NFL Playoffs: Should NFL Consider a Point-Based Playoff Qualification System?

Elyssa GutbrodContributor IOctober 20, 2011

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 23:  Quarterback Jay Cutler #6 of the Chicago Bears looks on from under center while taking on the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field on January 23, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

In 2010, when the Philadelphia Eagles and the Green Bay Packers went to the playoffs with a 10-6 record, two teams that had earned equivalent records (New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers) stayed home.

According to the NFL’s current tiebreaker playoff rules, the pair of 10-6 teams headed for the playoffs were those with the best head-to-head record and the best record within either the division—in the case of the Giants and the Eagles, who both play in the NFC East—or the conference.

The head-to-head record is straightforward enough to understand. It represents any and all direct confrontations between the two teams, and the team with superior play advances into the playoffs. Case closed.

Moving directly from head-to-head competition to divisional or conference record, however, is a real head-scratcher.

Conference interplay in particular is not a good indicator of the better team. No team in the NFL plays the same conference matchups as any other team based on the way that season schedules are determined.

This means that conference win percentage is a measure of a pool of games that were not played against the same teams.

All teams in the NFC or the AFC are not created equal, yet the conference-level metric of playoff determinism treats them as such. It essentially compares apples to oranges to determine which team moves on to the playoffs.

Surely there must be a better way to decide at the end of the season which teams get to move forward into the postseason, and which teams must watch their peers from the comfort of their own homes.

The answer may lie in how other sports handle their playoffs.

In baseball, two teams with equal records who are in competition for a Wild Card spot will compete in a one-game playoff to determine who advances.

There were tie-breaker games to determine Wild Card teams in the early days of football, but those have long since become ancient history. The odds of the modern NFL deciding to postpone the playoffs by an additional week so that a tie-breaker game could take place are slim.

Looking next to hockey, we see that playoff eligibility is not just counted in wins. Instead, the NHL uses a two-point system to reflect not only the number of games a team won, but also the number of games that were tied at the end of regulation.

The way it breaks down is:

  • A team that loses in regulation is awarded no points
  • A team that loses in overtime is awarded one point
  • A team that wins is awarded two points

Applying such a system to the NFL would be a painless rule change that could help avoid the farce of conference record comparison when head-to-head battles either do not apply or end up tied.

Moving into a two-point record system would have the added benefit of helping to negate some of the blatant unfairness of the current overtime system: Although new tweaks to the rules in the NFL have already helped to ease that disparity, any set of rules that can allow a team to win in overtime without the other team having a chance of possession of the ball is fundamentally flawed.

Even more ideal would be a move to a three-point system in the NFL. Such a system could be broken down as follows:

  • A team that loses in regulation is awarded no points
  • A team that loses in overtime is awarded one point
  • A team that wins in overtime is awarded two points
  • A team that wins in regulation is awarded three points

By forcing teams to split the three possible points in an overtime scenario, you further encourage coaches to play for wins in regulation time—to try harder for the game-winning touchdown as the clock ticks down rather than stalling and settling for a last-second field goal to tie.

Besides, using a point-based system as a first- or second-round tie-breaker before looking to conference record just makes sense.

To put this into perspective, a point-based system in 2010 would have still yielded the same playoff picture between the four tied teams in the NFC. In a two-point system, the teams would have finished in the following order:

  • Philadelphia Eagles: 20 – NFC East Champion
  • Green Bay Packers: 22—tied with Chicago Bears in points, but ultimately seeded as a Wild Card due to division record
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 21
  • New York Giants: 20—tied with Philadelphia Eagles in points, but ultimately losing in head-to-head tiebreaker

That playoff picture would have been infinitely easier to follow than the convoluted scenarios fans were forced to stomach.

Regardless of the means through which it is accomplished, the tie-breaking procedure within the NFL needs to be reconsidered and updated.

A point system that requires no additional resources to implement, and which allows close overtime games to be reflected more accurately in a team’s record, may be exactly the answer the NFL needs.