It seems to happen at least once every year: a team who is superior in whatever metric you want to measure–win-loss record, head to head, DVOA, etc.–is sitting on their couches in January while an inferior team is on to the postseason. Perhaps the largest aggravating factor is the requirement that a division champion must not only make the playoffs, but also host a playoff game. Such a champion gets this privilege even if the division was a complete dumpster fire, as the AFC South has been for the past few seasons.
At the very least, I’ve advocated that division champions should not be entitled to a home playoff game, and seeding should first be determined by win-loss record. I’ve also toyed with the idea that teams with a losing record should not make the playoffs at all. (Yes, I’m aware that such teams are 2-0 so far–my responses are “any given Sunday” and “small sample size”.)
Pushback against these ideas takes a few forms. Among the most simplistic are, “Shoulda won your division if you wanna get in”, or “Winning your division is something you should be proud of”. My response to that is, “Shouldn’t playing in a more difficult division give you more credit?” and “Let’s ask teams like the 1999 Jaguars or 2010 Bears how meaningful their pretty division banners really are”. Some will also say that there would be no point in having divisions at all, but I see no reason why you can’t still schedule division rivals twice a year, and also hold claim to division titles, even if every now and then that title doesn’t come with a playoff berth and/or home game.
The more sophisticated argument is that giving division champions playoff privileges helps to create more meaningful games in the playoff race–and in turn, better TV ratings for the infamous Week 17. Surely, the 6-9 2010 Seahawks or the 6-8-1 Panthers would have nothing to play for if it wasn’t for hopes of a playoff ticket via winning their division, right? The NFL has doubled down on this notion by making Week 17 games exclusively division matchups since 2010.
This article will scrutinize this final idea. It will take a look at the playoff picture entering Week 17 since 2002, the year the NFL went to eight divisions and thus creating more of these automatic playoff tickets, and see if there would have been more or fewer games in which teams would have something to play for if divisions were completely ignored for seeding purposes.
- AFC: No change. A mindblowing 12 teams in the AFC were still alive entering Week 17, and amazingly enough, no one is added or subtracted from that list in any manner
- NFC: +1 (SF/STL). The 49ers would have not have been locked into the #4 seed, and not only could they have lost a home playoff game, they could have missed the playoffs altogether with the Falcons, Giants, and Saints all able to possibly catch them. That means they wouldn’t have been able to rest their starters against the Rams.
- AFC: +1 (NYJ/MIA). The only playoff spot available in real life was for the winner of a bad AFC North between the Ravens and Bengals. But here, the Dolphins could bypass both of them if they beat the Jets and the Bengals lost to the Browns, as they had the head-to-head tiebreaker over Baltimore.
- NFC: No change. The Seahawks would have been in contention for a home playoff game over the NFC North champion, but they had to fight for a playoff spot in general anyway against the Packers and Vikings.
- AFC: +1 (KC/SD). In real life, the Chargers were locked into the #4 seed after losing to the Colts the week before, and thus sat players like Drew Brees and LaDainian Tomlinson. But here, they’d have no choice but to start them to avoid losing a home playoff game to the Jets, who beat the Chargers in Week 2. Also, here the Jets would have already clinched a playoff berth, as they wouldn’t risk losing a division tiebreaker to the Bills. Buffalo, however, is still alive with a win and a Denver loss.
- NFC: No change. The Seahawks would have no longer clinched a playoff berth, but in real life they still had to fend off the Rams for the division title, so they still have something to play for regardless.
- AFC: +2 (SD/DEN, TEN/JAX). The Chargers would no longer be eliminated by the Chiefs due to the division tiebreaker, and thus could still beat out the Steelers if they and Kansas City both won and Pittsburgh lost, via the conference tiebreaker. (Does Drew Brees still get his arm blown out by Gerard Warren?)The Jaguars would also no longer be locked into the #5 seed, and would have had a chance to surpass both the Patriots and Bengals to get as high as the #3 seed. That means a good reason not to sit Byron Leftwich and Fred Taylor.
- NFC: No change. The Giants would now have to fight for a playoff berth, but they had to fight for the NFC East anyway in real life.
- AFC: possibly -1 (SF/DEN). This is the saddest year by far to analyze: the Broncos would have clinched a playoff berth due to having a superior conference record to the other five teams in contention, and no longer losing out on a division tiebreaker to Kansas City. (And hopefully the resulting butterflies would have saved Darrent Williams’s life.) The Broncos could have been either the #5 or #6 seed, but it would be picking your poison as to whether traveling to New England or Indianpolis is more preferable. Thus, for the sake of argument I’ll cede that there is a possibility that Mike Shanahan would have sat some starters against the 49ers and make this game less meaningful.
- NFC: +1 (SEA/TB). The 8-7 Seahawks clinched the NFC West in real life, but here they would have needed a win and a Dallas loss to get a home playoff game. They’d also have to fend off a gaggle of 7-8 teams (this year was prime NFC suckage in the 2000s) in order to even make the playoffs. It does appear that to his credit, Mike Holmgren did not sit starters in real life.
- AFC: +1 (JAX/HOU). Once again, the Jaguars would have no longer been locked into the #5 seed and could have ascended to as high as #3–meaning once again a reason not to rest starters.
- NFC: +1 (CAR/TB, while not counting NE/NYG). The Bucs would no longer be locked into the #4 seed, and although they would still have clinched a playoff berth they would need a win and a Giants loss to get a home playoff game. And speaking of the Giants…as described above they would no longer be locked into the #5 seed, but let’s be honest here: trying to stop the Patriots from being the first 16-0 team in regular season history was going to be a ratings bonanza no matter what.
- AFC: +2 (TEN/IND, CLE/PIT), -1 (DEN/SD); net +1. It’s taken us seven seasons to finally come across an example in which a game would be rendered meaningless without automatic playoff berths for division champions. (We will now longer speak of this game.) However, this is offset by two other games given some meaning. Titans/Colts was a wasteland of rested starters on both sides in real life, with Tennessee locked into #1 and Indianapolis locked into #5. Here, the Titans are still locked into #1, but the Colts would no longer be locked into #5, and could end as high as #2 (with a first round bye) with a win or a Pittsburgh loss.As such, the Steelers, too, would no longer be locked into the #2 seed and would need to beat the Browns along with a Colts loss to retain it. (Still, it’s rare that the Browns can make any game competitive.)
- NFC: +2 (SEA/ARI, WAS/SF). It appears that the Cardinals did not sit their starters in real life despite being locked into the #4 seed. But that’s a good thing, because they would have had a scant chance of even making the playoffs without gifting them a playoff berth via the NFC West. (Though I’m sure division champ advocates will be quick to point out that the Cardinals were one toetip touchdown away from winning a Super Bowl.) The Redskins’ playoff hopes would have also been mostly dead, but unlike as to what really happened, mostly dead means slightly alive: they could have gotten in with a win and losses by the Bears and Eagles.
- AFC: No change. The four division winners in real life were also all at least two games ahead of everyone else before Week 17.
- NFC: No change. All six playoff spots are still clinched, and the same five teams would still be jockeying for better seeding.
- AFC: +3 (BUF/NYJ, OAK/KC, SD/DEN). The Chiefs and Jets would have to fight for a home playoff game instead of being respectively locked into the #4 and #6 seeds. The Chargers would also still be alive in the playoff race, as they would sneak ahead of the entire AFC South with a win and losses by both the Colts and Jaguars, as San Diego had beaten both of those teams.
- NFC: -1 (STL/SEA). Sorry folks, no Beastquake: perhaps there’s a similar tremblor in New Orleans when the Saints get to host a playoff game instead of being forced to travel to a 7-9 Seattle.
- AFC: No change. The four home playoff games would have been locked in taking place in some order of New England, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Houston. The AFC West isn’t completely lost; both the Broncos and Raiders would still be alive for playoff contention, but they’d have to fend off the Bengals, Jets and Titans for a spot. San Diego also is now still alive when they weren’t in real life, but their game against the Raiders was already meaningful.
- NFC: No change. The Lions and Falcons would now be jockeying for a home playoff game instead of the #5 seed, but both teams actively tried to get the latter in real life. Similarly, Cowboys/Giants is still an elimination game, but this time it’s for the #6 seed instead of the #4 seed.
- AFC: +1 (BAL/CIN). While all six playoff spots are still determined, here the Ravens would have had to fend off the Colts for a home playoff game, thus they’d be less likely to sit starters against the Bengals.
- NFC: No change. The Seahawks could have taken a home playoff game away from the NFC East champ, but they already had their eyes set on the NFC West anyway.
- AFC: -1 (CLE/PIT). Without the division tiebreakers the Steelers would be unable to first eliminate the Ravens, and the Jets would have been unable to first eliminate the Dolphins on the same grounds. This means that there would have been no way for the Steelers to get ahead of the Dolphins for the final AFC spot.
- NFC: -1 (GB/CHI). And here’s Exhibit B in favor of the division champ model, as this was a particularly memorable game, one in which here would see the Packers and Bears already eliminated. Again, Eagles/Cowboys would still be an elimination game, but for the #6 seed instead of the #4. New Orleans and Arizona would have also already clinched playoff spots here, but they would still be able to jockey with the Panthers and 49ers for home playoff games.
- AFC: +1 (IND/TEN). While the Colts didn’t completely sit their starters in real life, here they now have a home playoff game to play for instead of being locked into the #4 seed.
- NFC: -1 (CAR/ATL): Exhibit C in favor of the division champ model. Here, all six playoff spots are already determined, with the Eagles taking the NFC West’s spot being two games behind the other five playoff teams, and at least two games ahead of everyone else.
- AFC: -1 (TEN/IND). The Colts only had a Lloyd Christmas chance of making the playoffs, so while this isn’t a very realistic game that’s now made meaningless, I’ll still count it anyway. Meanwhile, the Jets have now already clinched a playoff berth, and could even be in play for the #2 seed against the Broncos, Bengals, and Chiefs, but all those teams already had something to play for in real life.
- NFC: +3 (NO/ATL, WAS/DAL, SEA/ARI). A ton of games open up here without the division champ getting in automatically. The Falcons are now still alive, as they can edge out the Redskins for the #6 seed with a win and a Washington loss. The Seahawks also have a chance to snatch away a home playoff game from the Vikings should they win and Minnesota loses.
- AFC: +2 (BAL/CIN, CLE/PIT). The Ravens would still be alive, capable of eliminating the Texans with a better conference record (something the Broncos and Titans could not do). The Steelers would also have to fend off the Dolphins for a home playoff game, meaning no resting starters against the Browns.
- NFC: No change. The Seahawks would have had to fight for a home playoff game, but in real life they were still alive for a first round bye.
Sum it all up, and without giving division champs automatic home playoff games, in the last 15 seasons there are 22 games that would have been made meaningful, and only 7 that would have been made meaningless, a net difference of 15. That suggests that on average, one game per year could have been made more meaningful by merely seeding playoff teams without giving extra juice to division winners.
I’m not holding my breath that this will be changed any time soon. More people seem to like the idea that winning a division should matter extra, no matter how weak your team and your team’s rivals were. But it should at least be accepted that the cost of this concept is that teams with better records get left out–and may even be eliminated or have nothing to play for before Week 17, usually making that week less interesting.