It’s that time of the year again. Time for me to make my regular tilt against one of my more irritating windmills: the NFL Playoffs.
Don’t get me wrong; I love the playoffs, even in normal years (unlike this one) when the Bengals don’t qualify. What I don’t understand is how the most successful sports league in the country, perhaps the world, can’t devise a fair playoffs system. Sure, it’s not the BCS, but the NFL annually screws at least one of its most successful teams.
The league’s system of automatically granting a home game to division winners regularly rewards mediocrity at the expense of greatness. This season, the 8-8 Denver Broncos have the worst record of the 12 teams that qualified for the postseason. But, because they won the AFC West, they will get to host the 12-4 Pittsburgh Steelers, who are being punished for the crime of being randomly assigned to the same division as the 12-4 Baltimore Ravens.
You can say the best team will win, but that ignores the very real advantage of homefield in the NFL. Just ask the New Orleans Saints, who had to go on the road to 7-9 Seattle last year and lost in the NFL’s loudest stadium. This year, Steelers safety Ryan Clark may not be able to travel with the team to Denver, because a medical condition may prevent him from playing in the high altitude. It’s quite a homefield advantage when your stadium is located in a place that prevents another team from playing one of its best players.
And what did Denver do to earn this advantage? They won half their games, which was just good enough to be better than the 8-8 Raiders and 7-9 Chargers and Chiefs. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh went 12-4 in a division that included the 12-4 Ravens and 9-7 Bengals. In fact, the AFC North had a record of 25-15 against non-divisional opponents, the best in the league.
All this results from the NFL’s insistence on holding on to its two-conference structure that harkens back to the days of the NFL-AFL rivalry. The two leagues merged over 40 years ago. Moreover, three NFL teams — Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Baltimore (now Indianapolis) — switched from the NFL to the AFL to balance the two conferences. And, in 2002 when the league realigned, Seattle (added to the league in 1976, six years after the merger), switched from the AFC to the NFC.
So why do we care about whether the NFC or AFC wins the Super Bowl? All this does is artificially prevent the best two teams from meeting in the big game. For instance, the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints may be playing the best football right now, but the two can never ever meet in the Super Bowl, because they both play in the NFC. That’s foolish! That’s how you get boring, blow-out Super Bowls where the game is less interesting than the commercials.
So here’s my sensible suggestion for fixing the NFL playoffs to make them fair and allow for the best two teams to end up in the big game. First, strip division winners of an automatic home game. Winning your division should still allow you to qualify for the playoffs, but if a wildcard team is better than you, you don’t get to have a home game.
Second, dissolve the conferences. Take the eight division winners and the four best also-rans and seed them one through 12 in a traditional tournament format. Then go play.
Here’s what the NFL playoffs would look like this year under this system:
1 Green Bay Packers (14-2)
2 New England Patriots (13-3)
3 San Francisco 49ers (13-3)
4 New Orleans Saints (13-3)
5 Baltimore Ravens (12-4)
6 Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
7 Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
8 Detroit Lions (10-6)
9 Houston Texans (10-6)
10 Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)
11 New York Giants (9-7)
12 Denver Broncos (8-8)
Note that makes some changes at the top of the list. In the current system, the 12-4 Ravens get a first-round bye, because they are the second seed in the AFC, while the 13-3 New Orleans Saints have to play in the first round, because they are the three-seed in the NFC. Without conferences, New Orleans’ superior record gets them a weekend off instead of the Ravens.
That would make for a first round that looks like this:
12 Denver at 5 Baltimore
11 New York at 6 Pittsburgh
10 Cincinnati at 7 Atlanta
9 Houston at 8 Detroit
Note that three wildcard teams (Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Detroit) now have home games, removing the punishment of just happening to be in the same division as three of the top five teams in the league (Baltimore, New Orleans, and Green Bay respectively). Denver, Houston, and the Giants are not unfairly rewarded for playing in divisions where no other team could manage to win more than nine games.
Assuming no upsets in the first round, the second round looks like this:
8 Detroit at 1 Green Bay
5 Baltimore at 4 New Orleans
6 Pittsburgh at 3 San Francisco
7 Atlanta at 2 New England
All this is fairer than the Steelers having to go to Denver or Atlanta (a dome team from a warm-weather city) visiting New York in January. The Ravens, who were 8-0 at home but only 4-4 on the road, would have their homefield advantage reduced as punishment for winning a game less than the Saints, 49ers, and Patriots.
Naturally, this is way too sensical for a league that has three teams in one state (Florida), none of which are in the same division, and two teams in the same city (New York) that aren’t even in the same conference. But every year I yearn for an NFL that rewards teams for their play on the field rather than their arbitrary divisional alignment.
Ah, well. As I say each January, “Maybe next year.”