Fixing the NFL Playoff System

Like most issues plaguing my life, it began in middle school. It was during the 2010 NFL season that I remember watching an NFL Live segment on ESPN titled “Westbound and Down,” discussing the porous NFC West and how a team with a losing record might come out with a playoff spot. Perhaps it was out of a sense of morbid curiosity that I decided to watch that final game on NBC on that cold January night. The Seattle Seahawks (6-9) slugging it out with the then-St. Louis Rams (7-8) for the gilded glory of winning the worst division in the league, and the automatic playoff berth that came with it. The Seahawks won, finishing the season at 7-9 and becoming the first team with a losing record to win their division, and the following week, would become the first sub-.500 team to win a playoff game in a playoff game.

In hindsight, seeing the defending Super Bowl-champion Saints get run over by Marshawn Lynch and lose to a sub-.500 team was the sweetest revenge that me as a then-Vikings fan could ask for. But the idea of a team with a losing record automatically qualifying for the playoffs due to an arbitrary division title didn’t escape me. When I look back and see how the New York Giants (10-6) and, surprisingly, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6) were denied playoff spots because of this technicality just didn’t sit well with me.

With the current state of affairs in the NFC East, there is a very real possibility that history may repeat itself this year, except these teams look somehow worse than the ones in the NFC West did ten years ago. Meditations on history being a downward spiral aside, one of these teams is unfortunately going to win the division. The New York Giants (4-7) currently stand the best chance to do so thanks to their tie, but the fact that a team this bad can make the playoffs and potentially deny better teams a chance to compete for the Super Bowl based solely on falling upwards in a mediocre division should not be allowed to stand in this day and age. Technically speaking, the Cowboys, Eagles, and the Washington Football Team all sit still have a chance to make the playoffs (and win their division), despite all sitting below .500 after Week 12. That is why I am proposing a new system for the NFL, a simplified and streamlined approach to the playoff system: eliminate the divisions.

To clarify, when I say “eliminate the divisions,” I do not mean literally erasing all of the divisions in the league, to do that would be anarchy. What I am saying is just make it so that something as arbitrary as a division title doesn’t matter in determining playoff spots. Division titles by themselves are meaningless, anyone can tell you that. To me, divisions exist for only two reasons: scheduling and preserving rivalries. A division title may mean something to one of the teams playing in the division, but its worthless outside of that. Therefore, I fail to see their significance in determining playoff seeds for the league aside from formality sake. We have already seen instances where mediocre teams are allowed deny better teams playoff spots due to arbitrarily winning a sub-par division.

In this new system, the conference playoff seeds will be determined by a teams overall standing within their conference. There are no longer “division leaders” and “wild cards,” it is a streamlined approach that simply takes the seven best teams in each conference and allows them to compete in the playoffs. It is based solely on overall record, division titles are meaningless in this system. If an entire division is bad enough, such as this year’s NFC East, then they will not be able to deny better teams a playoff spot due to that technicality. Yes, an entire division can be left out of the playoffs if they are bad enough.

The NFL expanded the playoff pool to 14 teams was a step in the right direction. I’ve believed for years that granting a first-round bye to only the top team in each conference will make it much more competitive, as teams won’t be able to settle for the second seed to secure a first-round bye. It’s such a rewarding feeling to know that all of my fourteen-team playoff simulations from years gone-by actually meant something at the end of the day, rather than just be the locked away ramblings of a delusional madman.

(Cover Photo: NFL Auction)

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