NFL Playoff Seeding Should Reward Best Teams, Not Division Winners
With 12 wins and just four losses, the Pittsburgh Steelers have the third-best record in the NFL. It stands to reason, with the NFL's antiquated playoff seeding process, that the Steelers would be asked to travel to Denver to play a wild-card game against a Broncos team that eked into the playoffs at 8-8. Why? Because Denver won its division.
In the NFC, the Atlanta Falcons finished 10-6 but must travel to New York to face a 9-7 Giants team while the 13-3 Saints, who finished tied for the second-best record in the NFL at 13-3, have to host a dangerous 10-6 Detroit Lions team. Why? Because the Giants won their division.
That just doesn't seem right. There is something inherently wrong about an NFL playoff system that consistently rewards weaker teams solely based on the fact they won their division championship. The Giants won a completely mediocre NFC East this year and Denver backed into the AFC West division title because nobody else seemed to be capable of doing so. Both these teams are being rewarded with home games this weekend over more deserving opponents.
If there was ever a year to revisit the way the NFL seeds its playoff teams, this is that year.
What I'm suggesting isn't really all that big of a change. Look, the Tennessee Titans finished with a better record than the Broncos this season but will be watching the playoffs from home. That's just the way it is, and I don't think the NFL should change their threshold for qualification into the postseason. Win your division and you're in.
That's how it is, and that's how it should stay.
The two best non-division winners in each conference should also qualify based on their records. The wild-card system is a good system and adding teams (or changing those rules to include the six best records regardless of division) is going to create more problems than it would solve.
My issue is specifically with how the qualifying teams are seeded. The system is screwed up.
Pittsburgh finished 12-4 in the best division in football and Denver finished 8-8 in perhaps the worst. Why should Denver be the team that's rewarded? Yes, Pittsburgh knows the rules and could have avoided playing a road game on Wild Card Weekend by simply beating Baltimore earlier in the regular season. Steelers fans have no real reason to complain this year. Everyone is playing by the same rules, it's just that this particular rule is a really stupid one.
Saints fans may have just as big a complaint this season as Steelers fans. Sure the Falcons have to go on the road to face a team with fewer wins, but the Saints lost a tiebreaker with the San Francisco 49ers to miss out on the No. 2 seed — and an all-important bye—and have to face Detroit in the first round.
Let's leave aside the fact that the 49ers had a better conference record than the Saints by playing in a mediocre NFC West and getting to face the weaker NFC divisions (San Francisco had the luxury of playing the NFC East while the Saints had to face the NFC North teams). Based on team records, the Saints should be playing the Giants and not the Lions. New Orleans should be rewarded by facing the worst playoff team in the NFC and that team is clearly the Giants, regardless of their NFC East title.
In the AFC, the worst team to make the playoffs is clearly the Broncos. I'm not suggesting that neither the Giants nor Broncos are capable of making a playoff run; I'm merely suggesting that each respective run should not be starting at home.
This suggestion is not that radical. In fact, it's not radical at all. The NFL reshuffles the playoff matchups in the second round based on playoff seeding in an effort to ensure the top-seeded teams get a chance to play against the lowest remaining seeds. If we apply that same exact model to the original seeding process based on records, not based on which teams won their divisions, the NFL playoffs would be rewarding the most deserving teams from the start.
The fact is the better teams should prevail this weekend no matter where the games are played. That means I've ensured the Giants and Broncos will either make the Super Bowl or lose in the first round.
I'm not sure there is any in between.
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