Don't expect playoff format to change

Thomas in Bar Harbor, Maine, congratulated the Broncos for their overtime win over the Steelers.

His concern is having an 8-8 team such as the Broncos get a home game while a 12-4 team such as Pittsburgh has to play on the road. A year ago, the 7-9 Seahawks upset a more talented New Orleans Saints squad in Seattle.

"Really," Thomas wrote. "On what possible grounds can the NFL justify giving an 8-8 team such a huge advantage over a 12-4 team. First, a 7-9 Seattle team winning last year, and now Denver? The NFL really needs to look at this rule, don't you think?"

Sure, the league will look at it, but I don't see a change happening. If anything, the Broncos and Seahawks may have strengthened the divisional concept of seeding in the playoffs more by what happened. The reward for winning a division is a home game. Being No. 2 has its consequences.

Tim Tebow's overtime touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas was one of the great moments of the playoffs. So was the run last year by the Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch that caused an earthquake because of the fans' reactions in the stadium.

The wild-card round is for the underdogs and the NFL loves the underdog story. It gives the lesser teams the higher draft choices. It tries to give the weaker teams the easier schedules. The idea is creating better competition and opening the door for new teams to make the playoffs.

NFL traditionalists believe in the importance of winning the division. Seeing what happened to New Orleans and Pittsburgh over the past two years only stresses the need to win divisions instead of making it as a wild card.

As we've seen over the past few years, a fifth or sixth seed can still go to the Super Bowl. The Giants did it. The Packers did it. As long as that wild-card team has a great quarterback, the franchise can win three road games in the playoffs and make the Super Bowl.

If the NFL expands the playoffs from 12 teams to 14 or 16, expect more 8-8 teams in the postseason. There were only 10 teams with winning records this year, and in a league designed for parity, there are going to be seasons like this one, in which there are so many teams with 8-8 records (eight to be exact). Last season, the Seahawks won the NFC West with a 7-9 mark.

Is it fair that a 7-9 or 8-8 team can get a home game? It depends on your perspective. Whether you like it or not, the current playoff format is probably here to stay.

From the inbox

Q: I agreed wholeheartedly with the selections you made for your 2011 All-Pro team, with one exception -- Justin Smith at DE. Obviously, he is a very talented player who was instrumental in the 49ers' rise to greatness this season, but how can his selection be justified over Jason Pierre-Paul?

Jeremy in Columbus, Ohio

A: There is no question Pierre-Paul had a great season, but Smith was better. If you talk to a lot of coaches, scouts and general managers, they will tell you that Smith was one of the big forces in why the 49ers had such a great defense. Remember, the Giants finished the regular season 27th in yards allowed. The 49ers were one of the best defenses in the league. There is a glitch that needs to be addressed, though, in the selection process. In Pro Bowl voting, a defensive end on a 3-4 is considered a defensive tackle. There is no such defining decision on the All-Pro vote. I went with Smith as a DE. Pierre-Paul would have been my third choice at defensive end if I put Smith at tackle behind Jared Allen and DeMarcus Ware.

Q: What were the Steelers thinking? Why were they playing starters in a meaningless game? The chances of getting the division and having a bye were slim. Why not rest starters and give younger players playing time?

JD in Mansfield, Conn.

A: You are obviously talking about the regular-season finale against the Cleveland Browns. The Steelers thought they had a chance at the No. 2 seed if the Ravens lost to the Bengals. They gambled that they could win the game with Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey playing with high ankle sprains. In retrospect, I agree with you. I think they did make a mistake. It took Roethlisberger three quarters in the Denver loss to loosen up his ankle. Pouncey re-injured his ankle against Cleveland and couldn't play against the Broncos.

Q: I only see three teams that will go all in for a QB (Washington, Miami, Cleveland). Assuming, Peyton Manning is healthy and Colts want to trade Andrew Luck, I see three potential franchise QBs available to those teams (Luck, RG3 and Matt Flynn). Flynn will be signed before the draft (my guess by Redskins) leaving only two teams on draft day. My point is, I do not see the demand high enough to warrant giving away three first-round choices as some have suggested for Luck. Also, I don't think the Browns do anything but stay at No. 4.

John in Raleigh, N.C.

A: Good read on the situation, John. The Redskins would be the in the best position to trade up, but I agree that the price won't be three first-rounders. I could see a No. 1 and a No. 2 or a No. 1 and a No. 3 being the price to get up to the No. 2 pick and get Griffin III. You're probably right about the Browns, too. They will stay at No. 4 and hope a quarterback drops to them. If not, they might take a quarterback with the No. 22 pick in the first round, the pick they acquired from Atlanta. The team that needs to make a move is Miami. The Dolphins need something to sell tickets and the coaching search doesn't seem to be a big promotional campaign.

Q: As a lifelong Vikings fan, this was one season where I rarely thought the Vikings were truly not out of any game. They just could not finish and actually win. Other than the obvious secondary needs, what do they need to do to actually get their groove back and make it to the playoffs?

Jim in Chicago

A: They need a left tackle and could get one with the selection of Matt Kalil of USC. They need more help at wide receiver. The secondary needs to be revamped. They need help along the defensive line. I could go on here but as you can see, the Vikings need a lot.

Q: I'd like to comment on the reader, John, who suggested the Washington Redskins should trade for Mark Sanchez. He's a good player but that would be like picking up Rex Grossman 2.0 because Sanchez can single-handedly lose a game with turnovers.

Chris in Newport News, Va.

A: The Jets won't trade Sanchez, so don't worry about him coming to Washington. Sanchez is good, not great. He's proved he can win if he has the right talent around him. But the Redskins are less talented at wide receiver and in the backfield than the Jets. Sanchez wouldn't be the answer and the organization will lose all credibility if it goes back to Grossman. The Skins need to trade up for Robert Griffin III.

Q: You need to defend your grade for New England (B) vs. Green Bay (A+). The Packers can have a higher grade for sure, but the Pats are at least an A-.

Dave in Berryville, Va.

A: I stand by those grades. The Packers went 15-1 and were 10-0 against teams with .500 records or better. They were 6-0 against teams in the playoffs. The Patriots had an easy schedule. That doesn't take away from the fact they were the best team in the AFC. They're a very good team. The Patriots were 7-2 against teams with .500 records or better. They played only three teams that made the playoffs and went 2-1 in those games. Giving a B grade isn't bad. In my opinion, the Packers did better. Both defenses have problems. If they meet in the Super Bowl, which very well could happen, they can sort out the grades.

Q: In your previous mailbag, you used the explanation of Eli Manning having an "MVP-type season" as justification for his selection to the Pro Bowl over Matthew Stafford. Is that to say Stafford didn't have an MVP-type season? His production and importance to the team exceeded that of Manning.

Tarek in Detroit

A: Manning was the best fourth-quarter thrower in the league this year. Stafford was great. No question about it. Stafford was great in the fourth quarter, too. Stats support your position only to a certain degree. Remember, these are opinions. If you are from Detroit, you are going to be more adamant about supporting Stafford over Manning. I don't have a rooting interest; this is my opinion. It's the same way I put Aaron Rodgers over Drew Brees for the MVP vote even though Brees had better stats than Rodgers.

Q: On numerous occasions I've read that you stated that Jaguars GM Gene Smith has earned respect around the league, mostly for what he does in the draft. Looking at his draft years, and the fact that he has been tied to the draft since the Jaguars' inception, his drafts have not really been stellar. Actually, his free-agency signings are the reasons the defense is top five. So elaborate on the respect that those around the league have for him.

Marc in Jacksonville, Fla.

A: When Smith was promoted to make the final decisions on personnel, he had a lot of things to clean up. The Jaguars drafted horribly for years in the early rounds. Smith was actually in charge of the lower rounds, which were the successful picks. Under the previous administration, the Jaguars either reached for players or drafted guys who simply didn't pan out. Ownership knew it would take a few years for Smith to rebuild the roster. He tried to make sure he drafted and signed players with talent but also with good character. The 2011 season was a major setback, but you knew it wasn't going to be good because of the Jack Del Rio situation. Del Rio was destined to be fired. He had an edict to make the playoffs to keep his job and the talent level wasn't there. Smith can now work with Mike Mularkey to fix QB Blaine Gabbert and get two or three more good drafts to make this team more competitive.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter