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Should the NFL Consider Tweaking its Current Playoff Format?

With only three weeks remaining in the regular season, there is a very real possibility that the Pittsburgh Steelers will finish the year 13-3 and only be the 5th seed in the AFC for the postseason. The reason why, of course, is the tiebreaker that the Baltimore Ravens hold over Pittsburgh in the AFC North standings.

If that happens, the Steelers would be the first team since the 1999 Tennessee Titans to win as many as 13 games and only be a wildcard entrant. Back then, there were three divisions in each conference, with the top two division winners earning byes, and the division winner with the third best record hosting a playoff game in the wildcard round. There were three at-large wildcard teams. The 3rd seed still played the 6th seed, and the 4th seed hosted the 5th seed, but since the 4th seed was given to an at-large wildcard entrant, the Titans were able to host the 5th seeded Bills in the first round of the playoffs.

Before the 2002 season, the NFL realigned and added another division in each conference. The playoff format remained largely unchanged, with the only difference being that the 4th seed automatically went to a division winner, and there were only two at-large wildcard teams.

So, unlike the '99 Titans (who actually did advance to the Super Bowl, by the way), the Steelers would need to win three straight road games in-order to make it to Lucas Oil Stadium on February 5th.

If things stay the way they are right now, the Steelers would open up at the AFC West winner on Wildcard Weekend. The winner of that division may only have 9 or 10 victories when all is said and done.

In 2010, the Seattle Seahawks won the very awful NFC West with a 7-9 record and got to host the 11-5 New Orleans Saints in the first round of the playoffs. The Saints were the defending Super Bowl champions and 10 point favorites in the game. The Seahawks capitalized on their homefield advantage and knocked the Saints out of the playoffs.

Just last year, the circumstances were reversed in the AFC North, and the Baltimore Ravens finished with the same record as the Steelers at 12-4 but didn't win the division and had to open up at the 10-6 Kansas City Chiefs on Wildcard Weekend.

Ok, if you're a Ravens fan, you're probably wondering why I didn't blog about this stuff last year when the Ravens were on the outside looking in. I'm only bringing it up now because the Pittsburgh Steelers are on the wrong end of things, right?

Well, of course.

In all honesty, I did blog about this last season after the Seahawks 7-9 fiasco, and I wondered if the NFL was going to overreact and drastically change the playoff format.

Thankfully, they didn't (for the record, I like the playoff format just the way it is), but I can't help but wonder if the NFL would ever consider changing things up just a bit.

If they do, I hope they don't do the obvious and go with eight seeds per conference. If the NFL does that, it would more than likely eliminate byes for the top two seeds. If the league still wanted to have byes, we'd be hosting Super Bowl parties in March. I don't know about you, but neither scenario is very appealing to me.

A bye into the second round of the playoffs is a nice little carrot to dangle in front of teams in the last few weeks of the season. If you take that away, it could quite possibly add to the amount of meaningless games in the final weeks, as even more teams would probably be cautious and rest their starters with the postseason on the horizon. Also, if you add two teams per conference to the playoffs, you increase the possibility of more 7-9 teams making the postseason. Again, not very appealing.

Another possibility is just taking the top six seeds regardless of division standings. If you're going to do that, why even have divisions?

I like the six seed format. I like the fact that there are two byes up for grabs each season. I like that a division championship means an automatic berth in the playoffs.

As I said, I don't mind having things stay the way they are. However, if I was in charge, and the league asked me to tweak the format just a bit, I'd change how the seeds were distributed.

Instead of the four division winners automatically getting the top four seeds and at least one home playoff game, the seeds would be based on record. For example, if all four 10-3 teams in the AFC finished at 13-3, the Steelers wouldn't automatically be the 5th seed just because they didn't win the AFC North. In-fact, depending on how a three-way tiebreaker played out between the Steelers, Texans and Patriots, the Steelers could still conceivably get a bye in the first round of the playoffs even as a wildcard team.

And even if the Steelers still had to play three games to get to the Super Bowl, they would at least get to host a first round game. Same goes for any wildcard team that finishes with a better record than a division winner. You can compare it to how the NCAA division I Men's basketball tournament goes about seeding its field of 68. Just because a team from the Patriot League wins its conference and clinches an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament doesn't mean that it will get seeded above an at-large team from the Big East. In-fact, it's almost always the other way around.

And by doing it this way, you may see even more meaningful games in the last couple of weeks. What if a team with no shot at winning its own division has the same record as a champion from a different division heading into the last week of the season? Under the current format, the division champion would already have a home playoff game locked up, and the best the wildcard team could hope for would be a 5th or 6th seed in the playoffs. Under my format, the at-large team would still have an incentive in the final week with a higher seed and a home playoff game a very real possibility. And the division champion would have to place great importance on its last regular season game with so much still at stake. Take this year's current NFC playoff picture, for example. Neither the Lions or Falcons have a shot at winning their divisions, but with the Falcons at 9-5 (after their Thursday night victory) and the Lions at 8-5 heading into this weekend's action, both are very much in control of the last two wildcard spots in the NFC. The Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants are tied for first in the NFC East at 7-6. If either team wins out, they win the division and get the 4th seed in the conference. Under my new format, if either the Lions or the Falcons finish at 11-5, they would earn the 4th seed and a home playoff game, and the best the winner of the NFC East could hope for would be a 5th seed and road games throughout the playoffs. If both the Lions and Falcons win out, the NFC East winner would be the 6th seed.

So, to summarize, my altered format would still have six seeds per conference, a division champion would get the same automatic berth into the postseason but not necessarily a home playoff game, and wildcard teams would have the chance to enhance their seed and host a playoff game if they finished with a better record than a division champion.