This probably seems like a weird time to argue that division winners shouldn’t get automatic playoff berths. After all, the Dallas Cowboys basically get to take this week off after doing just that. However, this is actually the perfect opportunity– winning the division screws the Cowboys over.
Dec 21, 2014; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray (29) runs with the ball against Indianapolis Colts linebacker Jonathan Newsome (91) at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Generally, teams want to win their division. Winning their division grants them a number of benefits, such as a playoff berth guaranteed weeks in advance or the opportunity to face a weaker team (usually) in the wild card round. The Cowboys are experiencing this right now–any stress from a will/won’t/how much will DeMarco Murray play in week 17? scenario completely evaporated with Sunday’s demolition of the Colts. (Any chance of the Eagles ruining the Cowboys’ playoff fortunes did too.)
It probably seems weird, then, that I’m arguing against a system that has provided so much relief. But guaranteed playoff berths also indirectly put the Cowboys at a disadvantage, because of the drastically easier schedule they grant the first overall seed (likely the Seahawks or NFC North winner, though the Cowboys are technically eligible.)
As I have written about the last two weeks, the Falcons and Panthers are sort of a joke. Neither will finish the season with a winning record, but one will go to the playoffs, a fourth seed no less. They will essentially steal the playoffs from a team that actually deserves a chance. This season, that team is/are* the Eagles, as I addressed above, and while it physically pains me to advocate anything that benefits them, helping them actually helps the Cowboys, or at least provides some sense of justice.
There is one bad team in this year’s playoffs, the representative of the NFC South. One other team, though, is essentially equal caliber, even though they deserve to go–the Cardinals. Carson Palmer’s horrific ACL injury marked their fall from a good, though lucky (9 come from behind wins) team to one debating between starting Ryan Lindley and Logan Thomas. (Ryan Lindley and Logan Thomas are extremely not good. Lindley set the NFL record for most pass attempts without a touchdown to begin a career, while you’ll have to trust me on Thomas. I live in Virginia, so I’ve seen him play–not well.) One of them will play whoever wins the first seed, since they will both play each other (almost certainly) in the wild card round. The Falcons/Panthers and Cardinals are so much worse than the rest of the field that the first seed is at a significant advantage for facing them. When the six playoffs teams represent the six best teams in the conference**, that’s fine–the luck of the draw, I suppose. When a better team is left home because they aren’t a part of the right division, that’s not.
Dec 21, 2014; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) throws in the pocket against the Indianapolis Colts at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
The Seahawks will probably get the first seed, since all they have to do is beat the Rams. With the first round bye and the opportunity to face either a sub-.500 team or a horrendous 11 or 12 win one, they will almost certainly make the NFC Championship. If division championships didn’t guarantee the postseason, the rankings are unorthodox, since you would have to do conference standings as a first tiebreaker. (I tried to make an outline, but all of the positions are so in flux that it became confusing and sort of useless.) Regardless, the Eagles are sixth, and the Cardinals probably would be fourth. Basically, two deserving teams would compete to face the Seahawks. If the Cardinals won against Philadelphia, they would be better than I thought they were, and if the Eagles won, they would prove that they belonged instead of an NFC South representative. Either way, that’s fair.
And how does this scenario affect the Cowboys? If they lost, they lost because they faced a better team, not because they didn’t luck into drawing the Falcons/Panthers. The perverted rankings inherent in placing division winners, instead of the best records, on a pedestal means that being a wild card– which should be the weakest, not unluckiest– can be more advantageous. That doesn’t make any sense. There shouldn’t be an advantage in being a lower seed. Basing playoff rankings off of record instead of divisional champions provides a more balanced playoff schedule, so that no team has a (relative) cakewalk to the NFC Championship, while another team has to enter the game comparatively depleted. And no team has to head home after losing, knowing they were penalized for a better record.
*I have no idea whether this is singular or plural. On one hand, “eagles” is obviously plural. On the other, “eagles” is being used to represent a singular concept (one team). I want to say that either could work, but that doesn’t make sense.
**Conferences don’t make any sense, either, at least the way they’re organized. Trying to preserve the AFL and NFL decades after the merger seems dated. I would split the conferences into East and West groupings. That stops west coast teams from having an inherent disadvantage when they flying cross country to play in the east, and visa versa. By including a few legacy matchups (the Cowboys in the East, for example) for marketing reasons, this wouldn’t upset current rivalries much–most of them are intradivisional, which are based on geography.