AP File PhotoThe 49ers (10-3-1) clinched a playoff berth last week

AP File PhotoThe 49ers (10-3-1) clinched a playoff berth last week

Changing playoff format would cheapen NFL season

They had a big win in New England on Sunday night, but the 49ers can’t step off the gas in Seattle this week.

Such is life in the NFL, where every game counts. The same can’t be said about the NBA, where a team like the Los Angeles Lakers can waffle through the first three months of the season and then turn it on for a title run in the spring. It’s even less true in the NHL (during the years it actually plays), where a team like the Los Angeles Kings can squeak into the playoffs as an eighth seed and then hoist the Stanley Cup two months later.

The 49ers (10-3-1) clinched a playoff berth last week, but a first-round bye could slip through their fingers if they fall to the Seahawks. This game will lose its significance in future seasons, though, if the NFL expands its playoff format to 14 or 16 teams.

Right now, the NFL season is the most perfect thing in sports. The playoff structure is so brilliantly stratified with wild cards, division winners, byes and home-field advantages that there really is no room to let up at any point.

Imagine if the 49ers get beat this week and it forces them to play a first-round playoff game against a team like the Seahawks, the Chicago Bears or the New York Giants. We’ll not only look back at what went wrong this week, but the wounds from the letdown in Minnesota, the tie game with the St. Louis Rams and the debacle in the rematch three weeks later will suddenly be reopened.

Of course, the 49ers would risk losing a second-round home game under either format, but the punishing chore of having to beat a quality opponent would be abated.

If you’re pulling your hair right now because the NFL is tinkering with something that is so right, follow me to the next step: acceptance.

Why? The NFL is a business; the objective is to maximize profits. No cynicism, just a fact. Show me another company in America that’s willing to leave a big bag of cash on the table.

Right now, men with gray hair and tailored suits are sitting around oval tables devising ways to diversify their products, tap new markets and increase revenue streams. Football, especially in January, is must-see TV. We’ll huff, puff, vent and rant, but we’ll also tune in, and that’s the bottom line.

The NFL tried to expand its season by two weeks last year, but the plan was halted because it raised player safety issues at a time when the league is facing a PR nightmare because of head trauma revelations. The league also demonstrated during the referee lockout that it’s willing to compromise the quality of its product until public outcry forces it to reverse course.   

It’s unlikely that a playoff expansion will create an upheaval that rivals the response to the referee disgrace on “Monday Night Football” earlier this year. So, enjoy the intensity of this week’s 49ers game. Its magnitude will be reduced in future seasons.

Paul Gackle is a regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner and also writes at www.gacklereport.com. He can be reached at paul.gackle@gmail.com and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.

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