Thursday, December 16, 2010
Despite my CFL duties, I’ve been following the NFL perhaps even more closely than usual this year thanks to writing a weekly picks column over at The Good Point. It’s been a pretty solid season so far, with lots of exciting games, great storylines and terrific playoff races, and there isn’t any shortage of things to write about on any front.
However, there’s one lingering blot on the season that’s overshadowing many of the positive developments, and that’s the atrociousness of the NFC West. As Jon Bois wrote over at SB Nation a while back, the division has been terrible for almost its entire existence in its current 2002-on form, with its teams only recording a combined positive point differential once in that span (in 2003, and that wasn’t by much). This year might be a new low for the division, though, as all four of its teams are around the same degree of awful.
With the San Francisco 49ers getting blown out 34-7 by the San Diego Chargers on Thursday Night Football tonight, they’re now at 5-9 on the season. They also have a point differential of negative 37 and have scored only 243 points, tied for fourth-worst in the league. Yet, they still have a chance to win the division, thanks largely to their NFC West-best 3-1 divisional record. If they win out and get some favourable results from other teams, they could sneak into the playoffs at 7-9 and even host a first-round playoff game. That would make them the worst NFL team (by regular-season record) to make the playoffs since the 16-game season was brought in; nine teams have made the post-season with an 8-8 record.
The 49ers aren’t the only possible awful playoff team from that division, though. The St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks are both 6-7 (with –23 and –68 point differentials, respectively), and neither team has a particularly easy remaining schedule. The Rams take on the 8-5 Kansas City Chiefs this week, then host the 49ers and then play at Seattle in the final week of the season. The Seahawks host the NFC-leading 11-2 Atlanta Falcons this week, then travel to Tampa Bay to take on the 8-5 Buccaneers before facing the Rams. If both go 1-2 or worse over that stretch, either could be a 7-9 division champion. Even the 4-9 Arizona Cardinals and their atrocious –109 point differential could wind up atop the division if they run the table against Carolina, Dallas and San Francisco and other teams slip up; it’s not likely, but it’s possible.
Meanwhile, at least one highly deserving potential playoff team is likely to miss out because of the NFC West. At the moment, the NFC’s wild-card slots would go to the 10-3 New Orleans Saints and the 9-4 New York Giants, with the 8-5 Buccaneers and Green Bay Packers left out in the cold. Regardless of who eventually winds up in the wild-card berths, it seems quite possible that at least one if not two of the excluded teams will have a better record than the NFC West champions, and the wild-card team that faces the NFC West team in the first round will have to go on the road despite a likely superior record.
One potential solution to this would be to abolish divisions altogether for the purposes of the playoff race. Keep them around for scheduling purposes, but just give playoff berths to the top six teams by record in each conference (or the top 12 in the entire league if you want to get rid of the conferences as well). This has its merits, but one problem with it is that it reduces the importance of divisional and conference games, and thus also diminishes many of the league’s best rivalries. By and large, the divisional playoff system works; getting rid of it is a rather radical change and might just turn out to be throwing out the baby with the bath. That sort of drastic alteration to the playoff system might also be tough to sell to enough owners or team executives to get the move done.
There’s an alternate solution that might offer the best of both worlds, and for it, the NFL only has to look north of the border. The CFL’s crossover system is the best way I’ve seen to balance keeping divisions while rewarding merit. For those unfamiliar with the league, the CFL currently has eight teams split into two (“East” and “West”) divisions. The top three teams in each division make the playoffs, which generally works quite well. However, there are some years where one division tends to be far better than the other one, such as 2008. That season, the West teams finished 13-5, 12-6, 11-7 and 10-8, while the East teams were 11-7, 8-10, 4-14 and 3-15. If the CFL followed the NFL system, the 10-8 Edmonton Eskimos would have been left out in the cold while the 4-14 Toronto Argonauts made the playoffs, a far more egregious case than even the current NFC West scenario.
Fortunately, the CFL’s crossover rule prevented that from happening. Basically, it means that if the fourth-place team in one division finishes with a better record than the third-place team in the other division, they take that team’s slot. If they finish with an equal or worse record, no crossover happens. If there is a crossover, the crossover team plays on the road in the divisional semi-final regardless of their record, and if they win, they’re on the road again for the conference final. It may eventually lead to some awkwardness in the Grey Cup thanks to the geography-based divisions (for example, last year could have seen the B.C. Lions representing the East Division against the Saskatchewan Roughriders), but in my mind, it strikes a nice balance between maintaining the integrity of divisions and the integrity of the larger regular-season.
It would be relatively simple to adapt this principle to the NFL. The subtlest way to do it would be stating that if the top team not given a wild-card slot has a better record than their conference’s worst division winner, the top wild-card team moves up into the divisional winner’s slot, the sixth seed moves to fifth and the new “crossover” team takes the sixth slot. For example, if the NFC teams this year remained in their current pecking order, Atlanta would take the top NFC seed, Chicago would be second and Philadelphia would be third, just as per usual. Assuming the NFC West champion Rams finished with a worse record than the Buccaneers, the fifth-place Saints would move to fourth and host a wild-card game against the sixth-place Giants (now fifth) and the seventh-place Bucs would move to sixth and face the Eagles.
This tweak provides a stronger overall playoff lineup without drastic changes. Furthermore, good teams like the 2005 Steelers have proven they can make a run from the wild-card slots before. I’d venture that we’d see a “crossover” team go deep in the playoffs or perhaps even win the Super Bowl under the new system long before a weak division winner selected under the old system did the same. Green Bay (especially if Aaron Rodgers is hurt) and Tampa Bay aren’t the strongest teams out there, but I’d rank either’s potential for a playoff upset well above anyone in the NFC West this season.
You could also tweak the system further if you wanted. It would be easy to make it possible for two “crossover” teams to make the playoffs if they were both better than the worst two division champions, or to allow AFC-NFC crossovers. All of those would be more drastic changes, though, and they could be more difficult to sell. The advantage of the simple, one-team, intra-conference crossover is that it would provide an easy way to prevent weak teams taking playoff berths thanks to the divisional structure, and it would also offer additional chances for good teams to get into the playoffs without completely destroying the importance of divisional rivalry games. To me, that’s a victory on both fronts.
(Thanks to @ninerchick05 for the inspiration for this post.)