The NFL Spring Meetings are kicking off today. One of the topics of discussion will be discussing rule change proposals for the upcoming season. Unfortunately, another year will go by without any discussion on a what I believe has needed to be addressed for a very long time. I’m referring to how playoff teams are seeded.
When the NFL realigned its divisions with the addition of the Houston Texans in 2002, the playoff seeding structure was slightly altered. While the number of teams and schedule remained unchanged with six teams from each conference and two being awarded byes, the extra division changed the dynamic of playoff seeding. Before 2002, the three division winners under the East, Central, and West format were awarded seeds 1-3, with three Wild Card teams getting 4-6. The fourth seed is critical as it is the lowest seed that guarantees a home game. This meant if a team had a really good year, but had another juggernaut in their division, they would still get to host at least one playoff game.
Under the modern system, there are four four-team divisions per conference, with each of those four guaranteed a home game. Basic logic tells us that winning a division of four teams is not as difficult as winning a division of five teams (or six if you were in the AFC Central). With larger divisions, teams had to had to secure a better record in order capture a division title. But with four-team divisions, it’s not the same feat.
From 2002 through the 2016 season, there have been 13 division winners with a 9-7 or worse record. The ones worse than 9-7 include the 2010 Seattle Seahawks (7-9), 2011 Denver Broncos (8-8), 2013 Green Bay Packers (8-7-1) and the 2014 Carolina Panthers (7-8-1). Did these or even the other nine 9-7 teams really deserve a home playoff game after having an average season, yet managed to “dominate” their bad divisions? I would say no.
On the flip side, there have been a lot of really good teams who have finished second to an elite team, thus slotted in the fifth seed which means a road game on Wild Card Weekend. From 2002 to 2016, there have been 25 Wild Card teams to finish 11-5 or better(seven were 12-4). Under the old playoff structure, these teams would most likely secure the fourth seed as the best wild card team while the aforementioned lowly division winners would slide down to the fifth or even sixth seed.
With 32 teams, the current structure of eight four-team divisions is ideal. So I am not calling for realignment to fix the issue. But the seeding structure can be fixed to award teams more fairly. We can keep it so each division winner is guaranteed a playoff spot. But the fourth best division winner should no longer be given the fourth seed automatically. Instead, the NFL should grant the top three division winners seeds 1-3, then the record of the fourth division winner should be compared against the two wild card teams to determine seeds 4-6. If this model was introduced, a 12-4 Wild Card team like the 2016 Oakland Raiders would have occupied the fourth seed and hosted a playoff game. At the same time, the 2016 Houston Texans, who won a bad AFC South at 9-7 would have slid to the sixth seed.
It’s the perfect solution in that it mirrors a playoff structure that worked so well before 2002 and it does not require the NFL to realign their divisions. While this issue gets occasional discussion, it has escaped the list of proposals for this week’s Spring Meetings. Well, there’s always next year.