One of the biggest knocks against college football is that, even with the four-team playoff, it is ultimately decided as much as off-the-field influences as it is by what happened on the field. The four teams in the College Football Playoff this season are deserving but it took a committee of people to put them there. Yes, they all won the games they needed to win, but it wasn’t a result that is based entirely on what happens in games.
You can point to almost any pro sport to find the alternative version. In most pro leagues with a playoff system, the teams with the best records advance to the playoffs, end of the story. At the very least, there’s no drama over whether or not the NFL’s 15-1 team is better than the 14-2 team. You’re better because you won more games. Done.
Of course, there is a quick in the way leagues like the NFL determine their playoff teams and that’s the way it takes divisions into account. The league has four divisions in each conference and each division winner makes the playoffs, joined by two Wild Cards who are the teams with the best records (along with tiebreakers) aside from the divisional winners.
Most of the time this system works fine. It might cause a little bit of consternation about who gets to host a home game and who has to play opening weekend, but for the most part, it works because it’s still the best teams left. However, every few years we end up in a situation where the flaw in the system is revealed. That’s when a team with a particularly bad record wins a very poor division and makes the playoffs over a team with a much better record who did not.
That’s the situation we think we’ll find ourselves in this year with the NFC East. As of the time of this writing, the Dallas Cowboys (6-7) and the Philadelphia Eagles (5-7) are about to battle it out for leadership in the NFC East. The best-case scenario is that one of these teams finishes 9-7, but that might be asking too much of either. Instead, it’s more likely that one of them is headed towards 8-8 or even 7-9 as the division winner. That would mean, in theory, they would be in the playoffs over a team with a better record who didn’t win their division.
We can envision a scenario like the Cowboys making the playoffs at 7-9 while the Chicago Bears finish 9-7 and don’t, even though the Bears had a better record and beat the Cowboys in the regular season. It’s not fair, but, it is what you get with a divisional system.
So a lot of people have been calling for a change to the system. They say that divisions shouldn’t matter and the playoffs should just be seeding based on the best record down. That way, the best teams always make the playoffs and we don’t end up with division winners with losing records taking the spot of other teams.
There’s been an outcry to begin this process this season before the NFC East champ besmirches the playoffs. However, the NFL has all but said it will not reseed this season and it’s not a question on the table moving forward. And, frankly, that’s probably fine.
Ultimately it might ruffle some feathers on a case-by-case basis but the system usually works well enough. And the truth is that we’re not talking about a 14-2 team being left out of the playoffs. We’re almost always talking about a 9-7 team or 8-8 team that gets snubbed, and the odds that team would have made a run were pretty low, to begin with. That’s perhaps not the nicest answer but, like in many of these cases, if you really wanted to make the playoffs you would have won more games.
NFL divisions provide the basis for many of the long-standing and heated rivalries in the league. You don’t have an Eagles-Cowboys rivalry without the two of them being in the same division. Same for the Chiefs-Raiders, Packers-Bears, and Rams-Seahawks. Divisions might not always create the best end result for playoff seeding, but they do a lot to maintain the integrity of rivalry and yearly opponents each season.
Maybe you think it’s a fair tradeoff, maybe not. But in the grand scheme of things, we can live with a 7-9 team making the playoffs every 4-5 years because most everything else works fine when it comes to scheduling and playoffs. Besides, who doesn’t want to root against an undeserving Dallas Cowboys team in the playoffs? America’s Team? More like America’s Against This Team.