As we welcome in Week 12 in the NFL regular season, a lingering issue with the current playoff format looks to be materializing once again. With a 4-6 record, the Atlanta Falcons now sit in first place in their division, the NFC South. With only six weeks remaining in the regular season, there is fairly reasonable shot that a team will win the NFC South with an 8-8 or even a 7-9 record. If this happens, this will no doubt fuel a controversy this offseason as there will be a handful of 9 and 10-win teams that will not make the postseason.
Arguments in favor of the current system
Proponents of the current playoff format argue that every division should be represented in the playoffs. The typical reasoning behind this is that teams will naturally beat up on one another and drag down their win-loss record.
Another argument in favor of the current system is the fact that, because teams only play 16 games in a season, they don’t play each other enough to rely simply on the win-loss record. They argue that the strength of schedule varies so much and that granting a playoff spot to the division winners helps mitigate that unbalance.
Fans who favor the current system often point to the 2010 Seattle Seahawks who won their division with a 7-9 record and went on to beat the New Orleans Saints, 11-5 at the time, during their Wild Card playoff matchup.
Arguments against the current system
Unlike the NBA where half of the teams make the playoffs, the NFL has just 12 playoff spots for 32 teams. The strongest argument made by opponents of the current playoff format is that only the best teams in the conference should get into the playoffs. In a format where so few teams make the postseason, allowing a team with a losing record to advance certainly irritates many fans of the game. There is a very simple argument to be made that allowing mediocre teams into the postseason makes the playoffs less competitive.
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Opponents of the divisional system also question the notion that better divisional competition drags the records down. The 2010 NFC West and the 2014 NFC South does not meet any reasonable standard as being highly competitive. Opponents point to the 2013 AFC West in which three out of the four teams made the playoffs as evidence that good division play does not hurt a team’s chances of making the playoffs.
The realities of the system and possible change on the way
In the end, the current format has as much to do with making money as it does with respecting the divisional matchups. If a division were not guaranteed a playoff spot, it would make every late season game in a bad division meaningless. Certainly, if it wasn’t for the playoff spot, most casual fans would have no interest in any of the remaining NFC South games this season.
Change may be on the way. While removing the automatic bid to the division winner doesn’t seem to be on the table, the league is looking at an expanded playoff format that would add an extra Wild Card spot in each conference. While a team could still win the division with a losing record, this format would help ensure that one more deserving team would make the playoffs.
This new format has a pretty good chance at passing this offseason and being put in place as early as the 2015 season. Not only is it a decent compromise to get better teams into the playoffs, but also it’s a potential gold mine for the league. Under this proposed format, only the #1 seed would get a first week bye and each conference would then have an extra Wild Card playoff game. Anything that results in additional playoff games is sure to be welcomed by league management as they look to capitalize on the NFL’s market dominance in North America.