Have at It: Tweaking the postseason format

Count my friend and ESPN 1500 radio host Patrick Reusse among those who don't want the NFL's playoff format changed, regardless of whether a sub.-500 division winner qualifies over, say, an 11-5 wild-card contender.

"I love the fact that it's now become an open point of discussion that they should not allow a losing team from the NFC West to advance to the playoffs," Reusse bellowed during my appearance on his show this week. "What is wrong with people? The team that wins is going to advance to the playoffs! Shut up!"

I did at the time, but I'm hoping Reusse doesn't check out the NFC North blog today. Many of you took me up on this week's "Have at It" offer to discuss the state of the league's postseason format, spurred by a SportsNation chat question on the possibility that the Green Bay Packers or Chicago Bears could miss the playoffs while the St. Louis Rams or Seattle Seahawks -- both 5-6 at the moment -- get in as NFC West champions.

Reusse won't be happy with WiSportsFn, who wrote: "A division winner needs to have a winning record (9-7) to make the playoffs. I could handle having a better record and not making the playoffs if the worst division winner at least had a winning record. They need to make that a rule. How can the NFL justify giving a 8-8 or 7-9 a home game and more than likely bumping out a better team? Something to be looked at in the next CBA."

Absent that stipulation, the NFL could also resolve the issue by adding more playoff spots. Wrote BJS1977: "I say we add two more wild card teams per conference and make all 4 divisional winners play in the wild card round. That would allow for the GOOD teams that got snubbed by the [bad] division winners to make the playoffs. And w/ the looming expansion to 18 games, this would be more incentive for teams and their players to buy into the extra 2 games per year. Not to mention making for a MORE exciting postseason."

Vikingslave01 argued that additional postseason teams "just waters down the playoffs altogether," a common refrain that brought some of you to a less dramatic tweak. Seeding playoff teams by record and tiebreakers, rather than whether they won a division, is the "fairest way to do it," wrote jonrifraf.

As we noted in the original post, only two 11-5 teams have missed the playoffs since the expansion to a 16-game schedule in 1978. That frequency is too rare for many of you. "It doesn't happen a lot, so why change it?" wrote tyslink.

If an 11-5 team misses the playoffs, that means it was bested by three others who performed better -- winning either that team's division or else qualifying for a wild card berth ahead of it. It's not as if the 11-5 team was helpless in the matter. Wrote brianinindy: "Sometimes you lose the wrong games. Simple. Don't lose."

My take? Although I'm not as fired up as my friend Patrick, I'm mostly in favor of the current format -- and plan to stick with that view even if it means the Packers or Bears go home after Week 17. I don't think two instances in 32 years is enough to merit a move away from division-based playoff berths, and I think maintaining the four-division set-up per conference maximizes drama in December.

I do like your idea of changing the seeding process, however. A division title should bring a playoff berth, but I'm not sure it justifies a home playoff game. I'd like to see playoffs seedings reflect the best teams at the top and the worst at the bottom, and the only way to do that is by record.

It's true there might not be much of a difference between a 10-6 wild-card team and a 9-7 division winner. But to me, it's fair to recognize that on a year-to-year basis, some divisions are much stronger than others. Finishing in second place in the NFC North this season could well be a bigger accomplishment than winning the NFC West. I would be fine with seedings that reflected as much.