I remember last year's criticism of the Seattle Seahawks: "No team with a losing record should be in the playoffs!" This is probably true. In fact, I'd go so far as to argue that every team should hit a minimum standard before they reach the playoffs. Why should 8-8 division winners go when the occasional 10-6 team stays home without a wild card berth?
And so, I offer up an alternate playoff system. It's simple: Every team that reaches ten wins gets to go to the playoffs. Every team with nine or fewer wins stays home. Elegant in its simplicity. You can even keep the current division structure, which would facilitate existing rivalries.
I can think of a few objections to this:
(1) Teams that have won 10 games will slack off. Yeah, but teams that have already clinched a playoff spot will slack anyway. Really, if Green Bay gets to 10-0 this year, do you think they'll be playing any harder?
But then, that first round bye an be real valuable, can't it? And the best seeded teams are going to get those byes. If you clinch in week 14 at 10-3, you don't know if those additional victories will or won't buy you a bye round. And beating good teams can keep them out of the playoffs and away from your pursuit for the title. I think there's actually less chance of slacking in this system.
And then there's the flipside benefit: You don't have to worry about the league's arcane tiebreaker system anymore. So when the networks are scheduling for week 17, they'll know who they want to put up for those Sunday and Monday night games. They get the certainty of having matchups that matter.
(2) There will be way more playoff teams. Nope. Not going to happen. the current format has 6 AFC and 6 NFC teams, for a total of 12. If you go back to 2002, after the last round of expansion, you only have three years (2003, 2005 and 2007, all in the AFC) where you have more than 6 teams from a conference. The average is 11 teams total between both conferences, and the median is actually 6 per conference. And really, can you make an argument for keeping that last 10-6 team out?
(3) You'll have too few playoff games. This is a legitmate critique. The number of playoff games would usually drop. Counting up from 2002, of the 18 conference-seasons (AFC and NFC for each season) we find the following number of teams at or above 10 wins:
- 3 teams: 2 times
- 4 teams: 4 times
- 5 teams: 2 times
- 6 teams: 7 times
- 7 teams: 3 times
You'll get fewer games anytime there are fewer than 6 teams in a conference. You'll get fewer weeks of playoffs whenever only four teams qualify. Certainly, neither the NFL, nor the networks, would appreciate the lost revenue from a reduction in games played. However, the increase in the quality of those games, plus the increased relevance of weeks 16 and 17, should offset that potential problem.
Such a system offers serious benefits to the NFL, in terms of advancing the level of play in the league and cutting undeserving teams out of the playoffs.