Here’s the thing about a playoff system: it’s a terrible idea for crowning a league champion in any sport.
It’s more remarkable that the American leagues spend as much energy as they do with this nonsense considering how long we went without them. Baseball had nothing of a postseason for the first 79 years of the World Series. Most national soccer leagues still don’t feature anything of the sort and just simply declare the possessor of the most points at the end of the calendar to be the champion—if they have a tournament, such as the FA Cup, it exists as a separate entity from the season itself. Even in the annals of the National Football League, it was not until 1967 where the concept of a four-team playoff would precede the championship match.
A tournament is a pretty bad way to determine the best team in a sport; a single-elimination tournament is even worse. It removes an otherwise vast record of wins and losses and replaces it with sudden death scenarios. The best teams do not always take the title, no matter what chest-thumping defenders of the postseason tell you.
So when local media and fans gather around and grumble about the Detroit Lions and their end to the season, to level accusations that the team backed into the playoffs, that they did nothing of merit to reach this place, that they don’t deserve to be in the postseason, then such an accusation holds somewhat hollow.
The argument is already on weak soil, having been planted sometime on Sunday evening when the Lions were being thrashed by Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. It certainly wouldn’t exist if the Lions had won that game, or perhaps some other game earlier in the year that would have rendered Sunday meaningless in the playoff picture. It’s a bunch of anger being vented in the face of a quarterback ripping through a suboptimal defense and whatever was on the television last, but the question of merit is something that always seems to get stuck in the craws of the sports commentariat, and we’re often treated to days, if not weeks spent trying to get it out.
Maybe we might be able to talk about deserving, if that was what the playoffs were about. It’s not.
The primary function of the NFL playoffs is not to find out who is the best and crown them so. It exists to draw out the ratings and drama and revenue of the championship, the Super Bowl; to turn what would be one event into a whole new season of constant profit. That this tournament crowns a league champion just happens to be the rub this drama needs—let’s never forget that the National Football League was founded by carnies, who understood this element. The games here are given greater importance. This drives ratings, advertising revenue, ticket sales and the rest. The playoffs are not dedicated to a spirit of competitive sportsmanship, but capitalism.
Nothing stops the NFL from crowning the Patriots, at 14-2, as champions of the league, or even utilizing the conference system and pitting them against the Cowboys in the Super Bowl, as was done for so long in the league’s history. That would be a far more fair system, but it would also be a far less profitable one and it wouldn’t fill up stadiums and television schedules for two months. It wouldn’t offer the chance for glory to eight other teams and yet, the possibility remains that the Patriots could never lift the Lombardi trophy if they so happen to lose one in the next three they must play. There is the argument that if they so happen to be the best team, they would simply beat all those they face. This is fair, but also ignores that such a mentality was why leagues once simply did this by, one would think, playing a season of games in the first place and taking the one who won the most as the victor—even if the result might be that only a few teams could ever be champions.
The football season is indebted to the football postseason and stamped with the “regular” qualifier; it exists now primarily to gain entry to this tournament, rather than take the larger sample to determine the best team.
So the Lions don’t deserve to be in the playoffs. Neither do the Falcons, or the Seahawks. Forget about the Giants and the Texans and the Raiders. There is nothing they did to deserve to entertain a possibility, however distant, of playing in a championship game. They did, however, manage to be in the right spot in the right year in an antiquated divisional setup (tell me the Panthers deserved a playoff spot when they took the NFC South at 7-8-1 two years ago). That or they took advantage of a couple of wild card playoff spots determined by close records and a series of tangential criteria to break ties. That’s not perhaps deserving of playing for the chance to lift the Lombardi Trophy, but it’s certainly qualified. Playoff entry doesn’t consider how the team managed to reach those qualifications; there are no pollsters to impress or a selection committee to review one’s resume. They’re in and that’s all that’s afforded, and given.