January is a magical time in the world of the NFL. It’s when we finally get to see the top 12 teams in the land duke it out with each other in an effort to determine a season champion. Every year, we hear about possible restructuring of the system. This offseason, we’ll hear about how it’s unfair to seed a division winner with a losing record above a team playing in the toughest division in the league with a winning record. We’ll also listen to the idea of expanding the playoff field.
Still, that discussion won’t occur until the season is done and over, and we still have plenty of great football left to watch. Part of the charm of the NFL’s playoff system versus every other major American sports league is that the NFL system is a single-elimination, winner take all affair. One slip up, one missed field goal, or as we saw last weekend, one picked up flag can change the entire outcome a playoff game and the fortunes of the teams involved.
If the Cowboys, for example, go on to win the Super Bowl, they will be the undisputed champions of the NFL, but they won’t have been the best team of the 2014-2015 season.
I’ll restate that. The Super Bowl winner isn’t always the best team, and that’s okay.
The NFL’s playoff format isn’t in place to give us the best team in the league. If that was the goal, there would be one championship game between the top-seeded AFC and NFC squads. While we would more times than not see a game between the top two teams in the league, that’s not what the NFL wants. The playoffs give hope to more fans, and more importantly, it puts more games on the schedule. More hype equals more dollars in the NFL’s coffers.
From my perspective as a fan, I love the fact that consistency is valued above all other traits in the NFL’s postseason. A team that consistently does the big things right will find themselves deep in the postseason. A team that comes and goes like Indiana weather *cough* Steelers *cough* will find it very difficult to survive the grind of the playoffs.
Sure, if I was a fan of the top teams in the league like the Patriots, Broncos, or Packers, I may wish for a system that forgives one fluke. A double-elimination tournament, for example, would allow a superior team to drop a game to a low seed and still be able to make a championship run. The beauty of the NFL’s system is that it makes every team mortal. No one can bank on anything. The 18-0 Patriots were beat in the big game by the 13-6 Giants. Even though it was one of the most thrilling championship games ever played, no one argues that the Giants were a better team than the 2007 Patriots, a team some consider to be the best of all time.
My point is simple. The playoff system isn’t designed to find the best team in the league. It’s designed to add excitement and remove tie-breaker controversy that can plague a single championship game format, and I’m okay with that. It takes more than talent to win a Super Bowl. Sometimes it takes some luck to get the job done, and in some respects, that makes it that much more real for the fans.