Does the NFL playoff structure need to change?
Updated: Nov 15, 2020
By James Pike.
The hierarchy across divisions
With week 6 of the 2020 NFL now in the rear view mirror, we are now starting to get a clearer understanding of which teams are on the path to contention, and which teams already have their eye on the off season. Now of course; it is WAY too early to be thinking about the playoffs and which teams will be in the conversation for the Superbowl, but what you can see is a clear hierarchy developing at the top of most divisions.
The AFC North is one of the most tightly contested divisions in football. With the undefeated 5-0 Pittsburgh Steelers slightly ahead of the 5-1 Baltimore Ravens. A mouth-watering week 8 clash should provide more clarity as to who the top dog is up North. In the AFC East; the Buffalo Bills stretched out to an early lead, and despite losing two on the spin, they will look to rebound this week with a victory against the hopeless New York Jets. Out West; the reigning Super Bowl champions the Kansas City Chiefs sit at 5-1 and have a two-game lead over the much-improved Las Vegas Raiders at 3-2. The AFC South looks to have a dominant force in the 5-0 Tennessee Titans, but the Colts are keeping them honest with a respectable 4-2 record.
The NFC divisional races are even closer; with the NFC West being the absolute bloodbath it was expected to be before the season began. Last year’s NFC Super Bowl representative San Francisco 49ers sit at the bottom of the division, but with an impressive 3-3 record. The LA Rams and the Arizona Cardinals both sit at 4-2 while the Seahawks have established themselves as top dogs with an undefeated 5-0 start. The surprising 5-1 start from the Chicago Bears sees them currently knocking the heavily favoured Green Bay Packers off their perch in the NFC North. The 4-2, Tom Brady-led Buccaneers currently hold a one game lead over both the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers in another hotly contested divisional war.
As you can see; the NFL is as competitive as ever with numerous teams battling to stretch their lead at the top of their division while their closest rivals aim to keep up the pressure waiting on the crucial divisional battles to come later in the season.
Then we have the NFC East….
Is the NFC East truly the NFC Least?
Many consider the NFC East as one of the “blockbuster” divisions in the entire league. Some of the sport’s most recognizable names reside in the East. In fact, this division was the home to a Super Bowl champion not that long ago. In one of the best games in recent Super Bowl history the Philadelphia Eagles overcame the New England Patriots (I’m still a little upset about it to this day) in a thrilling performance which saw one of the most iconic plays in the modern history of the sport. Who can forget the now infamous “Philly Special” play when Trey Burton threw the ball to a wide open Nick Foles for a walk in touchdown catch?
The New York Giants won a pair of Super Bowls with Eli Manning at Quarterback, and they remain one of the NFL’s biggest market teams.
Who can forget the Dallas Cowboys? America’s Team. They also call the NFC East their home and for many years have been able to put together championship contending teams whether they were led by Tony Romo or Dak Prescott. Even Washington has been able to find playoff success in the past decade, making it through to the wild card spot back in 2015.
Success in the postseason has been a prominent story for the NFC East for the best part of two decades, and even as recently as just a few years ago fans considered this as being the absolute toughest division in the whole of football. With each team being considered as potential championship contenders.
Fast forward to 2020, and we couldn’t be further from the truth.
Dallas are currently top of the division with a meagre 2-4 record. That’s right folks; a team who have lost twice as many games as they have won currently sit at the top of the division. That should tell you everything you need to know about how much of a shamble 2020 has been for the East, but when you dive in deeper; it becomes even more concerning.
The combined record of teams in the NFC East against teams outside of their division is currently two wins, fifteen losses and one tie. Ouch! Matchups with the NFC East have basically been a layup for other teams around the league. The only other wins for the teams as a whole have been inter divisional battles. Unfortunately for the rest of the league, each team in the East plays each other this weekend, so we might finally get some clarity as to which team will represent the division in the playoffs. However, with how things currently stand; does any team coming out of this division stand a realistic chance of even making it past the wildcard round?
Not all Wildcards are equal
The complete nightmare that is the NFC East has gotten me thinking about the NFL playoff structure as a whole and how sometimes it can get messy. How many times throughout history have we seen a wildcard team contesting a game on the road against an opponent they hold a vastly superior record over? I can only imagine how confusing it would be for new fans to the game over here in the UK.
I remember watching my first playoff game way back in 2004; questioning my Dad as to why the 12-4 Tennessee Titans were playing away from home against the 10-6 Baltimore Ravens. He didn’t have an answer as he is more of a casual viewer than diehard fan. It isn’t difficult to see why it can potentially get confusing for fans especially when they are initially getting into the sport.
Many years later when I started to follow the sport more seriously; a friend of mine explained the playoff structure, and it made more sense. However, for those who are new to the sport it might be difficult to understand how a team who has won more games is disadvantaged by having to play on the road against a team with a weaker record. That issue could be compounded this season with the winner of the NFC East getting an advantage against a team with a vastly superior record.
Now football fans around the world have accepted that this is the norm, and that this kind of scenario happens so sparingly that it isn't a major issue. Especially with how quickly the balance of power can shift in the NFL. Having said that, it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that a situation like this could happen again next season.
The Magnificent Seven
I’m in no way shape or form saying that the way the NFL playoffs are structured is bad. Far from it. In fact, one of the changes made to the playoffs for this current season is one I am a massive fan of. As of this season, the second seed in each conference will no longer get a bye in the first week of the playoffs with another game being added to the wildcard weekend in both the AFC and NFC.
This in my opinion is a step in the right direction, as it gives further reward for the team who finishes the season with the best record in their respective conference. It also adds more significance to games at the end of the season, as too often you will see teams who have already secured a bye as the regular season comes to a close sit most of their starters as they prepare for the playoffs.
I also like the fact that it gives other teams a shot at the playoffs as the seventh seed will also make the playoffs this season. Adding the seventh seed from each conference gives fans a true “wildcard” to cheer on in the postseason as they run the gauntlet against the absolute best of the best.
These changes says to me that the league is at least taking a look at how the playoffs are currently structured, and are trying to do their absolute best to provide the fans with the most exciting match ups as possible in the postseason. The issue I have this season is with how poor the NFC East has looked as a whole that we could legitimately be looking at a scenario where a 11-5 team has to go on the road against a 6-10 team. That to me; is completely unfair and undermines the hard work of the wildcard team who have had to fight for their lives all season long.
Should the NFL take a lead from the NBA?
So what would I do to rectify this? Abandon the current format all together just because a single division has underperformed throughout the season? Not exactly. I believe that the current system of having seven teams from each conference works out well. This means that only the cream of the crop earn the right to contend for a title. My suggestion would be to just tweak the system slightly, and take inspiration from one of the other major American sports to solve this issue. The NBA.
For those of you unfamiliar with the way the NBA is structured; it is very similar to the NFC in that you have two conferences and there are also divisions within those conferences. However, when it comes to the playoffs all bets are off when it comes to record. Just because one team has the best record in their division doesn’t mean that they will get home court advantage in the playoffs.
In fact if you look at this season’s NBA the top two seeds in the Western Conference came from the same division as the LA Lakers and LA Clippers ended the season as the first and second seeds respectively. It rewards teams for their hard work throughout the season, which in my opinion is what the NFL should look to do with their franchises.
Going back to my example from earlier in this article; the 2003 Tennessee Titans finished with the exact same record as the Indianapolis Colts at 12-4. The Colts finished top of the division by virtue of having a better head to head record against the Titans throughout the regular season. Which makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is that the Titans have to play a road game against a team with a worse record in the playoffs despite performing better throughout the season.
Another example of how the current playoff system doesn’t work in my opinion happened back in 2008, when 11-5 New England Patriots missed out on the playoffs when the 8-8 Chargers got in. The argument can be made that the Chargers competed in a much tougher division, however the Patriots went 3-1 against the AFC West that season (ironically enough only losing to the Chargers from the division). Meaning that they had beaten each of the Chargers divisional rivals throughout the year. Does that mean that the Patriots were a better team than the 2008 San Diego Chargers? Not exactly, but they did finish with a better record and should have been rewarded for their efforts.
If the NFL were to copy the NBA playoffs structure, and go with the top seven teams from each conference as the playoff participants this would allow the best teams in the league the best possible chance to participate in the Super Bowl. Everything else in my opinion should remain the same as it is right now; with the first seed from each conference receiving a bye in the first round, while the remaining teams will do battle based on their seeding.
It rewards the team who finished the season with the best record, while also giving favourable matchups to the higher seeded teams in the first round. The NFL wouldn’t even have to do away with the divisions in this scenario, as they can still allow for competitive games between the established bitter rivals. Except now those rivalry battles could mean so much more.
A divisional realignment?
This is however just one writer's opinion. I may not be the only person out there who believes that the NFL playoff structure should change, but I believe conversations like this should be had between fans and experts alike to try and grow the sport even further. I asked my fellow writer and colleague at Gridiron Xtra, Tom Chappell, what he would do to improve the current structure of the NFL playoffs, and he believed a shakeup of the divisions would be for the best.
Tom writes: “The current structure of four divisions of four teams I believe works well, I just think we should reshuffle the divisions. There is no reason as to why the Cowboys are in the NFC East but the Falcons, Saints, Buccaneers and Panthers who are all further East are in the NFC South. If any one of those teams ends up in the NFC East, we get a far better situation regarding not having four teams purposefully trying to lose their way to the playoffs. The divisions do spice things up though elsewhere, so yeah, keep the divisions, move the Cowboys.”
Tom’s proposal could also be exactly what the NFL needs to in his words “spice things up”. A quick reshuffle of the divisions to be more geographically correct would see an enormous shift in the balance of power. Swapping the Bucs and Cowboys round for example this season would arguably see them as being the top seed in the new NFC East. Whereas Cowboys would now find themselves facing the New Orleans Saints twice a year. Now if that isn’t a mouth-watering prospect; nothing is.
One thing is for sure though. Although fans across the UK are becoming more knowledgeable about the amazing sport that is American Football and understand the playoff structure in its current format: there is always room for improvement. These are the questions that we, the fans, have to discuss as it is part of the reason why we fall in love with the game.