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Revision of the NFL Playoff Format

Revision of the NFL Playoff Format

It became apparent that there is a need for a revision of the NFL playoff format following the 2019 Wild Card Games.  The system of ranking playoff-contending teams has been around since 1990 and can get very top-heavy. For the most part, the team with the most wins will get one of the top two seeds in the playoffs from each conference.

Getting these top seeds is crucial for game planning purposes as well as for making a run at the Super Bowl. The top two seeds in each conference will get a first-round bye in the playoffs and automatically advance to the second week. However, the first overall seed in each conference will get home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, while the second seed will only get the home-field advantage as long as they are the best seed. However, if the first seed meets the second seed in the conference championship, the first seed will get home-field.

Theoretically, this system should work effectively, assuming that all teams are created equal. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Some teams play in divisions that are far weaker than the rest, while others play some of their most competitive games against in-division opponents. This is why there is a need for a revision of the NFL playoff format.

Main Issue

The main issue with the current playoff ranking is that some divisions are not created equally. What this means is that any division could have potentially two or three playoff contenders, while another division only has one.  Any team will play another opponent in their division twice in the same season. Nearly 40 percent of the games played are against people from the same division. If that division is weak, the one leader of the division may have six free wins.

Revision of the NFL Playoff Format
Sep 24, 2017; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) makes a pass during the first half against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

For example, the Patriot’s recent dynasty can be accredited to not only their elite style of play. But also, their horribly below average division. The Patriots play in a division with the Buffalo Bills, the Miami Dolphins, and the New York Jets. All three of these teams have been notably terrible since the turn of the millennium. The Patriots have been able to capture 11 straight AFC East titles. They have also won 17 of the last 20 AFC East titles since 2000. 

 Since 2010, the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins have combined for 209 wins, while the Patriots by themselves have 125. Since 2000, the Jets and Dolphins have combined for seven playoff wins while the Bills have had zero. In the same period, the Patriots have 30 wins.

The poor play of some divisions can carve the way for an easy playoff birth for the leaders. While at the same time, there are some teams that compete at a much higher level and barely make the wild card.

2019 Example

Revision of the NFL Playoff Format
Dec 15, 2019; Landover, MD, USA; Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz (11) fumbles the ball after being hit by Washington Redskins linebacker Ryan Anderson (52) in the fourth quarter at FedExField. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

This season was marked both strong and weak divisions. Going into week 17, the Philadelphia Eagles had only one path to the playoffs, and that was to win their division. They won their division with a 9-7 record and earned a wild-card home-field advantage. Two of the Eagles division opponents, the Redskins and Giants, ranked in the bottom six of the NFL power rankings following the conclusion of the season. 

On the other hand, the Seahawks finished their season with an 11-5 record and merely got the wild card. The Seahawks would beat the Eagles in their wild-card game and move on. The Seahawks had to play against the 13-3 49ers and the 9-7 Rams. The fact that the Seahawks had to fight for a playoff chance with an 11-5 record while the 9-7 Eagles earned home-field proves that there must be some revisions made. There have been many wild-card teams who have been far better the division winners in recent history. This brings about the need for a revised format.

Possible Solution

A possible solution to this issue is that every team will play every opponent in their respective conference once as well as one inter-conference game to reach the 16-game schedule. At the end of the regular season, the team with the most wins would be the first seed, the team with the second-most wins would be the second seed, and so on until you get the top six teams. This format would completely eliminate the issue of division strengths and put team talents up against each other. This would also make every game that much more critical. When teams realize they have clinched their division, they may begin to let off the gas. However, with this format, it would require teams to play their best all season, while this may not be the only solution that can be applied.


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