Should the NFL get rid of divisional champions making the playoffs?
By: Ben Moss
Dec. 15, 2022
Photo Credit: Associated Press
As we head into Week 15 of the NFL’s regular season, the playoff picture is becoming the talk of the league. Which teams are going to make the playoffs, which teams are going to miss the playoffs, and which teams that deserve to be in the playoffs are going to miss it.
There are teams like the Philadelphia Eagles, who at 12-1 have already clinched a playoff berth and have proved to the league that they deserve to be there. There are also teams like the Detroit Lions who have gone on a hot streak in the second half of the season and are in the hunt for a Wild Card spot with a current record of 6-7.
Another 6-7 team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, have underperformed this season. The Bucs are currently the 4 seed in the NFC, and have a spot in the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Dallas Cowboys have a 10-3 record, but sit below the Buccaneers at the 5 seed in the NFC. How is this possible?
As of 2020, seven teams from both the NFC and AFC make the playoffs. The four teams who win their division get the 1-4 seeds in the playoffs, and seeding is determined by record. The three remaining spots in each conference go to the three best non-division winners, while the team with the conference’s best record gets a first round bye.
Based on these rules, a team who wins a weak division is guaranteed a playoff spot, which explains how the Buccaneers are ranked as the 4 seed in the NFC playoff picture. Despite their 6-7 record, they lead NFC South, as the Panthers, Falcons, and Saints have struggled all season. The Cowboys are currently the fifth seed because they are in second place in the NFC East behind the Eagles, the best team in the NFC.
Recent Examples of Regular Season Record Controversies
Two recent examples come to mind when examining regular season record controversies. The first occurred in 2008 when the New England Patriots finished 11-5 yet did not make the Playoffs. You could argue that a team that is 11-5 should be in the playoffs, but due to their play in conference games, they missed the playoffs. At that time, only 6 teams per conference made the playoffs. The Dolphins won the AFC East over the Patriots, and the other two wild card spots were taken by the 12-4 Colts and 11-5 Ravens. The odd one out? The San Diego Chargers, who won their division with an 8-8 record, leaving no room for the clearly superior Patriots
In 2020, the then Washington Football Team won the NFC East with a 7-9 record. This was only the third time a team with a losing record won their division and made the playoffs. Washington ended up losing in the first round against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers who had an 11-5 record as the 5 seed.
So should the NFL change their playoff format? If so, what would that look like?
The playoffs are supposed to feature the best teams in the league, and a team with a losing record is simply not the best. Ultimately, losing record playoff teams were able to take advantage of a weak division, and sneak into the playoffs. So, should a team from every division make the playoffs? Especially one where all the teams have losing records?
In 2015, the NBA got rid of their divisions, and now base the playoff seedings solely on record. The top eight teams in each conference make the playoffs, with no automatic bids for division winners.
This is a format that the NFL could model. This would involve getting rid of divisions, and seeding teams solely based on their overall record. While this would solve the problem of having teams with losing records in the playoffs, it would also eliminate division rivalry games.
Some teams have historical rivalries based on these divisions, and these teams play each other twice a season. If there are no more division games, then it destroys a historical part of the league and ends huge rivalry games leading to divisional championships. On the other hand, the playoffs would be much more competitive as only the best of the best make it, and teams who don’t deserve to be there don’t qualify.
The NFL should think about what they want their playoffs to look like. They will have to decide whether they want to keep historic divisional rivalries while continuing to allow losing teams to make the playoffs, or see the league’s best teams competing for a Super Bowl each season.