On Sunday, January 8, the 12-4 Pittsburgh Steelers visited the 8-8 Denver Broncos in the Wild Card round of the NFL playoffs. The Steelers were the road team because they were a wild card team, finishing second behind the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North Division. The Broncos got to host the game because they won the much weaker AFC West Division.
Denver usually has a home-field advantage, because it is often difficult for visiting teams to adjust to the mile-high altitude air. This day, it was a tremendous advantage because Steelers starting safety Ryan Clark could not play in the game; the altitude was dangerous to his sickle cell condition. Broncos QB Tim Tebow threw for 316 yards against the Steelers' depleted secondary.
In 2008, the New England Patriots went 11-5 and missed the playoffs; the San Diego Chargers, in the same conference, finished 8-8 and made it.
In 2010, the New York Giants missed the playoffs at 10-6 while the Seattle Seahawks went 7-9 and made it.
We say that this is "fair" because the system doesn't change year-to-year. Unlike in college football, there is a process in determining a champion, and the fairness is in the certainty that there IS a process.
This year's Tim Tebow phenomenon goes to show that maybe people don't really always want the best teams in the playoffs. So I think the NFL can up the anteand make the system even more dramatic. In my plan...
- There would be two eight-team divisions in each conference.
- Each team plays every other team in the Division - 7 games
- Each team plays fives teams from the other division in the same conference - 5 games
- Each team plays four teams from the other conference, in a rotation that guarantees each team plays every team in the other conference - 4 games
Here's how I would organize the season:
Weeks 1-4: Play all the non-conference games
Weeks 5-10: (including all byes): play all the conference, non-division games
Weeks 11-17: Play all division games
In my system...
- Your team could go 0-4 and have hope
- It could even go 0-9 and have hope
Here's how it works:
- In each conference, the two teams with the best OVERALL record get automatic #1 and #2 seeds and first-round byes in the playoffs
- In each conference, the team with the best overall CONFERENCE record gets an automatic bid to the playoffs; for example: if the team goes 0-4 against the other conference but has a conference-best 9-3 conference record, it gets to go to the playoffs even if there other teams with better overall records
- The "Division Champion" is NOT the team with the best overall record from the division, but rather the team with the best record WITHIN the division. That's why the last seven weeks are division round-robins: EVERY team, no matter how poorly they played until then, have a shot at the playoffs if they have the best record in the divisional round-robin
- In addition to the two teams with the best overall record, the team with the best conference record (if different) and the two division champions (if dfferent), the rest of the six playoff slots in each conference will be filled out by teams with the best OVERALL record
- All seedings to determine byes and home-field advantage will be determined by OVERALL record; so if your team has a bad overall record but won its Division round-robin, it goes to the play-offs but only as a low seed
This system would mean:
- Each team plays TWELVE conference opponents, as opposed to the current system where they play only nine
- More DIVISION games are played - seven as opposed to six, and they have far more importance (in the current system, a team could go 0-6 in the division, 10-0 outside the division, and "win" the division.)
- Fewer teams are officially "eliminated" late in the season, spurring interest and ticket sales even for mediocre or bad teams late in the year
- Success in overall record, conference record, and division record - is appropriately rewarded
- Division rivalries (like Bears-Packers) would actually grow MORE intense if the teams saw each other just once a year, like a college football rivalry
Some people say that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," and the NFL is doing as well as anything in America today.
But even things that aren't broke can be improved. This system increases hopes of fans, even fairly late in the year, that their team can make the playoffs.
That can only be good for the League.