Point/Counterpoint: What is the ideal way to seed NFL playoff teams?

Last week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suggested that the NFL would consider expanding the playoffs from the current field of 12 teams to either 14 or 16. While neither of us wanted to take the “pro” side on that particular proposal, the topic did get the wheels turning in our heads for a related point/counterpoint discussion.

Even if you are not a proponent of playoff expansion, it’s clear that there is room for tweaking the set-up within the current six-teams-per-conference format.  For instance, should division winners automatically get higher seeds than Wild Card teams, regardless of record?  Or, as a more radical thought, should division winners even get an automatic playoff berth if their records are inferior to at least six other teams?  Think of the 2010 Seahawks, invited onto the dance floor with a 7-9 record while your 10-6 Buccaneers watched from the punch bowl, as a recent example.

That’s our debate, then: Should the NFL reconfigure the way it chooses and seeds its playoff teams, basing it more on record and less on divisional superiority?

You have the floor first, Scott (but not the dance floor…no one wants to see that).

Scott Smith: I have to admit up front that I generally default to being a traditionalist when it comes to talk of changing the sports I love.  Sometimes I realize later that I was being too stodgy and that change can be good.  The Wild Card in baseball is a good example.  I hated it (HATED IT) when it was introduced in 1995, but I can now admit that it has been a very good thing for the game.  That said, I still hate that they added a second Wild Card this past year and created that silly one-game playoff thing.  You’ll still never get me onboard with interleague play, however.

So, I’ll admit up front that I could feel differently in five or 10 years if a new system were introduced, but I’m still going to have to come down on the side of the status quo here.  I understand that people get upset when supposedly inferior teams are given an advantage (or even an invite) over supposedly superior teams, but that’s just part of the system.  Winning your division SHOULD count for something.  Something important.

Let’s just cut to the chase: The only time this argument comes up is in strange seasons like 2010, which you referenced above.  Everyone thought it was pretty ridiculous that the 11-5 Saints had to play on the road against the 7-9 Seahawks.  Seattle was seen as a fraud, only in the postseason because the entire NFC West happened to collapse in the same year.  I could go the easy route and point out that the Seahawks shocked everyone by beating the Saints and proving their worthiness, but I suppose that would just lead to the counterargument that they wouldn’t have won without home field advantage.

My argument is more basic than that.  When you put teams into a division and then tell them their first goal – as every coach in the league will tell you – is to win that division, then it HAS to count for something when they do so.  Seattle did its job during the regular season, perhaps not as impressively as you would have liked them to, but they did it.  They deserve the rewards.  Their punishment for only having a 7-9 record, unlike the 13-3 Falcons or 11-5 Bears, was drawing a tough Wild Card matchup and not getting a first-round bye.  There are factors built into the current system that do give teams that win more games an advantage, as they should.  Seattle didn’t do well enough in 2010 to get any of those advantages, but they did do well enough to punch their ticket to the dance.

Besides, we shouldn’t get too worked up about seeding, anyway.  I agree that the first-round bye is a big advantage, as it should be, but otherwise recent history suggests that the lower seeds aren’t that big of a disadvantage.  After all, it was Green Bay who won those 2010 playoffs after coming in as the sixth and final seed (beating out the Bucs on a fifth-level tiebreaker).  The Giants won their last two championships as fifth and fourth seeds in 2007 and 2011, respectively.  Pittsburgh came in as the six and won three road games to make it to the Super Bowl after the 2005, coincidentally then beating Seattle.

Considering my feelings as described above, it’s probably unnecessary for me to argue the part about not even letting a division winner into the playoffs if there are six teams with better records.  If you have an argument to support that, I’ll respond in my rebuttal.

So, take it away, Andrew. The band is playing your song now.

Andrew Norton: While I’m not particularly a fan of change myself, I do view it as often necessary. The old NFL overtime sudden death rule was fine by me, but where is the fun in watching a team drive 50 yards for a field goal? I welcomed that change. It’s confusing, but makes teams go for the touchdown rather than settling for an easy three when within range. And, hello, NCAA football playoff system. Yes, please.

So a new seeding system for the NFL is something that I would appreciate. And, honestly, I think I can make a case for it being necessary. I agree with you that the 2010 Seattle Seahawks winning the NFC West at 7-9 is hands-down the most logical argument that I can make. But where I disagree is the part where you refer to it as a “strange season.” Teams with higher records getting nudged from the playoffs happens quite often. In fact, the parity of this season where we might actually see the 12 best records make the playoffs should be counted as the “strange” one.

Last year, in the AFC, the Tennessee Titans watched the playoffs from the couch with their 9-7 record. Who did they get to watch in the playoffs? The 8-8 Denver Broncos who got in by winning their division. That division win also gave them the home field advantage against the 12-4 Pittsburgh Steelers, the team that they memorably knocked out in the first round.

In 2008, we again see the AFC West (for real, Western divisions, time to shape up), where San Diego Chargers limped into the playoffs, leaving the 11-5 New England Patriots grumpily watching from home. In fact, since the divisions were restructured in 2002, we see six different instances of teams with better records than a division winner getting ousted from the playoffs.

I think that winning the most games as you can and being a top six team in your conference should be the goal that teams reach for, rather than just shooting to be the best of four.

And really, the only argument that I should need here is that 2010 Seahawk team. With a losing record, they made the playoffs while two teams were out despite 10-win seasons. And, for the record, both the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated Seattle that season.

So, yes, the playoffs should be strictly by record. You can keep divisions in play, they will support the rivalries that already exist and they will keep scheduling in order. And the two best records in each conference can still have first-round byes. But, come on, the rest of the field needs to be the best teams in the NFL. They deserve it and the fans deserve it.

What is it that they say in those dance movies? “You got served?” Yeah. I think that’s it.

Scott Smith: You mean those dance movies where eight people make up, on the spot, complicated routines that all of them instantly know?  It figures you would reference that.  In real life, a dance-off would be completely chaotic, but still a lot of fun to watch.  You know, kind of like a real sports season.

I don’t cry for that 9-7 Titans team sitting out while the 8-8 Broncos play on because, hey, things like this happen in sports.  It’s fun!  The Broncos squeaking in was fun, especially when they upset the Steelers.  I think that game and the 7-9 Seahawks upsetting the Saints underscores the fact that the NFL is so competitive that the difference between an 8-8 team and an 11-5 team isn’t always as big as it seems.  And certainly the difference between an 8-8 team and a 9-7 team could be as little as one lucky bounce in any given week during the season.  Those Broncos and those Seahawks were good enough, and they got a chance to prove it by doing what the system asks them to do: Win their division.

So you’re new seeding system is a response to six instances in 11 years (because it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen this year) in which a team with an inferior overall record made it in over a team with a superior record?  About once every two years, and we’re counting instances such as that 8-8 Broncos/9-7 Titans situation?  Gee, get me a tissue.  I’m sobbing over all the injustice here.

You clearly knew that your argument essentially calls for two big conferences rather than separate divisions, because you validated the continued existence of divisions for the purposes of rivalries and ease of scheduling (it’s admirable how much you care about the amount of hours NFL schedulers have to put in).  Besides being completely irrelevant (like the Cowboys and Redskins would stop hating each other if they didn’t have that division bond), it’s also patently unfair.  You’re saying that winning a division won’t matter, but certain teams still have to play certain other teams twice every year.  In a year where, say, the NFC East is strong and the NFC West is weak, how is it fair to the East teams to have an inherently harder schedule than the West teams when the only goal is to rack up the most wins.

Dance your way out of that won, Andrew.

Andrew Norton: I think I’m allowed at least a small window of leniency to allow for a bit of growing pains in my newly hatched playoff idea. We can’t all stand behind the well-thought-out “Meh, leave it the same” argument that you have so artfully crafted.

Add a London team, add a Los Angeles team. Get rid of the divisions. Each team plays 16 games, one against every single team in its conference. How you like those moves?

I kid. This is roughly three digits above my pay grade. All that I can comfortably say is that it is unfair for a team that has proven itself to be one of the top six in its conference to not make the playoffs to a team that hasn’t proven themselves.

You are quick to point out the 8-8 team going over the 9-7 team. Still, I do believe that is an injustice. You say that the chaos is part of the sport. Well, it was that self same chaos that led to one team getting a better record than the other. So why wouldn’t that be rewarded?

You are also forgetting to mention the larger margins, a la the 10-6 Giants and Buccaneers losing out to the 7-9 Seahawks, or the 8-8 Chargers making it over the 11-5 New England Patriots. And again, I stress both the Giants and Buccaneers defeated the Seahawks during the regular season!

It seems simple enough to me. There are 12 teams in the playoffs. They should be the 12 best teams. Period. Dance reference.

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