8-8 (and fortuitous tiebreakers) to make the playoffs. Which is why all this talk about eliminations games this early is just that - talk.