Saturday, January 8, 2011

A Word on Current Playoff Format

With a large part of football nation clamoring about the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks making the playoffs and hosting a Wild Card game this afternoon, now would be a good time to set the record straight.

First, this season was a bit of an anomaly, and I for one tend to not advocate implementing new rules based aberrations.  Since the 2002 season when the NFL split into eight divisions, this was the first year of the nine in which a team won the division with a losing record.  The NFC West was just historically bad this season, and that's going to happen from time to time; that's just the ebb and flow of the NFL.  Sometimes things can swing the opposite direction.  For example, in 2007 the AFC South boasted three teams with double-digit wins and the last place Houston Texans did not have a losing record (8-8).  Nothing is perfect, and as long as there are divisions you have to reward the division winner with something.

Since 2002:

# of 9-7 division winners: 5 (Jets - 2002; Seahawks - 2004; Seahawks - 2006; Buccaneers - 2007; Cardinals - 2008)
# of 8-8 division winners: 1 (Chargers - 2008)
# of 7-9 division winners: 1 (Seahawks - 2010)

On average, almost every year one non-elite team wins a division.  The term non-elite is used to describe division champs that did not reach double-digit victories. Only two of these seven teams did not have a winning record.  So out of the 72 division winners since 2002, 70 of them had a 9-7 record or better.  That's nearly 97% of the time.

The real problem is not that these teams are making the playoffs but instead that they are hosting playoff games.  Five of the seven teams hosted Wild Card teams that finished with a better regular season record.  It's one thing to reward a team with a playoff birth for wading through a division but it's another to give a team a home game against a team in a different division with a better record.  I just cannot justify that.

In total, out of the thirty-two Wild Card Round games to date there have been nine "Situations" in which a Wild Card team played on the road versus a Division Champ with an inferior record.  In those games, the Wild Card team is 4-5.  There are four more of those this weekend: Saints (11-5) at Seahawks (7-9); Jets (11-5) at Colts (10-6); Ravens (12-4) at Chiefs (10-6); and Packers (10-6) at Eagles (10-6).  Despite the same record, the Packers defeated the Eagles in Week 1 to win the tiebreaker.  That brings it to a grand total of thirteen instances out of thirty-six games.

The two most egregious examples of a better record team playing on the road are today's Saints game and the 2008 Colts playing on the road with 12 wins versus an 8-8 Chargers team that ending up winning in OT.  Those who differ with the proposal of "reseeding" would argue that the home field advantage the division winner gets offers a nice balance to the playing field and makes the opening round games more exciting.  The purpose of the playoffs is to crown the best team winner, and teams with a better record deserve the home field advantage regardless of whether they won a division or not.  Furthermore, the reseeding would make Week 17 games even more exciting.  Do you think the Jets would have rested starters if they knew a home game was at stake?  Do you think the Eagles would have rested starters if they thought the Packers could steal the first round home game from them?  I like Roger Goodell's commitment to making all Week 17 games exciting by having divisional matchups, and reseeding is another smart step in that direction.

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