The owners blew it earlier this year when they opted to maintain the current playoff format.
Anyone who watched some of the Week 17 action in the NFL came away with a small dose of that feeling of lethargy one has after watching an entire preseason game. It’s that “what the hell did I just do?” feeling you get upon first realizing how much time has slipped away. You watched football for three hours in the middle of the day, which prevented you from taking on any major projects or running errands too far from home. And when all was said and done all you gained was a greater familiarity with every team’s backup skill position players and every television network’s playoff scenario graphics.
It doesn’t have to be like this. There is a way to fix Week 17 while, at the same time, fixing the only noticeable flaw with the NFL’s current playoff format. If you haven’t spotted the flaw by now, ask yourself, how is it the Jacksonville Jaguars can be 11-5 yet still have to travel to Pittsburgh to face a 10-6 Steelers team in the AFC wild card round? It’s simply unfair — especially when Jacksonville already traveled to Pittsburgh earlier this year and came away with a victory? There is something inherently wrong with this, just like there is something inherently wrong with the 10-6 New York Giants being forced to travel to Tampa Bay to face a 9-7 Buccaneers team.
The league obviously wants to emphasize the importance of winning a division (the home teams in the wild card round are the division champions). Certainly, any team that wins its division deserves to be in the postseason. But why not re-seed in accordance to record?
If the league allowed all four division winners into the postseason along with two wild card teams, then seeded those teams 1-6 in accordance with their record and the existing tie-breaking procedures, two ugly birds would be killed with one pretty stone: teams like Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay would not unjustly benefit from homefield advantage over teams with superior records in the first round, plus many of the playoff teams would still be playing for something in Week 17 (as thus not resting their starters). This year alone, if homefield advantage wasn’t handed to the division winners, then the Steelers, Jaguars, Bucs, Seahawks and Giants all would have had something to play for in the final week of the regular season. That’s five meaningless games that just became extremely meaningful.
The NBA follows this re-seeding format to a certain degree — the league seeds the division winners one, two and three, but the team with the better regular season record always gets homecourt advantage (which is why you’ll occasionally see a sixth seed hosting a third seed).
The only argument against this is that it punishes teams that play in stronger divisions. In certain instance, yes, this is true. But those instances aren’t frequent enough to override the injustice of the current format. Besides, the strength of schedule argument can be made about anything.
The bottom line is that teams are responsible to win. Any change that places the onus on teams to win more games only strengthens the NFL product.