The NFL’s New Playoff Format Doesn’t Address an Overdue Necessity

While the NFL expanded its playoff system and altered rules, the league failed to address a long-overdue necessity.

By Quinn Bentley

Updated: October 30, 2020 • 8:30 PM ET

The NFL needs to update its playoff format...again.

The NFL wants to raise the stakes with its new playoff format. Unfortunately, the league didn’t address the playoff format’s biggest issue.

The league recently expanded its playoff format from 12 to 14 teams. In the new system, only each conference’s leader at the end of the regular season will receive a first-round bye. Fans of top teams have grown accustomed to throwaway games in Week 17, because their team has already clinched one of the two first-round byes given to the top two teams in the AFC and NFC.

The new format adds competition during the regular season, because the top teams will vie for the No. 1 spot late in the year. The problem with the new playoff format, however, is that a division champion with a losing record automatically gets a top-four seed and a home playoff game.

Historically, there have been two divisional champs that made the playoffs with a losing record. The 2010 Seattle Seahawks finished the regular season at 7-9 and hosted the 11-5 New Orleans Saints. The 2014 Carolina Panthers finished the regular season at 7-8-1 and hosted the 11-5 Arizona Cardinals.

Ironically, both the Saints and Panthers won those games, but lost in the next round — most notably, Marshawn Lynch broke off his famous Beast Quake run against the Saints in the wildcard matchup.

These results help the NFL’s argument to have divisional champions receive a home-field advantage. The downside is that both teams hosted opponents with an entire month of wins more than them.

Is this the performance we should actively reward?

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I agree that the NFL should let division champions automatically into the playoffs. Some divisions are dominant, and a 7-9 team could conceivably be more competitive than a 9-7 team. The playoff standings, however, should be record-based with the divisional winners receiving a tiebreaker advantage over a team with an identical record.

This small change would not affect most of the top seeds, but it would have given the 11-5 Saints home-field advantage over that 7-9 Seahawks team.

For example, here are the 2010 NFL playoff rankings:
    •    Atlanta Falcons 13-3
    •    Chicago Bears 11-5
    •    Philadelphia Eagles 10-6
    •    Seattle Seahawks 7-9
    •    New Orleans Saints 11-5
    •    Green Bay Packers 10-6

Now, here would be the adjusted playoff rankings:

    •    Atlanta Falcons 13-3
    •    Chicago Bears 11-5
    •    New Orleans Saints 11-5
    •    Philadelphia Eagles 10-6
    •    Green Bay Packers 10-6
    •    Seattle Seahawks 7-9

This new system is a much more competitive playoff ranking that gives an advantage to winning football teams. The Eagles would still host the Packers in the first round, but the Seahawks would have to prove themselves on the road, which seems appropriate for the underdogs with a losing record.

This week, the 2-4-1 Eagles and 2-5 Cowboys will meet in an NFC East showdown on Sunday Night Football. The winner will take sole control of the division.

This season, the NFL will likely have a division champion with a losing record (most likely the NFC East winner) that will host a playoff game. Ultimately, the league needs to change the playoff format again to maximize competition.

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