Update from the Future: This post originally appeared at the now defunct Chicagonow.com on December 22,2013. This was before the playoffs were extended to 7 teams per conference (2020) and increased the number of games per season to 17 (2021).
Before we can address the fix for this problem, we have to first agree that we do have a problem. Namely, weaker teams are getting into the playoffs while arguably superior teams are sent home to watch the playoffs on TV. If you truly believe that the current NFL playoff system is fine the way it is, please stop reading now. Seriously, stop reading. I’m not kidding, go look at Dilbert or Buzzfeed or play on Facebook. If you don’t think there is a problem, I’m not gonna be able to convince you that there is and I don’t want to waste your time with a solution.
Okay now that that is settled, let me re-state the problem. It’s really two problems but they are intricately related:
1) Teams with better records can sit home while teams with fewer wins get to go to the playoffs
2) Teams with better records play away games while a team with few wins gets to host the playoff.
By definition, the playoffs should be between the best of the best teams in the conference. Is a team that started out strong at the beginning of the season and then faded as good as a team that got better as the season wore on? It’s not an easy question to answer. First, there are all the usual issues – differences in the opposing defenses week to week, injuries to key players on either team week to week, etc.
Let’s look at an 8-8 team and a 10-6 team from an analytical standpoint. Generally speaking, all you can really know from this comparison is that the 10-6 team won two more games than the 8-8. I know, no kidding Sherlock, bare with me a moment. We don’t know if the 10-6 team had a “softer schedule” or if the 8-8 team had more injuries, or if the 10-6 team won every game by two scores while the 8-8 team lost their games by 3 points or less. When using statistics to draw assertions about sports, one needs to be careful to exclude as many variables as possible, and interpret the data in light of its limitations.
If there are more games played over a season, the one-off anomalies should cancel themselves out and the superior team will usually if not always prevail. However, football at the National League Level is a very violent, demanding game. A longer season would all but ensure that the teams that make it to the playoffs would injury-riddled.
At the end of the day, we have to take it at face value that the team with the better record is the better team. And our current playoff system often punishes the better team.
One feature that might be a bug is that winning your division automatically gets into the playoffs and home-field game. Look at 2010 for instance. How could either a 7-9 Seattle or an 8-8 St. Louis not only qualify for the playoffs but also host a game? Meanwhile, the 10-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers stayed home.
Advocates of not changing the system will point to the need for having meaningful regular season division races. We need those divisional rivalries to stay strong, and why shouldn’t fans of a division winner be rewarded with a home playoff game? Well, because now that there are only 4 teams per division, it’s not as essential to consistently beat the teams in your division to make the playoffs as it once was.
On the other side of the issue are those who just can’t see why a 7-9 team or even an 8-8 team should make the playoffs when at least one 10-6 team won’t be invited to the dance. Why cannot we have both?
Okay now for the solution.
The simplest solution could be a rule tweak. Remove the entitlement reward of home field for winning your division. Teams with the top two records will still earn byes, but after that, the division winner should not automatically get to host their wild-card opponent. If a division team faces a wild card team with a better record, the WC team hosts.
Of course this is more of the exception to the rule like the one in baseball where teams from the same division cannot face each other in the first round. I hate that rule.
A better rule — a more fair rule change — would be a seeded system. The top 6 teams go to the postseason, with wild card rules existing for tiebreakers. This changes things and a division winner could end up missing the playoffs, but it would be a division leader with a weaker record.
Another option would be to expand the number of playoff games. In an interview with NFL.com’s Judy Battista, commissioner Roger Goodell said he would not be opposed to adding more contestants into the league’s annual postseason tournament.
I’m putting at the end of this post because the trolls who skim through this will sum up my solution as “expand the playoffs” without reading the nitty gritty above. As I mentioned earlier in this post, football is a dangerous sport. While I’d love to see more football games per year, I know that it just isn’t realistic unless I want to see more of the second and third teams playing each other toward the end of the season.
Expanding the playoffs without making the suggestions above will only exasperate the problem. You could potentially have more 8-8 or even 7-9 teams hosting playoffs. And with an expanded playoff under the current system, you’d theoretically have a bunch of better teams playing lesser teams in the first couple rounds which amount to a bunch of boring blowouts. Certainly no one wants that.