How can we fix the NFL Playoffs?
Updated: Jan 27, 2020
The NFL is flawed in many ways, too many ways to touch on in just one article.
I could write a hundred pages about problems with the NFL and still barely hit half of the issues that plague the league right now.
One problem that has become very notable over the last few years, and this season especially, is the playoff format. I won’t remind anyone of the divisions because that would take too long, but the big issue lies in the fact that, not only does the division winner automatically get in, but they host a home game.
This season, for example, the 9-7 Eagles hosted a game against the 11-5 Seahawks. Thankfully, the better team won, but it doesn’t always happen that way. In 2011, the 7-9 Seahawks beat the 11-5 Saints in the Wild Card round, thanks in a large part to the Seahawks having home field advantage.
Or take the 2008 Patriots, who went 11-5 and didn’t make the playoffs because they were second in their division and just missed the Wild Card. That same season, the 8-8 Chargers were able to win their division and make the playoffs.
Wild Card seeding can hurt teams the other way around also. In 2018, the AFC West ended with two 12-4 teams–the Chiefs and the Chargers–being tied for the lead. Both of those records were good enough for the #1 seed in the AFC. However, due to the Chiefs owning the tiebreaker, the Chargers were sent to the Wild Card round, where they beat the Ravens. The week after, they faced the 11-5 Patriots. Despite owning the worse record, the Patriots were able to host the game and blew out the Chargers.
The problem is clear: the best teams don’t always come out on top. The reason is the playoff format. Currently, the best team in each division gets an automatic berth and will host at least one home game, while the two best teams in the conference who did not win their division get a Wild Card slot.
This can’t go on. So I figured I’d make some recommendations. Who’s going to see these recommendations? No one that matters. But I’m doing them anyway!
Option #1 - Less divisions
This sounds weird, but hear me out, I think it could work. See, instead of having four four-team divisions, the league would have two eight-team divisions. It would look like this:
AFC North - New England Patriots, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts, New York Giants
AFC South - Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Miami Dolphins, Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers, Baltimore Ravens, Carolina Panthers
NFC North - Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Oakland Raiders
NFC South - New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, Denver Broncos
At first glance you may notice some changes. First of all, I fixed the glaring issue of having the Colts in the South. It doesn’t make any sense to have them in the South. In addition, I moved the Ravens to the South, because Baltimore is not that far North and I needed to move a team down.
I also switched some teams’ conferences. The Raiders and Broncos moved to the NFC, while the Panthers and Giants moved to the AFC. This was an effort to keep travel times down. Plus, imagine seeing a Jets-Giants game every year.
This is how the schedule is made: each team plays the other teams in their division once. Only once. This creates the head-to-head tiebreaker in case multiple teams finish with the same record, and since each team only plays every other once a season, there’s no chance of a split. Then each team would play five of the teams in the other division in their conference.
This would prevent having virtually the same schedule every year. Those five teams would rotate every year between two sets of four, however one team would always stay the same possibly making a rivalry. Think Ravens-Steelers or Eagles-Cowboys. Finally, they would play four teams from one of the divisions in the other conference, also rotating each year.
How would playoffs work? Well, the three best teams in each division would make the playoffs. No Wild Card, you just have to have a better record than five other teams. Seeding would still give priority to the top team in each division, however the other four seeds would be based on their record and not their division.
I think this could work, realistically. I like the idea that there’s a set rivalry game each year like in College Football, and I think it would be doable and easy to get behind, unlike my other two suggestions. Speaking of which...
Option #2 - No divisions
You’ve heard this one before. AFC vs NFC. You play each team in your conference once, and then one outside of conference game. Or just let it be a 15 game season, but that’s no fun.
Playoffs would be the best six teams in order, and then continue with the current format.
I don’t love this one. Imagine having to wait 16 years to see an AFC team take on an NFC team! That doesn’t sound like any fun to me. Plus, schedules would be virtually identical every year, which might diminish fan interest.
You guys are really gonna hate this last one, but it’s my favorite.
Option #3 - New divisions every year
What am I thinking? What does this even mean??
Simple. Remake the divisions every year to make it more competitive. Don’t change the conferences–the AFC stays the AFC and the NFC stays the NFC.
By “remake”, I don’t mean randomize. No, I mean make the four best teams in each conference face off twice against each other every year, then the fifth through eighth, ninth through 12th, and 13th through 16th. Every team would get a fair shot at making the playoffs, and we’d be very entertained.
Let me help you visualize what I’m saying. The 2020 season would be set up like this:
AFC 1 - Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots, Houston Texans
AFC 2 - Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans, Pittsburgh Steelers, Denver Broncos
AFC 3 - Oakland Raiders, Indianapolis Colts, New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars
AFC 4 - Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Chargers, Miami Dolphins, Cincinnati Bengals
NFC 1 - San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, Seattle Seahawks
NFC 2 - Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Rams, Chicago Bears
NFC 3 - Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Arizona Cardinals
NFC 4 - Carolina Panthers, New York Giants, Detroit Lions, Washington Redskins.
Scheduling would be pretty difficult, but overall similar to what it is now. Obviously you’d play your division twice a season. For the other 10 games, the best division would play the second best, and the third would play the fourth. Then they’d play the division in the other conference with the same ranking as them. The last two games would just be filler games. I’d leave it up to the discretion of the league to make the best matchups. The playoff format would be the same as it is now, but it would work better because worse teams would have a better chance of having a good record.
This is ridiculous. This is such a terrible idea. But think of how much fun it would be! Would the Browns be so bad every year if they got to play three other terrible teams twice a year? Would the Patriots be so dominant if they had to play three incredible teams? No one knows!
It’s never going to happen. But I think it could be so much fun to see something as new and radical as this. The NFL is probably never going to change the format, but we can always dream, can’t we?