IN SOME WAYS, the NFL playoff system is better than that of the other major US Sports.
Firstly, it’s straight knockout. It doesn’t matter if you’ve won every game in the regular season. If you lose just one game in the postseason you’re out.
Secondly, the deciding game is played (usually) at a neutral venue and one team doesn’t get home field advantage because of a glorified exhibition game (we’re looking at you baseball).
But there is a serious issue with the NFL playoff structure and it’s that, year after year, a terrible team reaches the playoffs while a good one misses out.
That’s because the NFL guarantees eight playoff spots to the winners of the eight divisions regardless of record. The result of this is that better teams miss out simply because of the division they are in.
In 2014, the Carolina Panthers reached the playoffs as the fourth seed — meaning home advantage in the Wild Card round — with a losing record (7-8-1) while the 11-5 Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions had to settle for the fifth and six seeds and a road trip in the first round of the postseason.
The 10-win Eagles didn’t even get into the playoffs.
In 2010/11, the 7-9 Seahawks reached the playoffs by virtue of winning the (then terrible) NFC West and so had home field advantage — one of the best home field advantages in the NFL — against New Orleans. The Saints, who won 11 games that season, lost on the road at the first hurdle.
In fact, here’s a list of all 20 of the 10-win teams that have missed the playoffs since the NFL merger:
2015 – New York Jets
2014 – Philadelphia Eagles
2013 – Arizona Cardinals
2012 – Chicago Bears
2010 – New York Giants
2010 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2007 – Cleveland Browns
2005 – Kansans City Chiefs
2003 – Miami Dolphins
1991 – Philadelphia Eagles
1991 – San Francisco 49ers
1989 – Washington
1989 – Green Bay Packers
1988 – New York Giants
1988 – New Orleans Saints
1986 – Cincinnati Bengals
1986 – Seattle Seahawks
1985 – Washington
1981 – Denver Broncos
1980 – New England Patriots
1979 – Washington
Worse still, in 1985 the Denver Broncos posted an 11-5 record and missed out while the Cleveland Browns went to the playoffs by winning the AFC Central — which no longer exists — with an 8-8 record while the 2008 New England Patriots (11-5) suffered the same fate as the San Diego Chargers limped into the postseason by winning the AFC West at 8-8.
This year, there are two divisions stinking up football, one in each conference.
The AFC South is led by the 6-3 Houston Texans but they are a woefully imbalanced football team who are 5-0 at home but 1-3 on the road. They are good on defence (great with JJ Watt) but way below average on offence — ranking 31st in Football Outsiders DVOA — and also have the benefit of playing two of the worst coached teams in football, the Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars, twice a year.
Last year they won the division with a 9-7 record (with five of those wins coming against other AFC South teams) and were hammered 30-0 by the Chiefs in the first round of the playoffs while the New York Jets, as we’ve already seen, missed out despite having more wins.
The NFC North is almost as bad. The Detroit Lions currently lead the way with a 5-4 record though they could easily be 0-9, while second place is held by a team, the Minnesota Vikings, that has lost four games on the spin.
The Green Bay Packers just gave up 35 points in a half to the 5-5 Tennessee Titans, a team that, while arguably the cream of the AFC South, is not exactly a Super Bowl contender.
Perhaps more terrifyingly, the worst team in the division — the 2-7 Chicago Bears — are one of the worst franchises in the NFL this season but they still managed to comfortably beat Minnesota last week and, right up until Alshon Jeffery was handed a four-game suspension today, you couldn’t even write that particular dumpster fire out of playoff contention.
In terms of good divisions, at least one team from each of the insanely competitive AFC West and NFC East is going to miss out, possibly two in the case of the latter. That doesn’t seem fair does it?
It shouldn’t, because it’s not.
In the NBA, the the top eight teams in each conference get in the playoffs and are seeded according to those records. They still have divisions, three in each conference, but winning them does not guarantee a playoff spot.
An even simpler approach is taken by the WNBA, with the eight best teams securing playoff spots regardless of conference. That’s probably pushing it too far in the NFL but even that is better than the current system.
I’m not proposing scrapping divisions entirely in football, rivalries will remain, but an alternative 2016 postseason with the 12 best teams in football surely makes more sense than any with whatever least worst team emerges from the AFC South?