Let the annual discussion begin. A spokesman for the NFL, Brian McCarthy, said on Thursday the NFL is exploring every option regarding the current playoff format. McCarthy indicated that everything from reseeding the playoffs based on overall record to expanding the field from 12 to 14 teams has been discussed. The question now becomes, is this discussion even needed?
This discussion is nothing new. The NFL is constantly changing the parameters by which the game is administered. Normally we hear a little bit about changing the playoff format before the ideas fade away but this year could be different. With multiple teams visiting lesser opponents, at least considering overall record, the NFL may begin to get serious about changing the way seeding is determined in the playoffs.
The first obstacle to such a change centers on the importance of winning divisional championships. As it stands, winning a division ensures a team is in position to host a postseason contest. As with the regular season, playing host is of paramount importance in the NFL simply because it provides the best possible atmosphere for the home team to succeed. If the NFL changes the way teams are seeded, divisional titles become far less meaningful because they would only ensure a playoff position.
At the core of this issue is a philosophical view of just what the playoffs should be. If the goal is to pit the two best teams in the NFL against each other in the Super Bowl, reseeding teams based on record would be a good idea because it gives the best teams an even better chance to advance beyond lesser opponents. That philosophy, however, flies in the face of the playoff format, which I argue isn’t about putting the best teams in the big game. It’s about putting the hottest teams in the Super Bowl.
It’s the latter philosophy that also seems to support the idea of simply leaving the current format alone. The Packers and Eagles both won week 17 win-or-go-home games to claim their respective division titles, and in doing so, they were also able to claim a home playoff game. They gained momentum late in the season, and with home wins in the wildcard round of the playoffs, both teams could become legitimate Super Bowl contenders from the NFC. Is it really necessary to move those games from Philadelphia and Green Bay to New Orleans and San Francisco for the sake of “fairness?”
If the goal of a playoff format was to simply put the two best teams in the championship game, then the NFL’s current system fails miserably, but that’s never been the point of a playoff system. Rarely, if ever, do we see the two best regular season teams make it clear through the playoffs into the Super Bowl. The NCAA attempts to pit the two best teams against each other every year, but even that doesn’t work all the time. The playoffs is about excitement and momentum, something the current system allows to flourish. Could it be made better? Yes, it probably could, but it’s also one of the best playoff formats in sports as is, and there’s no immediate need to alter it moving forward.