Why do fantasy football playoffs start so soon?

Dear Sports Fan,

I’m playing fantasy football for the first time this season and I’m doing well. I’m 8-5 and heading to the playoffs! But I have a question — why do the fantasy football playoffs start so soon? It feels funny to have our playoffs start while the NFL regular season still has a while to go.


Dear Brandon,

Congratulations on your first successful regular season of fantasy football! Making the playoffs is quite an achievement in your first year. Interesting question about the timing of the fantasy football playoffs. The overarching answer is that the fantasy playoffs are scheduled with the goal of making them occur during a time that the NFL is behaving roughly the way it has been since the start of the season. Let’s take a closer look at this.

The first thing about fantasy football and its schedule is that you can’t align fantasy football’s schedule with real football’s schedule. It would be smart, in many ways, if the fantasy football playoffs could be during the NFL playoffs because that would  mean the peak of many people’s motivation to watch football would occur at the same time as the most exciting time in the NFL calendar. It can’t happen though, because fantasy football teams rely on players from all 32 teams and only 12 make the playoffs. In order to play fantasy football during the real playoffs, you’d need to completely recreate your fantasy teams with only players from playoff teams. This breaks the continuity of fantasy football which is based on having roughly the same players on your team from week to week during the season. So, the fantasy playoffs have to be during the NFL regular season when all the teams are still playing.

That leads us to the second factor that goes into the scheduling of the fantasy football playoffs. During Week 17, the last week of the season, it’s common for teams that have already clinched a place in the playoffs and are stuck in the same seed, whether they win or lose, to rest some of their best players. Those players are often some of the best fantasy statistic accumulators as well as NFL players. So, many fantasy leagues, but not all, try to end their fantasy seasons before Week 17 of the NFL schedule.

That pushes the fantasy finals to Week 16. Working back from there, the way the majority of leagues do it, that means the semifinals are in Week 15, and the quarterfinals — usually the first round of the fantasy playoffs — are in Week 14.

  • NFL Weeks 1-13 — Fantasy regular season
  • NFL Week 14 — First week of the fantasy playoffs
  • NFL Week 15 — Fantasy semi-finals
  • NFL Week 16 — Fantasy championship game
  • NFL Week 17 — Too unstable because NFL teams might rest their best players, so no fantasy
  • NFL Playoffs — 20 of 32 teams don’t play, making fantasy football, at least the way we know it, impossible or very, very impractical

There are some common variations to this standard schedule. One that I think is smart is a fantasy playoffs where each round of the playoffs takes place over two weeks. Instead of a single week’s worth of games deciding who wins between your fantasy team and your fantasy opponent, you play over the course of two NFL weeks and whichever fantasy team has the most cumulative points at the end, advances. This is cool for two reasons: first, it makes the fantasy playoffs a little more statistically significant than an often fairly random one week competition; second, it makes the game more tactically interesting because it pushes fantasy owners into decisions about going for broke after the first weekend if they are behind or playing it safe if they’re ahead. Another common variant is to use Week 17, either within a two week fantasy championship or as a one week final game. This means that as you’re assembling your final roster, you need to think about teams that might have no reason to play their best players on the final week of the schedule and about the players that might replace them. Sometimes those replacement players can be very important. The best example of this was back on January 1 of 2012 when the Green Bay Packers rested quarterback Aaron Rodgers for the last game of the season. His replacement, Matt Flynn sauntered into the game and threw 480 yards and six touchdowns or roughly 55 points in standard fantasy scoring! I prefer leagues that do not play on Week 17 because the confusion of that week cheapens the rest of the season just a little bit but it definitely adds an interesting tactical wrinkle.

Good luck in the playoffs,
Ezra Fischer

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