With the NFL regular season coming to a close, the real action is about to begin. During the playoffs, everything gets ratcheted up to 11; every play, call, and decision can be the difference between failure and the ultimate prize of the Lombardi Trophy. With such high stakes, it’s only natural for fans to be unhappy.
One issue, however, stands above everything else. No matter who you are or which team you support, one complaint unites NFL fans of all stripes: the playoff format.
The evolution of the NFL playoffs
Over the past century, the NFL has grown from a fledgling league to a massive business enterprise. That growth has, understandably, been accompanied by plenty of changes on the field.
In the early days of football, there wasn’t even a championship game; the owners simply awarded the title to the team with the best record. In 1932, however, there was a tie between the Chicago Bears and Portsmouth Spartans. The two teams played a deciding game—the Bears won—which set a precedent for a league championship each season. Eventually, the winner of that game would take on the American Football League’s champion in what became the Super Bowl.
After the two leagues merged, a new playoff system was needed. Teams split into two conferences with three divisions; the winner of each division, plus one Wild Card team from each conference, would make the playoffs. While there were some quirks, such as home-field advantage being awarded on a rotational basis rather than going to the team with the best record, the system worked. In 1978, though, the NFL schedule expanded; the league would give each conference a second Wild Card; those two teams play each other in a Wild Card game, with the winner advancing to join the division winners.
A third Wild Card team would join the mix in 1990, and, in 2002, the NFL reorganized their divisions, giving birth to the system we have today.
The problem with the current NFL playoff system
Under the current NFL playoff system, the winner of every division, plus two Wild Cards from each conference, qualify for the postseason. While that makes sense on the surface, it leads to some problems.
Not every division is created equal, but they are all treated the same for postseason qualification. No matter how bad one particular division is, the winner will always be rewarded with a top-four seed, with Wild Card teams filling out the five and six spots. That can lead to scenarios when a mediocre team makes the playoffs by winning a weak division at the expense of an opponent with a superior record.
This season, for example, either the Philadelphia Eagles or the Dallas Cowboys will qualify for the playoffs with at least one game of home-field advantage, despite floundering in the league’s worst division. At the same time, teams with superior records, like the Los Angeles Rams and Chicago Bears, are fighting for a Wild Card berth.
Is there a solution to the playoff predicament?
While change never comes easy in the NFL, there is one possible system that could fix most of the potential problems: seeding teams based on overall record, while ignoring any divisional standing. NFLPA president Eric Winston has even floated the idea, himself.
There would certainly be some objections to the change—fans of teams who miss out would surely claim that winning the division warrants some reward—but record-based seeding seems like it would solve most of the NFL playoff problems. While expanding the playoff field would further dilute the competition and grant postseason berths to more undeserving teams, the new system would do the opposite; it would ensure that the six best teams from each conference get a shot at the Lombardi Trophy.
At the end of the day, however, someone will always be unhappy. No matter the system, though, there’s always one solution: just win baby, and everything else will take care of itself.