Since 1990, the National Football League has had the same playoff format. Six teams get into the postseason from the AFC and NFC each, with the top two teams in each conference earning byes. In 2002, realignment gave us four division winners in each conference (previously three) while two wild-card teams filled out the bracket.
Never before the history of NFL football has a team made the playoffs with a losing record, but that will change Sunday. The Carolina Panthers (6-8-1) and Atlanta Falcons (6-9) will square off in the Georgia Dome, with the winner taking the NFC South. Even worse, the victor will host a postseason game as the No. 4 seed, guaranteed to it because of the division crown.
Since the No. 5 seed will most likely be the Arizona Cardinals (11-4), the question has arisen: does the NFL need to change the seeding system?
It is hard to say that the league has an issue without overreacting. In the 24 seasons under this format, we have seen plenty of instances where a visiting wild-card team has a better record than the hosting divisional champion. Still, there is something to be said for being the best of your group, even if said group is having a down year on the whole.
In this case, however, it is incredibly unfair to the Cardinals. Arizona has been forced to start three quarterbacks due to injury and overcome a litany of other adversity including Daryl Washington’s year-long suspension and Darnell Dockett’s season-ending torn ACL. The Cardinals are going to end up getting the shaft, forced to travel for a postseason game to face a team that has stunk all year, a squad with a losing record.
My proposal to the NFL is simple. If a team wins its division at 8-8 or better, then it should be able to host a playoff game as the current format states. However, if the division winner has a losing record, it should only be able to make the postseason as a wild-card qualifier provided it has one of the six best conference marks.
Next year, it appears the league will expand the playoffs to 14 teams, according to NFL.com. Under that system, the divisional winners would still automatically be postseason participants and host at least one game.
Even more jilted than Arizona are the Philadelphia Eagles. Philadelphia can finish 10-6 with a win over the New York Giants on Sunday and will be home for the winter. Nobody in their right mind would argue that the Eagles are a lesser team than Carolina or Atlanta, and yet those franchises will be hanging a pathetic banner next season. Philadelphia is another team which has dealt with injuries at the quarterback position and overcome, but had the bad luck of being in the NFC East.
Overall, the NFL has a good playoff system which provides plenty of excitement and generally works. This year, a few teams are going to have legitimate gripes while one will be celebrating a spot it doesn’t deserve.