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Despite outcry, current seeding system works

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Good intentions often lead to bad ideas, and, no, we’re not talking about the NFL’s intentions to unilaterally impose a new personal conduct penalty without negotiating it first with the players’ union.

We can talk about that another time.

Today, the subject is one that is of more interest to fans, and creates discussion — you may be surprised to learn this — a lot more often: seeding teams for the playoffs.

The realization that the NFL South winner will not have a winning record, probably will have a losing record and may, in fact, be as many as four games under .500, has a lot of folks huffing and puffing about the unfairness of making a team with a record of, say, 12-4 play a playoff game on the road against a team with a record of, say, 6-10.

Even as logical a thinker as former Cincinnati quarterback Boomer Esiason came out strongly this week on his cable TV show in favor of re-seeding the playoffs, saying, “You shouldn’t reward teams for playing in a poor division.”

Hard to argue that point, except this: The NFL has divisions for a reason. The NFL is a league that makes a lot of money selling hope to fans, and that hope includes the prospect that teams can remain in contention for a long time even if their record would not seem to justify it.

Now, Esiason was not saying that teams still shouldn’t get into the playoffs if they win their division with a crummy record, but that, after all, is the logical next step. It’s not a huge leap from saying a team shouldn’t host a playoff game with an inferior record to its opponent, to saying a team shouldn’t be in the playoffs at all with an inferior record to a non-playoff team.

You see where this is going, don’t you?

Do away with divisions, and you will see a lot more empty seats in November and December than you see now. Which means less beer sold, fewer programs sold, fewer cars parked, fewer eyeballs watching on television — and, the big one, ultimately, fewer dollars into the league’s coffers and the players’ pockets.

The NFL would be stupid to screw around with a setup that makes everybody involved in the league fabulously wealthy. And it is not like the league changed this playoff arrangement in the middle of the season. When the season begins, everybody knows what the rule is. Win your division, you host a playoff game; finish with one of the two best records among your conference’s non-division winners, and you get into the playoffs. Pretty simple, really.

Yes, the NFC South is unusually wretched this season. Its four teams have a combined record of 8-27-1 in non-division games. The best of the NFC South teams are three games under .500. What’s weird is that five of the eight non-division victories came against teams at least three games over .500 — Atlanta beat Arizona, Carolina beat Detroit, New Orleans beat Green Bay, and New Orleans and Tampa Bay both beat Pittsburgh.

It’s worth remembering that in the last decade, two sixth-seeded teams (Green Bay in 2010, Pittsburgh in 2005) and one fifth-seeded team (New York Giants in 2007) won Super Bowls. The argument could have been made then that those teams did not belong in the playoffs any more than the NFC South winner will this year.

And it’s also worth pointing out that we have lived with this situation for quite a while now, and the league has not imploded. In the last decade, 12 division winners hosted playoff games against wild cards with better records. Four of those times there was a four-game difference in regular-season victories. The home team has a 7-5 edge in those games, which is hardly enough to justify overturning the whole process.

Just last season, a 12-victory wild-card (San Francisco) traveled to an eight-victory division winner (Green Bay) and won the game.

The current arrangement works. There is no reason to mess around with it.

Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than three decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.


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