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Wednesday open thread: Should the NFL change its playoff format?

Do you want a playoff restructure?

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

As the 2019 NFL Playoffs approach, the NFC East is looking like the weakest division in the league. Despite this, they will send a team to the playoffs, and there is a real possibility that the division champion finishes with a .500 record or worse. A team like the Los Angeles Rams could end up missing the playoffs by virtue of their competitive division, and a competitive conference as a whole.

The idea of conferences and divisions is not original to the NFL, with each major North American sports league having them in some format. It adds a level of competitiveness as well. Rivalries develop with the frequency of matches, and it gives significance to winning the division: a guaranteed playoff spot.

However, this comes at the cost of the best teams not necessarily making it. This might be the case this year, as one of the Dallas Cowboys or Philadelphia Eagles will make the playoffs — and host a game. There is also the issue where each conference has a unique playoff bracket until the Super Bowl. Once again, a weaker team could be playoff bound over a stronger one due to their conference.

It comes down to balancing the importance of tradition versus overall strength.

Today’s Question of the Day is:

Should the NFL change its playoff format?

My answer: No they should not be changed. There are multiple ways they can change the format, but each of them have their own problems, and the current system is good enough.

Firstly, you could eliminate conferences in general. 32 teams in one big conference. This would ensure that the best teams — record-wise — make the playoffs. Of course, this comes with the negative of eliminating divisions. Not only is this useful for maintaining rivalries, but it helps with travel and time zones. The Seattle Seahawks, for example, would prefer to stay on the West coast for most of the their games. No conferences or divisions would significantly affect the scheduling.

Eliminating just divisions would have similar repercussions. Since placement in the AFC and NFC is arbitrary — there is no difference rule-wise between the two, unlike the American and National Leagues of the MLB — there would still be the aforementioned issues, with the added problem of possible conference imbalance.

Another alternative is to remove the playoff berth guaranteed by winning the division. On one hand, this results in the best teams getting in per conference, while still maintaining the current division format. However, it significantly reduces the importance of the division itself. Winning the division now has no guaranteed benefit. The Dallas Cowboys could with the NFC East in 2019 with a record of 8-8, but without a playoff berth, the division title would be irrelevant.

A crossover could also be implemented. This would keep the current conference and division template, but add the ability for a cross-conference team. Should the third-best Wild Card team of one conference finish with a better record than the second-best Wild Card team of the other conference, they could take their spot in the playoffs. This in theory sounds like a good idea to ensure the best teams make it, regardless of conference. However, it adds an extra level of complexity to the playoff picture, and tiebreakers are likely to play a major factor.

Additionally, we have to consider if the problems with the current format are overblown. Is it even worth changing? How often are the top 12 teams in the league the 12 playoff teams? Since the 2002 division realignment, here are some instances of that not being the case, ignoring tiebreakers:

  • In 2004, the 8-8 Rams and Vikings made the playoffs over the 9-7 Bills, Jaguars, and Ravens.
  • In 2006, the 8-8 Giants made the playoffs over the 9-7 Broncos.
  • In 2007, the 9-7 Buccaneers and Washington made the playoffs over the 10-6 Browns.
  • In 2008, the 11-5 Patriots missed the playoffs, while the Vikings (10-6), Eagles (9-6-1), Cardinals (9-7), and Chargers (8-8) did.
  • In 2010, the 7-9 Seahawks made the playoffs over a multitude of teams.
  • In 2013, the 9-7 Chargers and 8-7-1 Packers made the playoffs over the 10-6 Cardinals.
  • In 2014, the 7-8-1 Panthers made the playoffs over numerous teams.
  • In 2015, the 9-7 Texans and Washington made the playoffs over the 10-6 Jets.
  • In 2018, the 9-7 Eagles made the playoffs over the 9-6-1 Steelers.

On paper, this seems like a lot, with nine seasons not having the top teams. That should be a reason to change the format, right? However, a majority of these instances are by a single game or tie. In my opinion, a single game difference is not enough to restructure the current format. Given the differences in schedules, one win or loss is an acceptable margin of error. Of the listed seasons, the only abnormalities are the 11-5 Patriots missing the playoffs and the 7-9 Seahawks and 7-8-1 Panthers making the playoffs.

It would certainly be unfortunate if your team finished with a better record but no playoff berth, but it also allows for magic to happen. The 2004 Rams and Vikings won their Wild Card games. The 2008 Cardinals and Eagles made it to the NFC Championship. The 2010 Seahawks won their Wild Card game thanks to the historic Beast Quake. The 2014 Panthers won as well.

Sure, the best teams might not always make the playoffs, but legendary moments can still happen. Changing the playoff format should not be a priority for the NFL.

Your turn.


Should the NFL change its playoff format?

This poll is closed

  • 32%
    (96 votes)
  • 68%
    (204 votes)
300 votes total Vote Now

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