As the playoffs get underway this weekend, one thing stands out – both NFC games have a home team with a worse record than the team coming in from the road to play them. Is that fair?
That depends on perspective.
League spokesman Brian McCarthy said Thursday that the owners will consider a proposal during their next round of meetings to seed the playoffs by record, not by division champions – as the system currently stands.
The Packers won the NFC North with a record of 8-7-1 while the San Francisco 49ers, with a 12-4 record, will have to visit Lambeau Field for their game Sunday. Because the 49ers didn’t win their division, they were forced to go on the road to face a division champion, even if that champ has a worst record.
Perhaps more telling is the New Orleans-Philadelphia game. The Saints are 11-5, while the Eagles are 10-6. How much of a difference does home field make? In the last two seasons in which Sean Payton has coached the Saints, New Orleans is 16-0 at home and 8-8 on the road.
Under the proposed rules change, the opponents would be the same in the NFC, but San Francisco and New Orleans would be the home teams and the Saints and Packers would be on the road.
If such a move is approved, it would change the landscape of the NFL, which, from the fan perspective, might be a good thing. This year was an anomaly in that the only playoff team that rested its starters was Kansas City, which was locked into the top wild card spot. Everybody else had to play – either to get in the playoffs or to lock down a first-round playoff bye.
Home-field advantage is significant in the NFL – 58 percent of home teams win regardless of record. That’s saying something because that figure includes the worst of teams, the 2-14 types that lose a lot of home games along the way. In the playoffs, homes teams win 68 percent of the time – more than two out of every three.
The Seattle Seahawks aren’t playing this weekend, but in 2010 Pete Carroll’s Seahawks won what was termed at the time as the NFC Worst. Seattle won the division with a losing record, but it may be that season that is the flashpoint for why the rules shouldn’t be changed. The New Orleans Saints were expected to crush Seattle, ending the divisional embarrassment, but Seattle won the game and advanced to the divisional round.
At that time, Seattle was rewarded for winning its division. Ask any player or coach about team goals for a season and invariably the first is to win their own division. That has always translated into a home game in front of your home fans in the playoffs. In 2010, the NFC West was so weak that most of the wins for those four teams came when they were playing head to head. Somebody had to win. Yet, when the heavily-favored Saints came to town, the 12th man bit them.
Flash forward three years. The NFC West was head and shoulders better. A 7-9 team won it in 2010. A 7-9 team finished last in 2013. The division boasted three teams that won 10 games or more and, had Arizona not had to play San Francisco in Week 17, both wild cards could have come out of the West.
The heavy thinkers of the NFL are looking to find ways to make their reality show more dramatic. The 2013 season may have been the litmus test. The top teams couldn’t rest players if they wanted to because they all had to win to preserve their spot. It was a rarity, but it was exciting. Almost every game had implications – even the Vikings and Lions considering it was the last game for both head coaches.
But, like all other living organisms, the NFL has a cyclical nature to it. Just last year, Chicago won 10 games, didn’t make the playoffs and fired the head coach. Sucks to be them. It’s just how things go. Indianapolis was the only team in the AFC South with a .500 record. Philly and Chicago were the only teams above .500 in their divisions. So what? There was a time when playing in the NFC East meant you had to win 11 or 12 games and dominate the division to earn the crown. Lately, not so much. But what has built the rivalries in the NFL has been that to the victor go the spoils.
When the Vikings lost to Atlanta following the 1998 season in the NFC Championship, the Falcons were a wild card, despite having a 14-2 record. That was how the chips fell that season. When 14 wins can’t win a division, that builds a divisional animosity that carries over and sustains time-honored rivalries – you were good, but we were better.
Purists will contend that a team that didn’t win its own division deserves no playoff advantages. It’s the same reason why the greediest of the greedy – college football’s BSC Bowl Championship series money-making NCAA machine – has never pitted two teams from the same conference for a title game. You had your chance during the regular season and you didn’t get it done. Next! With those NCAA plutocrats unwilling to sell out for one potential payday for the sake of the “integrity of the game,” the NFL should follow suit.
If Who-Dat? National wants to squawk, why didn’t you beat the Jets or the Rams? If the 49ers bark, why didn’t you beat Indy or Carolina at home? There are reasons during a specific season that some divisions are strong and others are not. Last year, the NFC North had three double-digit winning teams. This year, they didn’t have a team with nine. Like an ocean tide, success and failure changes on an annual basis. It’s what makes the NFL great.
To put in a rule that sounds more like the NHL or NBA isn’t something the Big Papa of professional sports should consider. Here’s your crying towel, boys. You finished second in your division. The punishment, as it always has been, is that you play on the road to earn your trip to the Super Bowl. Baltimore did it. Green Bay did it. Why can’t you?
Memo to NFL owners: vote “No!” on re-seeding.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.