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Overdue for a Playoff Shakeup

Why even bother winning twelve games when a screwy playoff system awards an 8-8 team with home field advantage? The Steelers won four more games than the Broncos. Four! Isn’t playing in the NFL about winning football games not so much winning titles?

Had the Steelers been playing at home, it probably wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say the outcome of the game would have been more favorable for them.

With the 2011 season playoffs nearly over, a new Super Bowl champion will soon hoist the Lombardi Trophy. But for some teams, the playoff road wasn’t quite as easy or as short as it was for other teams. Some of that makes sense. Some of that doesn’t.

And even still, some deserving teams sometimes don’t get to set their spikes on the road to the playoffs while others with worse records do. The current playoff system is flawed for sure.

Can it be made more fair? Can it be made more competitive? Can it be made more fun for more fans? Yes, yes, yes. Even players and owners can stand to benefit from a little shakeup.

Let’s first take a step back a year. In the 2010 season, the Seahawks made the playoffs based on entitlement with a 7-9 record in a sad division. They won the division, so it was reasonably okay for them to get in.

However, the real travesty is that the 10-6 Giants and 10-6 Buccaneers didn’t get into the playoffs. This should never have happened. Football players make a lot of money for what? To win games, that’s what. It’s about the W’s.

And it wasn’t the first time something like this happened, either. In 2008, the 8-8 Chargers took the division. This squeezed out the 11-5 Patriots and 9-7 Jets. So, a team plays all season long to only lose five games but doesn’t get into the playoffs when an 8-8 team does? This is pure nonsense.

If you happen to be a wronged fan and your team now sits on the couch instead of being in the hunt, then it’s as painful as cleats grinding into an Achilles injury.

The main problem is that each conference has six disproportionate births—four division winners and only two wildcards.

Remember, before the number of divisions per conference changed from three to four, in 2002, there were three wildcard teams that made it into the playoffs. That’s half division leaders and half wildcards.

But in the years building up to the thirty-two teams we have now, no additional playoff slots were opened even though four new teams were added since 1990, the year when the number of playoff slots were first set at twelve.

Add More Teams

The number of slots the current playoff system has doesn’t always assure the best of the best get in. Eight of the twelve teams that currently make the playoffs get in irrespective of their overall record just as long as their record relative to their division is the best. This means a team can get in with an 8-8 record or even a losing record.

Only four teams can actually make the playoffs based on pure performance after the division leaders are set aside. That’s two per conference. That number is just too small.

The proposal is simple. Add two teams per conference, which gives four wildcards and four division leaders. That’s back to fifty-fifty, a healthy ratio. This would now give a total of sixteen teams instead of just twelve.

And a couple more teams making the playoffs is good for the fans and good in terms of revenue, which seems to be of keen interest in the NFL.

This change also mitigates the fact that sometimes there are weak divisions. A team from a weak division will still get a showing but strong divisions can be better represented.

With this change alone, the 2010 Giants and Buccaneers and the 2008 Patriots and Jets would have made a well deserved entrance into the playoffs.

Seed Based Solely on Record

Division winners are seeded higher automatically. This ain’t right. Okay, you win your division—that gets you into the dance. But it shouldn’t give you cuts in front of the non-division winners with better records.

Football should be about wins and loses. Yes, divisional play is important. But once playoff time comes, seeding should be done by record. And the teams with the best records should be the ones that earn home field advantage. Again, look at the Steelers and Broncos this year. This was backwards.

Eliminate Byes

Is this not football we’re playing here? So the best of the best can only win if they get a freebie? Already the top teams are getting a seeding advantage and a home field advantage. There is no need for byes. In fact, it is completely unfair.

Football is about a game that’s played on the field. The greats are great because they play not don’t play. A bye gives a team more time to rest, heal, practice, and prepare. Why not just have the other teams play on one foot or tie down one hand while you’re at it. If a team has to win in football by not playing football, then this is a copout and cheap way to win.

History doesn’t even show byes are all they’re chalked up to be. Last year, the 10-6 Packers didn’t get a bye but won the Super Bowl. This year the 15-1 Packers got a bye and were one and done.

Good Bracket, Good Sense

Sixteen turns out to be a great number for a bracket. With the elimination of the byes, all sixteen teams would play on the first week of playoffs. That’s eight playoff games.

Simply seed each conference from 1 to 8 and bingo, the best plays the worst and the bracket is set. It does not change. Teams know who they’ll play from start, just like in the college hoops tourney. After the first week, then the number of games per week would be the same as it is now.

The current ridiculous bracket can be dumped. It doesn’t even start off as a true bracket. The lowest seed remaining after the two wildcard games gets to play the number one seed. Just more stacking the deck for the top seed.

I’d simply like to printout my bracket at the start of the playoffs, not a week into it, so I can avoid all the convolutions and arrow drawing. Compare this year’s "bracket" to the bracket with all the proposed changes.



Potential Drawbacks, Not so Much

It is hard to think of any negatives with this proposed solution. But there may be some. Some people will point to the fact that by allowing in two extra teams per conference, the playoffs are basically being diluted. But in truth the data doesn’t support this notion very well.

Looking over all the seasons since the implementation of the four divisions per conference in 2002, twenty-six teams would have been added with winning records, fourteen with 8-8 records, and only two with losing records of 7-9.

So, is a 7-9 team really that much of a dilution? How about going back to the 2010 Seahawks? They beat the 11-5 Saints in the first round. Hardly a slacker performance by the Seahawks. But to throw in a little twist, the Seahawks got home field advantage because they won the division, and this seeded them higher than the Saints.

These changes should be welcome to many fans, players, and owners alike throughout the NFL. Nearly every team would have benefitted now if by this proposed playoff system was implemented in 2002. Moving forward, it gives teams proper opportunities, enhances competition, equals more football games, and it emphasizes first and foremost that the playoffs are a reward for playing and winning football games.