Next Sunday, the 12-4 Pittsburgh Steelers are heading to Denver, home of the Broncos who just finished an 8-8 season, after losing their last 3 games topped off with a 7-3 loss to the Chiefs. The Kansas City Royals or even Colorado Rapids (MLS) could have scored enough points to win this game. The Tennessee Titans are out, even though they had a better record (9-7) than the Broncos.
Think of this as a case of absolute and relative. In each conference, the 4 division winners are RELATIVE qualifiers – they had to finish ahead of the teams in their division. Divisions are spread very thin with a small sample size of just 3 teams – or 10% of the league – there’s a good chance those other 3 teams can all be very good or bad. The Broncos outdid the Chiefs, Raiders and Chargers. Big whoop. The Ravens meanwhile had to beat the Steelers, Bengals (BOTH are playoff teams) and Browns to win their division.
Wild cards are more absolute. They’ve got to beat out every non-division-winning team in the conference, not just the select few in their division. In total, the four division winners only have to beat 3 teams. The two wild cards need to beat the remaining 10.
On average, a team has to beat 5.3 teams to make the playoffs (3+3+3+3+10+10 / 6 = 5.3).
During the previous conference alignment, we had 3 divisions of 5 teams each. A division winner had to beat 4 other teams, and we had 3 wild cards.
Back then, the average playoff team had to beat 6.5 teams (4+4+4+9+9+9 / 6 = 6.5)
Here’s how it would have shaken out if the NFL was still under this 3-bigger-divisions per conference system. Yeah, it’s convenient that I’m gonna throw Houston into the west – but seriously, considering geography, where else would I logically put them? Yeah.
2011-12 Playoffs in a 3-Division Structure
|Patriots 13-3||Ravens 11-4||Texans 10-6|
|Jets 8-8||Steelers 11-4||Broncos 8-8|
|Dolphins 6-10||Bengals 9-7||Chargers 8-8|
|Bills 6-10||Titans 9-7||Raiders 8-8|
|Colts 2-14||Jaguars 5-11||Chiefs 7-9|
See that? All winning teams in the playoffs. Neato. You increase the number of teams each qualifier has to beat to get into the playoffs, and you’ll naturally get the better teams in the tournament. I should stress that it’s only a slight improvement and the BEST team will probably win it all either way. And yeah, had I thrown the Colts into the West, the 8-8 Broncos would still make the playoffs and the Titans would be at home.
You might ask: Why bother with conferences and divisions anyway? Well, it’s good to keep San Diego and Seattle from traveling to Florida 3 times a year, the regional rivalries are good for fan , and of course it adds some nuances and interest with each division being a different situation.
The current 8 division setup is tidy, I get it. There are lots of even numbers. Teams don’t spend half the season playing the same division opponents anymore. There’s more variety and more teams get a chance to make the playoffs, BUT the likelihood of a bad team making the cut is pretty good. Unfortunately, having so many divisions spread so thin means the best teams won’t always make the playoffs. Consider a few:
- Just last season the “division winning” 7-9 Seattle Seahawks made the playoffs while the 10-6 Giants and Buccaneers stayed home. I’ll admit, I love statistical oddities. In theory, this should have made for a real crappy playoff game. Yet, as if to prove myself wrong, I enjoyed watching the 7-9 Seahawks use their incredible home-field advantage (and an amazing Marshawn Lynch touchdown) to knock the 11-5 Saints out in the first round. I believe this is the only time a team has WON a playoff game and still had an overall losing record. Amazing.
- In 2008 the 11-5 Patriots stayed home – ELEVEN AND FIVE! – in favor of the “division winning” 8-8 San Diego Chargers. The Chargers – being at home – went on to beat the 12-4 Indianapolis Colts.
- In both cases, a non-winning team got home field advantage vs. a statistically superior team. You’ve got to wonder how both would have played out if the home fields were switched.