How The NFL Can...And Why It Should...Tame The Mild, Mild West

WHOOPS! Do either of these teams really deserve an opportunity to play for football's ultimate prize? (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

The NFL needs to implement some minimum standards for playoff eligibility when it comes to division "champions."

I've never, ever said that any team in any sport didn't "deserve" to win a championship. Winning a championship is too difficult in any sport for it to ever be a fluke or accident. And while there have certainly been lots of teams in lots of sports over many years that I might have thought were better than the eventual champs, whether it was because I thought they were more talented or I was influenced by some intangible, aesthetic or emotional factor, as far as I'm concerned, whoever wins the last game of the season always deserves to be called the champion. Period.

But I may need to end that sentence with a comma or even an asterisk if things keep going the way they are in the NFL this year. Specifically, if things keep going the way they are in the NFC West.

In case you don't know, this is what the standings in the NFC West look like at this moment:

NFC West Standings

W L T PF PA
Seattle 5 6 0 209 275
St. Louis 5 6 0 213 231
San Francisco 3 7 0 160 219
Arizona 3 7 0 188 292

(updated 11.28.2010 at 8:21 PM PST)

You might think I did a bad cut-and-paste job and forgot the top half of the teams but I didn't. There are only four teams in the division (as is the case with all divisions in the NFL) and what you see is what you get, folks. A combined 16-26 (.381). 770 points scored, 1017 points given up. Make no mistake, at this point in the season, it is safe to say that these are bad teams. All of them.

We're not talking about Week 4 and waiting for somebody to correct a poor start and hit a stride, we're talking about week 12, when teams who've only won three games should be thinking about scheduling next year's select-a-seat day, not about planning a playoff ticket distribution strategy. There exists a very real possibility that every team in this division could finish with a losing record, and that's a problem. It means a team that lost more games than it won would be declared a "champion" and given a berth, with at least one home game, in the postseason playoff tournament.  Worst of all, this could happen at the expense of at least one team with a significantly better record,  and quite possibly two of them.

What do you yell to opposing fans in that situation? Certainly not "SCOREBOARD!". "ZIP CODE!" maybe? Now, of course this has my attention because one of those teams could very well be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are currently two games better than the top two teams in this division, and I'd be lying if I didn't acknowledge that I feel like I have a personal stake in this as a fan.

But this honestly isn't a case of sour grapes, complaining about something that I only find unfair because it's unfair to "my" team at this point in time. After all, there are teams with better records than the Bucs that could find themeselves negatively impacted. The Eagles, Giants, Packers, Bears, FalconsSaints and Bucs are seven teams in a fairly tight cluster right now, all with better records than anybody in the NFC West, fighting for three division titles and two wildcard spots, a total of five berths.

The probability of most of those teams finishing with a better record than the eventual NFC West "champion" is pretty high, so you're looking at two teams having good seasons and getting shut out of the playoffs at the expense of one team having a lousy one, because they were the least lousy of a bunch of really lousy teams. This isn't about sour grapes, this is about maintaining the integrity of the process of determining the championship of the National Football League.

In spite of how incredibly pompous and self-righteous that sounds, that's what we're looking at. When the NFL added wild card teams to the playoffs way back in 1970, it was to reward teams that had posted pretty good records that might have found themselves stuck behind behemoths in their division.

Well, okay, I know the real reason was to expand the playoff field, resulting in more playoff games, and generating more revenue. If the NFL just wanted to decide a champion every year, every team would play a 15-game schedule, facing off against every team in their conference once, no inter-conference games, with every team having the exact same strength of schedule, no divisions, no wild card and one winner-take-all game between the best teams in each conference at the end of the year, which would certainly be decisive but kind of boring for fans of all but a small handful of teams...so consider the way we have it now a pleasant side-effect of corporate greed. It means that teams that might be championship caliber, who could have fared better in a different division, don't get excluded and that they have a chance to compete for the title.

Since the wild card was implemented, nine wild card teams made it to the Super Bowl and five of them won it (most recently, the Giants in 2007). The wild card helped make the NFL great in the '70s and the wild card can bail the NFL out of this potentially embarrassing situation now.

All the commissioner has to do is add the requirement of a .500 (I'd be willing to accept mediocrity) or better record to be eligible for consideration as a division champion. Failure to meet that minimum standard would mean that division title is vacated and replaced in the playoffs by a 3rd wild card (as long as that team has a .500 or better record itself).

That 3rd wild card team would be seeded 6th and the other seeds would move up accordingly. This wouldn't complicate things; it would increase the eligibility requirements from one to two.

  1. Have the best overall win-loss record of all the teams in the division.
  2. Win at least half of your games, fer cryin' out loud. 

How often would this occur? Almost never, and then only to teams who clearly fail to meet a fairly reasonable minimum standard. This isn't about giving a handout to every team that finishes 3rd but goes 9-7 in the process, it's about getting the teams that deserve to be in the playoffs in, and keeping the teams who don't out. And it's not that I worry about the Rams or Seahawks getting in to the playoffs based solely on their relative success against other sorry teams with which they're grouped geographically, then getting on a hot streak that carries them all the way to a Super Bowl title.

Quite the opposite, in fact; I worry that whichever one of them gets in will get blown out in the first round while somebody who would have made a better showing is watching from home like I am. If it helps, don't think of it as punishing the Rams or Seahawks, think of it as improving the caliber of play in the playoffs which would make for an all-around better championship.

Honestly, what would be a more intriguing first round playoff game: Saints at Seahawks or Packers at Saints? Eagles at Rams or Giants at Eagles? It's a simple answer. I doubt that Seahawks and Rams fans would really even mind all that much. I can't imagine anybody looking forward to the day they look up at a banner hanging in their stadium some day in the future and say, "Ah yes, the '10 season. We went 7-9 and got thumped 31-10 right here on this very field by the Chicago Bears. Good times!".

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