As a newbie fan to the game of football, it may be easy to understand why one would think division winners should not get an automatic home playoff game, and that playoff teams should be seated 1–6 based on their overall record. These are the same newbie fans who are only focused on stats yielding the most fantasy points and who vote for the pro bowl based on players’ reputations rather than players’ on-field merit. These newbie fans, unfortunately, too often latch on to the controversies and conspiracies that big-box national sports pundits create.
So why now? Why are the national pundits now pushing to change the current playoff format?
No time like the present, right? This season, the 11-5 Saints play at the 10-6 Eagles, and the 12-4 49ers play at the 8-7-1 Packers. Two teams with better overall records playing at division winners with worse records. And that isn’t fair… right? So there it is. There is their catalyst to push for change. The NFL needs to be fair. Adding to their case of fairness, pundits are citing the 2010 season, which lead to the 7-9 Seahawks beating the 11-5 Saints in January 2011. A game that fans remember better as the “earthquake run,” rather than by the teams’ records.
We don’t quite know how this post-season will unfold, but we, the fans, do remember the results from the wildcard game that borne the earthquake run. The wildcard Saints, who some argue were the better team (particularly by comparing records), lost to the division winning Seahawks. The Seahawks parlayed their division-winning automatic home playoff game into a wildcard-round victory. A victory over a supposed superior team. Would the Saints have won that game if it were played in New Orleans? Any given Sunday, right? Any team can beat any team on any given Sunday (or in this case on Saturday), and on that day the Seahawks were the better team. The following week, the same inferior Seahawks fell to the higher-seated division winner (with a better record)—the Chicago Bears, at Chicago.
Let’s take a brief look at the history of playoffs in the NFL:
NFL/AFL merger, 26 teams, 14 game regular season
Two conferences: AFC and NFC
Three divisions per conference: East, West, and Central.
Playoff format (for each conference, AFC and NFC):
Three division winners + one wildcard team. Division winners 1–3 are seated according to overall record; the wildcard team plays one of the top two seats, with the caveat being that the wildcard team cannot play a division opponent until the championship round (only two rounds).
A slight change to the playoff format eliminates the previously mentioned caveat concerning divisional opponents. Now the number 4 seat plays at the 1 seat, and 3 seat plays at the 2 seat—regardless of opponents and their division.
The NFL expands to the modern 16-game regular season and adds a 2nd wildcard team to the playoffs. The two wildcard teams play in the “wildcard game” hosted by the team with the better record. The winner of the wildcard game plays at the highest-seated division winner. Unless, as previously applied, the highest-seated division winner is a divisional opponent.
The NFL divides each conference into four divisions, each with four teams. A bye week is incorporated into the playoff format for the top two seated teams. Thus “wildcard weekend” is born. The wildcard teams seated 5 and 6 seat are hosted by the division winners seated 3 and 4. Winners of the wildcard games go on to play the top-seated teams in the divisional round, with the highest-seated team hosting the lowest-seated team. Winners of the divisional round play in the conference championship game. The team with the highest seat hosts the championship game.
So what does all this history mean to current teams? Great question.
Once you’re in the dance, anything can happen. Any given Sunday, right? Recent history gives us the 2010 Packers, 2007 Giants, and 2005 Steelers—all wildcard teams that went on to win the Superbowl. Once you’re in, anything can happen. Division winners have been guaranteed a home playoff game since the merger in 1970. And as any fan will tell you, divisions are won by winning divisional games. Putting additional emphasis on winning divisional games is the current tie-breaking procedure. Divisional record is the second tie breaker, according to the NFL’s current tie-breaking procedure. Thus, winning divisional games has been the impetus for teams to design their roster. Winning divisional games and a division title isn’t always the right formula to win the Superbowl, but it is the ONLY guaranteed way for a team to make it to the playoff dance and host a playoff game.
Over one third of all regular season games are played against division opponents. Teams that sweep the division have a tremendously higher chance of winning the division. Obviously there are exceptions to every rule, but generally, teams design their rosters to win division games. They draft to accent their strengths and minimize their weaknesses against their division opponent’s strengths. For example, AFC South teams spent a lot of draft picks during the 2000’s on players who could stop Peyton Manning. That didn’t stop Peyton and the Colts, however, from winning seven division championships in from 2000–2010. AFC North and NFC East teams are built to play physical football, stop the run, and run the ball. These rosters are often composed of run-and-hit linebackers and line-of-scrimmage controlling linemen. These rosters are also often susceptible to West Coast and run-and-shoot offenses. Although all teams have weaknesses against other teams and schemes, they have shaped their rosters to win the most divisional games, and to win their division. Changing a playoff format that has been around, at least in principle, since the 1970 merger would seriously hinder teams who have drafted well and prudently shaped their rosters. The hard work of General Managers like Ozzie Newsome, Ted Thompson, Thomas Dimitroff, and Kevin Colbert would be compromised if the playoff seatings were changed. They, along with all other General Managers and front office people, have designed their teams to win their respective division. Sure there are many, many other factors involved in becoming a successful football team and winning the Superbowl, but the biggest key to winning a Superbowl is making it to the playoff dance.
Sometimes the football gods are cruel. See the 1972 divisional playoff game between the Steelers and the Raiders, or the 2012 “fail marry” play between the Packers and Seahawks. Contrary to the big-box pundits who argue that the 2011 earthquake run wildcard game exemplifies the necessity for change, any true football fan will tell you that the Seahawks earned the right to host a playoff game by winning their division. That same year the Seahawks boasted a division best 4-2 divisional record. It is fair to point out that the 6-10 49ers also had a 4-2 divisional record that year. Sure the football gods were cruel to the Saints that year, but this is hardly the first time the football gods have played a cruel joke on an NFL fan base. As a matter of fact, the two games played this wildcard weekend will mark only the 18th time since 1989 that a team with a worse overall record will host a playoff game, in any round!
Division winners have earned the right to host a playoff game. Those pundits arguing to change the playoff format are doing nothing more than selling controversies to newbie fans with the goal of selling advertising.