Originally posted on The Sports Post  |  Last updated 12/26/14

Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart face a crazy 'winner take all' game against the Atlanta Falcons that will determine the AFC South champion even though both teams have losing records. Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

A heated discussion is taking place involving the NFL, its teams, and its fans, and thankfully the debate has nothing to do with Ray Rice or Adrian Peterson. Rather, one of two teams in the NFC South will win the division and host a playoff game -- and neither can end up with a winning record.

In just about any other year, such a tight divisional race would be just what the parity-filled NFL would like, and the fans from those teams would be reveling in it. Unfortunately, neither of those teams will win the division with a regular season record of even .500.

Such a prospect, while not unprecedented, is slightly embarrassing to the league, which likes to serve up a competitive playoff tournament with the best teams battling it out for the coveted Lombardi Trophy. The problem is that, based on regular season records alone, there are four other non-division-leading teams that have better records than any teams in the NFC South. And since there are only two wild card playoff spots available in each conference, two of those four teams — the 9–6 Philadelphia Eagles and the 7–8 San Francisco 49ers (who can reach 8–8, at least) —have been eliminated from the playoffs.

The Eagles, who had been leading the NFC East for most of the season, and the 49ers, who have gone to the NFC title game each of the past three years, will be watching the playoffs from their couches because the NFL playoff system mandates that a winner from each division makes the tournament and hosts a playoff game. And this year, that will include either the (currently) 6–8–1 Carolina Panthers or the 6–9 Atlanta Falcons.

That can’t be what embattled commissioner Roger Goodell is looking for this postseason.

Until very recently, the group competing for the NFC included a third sub-par team — the 6–9 New Orleans Saints — until the Falcons beat them on Sunday and eliminated them from the playoffs.

But for the record, if the Saints had beaten Atlanta this past Sunday they would have maintained their division lead and they had already made it known that they wouldn’t be ashamed of their record when hosting a Wild Card game. A little over a week ago, before his team defeated the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football to temporarily grab the division lead, Saints head coach Sean Payton told the MNF broadcast crew that he would need to apologize to no one for winning the division with a losing record.

Payton had seen it before: In the 2010 playoffs, the defending champion Saints took an 11–5 record on the road to Seattle to face the 7–9 Seahawks. And even though they beat the Seahawks earlier in the season, they lost the Wild Card game. So, Payton wasn’t about to offer a mea culpa for this season.

One of two teams in the NFC South will win the division and host a playoff game—and neither can end up with a winning record.

(But after losing to the Falcons this past Sunday at home, Payton may want to consider apologizing to the Saints fans, who saw their team lose five of eight home games at the Super Dome in New Orleans.)

While that 2010 Seahawks wild card win may say something about the “just get in the playoffs” mentality because anything can happen (as do the 2010 Packers, who got in the playoffs as a wild card team and won the Super Bowl), it also informs the idea that earning a playoff home game in the first round is important, and in some cases (like for the 2010 Seahawks with the 12th Man-filled CenturyLink Field in Seattle), it can be an undeserved advantage.

Last season, the 12–4 San Francisco 49ers, a wild card team, had to visit Green Bay in January, since the 8–7–1 Packers had won the NFC North. The Niners escaped with a win, but there is no question that the Wisconsin winter has long been an advantage for the home team.

Screaming fans and cold winter winds aside, however, does snaring a home playoff game offer more than just an advantage for the team on the field? In other words, does it provide a financial boon to the home team’s coffers due to hosting an extra game, and is therefore even more coveted?

Well, unlike in the NHL, NBA, and MLB, hosting an NFL playoff game does not bring that much more to the home team, according to Forbes magazine. Due to the NFL playoff revenue sharing structure, the postseason gate dollars are split amongst all the teams. Unless a team has a stadium deal setup whereby it gets parking or concession revenues (such as the New England Patriots do), hosting a postseason NFL game is more work than reward for the team involved.

The problem really comes down to competitive balance and earned advantage. And the truth of the matter is, the NFL is looking at the situation. Reports have surfaced that the league will address the current playoff structure when the owners meet in March. The reports speculate that the NFL will consider adding another playoff team to each conference, giving the top division winner in each conference a home game and a bye, and reseeding the remaining teams by record.

That’s a start to fixing the problem they are experiencing this season. Seeding is not an outlandish idea, since the records of division winners already dictates playoffs seeds. While I am not an advocate of adding another playoff team to each conference, there should be something done about rewarding poor teams in poor conferences with home field advantage in a playoff game — and reseeding would do it.

In the current playoff format, if the season ended today, you would have five 11–4 NFC teams and the 6–8–1 Panthers in the playoffs. The Cardinals, as the No. 6 seed, would travel to third-seeded Dallas and the 11–4 Packers would go to Carolina in the wild card round. If the teams were to be reseeded, the Panthers would head to Dallas and the Cardinals to Green Bay which makes a little more sense.

Furthermore, if teams are aware that they will be reseeded according to their regular season record, it might add more importance to regular season games. There was talk earlier this season when the Seahawks, Packers, and Patriots (all preseason favorites) sleepwalked through some early games. September was being called “the new preseason” because there wasn’t a lot urgency at that time of the season. (We all remember when Aaron Rodgers told the Packer fans to all “R-E-L-A-X,” don’t we?)

Will fans skip the first rounds this seasons because such a poorly performing team is in it? Truth be told, we non-partisan fans like an upset, but we don’t often like blowouts.

Well, by changing the seeding process, it might just make those 16 games more important and more worth watching and more valuable to the TV networks. In my opinion, that would do more to spice up the regular season than adding two more regular season games (nay, preseason games), which the commissioner keeps threatening to do.

But what if nothing is done to the playoff format? Will fans skip the first rounds this season because such a poorly performing team is in it? Or will they tune in to see David (the NFC South winner) slay a Goliath because David was afforded home field advantage? Truth be told, we non-partisan fans like an upset, but we don’t often like blowouts.

The NFL is about maximizing exposure and revenue. In a season that has provided quite a few nationally televised blowouts, the NFL will want the best teams in the most high profile playoff games. And if a team such as the defending champion Seahawks (who are currently the No. 1 seed) somehow had to travel to Carolina for a playoff game, they are likely to win in lopsided fashion and make fans wonder why they even wasted the time.

There have been arguments on all sides of this subject. Some fans want reseeding, while others want no changes to the playoff system. The commissioner might want more playoff spots, which adds more games to increase revenue, while others simply state the rules are the rules and everyone is aware of them.

But with four, four-team divisions in each conference and four wild card teams getting in the playoffs, this NFC South situation has a good chance of occurring again. Add another wild card team to each conference, and it will get worse and ultimately will water down the system.

At the very least, some kind of reseeding of teams needs to take place. The best records in each conference are already rewarded with home field advantage throughout the playoffs, why not carry that procedure throughout and seed all the teams by record, regardless of a division title?

I see no reason to reward a team that wins the NFC South just because it won a title in the division where the total number of wins is currently 20. There are 30 combined wins in the NFC East, 33 in the NFC North, and 35 in the NFC West. NFL teams play a balanced enough schedule whereby wins should be deemed more important than the luck of being placed in a weak division.

Making the Panthers or Falcons travel to Detroit, Green Bay, Seattle, or Arizona makes much more sense than the opposite—and maintains the integrity of the playoff system. The NFC South teams don’t deserve a home playoff game this season, and NFL fans don’t deserve to watch them advance to the second round.

This article first appeared on The Sports Post and was syndicated with permission.


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