Last year, I made the argument that granting division winners an automatic home playoff game, contrary to common belief, actually makes Week 17 less meaningful and interesting. This season, this argument has gained more evidence in its favor, as I have identified at least one, and potentially two, games that could have been made meaningful without this rule in the books.
The one game that would be guaranteed to be more meaningful is one familiar to most visitors of this site: Chiefs/Broncos. The Chiefs are locked into the #4 seed after winning a weak AFC West. If history is any indication, the Chiefs will sit their starters in this game. But if their automatic seeding didn’t exist, the Chiefs would have to beat the Broncos to get not only a home playoff game, but to even make the playoffs at all. It is entirely possible that a 9-7 Chiefs team could host a 10-6 Ravens team in a couple of weeks. But if the Chiefs were to lose to the Broncos, and the Ravens (better overall record), Titans (better conference record) and Bills (who beat the Chiefs) were to all win, the Chiefs would be spending January watching the playoffs.
The other game that could gain much more meaning would be 49ers/Rams. The Rams aren’t locked into a playoff spot like the Chiefs, but are unable to get a first round bye due to losing to both the Eagles and Vikings. They can only be the #3 or #4 seed. It’s certainly possible that the Rams may not sit their starters due to a desire to play a potentially weaker #6 seed instead of a 11 or 12 win NFC South wild card. But without this rule, it’s entirely possible that the Rams would have to fight for a home playoff game, as a loss to the 49ers coupled with wins by New Orleans and Carolina would send the Rams down to the #5 see.