Another NFL season, another chance that (as of the start of Week 15) an 8-8 or 7-9 makes it into the playoffs (and hosts a game on Wild Card weekend). One of the Dallas Cowboys/Philadelphia Eagles will take the NFC East title this season, and it is possible that a record under .500 will be enough to get the job done. Winning a division entitles a team to one of the NFL’s 12 (out of 32) playoff spots, along with home field advantage in the team’s first playoff matchup on Wild Card Weekend.
Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio is sounding the alarm on this set-up, which he said in a recent press conference leads to “the problem which is going to happen this year where probably an 8-8 team is hosting a 12-4 team.” In the alternative, Fangio proposes eliminating divisions and having each team play one game against each of the other 15 teams in its conference, plus a 16th game against a “natural rival” from the other conference, suggesting Jets-Giants, Eagles-Steelers, and Texans-Cowboys. From there, the “six best” teams make the playoffs.
Coach Fangio has no skin in the game for this year—his 5-8 Broncos have been mathematically eliminated for the 2019 postseason. But he makes an interesting point worth considering.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell took the opposite view: “This is not the first time this conversation has occurred or this situation’s occurred. Teams go into the season [and their] first objective is to win the division. That’s what they work on — we win the division and get into the playoffs. That is something we’ve considered over the years. I have not heard that this year and I don’t anticipate hearing it again. It’s been discussed in the past but I don’t see that as an issue. If it comes up we’ll certainly have a conversation. I don’t anticipate it.”
Since the strike-shortened 1982 season produced two sub-.500 playoff teams, only two NFL teams have made the playoffs with a losing record: the 2010 Seattle Seahawks (7-9) and the 2014 Carolina Panthers (7-8-1). Each team won its respective division that year, made the playoffs, and hosted an opponent on Wild Card weekend. You probably remember that Seahawks game—Marshawn Lynch’s “BeastQuake” run (enjoy at 0:17) ignited the Seahawks crowd of 66,000+ (at what was then Qwest Field) and propelled the Hawks to an upset victory over the highly touted 11-5 New Orleans Saints.
In 2010, two 10-6 teams (the New York Giants and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) watched the BeastQuake run from their couches while the Seahawks were in the playoffs. And in 2014, the Panthers got into the postseason at the expense of the 10-6 Eagles (how the tables have turned). This year, both the Chicago Bears and the (defending NFC Champion) Los Angeles Rams could miss the playoffs with winning records while the NFC East winner advances. Is that fair?
The benefits of Fangio’s proposal are simple. The six most deserving teams would make the playoffs each season, seeded according to their record with no regard to arbitrary geographic divisions. He likened his idea to the way the NBA administers its playoffs—there, eight teams from each conference make it in. Adding to its fairness factor would be the fact that using in-conference record as a first tiebreaker would provide a metric that is the same for each team—everyone plays the same opponents. (That might cheapen the proposed one-off rivalry matchup, however, as “in-conference” record would just be the record from the other 15 games.)
I am, however, more inclined to agree with Commissioner Goodell’s position for three reasons:
First, divisions are good for the league because rivalries add to the intrigue. Jets-Giants, Eagles-Steelers, and Cowboys-Texans are exciting in-state games, but they are not the storied rivalries that make the league so interesting. Here, I am thinking about Steelers-Ravens, 49ers-Seahawks, Bears-Packers, and many others. These rivalries have endured for so long because these teams have routinely beat the snot out of each other, year in and year out, in pursuit of their respective divisions’ titles. And fans get to see these games twice a year, one at each team’s field, often with one of them in Week 17 carrying playoff implications. It is the NFL equivalent of the divisional rivalries that built college football: Texas-Oklahoma, Michigan-Ohio State, USC-UCLA, and many others.
Sure, some rivalries come along that last for a few seasons, such as Patriots-Colts at the height of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning’s dominance. But the ones that endure for decades are based not on players, but on the divisional set-up of the league. There is an elegant simplicity to having one team you root for, and two or three teams you root against. Fangio’s proposal would completely blow that up. A little friction and conflict is a good thing, especially in a sport like football.
Second, inter-conference play is a good thing. Isolating the NFC and AFC from one another, which the Fangio proposal would inevitably do, disincentivizes following the other conference and prevents fans from seeing other franchises, as happens when out-of-conference opponents get scheduled against these fans’ favorite teams. This is arguably irrelevant in an era of fantasy football, Madden, and NFL RedZone, but it is something to consider. We like inter-conference play because it changes up the schedule, adds some unpredictable match-ups to the season, and may even afford fans the opportunity to see (in person) a superstar player who wouldn’t otherwise come to their team’s stadium—think Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs playing the Lions in Detroit earlier this season.
Third, what are we really talking about here—upending everything because a 10-6 team or two, which already didn’t win its division and lost out to two other 10-6 or better teams in the Wild Card race, might miss the postseason here and there? Do we need to fundamentally realign the carefully crafted NFL scheduling system, build in multiple mandatory cross-country road trips for certain teams every season, end inter-conference play, and strike a death blow to the league’s great rivalries all because the Bears might go 9-7 this year?
My answer to that second question is no. Commissioner Goodell is right: If you want to guarantee you will make the playoffs (a means to an end to winning the Super Bowl), go be the best in your division first. Complaining about the Cowboys because you could not secure one of the three playoff slots available to you (the division title and either of the two Wild Cards)? To borrow a phrase that Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has championed in recent weeks: Nobody cares, work harder. The existence of the “Wild Card” itself, a way to bail out teams that did not win their divisions, was a post-AFL/NFL merger compromise. It started as one team per conference, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s website admits that adding a second Wild Card team was primarily about increasing television revenue and streamlining a complex tie-breaking system.
I will acknowledge that Fangio makes an argument that is difficult to overcome, however, and that is the issue of home field on Wild Card Weekend. It does seem a bit ridiculous that the Seahawks, at all of 7-9, got to enjoy the benefits of playing in front of the 12th Man (especially post-BeastQuake) against the 11-5 Saints in the 2010-11 playoffs. And no, if the second-place NFC West team ends up with 12 wins, it should not have to go on the road against a .500 or worse NFC East winner.
So here is a compromise for the Fangios and Goodells of the football world: Let’s keep the six teams the same, but re-seed ahead of the playoffs once we have the six. If you win your division, you’re in, but it is not a sufficient condition for home field on Wild Card Weekend. And if you’re so good that despite not winning your division, you are one of the two best non-division winners in your conference, you still have a shot at a first-round bye. If the Seahawks, for example, end up being the second-best team in the NFC this season, it doesn’t mean we kick the Cowboys or Eagles out of the playoffs. But it wouldn’t radically alter the league to treat them like the second-best team and give them a bye, while making this year’s NFC East winner the sixth seed and making the team to go on the road to stay alive.
If the third losing team this decade makes it into the 2019-20 NFL playoffs, expect this debate to crop back up. When it eventually does, this year or in the future, this idea should a balance between the two well-reasoned viewpoints currently in the public sphere.
Eli Nachmany is a Sports Highlight Contributor for the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law and a current first year student at Harvard Law School (Class of 2022).