The expanded NFL season has brought in more money. But what about drama?

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<span>Photograph: Matt Ludtke/AP</span>
Photograph: Matt Ludtke/AP

Alvin Kamara, the versatile running back for the New Orleans Saints, went a little ballistic in March after he found out that the NFL was about to add a 17th game to the regular season. Kamara tapped out a four-word tweet: Two were curses, and a third was “dumb”.

Even though the NFL agreed to pony up a bigger share of its revenue to the players, Kamara and many others were not so keen on a 17-game regular season, because they’d be expected to actually play in them (the players’ union passed the new schedule by just 60 votes). A 16-game schedule was already punishing enough.

As it turned out, Kamara must wait to find out what it is like to play 17 regular-season games, because, owing to the hazards of his occupation, Kamara missed four straight games late in the season with knee and hamstring injuries.

But at least Kamara will be one of the lucky ones who gets to play in a meaningful 17th game. If the Saints (8-8) beat Atlanta (7-9) on Sunday, and San Francisco (9-7) lose to the Los Angeles Rams (12-4), New Orleans will earn the final NFC wildcard playoff berth.

There are other games worth watching, namely the season-ending matchup between the Los Angeles Chargers (9-7) and Las Vegas Raiders (9-7), with the winner going to the playoffs and the loser done for the year (though there is an unlikely way both could make it, ugh).

But only three of 14 playoff spots are still up for grabs, hardly a rousing crescendo. A year ago, going into the final weekend of the 16-game regular season, seven spots were unclaimed. Six of eight division titles have been clinched, the same as at this point last year.

This year, 11 of the 16 games on the final weekend of the regular season carry playoff implications – including seedings – the same as last year. Green Bay (13-3) have wrapped up the NFC regular-season title and a first-round bye, though Aaron Rodgers says he will play Sunday despite a nagging toe injury, and Tennessee (11-5) can do the same in the AFC on Sunday by beating the terrible Texans (4-12).

Even the slog for the No 1 overall pick in this year’s draft carries little suspense, because Indianapolis (9-7) need to beat awful Jacksonville (2-14) to clinch a wildcard playoff berth – and because the Jaguars already have the guy they want to rebuild around, rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence. There is no consensus No 1 draft pick this year, let alone a quarterback that scouts see as a surefire star.

Many games will serve as essentially open auditions for players to get a few more highlights on tape so their agents can shop them around in the off-season. As a result, the games might not look much different than the fourth preseason contest that the 17th game replaced.

So what has the extension accomplished? Well, more all-important incoming cash for the teams, of course, but not any more drama. For this, you can partly blame the NFL’s desire to expand beyond the US.

When the NFL announced the expansion of its schedule, commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement, “One of the benefits of each team playing 17 regular-season games is the ability for us to continue to grow our game around the world.”

What he meant, to be specific, is the ability to schedule four games per season outside the US, with each team required to play at least one game on foreign soil every eight years. Not only do the players get to play more games, more than a few will get to travel a bit more.

Those trips – and a little more money – may be one of the few benefits to players. Pro football players are paid pretty well, relatively speaking. The minimum NFL salary in 2021 was $610,000 for a player with no experience and $1.05m for players with at least seven years’ experience, many times more than the median US wage of $56,000.

But the average NFL career only lasts a little more than three years and players tend to break down, something a longer regular season will probably only exacerbate. The battered Baltimore Ravens (8-8) still have a chance to make the playoffs if they beat Pittsburgh, and the Chargers, Colts and Dolphins lose (or if Miami tie). But only three players who started on offense for the Ravens in their season opener also started last weekend against the Rams.

The coronavirus, to which no team seems to be immune, has shredded plans this year. The Philadelphia Eagles, needing a Minnesota loss Sunday to Green Bay to clinch a playoff spot, appeared to benefit from the absence of Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. And then, boom! Twelve Philadelphia players were placed on the Reserve-Covid 19 list Monday afternoon.

Even if the season were virus-free, a 17th game offers another opportunity for top players to shine – or get hurt, diminishing the quality of play in the short and long term. Goodell claimed in March that more players get hurt in preseason games, side-stepping the fact that top players participated very little, if at all, in those fourth preseason games.

Besides, whoever ends up winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy won’t be the first NFL champion to have played 17 regular-season games. The 1926 Frankford Yellow Jackets won 14, lost one and tied two. The Yellow Jackets played four Saturday-Sunday home-and-away sets. But there were no playoffs, so they were awarded the title by a consensus of reporters.

The designated championship game, played before 7,000 chilly fans at Frankford Stadium in Philadelphia, was a dud: a 0-0 tie with the Pottsville Maroons. A 40-yard field-goal attempt was caught by a gust of wind, and the ball rolled out of bounds at the 10-yard line.

So there have been more anticlimactic finishes to the NFL regular season. Just wait for Sunday night. The Raiders and Chargers may play to a tie. The Chargers would get in, but so would the Raiders if the Colts also lose. Got it?

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