The discussion of how to handle the NFL playoff situation has been a hot topic lately, as it appears that one of the playoff teams (the winner of the NFC Western Conference) may not end the season with a winning record. Currently, the St. Louis Rams and the Seattle Seahawks are tied for the division lead with a record of 6-7. However, right behind these two teams is the 5-8 San Francisco 49ers, who recently blew out the Seahawks 40-21. The Rams, for their part, don't seem to be much better. They recently got blown out by last year's Superbowl champs, the Saints, 31-13. Thus, it seems that at least one team who makes the playoffs from the NFC will not be the best team the NFL has to offer. Other teams in the NFC, such as the Tampa Bay Bucaneers and Green Bay Packers which sit with records of 8-5, are in danger of not making the playoffs. The Bucaneers are in a tough division, with the aformentioned Saints and the team with the best record in the league, the 11-2 Atlanta Falcons. While the Falcons did struggle to beat the 49ers in week four, they had an easier time with the Seahawks in week 11, winning 34-17, and are favored this week against the Seahawks. They have also beaten the Packers and Bucaneers, but those games were much closer. They ended up winning by 3 points and 4 points respectively, and trailed late against the Bucs before pulling it out in the final minutes. The prospect of either the Packers or Bucaneers missing the playoffs in favor of the Seahawks or Rams is not something that the league is relishing.
In the AFC, things make a little more sense. The four division leaders: The Patriots, Steelers, Chiefs and Jaguars all have winning records. The Ravens and Jets (two very good teams) are currently slotted to make the playoffs as the wild card winners. However, there are problems here too, as it would leave two perenial playoff contenders (the Colts and the Chargers) ouf of the mix. The Colts, who lost to the Saints last year in a very competative Superbowl, have suffered numerous key injuries this year, and as a result, have lost several close games. However, they are getting healthy now, and the prospect of having one of the league's most recognizable stars (Peyton Manning) sitting out while his arch rival (Tom Brady) marches towards a fourth Superbowl title is another less than palatable prospect for the league. Similarly, the Chargers, who traditionally start slow but finish fast have developed a contentious playoff rivalry with both the Patriots and the Colts, and it would be a shame to see arguably the best team on the West Coast left out of the fray. Admittedly, the Chargers have only themselves to blame, losing several early games because of too many penalties, special teams mistakes and a few bone-headed plays. Even so, the Chargers recently destroyed their division rival (The Chiefs) 31-0, and by all accounts are playing some of the best football in the league right now. And though the Chiefs were without their starting quarterback, Matt Cassell, it is unlikely that he would have made enough of a difference to change the outcome of the game. Whatsmore, Chargers' quarterback, Philip Rivers, is having a career year. He has a chance to break Dan Marino's record for most passing yards in a season which has stood for nearly 3 decades. Leaving him out of the playoffs would be a shame.
A couple weeks ago on Monday Night Football, former Superbowl winning coach John Gruden suggested that the winner of the Western Conference should not make the playoffs, and that one of the other teams in the NFC (such as the Giants, Bucs or Packers) should. But this would be overturning decades of NFL tradition, not to mention the traditions in every other major sport, including the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball. Simply put, if you win your division you're guarenteed a playoff spot. This shouldn't change.
What should change is the number of teams that actually make the NFL playoffs.Since the current system was put into place, the NFL has added an additional 4 teams and an addition division in each conference. So now, instead of having three division winners and three wild cards from each conference, there are now four division winners and only two wild card teams. The result is that this year several winning teams will miss the playoffs, while at least one losing team will probably get in. This is good for neither fans nor the league.
Today on ESPN's Scott Van Pelt show, it was suggested that the NFL could re-seed the playoff matchups after each round (like is done in the NBA) to give the teams with better records more of an advantage. But this change won't eliminate the main problem of good teams being left out. What the NFL should do is adopt the 16 team playoff system that is used in the NBA and NHL. The NBA has only 30 teams (versus 32 for the NFL), yet they make room for 8 playoff teams per conference. Powerful teams like the Cetlics and Lakers, despite their impressive records, don't get a week off before the playoffs while the lower seeds play. Why should NFL teams? Because of injuries? If this is the case, why not give every NFL team a week off before the playoffs begin? That would ensure that all the teams would be as close to full strength as possible once the tournament begins, and would eliminate the great disadvantage that wild card teams face in having to win three games on the road just to get to the Superbowl, while the top seed only has to win 2 home games.
In any type of tournament the best system to put in place is one that shrinks the number of opponents by half in each round. The NCAA Men's Basketball tournament used to be 64 teams (it was recently expanded to 65), which made a lot of sense. The field, which is large and diverse, didn't give upper echelon teams a game or two off despite their strong records. They still have to face a lower seeded opponent. And while the higher seeded teams usually win, the fact is that every year there are upsets. Every year a lower seeded team upsets (one or more) of the higher seeds, leading to more interest and more excitement in the tournament. The same principle applies to the NFL. Adding four more teams to the playoffs would raise revenues for the league and raise the excitement for fans.
Currently the NFL is considering adding two more regular season games (and eliminating two pre-season games) to an already too long season. But the players don't want this and many of the games would be meaningless because teams would be eliminated from playoff contention earlier. Instead, the league should add two more exciting playoff games. The fans will love it, the players will love it, and the league (which is always looking to expand) will love it, too. To quote one of the NFL's major sponsors, "Just do it."