Commentary: A better balance

The NFL has a playoff system that has division winners hosting playoff games against teams with a better record. If the league changes to an 18-game schedule, here's one suggestion for how to improve the balance in the playoffs and reward the teams with the best records.

Looking at the NFL this year, much was made of the Cardinals and Chargers being able to win divisions with less than stellar records (9-7 and 8-8 respectively) by playing in weak divisions. Both teams "earned" the right to host playoff games against teams with superior records, with both winning those games. In the AFC, New England finished at 11-5, a full three games ahead of the Chargers, yet did not get the opportunity to defend their AFC championship in the playoffs.

Which leads me to ask – why can't the NFL get this right? Under the old rules of six division winners and six wild card teams, you'd get the occasional weak division winner, but if a team won 10 or more games, they seldom failed to get in the playoffs. With eight divisions in a 32-team league, we're likely to see undeserving teams hosting playoff games more often from now on unless the league makes some changes. A minimal first step is to take away the automatic higher seeding for division winners. If they need to look at tie-breakers like they do with divisional and wild card rankings, fine, let's use them.

The recent NFL scheduling breaks down this way for a 16-game season: 6 division games, four games against a chosen division within your conference (i.e., NFC North teams played four games each against NFC South teams this year), four games against a division in the other conference, and the remaining two games by standings against the other divisions in your conference (first place against first place, second against second, etc.). While this gives an almost equal chance for teams within a certain division by having almost the same schedule, it skews things a bit by not having teams within a conference playing each other on a regular basis. Teams play almost their entire schedule against the teams within 3 of 8 NFL divisions. It also skews the records, as it was much easier this year to play the AFC or NFC West than it was the AFC or NFC South, for instance. If the goal of the regular season is to get the best teams in the playoffs from each conference, shouldn't those teams play each other at least once during the season? I think so.

Here's what I'd propose. Take away two exhibition games and add two to the regular season; if the NFL owners and coaches say they need those practice games, I don't see why they can't have more scrimmages against other teams. Why should the season-ticket-holding fans pay full price to watch third-stringers trying to earn a job? The new 18-game season consists of games within the conference. Every team at least once, plus the teams in your division an extra game each so you get the home and home and maintain the division rivalries. There are 16 teams in each conference – playing each team once equals 15 games and with the three extra division games it totals 18. This wouldn't completely undo the imbalance of a weak division against a strong one, but it would mean a more balanced schedule than what the league currently has. Plus, we may see more rivalries if teams played each other every year. Some of the old rivalries were lost when they went from six to eight divisions.

Unfortunately, this plan would eliminate inter-conference games. But, those games aren't really as important as games within a team's division or conference anyway. Maybe they should play the exhibition games against teams from opposing conferences so you don't have exhibitions between teams that will play each other during the season. Or if the NFL wanted to make things really interesting, they could match up teams from the two conferences earlier in the playoffs and to see if one conference is really stronger than the other. Then you'd likely get the two best teams in the Super Bowl. Wouldn't that be great?

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