Time to Change the NFL Playoff Format?

Schmolik@@Schmolik64Correspondent IIJanuary 2, 2012

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 01:  Quarterback Tim Tebow #15 of the Denver Broncos rushes witht the ball against the Kansas City Chiefs at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 1, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The Chiefs defeated the Broncos 7-3 as the Broncos advanced to the AFC playoffs.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Hello, NFL fans!

The NFL playoff field and schedule is set and ready to go.

However, this year an 8-8 Broncos team is in the playoffs while a 9-7 Titans team is out of the playoffs. The same 8-8 team gets to host a 12-4 Steelers team in the first round of the playoffs. While I like Tim Tebow and hate James Harrison, I don't think it's fair that the Steelers have to take a long plane ride to Denver for their game.

This isn't the first time things like this have happened.

Last year, the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks won the NFC West (or should I say "Worst"). They got into the playoffs at the expense of not one but two 10-6 teams in the NFC. Then they got to host the 11-5 Saints and won the game.

In addition, because of the seeds, No. 1-seeded Atlanta had to play No. 6 Green Bay (the eventual Super Bowl champion) in the divisional round while No. 2 Chicago got to play Seattle even though Seattle was clearly a far easier opponent. I thought the top-seeded team was supposed to play the worst remaining team.

Back in 2008, the 8-8 San Diego Chargers won the AFC West. They hosted the 12-4 Indianapolis Colts in the first round and won. That same season an 11-5 New England Patriots team missed the playoffs altogether. A 9-7 Arizona Cardinals team (who lost to the Patriots 47-7) not only got to the playoffs but made it to the Super Bowl. Even worse, the Cardinals got to play not one but two home games against teams with better overall records (Atlanta was 11-5, Philadelphia was 9-6-1).

All of these are a result of the NFL playoff format. Divisional winners are guaranteed a playoff berth regardless of record and are also seeded ahead of wild cards regardless of record.

In the last four seasons, a divisional champion that won four fewer games than its opponent got to host the game three times. All three games required the road team to travel a ridiculously long distance (Indianapolis to San Diego, New Orleans to Seattle, Pittsburgh to Denver).

While Tennessee at 9-7 can't cry about missing the playoffs, the Giants and Buccaneers last year can. The Patriots in 2008 absolutely can. You shouldn't have a team miss the playoffs in favor of a team that had three fewer wins.

The problem is the NFL divisional setup. There are only four teams in a division. You only have to beat out three opponents to win your division. Three times in four seasons a team was just 8-8 overall and won its division.

On the other hand, if you happen to be in a division with a top team, you can be 11-5 or even 12-4 and have to settle for a wild-card spot and a guarantee of your first and (if you win) second playoff games on the road. Even worse, you essentially have 12 nondivisional winners in a conference fighting for just two wild-card berths.

Last year, I proposed moving to three wild card spots in a conference.

Before the move to four divisions in a conference, there were three wild cards so it wasn't diluting the field (especially if the No. 7 seed is an 11-5 Patriots team). You also can't say No. 7 seeds can't win playoff games when two No. 6 seeds have won Super Bowls (Steelers in 2005-06 and Packers last season).

In addition, the advantage for the No. 2 over No. 3 seeds wouldn't be as big as it is now. Right now No. 2 gets a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the second round. This year, New Orleans and San Francisco tied with 13-3 records. San Francisco won the tiebreaker based on conference record, but remember New Orleans had to play Green Bay (in Lambeau Field) and the 49ers did not.

The 49ers get a huge advantage in the potential divisional round game. If there are seven playoff teams per conference, the Niners still get home field over the Saints but will have to play a first-round game. They could lose that game or, even if they win, would be less rested.

So if an extra team per conference in the NFL is not possible, what are the alternatives?

I have listed three possible NFL playoff formats from the most conservative change to the most radical change.

1. Keep the seeding format the same (divisional champs will still be seeded 1-4) but allow each Wild Card Game to be hosted by the team with the same record.

This will not change the matchups but will allow the team with the better record to host the Wild Card games.

If that were in place this season, Atlanta would host the New York Giants instead of the other way around, and Pittsburgh (at 12-4) would host Denver (at 8-8) in the opening round.

Because the wild-card team with the best record plays the divisional champion with the worst record, chances are fairly good that wild-card teams will host divisional champions in the first round on a regular basis.

2. NFL divisional winners are still guaranteed to make the playoffs but teams are seeded by overall record regardless of whether they are divisional champions or wild cards.

In this format, a divisional champ will make the playoffs even if they are 8-8 or 7-9 but a bad divisional champ will most likely have the last playoff seed and the hardest road in the playoffs.

In addition, a Wild Card can get a first-round bye in this format if they have the second-best conference record.

Now, if this were the format, these would be the playoff seeds (assuming the same results in Week 17 even though the scenarios obviously would be different).


No. 1. Green Bay (15-1)

No. 2. San Francisco (13-3)

No. 3. New Orleans (13-3)

No. 4. Atlanta (10-6)

No. 5. Detroit (10-6)

No. 6. N.Y. Giants (9-7)

First-round games would be N.Y. Giants at New Orleans and Detroit at Atlanta.

If the chance at a first-round game were at stake, Detroit would have had much more to play for than simply moving up one playoff seed. They sure played in Week 17 like they wanted to win though.


No. 1. New England (13-3)

No. 2. Baltimore (12-4)

No. 3. Pittsburgh (12-4)

No. 4. Houston (10-6)

No. 5. Cincinnati (9-7)

No. 6. Denver (8-8)

First-round games would be Denver at Pittsburgh and Cincinnati at Houston (same matchups as scenario No. 1 above) but the seeds would be different.

Of these teams, the only team that had nothing to play for in Week 17 was Houston. Under this format, Houston could have clinched No. 3 spot over Pittsburgh if they'd won and Pittsburgh had lost. Houston probably doesn't go for two then if they have a chance to improve their seed, but Pittsburgh won yesterday anyway so it would have been moot.

3.  NFL divisional winners are not guaranteed a playoff spot. The best six teams in each conference make the playoffs regardless of division.

The NFC playoff field and seeds would not change from format No. 2 above.

In the AFC, Tennessee (9-7) replaces Denver (8-8). In Week 17, Denver, Tennessee and Oakland were clearly playing to win, so the format wouldn't have caused any teams to play differently with the exception of Houston (see format No. 2).

Even though divisional championships do not affect playoff seeds, Baltimore is still seeded ahead of Pittsburgh because of the head-to-head sweep over them. Any tiebreakers must be broken using conference tiebreak rules, not divisional tiebreak rules (divisional record would be irrelevant).

There is something to say about having divisions, and it may be good to let all of the divisional champions get in the playoffs regardless of record. I'm not sure they should do away with division champs. Divisions have to have some purpose, and if the NFL goes to seven teams per conference as I suggested, the chances of a Patriots 11-5/Chargers 8-8 scenario diminishes.

But certainly it shouldn't be considered unfair if an 8-8 Broncos team or a 7-9 Seahawks team have to open on the road, especially if they get in over an opponent with a superior record.

Maybe an even more radical format would be to get rid of the divisions altogether and have the six best per conference make the playoffs. The NFL could either guarantee rivals like the Eagles and Giants play twice a year or even once a year. I'm sure St. Louis won't miss having to travel to Seattle and Arizona each year.

In my opinion, changes need to be made to the NFL playoffs. I'm not sure it has to be as radical as to kick bad divisional champions out, but a 12-4 team having to travel two time zones to play an 8-8 team is completely unfair.

A lot of Steelers fans will and should be ticked off if they lose this weekend to Denver when they shouldn't have had to travel there. If you think it can't happen, ask the Saints about last year.


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