Allow me to pull out my dusty, old drum and play the only tune on it that I know: The NFL should seed its postseason field strictly on win/loss record.
What do I mean by that? This is merely a random example, but if a team finishes 12-4 and misses out on a division title, the number two seed and a bye because of a tiebreaker, that team shouldn’t have to fly cross-country to a city with an altitude level that’s a mile above sea-level and be forced to play an 8-8 division champion with a quarterback named Tim Tebow right when Tebowmania is runnin’ as wild as it ever will......brother.
OK, you got me. I’m obviously referring to the Steelers depressing overtime wildcard playoff loss to the Broncos following the 2011 season. Pittsburgh was coming off a narrow loss to the Packers in Super Bowl XLV the year before and looking for redemption in the form of a seventh Lombardi title.
Only problem was a Ravens’ team that was hellbent on finding some redemption of its own after a gut-wrenching loss to its black-and-gold-clad AFC North rival in the divisional round the previous January. Baltimore got its redemption by sweeping the Steelers in the regular season and earning the division title, the number two seed and the bye, this despite having the same 12-4 record.
I will have you know I actually came up with the idea of record-based playoff seeding in 2010, when the 7-9 Seahawks, winners of that year’s dreadful NFC West, knocked the 11-5 Saints, the defending Super Bowl champions, right the heck out of the playoffs on Wildcard Weekend.
Much like men always paying on the first date and the NFL Draft, why should things continue to be how they are simply because they’ve been that way for a very long time?
Back when I first broached this idea, the general question was, why have divisions if the champions don’t get higher seeds and don’t get to host playoff games—at least on Wildcard Weekend?
Why have divisions? Oh, I don’t know, to make travel easier, to make scheduling easier, to create long-lasting regional rivals (for the most part) and, oh yeah, to earn a trip to the postseason!
Since when was it written in stone that a division champion got to play at home in the first round of the playoffs? That was rhetorical, because it was in 1990, right after the NFL expanded its postseason field to allow a sixth seed in each conference. And based on its various incarnations since the 1970 merger, I don’t think the NFL has ever used anything but a pencil and some notebook paper to jot down its playoff tournaments.
There was that brief period right after the merger, when homefield advantage was decided on a rotational basis and not record. However, as the 1972 NFL playoffs demonstrated quite graphically, that format had some serious flaws. The 15-0 Dolphins, just two games from NFL immortality, had to travel to Pittsburgh to take on the 12-3 Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.
All was well that ended well for the Dolphins, who prevailed and went on to win Super Bowl VII, but now I see why smoking on planes and not wearing seat-belts while riding in cars weren’t considered huge deals in those days.
Anyway, the league finally adopted a seeding system, starting with the 1975 playoffs; from that year through the 1989 campaign, no number three seed—always a division champion—ever opened up the playoffs at home. In fact, a number three seed hosting any postseason game during that era was a rarity. There was also the weird stipulation during that period where division rivals were prohibited from playing each other in the divisional round of the playoffs (nobody knows why—and we’re not supposed to ask). Therefore, your third seed, a division champion, often had to open the playoffs at the number one seed’s stadium, while the number four or five seed—strictly a wildcard team—got to play the number two seed.
Again, this all changed in 1990, and with the exception of realignment in 2002 which added a fourth division in each conference, as well as this year’s postseason expansion that has added a seventh seed to each conference and eliminated the bye for the number two seed, the playoff format has been the same way for three decades.
Why not change things up a bit?
Under my system, for example, those 2011 Steelers would have garnered a number three seed and would have hosted the sixth-seeded Broncos at Heinz Field on Wildcard Weekend. The outcome likely would have been different, and instead of traveling to Gillette Stadium to take on the Patriots in the divisional round, Pittsburgh’s opponent would have been those hated Ravens.
Much better, not only for the Steelers but for NFL fans and the type of competition they would have been able to see in the divisional round.
I ask again, why should a division champion with an inferior record get such a huge advantage on Wildcard Weekend? They don’t have the same philosophy when seeding the NCAA basketball tournament. Just because some team won its mid-major conference, it doesn’t automatically get seeded above some at-large team from one of the power five conferences—it’s almost always the opposite, actually.
At the end of the day, the NFL probably won’t change its current format. The NFL loves it some parity, and what better way to show that off than by a mediocre division winner hosting a juggernaut on Wildcard Weekend?
For the record, I’m fine with the NFL’s current playoff system, but if I got to be commissioner for a year, I might give seeding by record a try.