Barring a miracle, someone in the NFC South is going to make it into the playoffs with a losing record this season. Indeed, the best any team can hope for is a 8-8 record, a measly .500 record. At the same time, the Philadelphia Eagles—whose 9-5 record guarantees them a better result than anyone in the NFC South, even if they lose out the season—currently find themselves on the outside looking in. If the season ended today, they would miss out on the playoffs. Whenever this happens, inevitably, the talk will begin about “fixing” the playoff format, adjusting the divisions and all manner of other drastic changes. But, do fans need to—in the words of Aaron Rodgers—just need to R-E-L-A-X? We take a look.
It’s not been an easy season for fans of teams in the NFC south. The entire division has combined for just 17 wins. The top two teams in every other division in football have at least that many wins on their own, and the the top and bottom team in the NFC West, the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams match that total.
The idea of a team making the playoffs with perhaps only 6 or 7 wins always feels wrong, especially if it means teams with 9 or 10 wins miss out, and it’s understandable fans and pundits want to use this as an excuse to try to “reevaluate” the playoff format. But if recent history is anything to go by, this is an overreaction and here’s why.
Change is inevitable in the NFC South.
Yes, this year the NFC South have been terrible, there are really no two ways to slice it. In the NFC South, you have, arguably the worst team in all Pro Football this season in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and three others which are, at best decidedly average. The Buccaneers have a new head coach in Lovie Smith, and it was never going to be a quick turn around for this team, they knew this when he was hired—this was a team in complete rebuilding mode. Smith will likely still be in charge next season, as he continues to shape this team in his image.
Beyond that, however, no other head coach in the division is safe. Mike Smith is almost certainly out come the end of the season, and Ron Rivera is also very much in the hot seat. Even Sean Payton, who led the Saints to a Super Bowl championship not 5 years ago is not considered a lock to return next season.
At least two, if not three NFC South teams will have a new head coach next season. And while a new head coach is no guarantee of success, it often becomes the catalyst for revitalising a team which has struggled to achieve their potential. Aside from the Buccaneers, no team in the NFC South is so fundamentally broken that they cannot achieve success with their current players. All of them, instead, feel like teams which lack an identity and a common goal, and a new head coach could be all it takes for all of these teams to return to their former glory.
The NFL is a course correcting league.
One of the best things about the NFL, is the fact that, by its nature, it is a course correcting league. The salary cap ensures that there is always a level of parity across the league—unlike leagues like the English Premier League, building a winning team is not as simple as having the deepest pockets—and the draft ensures that all teams have a chance to rebuild and restock every season.
Yes, the NFC South has some teams which have all been pretty sub-par this season, but all that means is that these teams will be picking earlier come next April.
History says that losing divisions don’t stay that way for long.
People often make out as if this is something that happens so often the NFL absolutely need to address it urgently. In reality, it has only happened twice in the Super Bowl Era.
During the 1982-83 season, a strike shortened the season, meant the league implemented a special 16 team playoff format, as it was felt that the season had not adequately separated the field. Two teams, Cleveland and Detroit, both had sub-.500 records at 5-4, though it is hard to count this particular season—it was a radically different playoff format than ever before, or since.
Then in 2010, the Seattle Seahawks won the NFC West with a 7-9 record, while the Giants had 10-6 and missed out. The Seahawks even went on to beat the New Orleans Saints during week one of the playoffs, before being knocked out by the Chicago bears.
At the time, the NFC West faced most of the same criticism that is currently being directed towards the NFC South—it was called by some the weakest division in football history, and there was near universal support from fans and pundits for breaking up the NFC West, and changing the playoff format.
However, in the years that followed, the NFC West has become what is now near-universally considered the best top-to-bottom division in the league. Indeed, just one season after this, the San Francisco 49ers had rebounded to finish with a 13-3 record, and narrowly missed out on a trip to the Super Bowl after an overtime loss to the eventual champions.
- The 49ers and Seahawks both finished with 11 wins, and made the playoffs in 2012—The 49ers narrowly lost out in the Super Bowl after a valient comeback in the second half against the Baltimore Ravens.
- The Seahawks and 49ers finnished with 13 and 12 wins respectively, both made the playoffs, and the Cardinals had 10 wins and narrowly missed out in 2013. The Seahawks were crowned Super Bowl champions, in one of the most dominant performences in recent Super Bowl History.
- This season, the Cardinals have locked up a playoff berth with 11 wins, and the Seahawks have every possibility to make the playoffs too. Even the worst team in the Division, the Rams have a very real chance of finishing with a .500 record.
History shows that a division like the NFC South can easily rebound, and there is no reason to assume that this can’t happen again this year.
Are there any changes that could be made?
Of course, none of this is not to say that the playoff format cannot be improved—it certainly can—but these changes should be made for the overall good of the game, not in response to an occasional event like this.
There are a number of changes which the league should consider—many of which have been on the table for some time.
Firstly, the seedings should be changed. While I think that it is entirely correct that all division champions are guaranteed a spot in the playoffs, we don’t think that should guarantee them the top four seeds. Under the current system, the NFC South division champion would own the fourth seed, and would have home-field advantage against the 5th seed in Week 1. Currently, that means the 10-4 Seattle Seahawks would lose home-field advantage to the 6-8 Saints.
This is patently unfair, and I doubt there would be too much resistance towards the idea of changing this. The simplest solution would be simply to set all seedings based solely on record, rather than treating division winners, and wildcard teams separately. This would make only marginal differences most years—two division winners are guaranteed the top overall seed in each conference, and it would be rare that a wildcard player would creep up into the top 3, but would also ensure that division champion with a losing record would not get home-field advantage against a significantly better team.
The other change—and one which has been discussed extensively by the league already—is widening the playoff format to include more teams. This has been met with positive response from most owners, but hesitance from the NFLPA, who worry that it will result in more games for its players, something they have strongly been against when it has come to discussions about lengthening the regular season.
The simplest option which placates the NFLPA, is the one currently being discussed would not actually result in any more weeks of football. This would be the 14-team format, with only the top team in each conference receiving a week one bye, and six teams in each conference playing during the wildcard weekend. This would mean the playoffs still finish during the first weekend in February, but would result in more teams playing during the first week.
This had already been tabled for discussion by the competition committee this offseaon, alongside the possibility of guaranteeing home-field advantage to only the three division champions with the best record. If this was likely to go through beforehand—which we believe it was—the NFC South this season has all but guaranteed it. We would prefer to see no-one guaranteed homefield advantage, and everyone ranked by record, but this is a step in the right direction.