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NFL Reality Check: Let's Say It Again This Year—Playoffs Need to Be Reseeded

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NFL Reality Check: Let's Say It Again This Year—Playoffs Need to Be Reseeded
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Reseed the NFL playoffs.

This is an argument we make every year, and every year, those who make the argument are right: The NFL playoffs need to be reseeded—not just after each round, but before the start of the postseason tournament altogether.

If the playoffs are a true test to find the best team in football, then the league's owners owe it to their fans and everyone involved with the league to structure the playoffs properly, once and for all.

When I asked the league this week about plans to reseed, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told me, "This is a topic that the Competition Committee discusses every offseason and will review again this year. A number of clubs have expressed the importance of winning their division. This results in hosting a playoff game and reinforces the divisional rivalries during the regular season." 

Starting there, let's look at all the reasons why reseeding does or doesn't make sense. First, the reason it doesn't: The owners don't want it. 

That's it. That's the only reason the NFL hasn't reseeded the playoffs. Every time the proposal comes up to reseed in the playoffs, the owners shoot it down.

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McCarthy shared with me two links about reseeding. The first, an article written by Barry Wilner of the AP in March of 2008 (h/t USA Today), quoted New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who said, "I do believe if you win a division, it's good for your fans to know you will have a home game. To win a division, there is a reward, and we wanted to keep that." 

(Ironically, Kraft's Patriots missed the playoffs entirely that subsequent season, despite winning three more games than the AFC West champion San Diego Chargers. More on both of those teams in a bit.) 

The other link McCarthy sent over, written by Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio in 2011, came just days before the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks hosted—and defeated—the heavily favored New Orleans Saints, who finished the 2010 regular season 11-5 and not only should have hosted that game if the playoffs were reseeded but could have earned a first-round bye.

The story also quoted NFL commissioner Roger Goodell regarding reseeding:

We looked at it a few years ago. The strong view of the clubs was that you should win your division and if you win your division, you should be rewarded with a home game. There is another view that winning your division should automatically get you into the playoffs and into the postseason but that it should not automatically reward you with a home game. That is something that will continue to be debated.

Three seasons later, it's still being debated, because the rule is still unfair to some of the league's stronger teams.

Read through the lines in that 2011 quote from the commissioner, and it's easy to see his frustration with the owners. Home games in the playoffs are an enormous cash cow, so why would the owners be willing to risk that, even if it gives more deserving teams a better chance to win a title? 

Of the 12 teams that make the NFL playoffs each year, eight are division winners; two-thirds of the teams in the postseason qualify by winning their division. 

Of course the owners want to give themselves a better chance to get that home game, and guaranteeing at least one home game to each division winner is the best way to do that. It's not about the fans at all. It's about the money. 

There would be no reason for an owner to vote for the teams with the best record to get home games in the playoffs, except, you know, because it would actually reward the best teams in the regular season. That would be for the fans. 

 

David Banks/Getty Images

NFC Needing Reseeding

This year's NFC playoff bracket is as wacky as it's been since 2010, when the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks hosted the 11-5 New Orleans Saints.

The 2013 Saints finished 11-5 and must travel to the 10-6 Philadelphia Eagles to open the playoffs in the NFC. Why? Because the NFL rules ostensibly reward Philadelphia for the existence of the Carolina Panthers.

The 12-4 San Francisco 49ers have to inexplicably travel to the 8-7-1 Green Bay Packers on Sunday for their first playoff game. Why? Because the Seahawks are really good and played just a little bit better than the Niners this season. 

Despite winning more games than their first-round opponents, New Orleans and San Francisco will get penalized in the playoffs because another team in their respective—read: tougher—divisions had a slightly better record.

Tougher divisions, eh? Yes. Despite featuring two teams with just four wins apiece this season, the NFC South was tougher overall than the NFC East, finishing with a 19-21 out-of-division record to the East's 16-24 mark. The NFC South was also 3-1 against the East this season.

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

There is no debating the toughness of the NFC West over any division, especially the NFC North.

The 49ers would earn the third seed in a properly reshuffled playoff system, hosting the sixth-seeded Packers instead of going to Green Bay. The current rules are actually punishing San Francisco for playing in the toughest division in football in favor of a team that won the league's weakest.

The NFC West was 42-22 overall this season, while the NFC North was 28-34-2. Looking at just non-division games, the NFC West was 30-10 against other divisions, while the putrid NFC North was 17-23 outside of its division. 

So suuuuuure, it makes sense to give the NFC North winner a home game, despite it having four fewer wins than a team that went into the final week of the season fighting for a first-round bye out of the league's best division. 

Let's see the NFL owners justify this system again during the offseason. 

(Note: There will be more on the Arizona Cardinals finishing with two more wins than the Packers but being home for the playoffs in a bit.)

 

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

AFC Reseeding in 2013

While the seeding worked out better in the AFC this season, the structure of reseeding would still impact the playoffs a great deal.

One of the points for reseeding—brought up in that 2008 article sent over by the NFL—is that automatically awarding division winners a home playoff game creates a scenario at the end of the season where some playoff teams have nothing for which to play. 

Case in point: the 2013 Kansas City Chiefs.

The Chiefs went into the final game of the regular season with nothing on the line, locked into the AFC's No. 5 seed before the game even started, which led head coach Andy Reid to rest his starters against the San Diego Chargers.

The Chiefs almost won anyway, but San Diego came from behind to win in overtime, qualifying for the playoffs at 9-7 over the 8-8 Pittsburgh Steelers, who would have benefited most greatly from the Chiefs actually trying to win the game.

Had Kansas City won, the Chiefs would have finished the season 12-4 and—in a reseeded playoff scenario—been the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs. In fact, the Chiefs would have gone into Week 17 with a chance for a first-round bye had New England lost to Buffalo. There would have been more on the line for virtually every team in the playoff hunt. 

When the top playoff seeds aren't beholden to division winners, the final few weeks of the regular season would become even more interesting. That would best serve the fans.

Even with the loss this week, the Chiefs would have retained the fifth seed in a reseeded playoff bracket, but everything else would have changed.

A reseeding would give the Colts the third spot over the Bengals—with Kansas City, Indianapolis and Cincinnati all being 11-5, the first tiebreaker would have been conference record, not head-to-head result, giving the Colts the better seed.

Interestingly, reseeding the AFC may have been a bigger shakeup for the Super Bowl contenders than the NFC.

 

Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

The Reseeded Playoff Bracket

With the caveat that a reseeded playoff tournament may have led to different outcomes during the regular season (see the Chiefs example in Week 17 above), here is what the 2013 playoff bracket should look like, based upon the current records for the teams that actually did qualify for postseason play:

 

AFC:

1. Denver (13-3)

2. New England (12-4)

3. Indianapolis (11-5) vs. 6. San Diego (9-7)

4. Cincinnati (11-5) vs. 5. Kansas City (11-5)

Again the Chiefs could have been the third seed, and the Steelers would be in the playoffs had Kansas City won, but they didn't, starters on the bench notwithstanding.

Still, the playoff picture would be vastly different if the league reseeded, giving Indianapolis a potential second-round game at New England and the Bengals-Chiefs winner going to Denver.

 

NFC:

1. Seattle (13-3)

2. Carolina (12-4)

3. San Francisco (12-4) vs. 6. Green Bay (8-7-1)

4. New Orleans (11-5) vs. 5. Philadelphia (10-6)

A reseeded NFC would create the same first-round matchups, but both games would be played in different venues, changing, well, everything about which teams may be expected to advance.

And speaking of advancing, the current playoff bracket has Philadelphia going to Carolina if the Eagles win and New Orleans heading to Seattle if the Saints win. If San Francisco beats Green Bay, its second-round opponent will depend on the outcome of the other Wild Card Game. 

At 12-4, not only do the 49ers have to go on the road to face a team with eight wins, but they may have to face Seattle in the second round if the 10-6 Eagles also win.

That's…ridiculous.

In a reseeded NFC, San Francisco would be able to avoid Seattle until the NFC title game. Not that Carolina—which beat the 49ers this season—is an easy game, but one would have to think teams want to avoid playing in Seattle for as long as possible this postseason.

Of course, that is assuming the 49ers will beat the Packers, which is no easy task at Lambeau Field in the playoffs.

 

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

A Brief History of Reseeding Errors

As I said before, the debate to reseed the NFL playoffs is not new, and that's because the need to reseed comes up nearly every year in response to the way the NFL organizes its postseason tournament.

Last season, the Baltimore Ravens finished 10-6, but because they won their division, they hosted the 11-5 Indianapolis Colts. The Ravens won that game, giving them playoff momentum en route to a Super Bowl championship.

On the NFC side, the Seahawks were the No. 5 seed, but a reseeded bracket would have given Seattle the third slot in a head-to-head tiebreaker over Green Bay. (Who can forget the ending to that game last season?)

Seattle would have faced Minnesota in the first round, while Green Bay would have hosted Washington. Even if the Packers and Seahawks both advanced, just like they did last year, Seattle would have faced San Francisco, and Atlanta would have hosted Green Bay in the divisional playoff round.

Everything would have been different last year.

It would have been different in 2011, as well. Very different. 

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

That's the year the 8-8 Broncos and Tim Tebow hosted the 12-4 Pittsburgh Steelers. 

If there were ever a situation that would demand the NFL to more seriously consider reseeding, it was that year, which also had two NFC wild-card teams travel to division champions with fewer wins. One of those home teams was the New York Giants, who beat the Atlanta Falcons and went on to win the Super Bowl.

The 2010 season was probably as ridiculous as 2011, if not more, with 7-9 Seattle not only making the playoffs but getting a home game as well, while two 10-6 teams in the NFC missed the playoffs entirely.

A reseeded NFC that year would have given the Saints a first-round bye over the Chicago Bears, based on the tiebreaker of a better conference record. The Bears, then the No. 3 seed, would have hosted sixth-seeded Seattle.

It goes on and on. In 2009, the 10-6 Arizona Cardinals hosted and defeated the 11-5 Packers. In 2008, the 8-8 San Diego Chargers backed into the playoffs before beating the 12-4 Indianapolis Colts at home.

Had those playoffs reseeded, the Colts—who had the No. 5 seed after losing the AFC South title to Tennessee that year—would have earned a first-round bye over Pittsburgh after both teams finished 12-4 and with the Colts beating the Steelers during the regular season. For what it's worth, the Steelers were also 6-4 outside of their (weaker) division that year, while the Colts were 8-2.

Sure, those better teams should have won their first-round playoff games, even when playing on the road. After all, they were the better team all season, and that's part of the reason the NFL playoffs are so unpredictable. 

But do we want the playoffs to be unpredictable, or do we want them to be fair?

And if the answer is both—it is both, by the way—one should not come at the expense of the other. 

 

Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Arizona Cardinals and the Case For Expanded Wild Card

While the seeding is always a mess, the NFL regular season usually gets it right in determining which teams should get into the playoffs.

In most cases—like this year's AFC playoff bracket—the teams that most deserve to get into the postseason do so, and the support for an expanded playoff bracket doesn't hold much weight. 

The NFL recently floated the idea of expanding the playoffs in 2015 to include another wild-card team, thereby giving more teams the chance to make the payoffs—sorry, playoffs—while putting a far greater reward on the teams that earn the top seed in each conference, giving them not just home-field advantage but the only bye on that side of the draw.

At first, I was against this suggested rule change, but when I watched the Arizona Cardinals play this year, I changed my mind.

Arizona would make a deserving playoff team this year. With a record of 10-6, the Cardinals have a better overall record than two of the 12 teams that made the playoffs. That's more than 15 percent of the postseason field.

Now, if we're already in agreement to reseed the conferences, a case can be made to reseed every team, combining the AFC and NFC teams into one big postseason tournament based on overall record. Even giving a slot to each division winner, the Cardinals would be in as a wild-card team if we did that.

There is, however, great importance to keeping the tradition of AFC versus NFC intact for the Super Bowl, so the Cardinals were justifiably the odd team out in the NFC this season.

But is that really fair? With teams playing an imbalanced schedule, is the way the league picks wild-card teams fair and balanced enough? 

The Cardinals were 10-6 on the season, but 8-2 outside of the NFC West. Now, granted, the two Arizona losses outside of the division were to Philadelphia and New Orleans. Winning either of them would have changed the NFC playoff structure in the NFC entirely.

Let's not use this as an argument that the Cardinals should be in the playoffs instead of another team. I understand the need to have a division winner, even the Packers, make the playoffs. If you have divisions at all, they should be there for a reason.

But expanding the playoffs would allow a team like Arizona the chance to play in the postseason. That's not a bad thing. 

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Expanding the playoffs in 2008 would have given the 11-5 Patriots a playoff berth, which could have changed the course of football history for all we know. (Note: The 2010 playoffs still would have had a 7-9 team in with at least one 10-6 team at home, but…baby steps.)

Look at it this way: There is a reason why the best college football teams in top conferences rarely schedule tough opponents from other conferences. Their conference slate is tough enough for those teams to qualify for the top bowls—or even the national championship—that there is no need to schedule other tough teams from outside the conference. Scheduling additional top opponents can only serve to hurt those schools.

The NFC West was this year's SEC. Arizona loses out on the playoffs because the NFL stacked them with what turned out to be a very difficult out-of-division schedule.

People can say all they want that the Packers deserve to be in the playoffs because they won the NFC North division, but those same people better not be complaining that UCF and Clemson are in the BCS instead of Missouri and South Carolina.

If "who you play" is as important as a team's record in college, shouldn't the same be true in the pros?

 

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Revisiting Reseeding

This is going to be a hot topic all week, and it's only going to get hotter if the Packers manage to beat the 49ers on Sunday.

A win by either the Eagles or Packers on Sunday would mark the sixth year in a row—and the seventh time in 10 years—that a home playoff team beat a visitor with a better regular-season record.

The goal of the playoffs should not be to reward a team (or an owner) for winning a bad division. The goal of the playoffs should be to find the league's best team.

That should be the purpose of the playoffs every year. Any other reason—including the owners lining their pockets with playoff gate and merchandise revenue—should be secondary.

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