Bleacher Report Reality Check: The NFL Playoffs Should NOT Be Reseeded

Don’t reseed the NFL playoffs.

Every year people make the case for reseeding the playoffs, and every year they are wrong, and way off base. The NFL playoffs are competitive, entertaining, and reasonably fair; they should not be reseeded or changed.

1. Finding the Best Team in Football

If the playoffs are a true test to find the best team in football, then the league’s owners owe it to their fans and everyone involved with the league to structure the playoffs properly, once and for all.

The playoffs are not a true test to find the best team in football, and never have been. If people wanted such a test, the league might owe a restructuring to the fans–but people don’t.

*NOTE: Recently there have been a number of articles about reseeding the NFL playoffs. Dan Levy wrote a particularly thorough one, “NFL Reality Check: Let’s Say It Again This Year–Playoffs Need to Be Reseeded“, on Bleacher Report. In this post I rebut Levy point-by-point, akin to his format and style. All quotes are Levy’s and from that article, unless otherwise noted. I encourage reading his piece first.

A true test to find the best would be a league-wide double round-robin, with each team playing every other time twice, once at home and once on the road.1 That is unfeasible, and worse, it would be boring. There is a trade-off here, between entertainment and objective rankings, and the league has a fine balance already.

2. NFL Owners Want Easily Acquired Home Playoff Games

Home games in the playoffs are an enormous cash cow, so why would the owners be willing to risk that, even if it gives more deserving teams a better chance to win a title?

Of the 12 teams that make the NFL playoffs each year, eight are division winners; two-thirds of the teams in the postseason qualify by winning their division.

Of course the owners want to give themselves a better chance to get that home game, and guaranteeing at least one home game to each division winner is the best way to do that. It’s not about the fans at all. It’s about the money.

This “analysis” is so bad, it is difficult impossible to read without getting angry. Where to start?

A team does not have a shot at all eight division-winner spots. (Duh.) A team can only win its division. But every team does have a shot at either of the two wildcards in its conference. “…two-thirds of the teams in the postseason qualify by winning their division.” THAT DOESN’T F@#$ING MATTER. Two-thirds of the ways to get into the playoffs for a single team (or owner) involve having a better record than as many teams in the same conference as possible.2

Perhaps what Levy was going for is that three-thirds–100 percent–of all first and second round playoff games are hosted by division winners.3 A team competes against three teams for a division title, but twelve for a wildcard spot.4 But in Week 17 this season, there were only four AFC teams alive for the final wildcard spot (Baltimore, Miami, Pittsburgh, and San Diego) and effectively only three NFC teams alive for the final two wildcard spots.5 The number of competitors for the spots does not make a division title easier to obtain than a wildcard.

There would be no reason for an owner to vote for the teams with the best record to get home games in the playoffs, except, you know, because it would actually reward the best teams in the regular season. That would be for the fans.

Yeah, yeah, because such persecuted “best teams in the regular season” don’t have owners, they have… wait, no, they do have owners! And driven by the want of a home playoff game, they would fight to change the system, right? Since divisional realignment in 2002, the Patriots have won the AFC East 10 times (of a possible 12), the Colts have won the AFC South eight times, and the Packers have won the NFC North six times. In that same time both San Diego and Seattle won their respective divisions four times in a row. If their opponents were trying to rig the system for home playoff games, how come it wasn’t working?

It’s all nonsense. Home playoff games are zero-sum. If an owner found a way to get his team more, that would mean less for the other owners. If it’s easier for some teams to get a home playoff game, it’s harder for others.

Increasing the number of playoff games, however, would presumably grow profits. Major League Baseball just added a wild card team in each league, and the NFL might do the same for each conference. I do agree with Levy on one point, at least: it’s all about the money. (Although that shouldn’t be news to anyone.)

3. Teams with Better Records Are Punished Unfairly

The 2013 Saints finished 11-5 and must travel to the Philadelphia Eagles to open the playoffs in the NFC. Why? Because the NFL rules ostensibly reward Philadelphia for the existence of the Carolina Panthers.

The 12-4 San Francisco 49ers have to inexplicably travel to the 8-7-1 Green Bay Packers on Sunday for their first home playoff game. Why? Because the Seahawks are really good and played just a little better than the Niners this season.

Despite winning more games than their first-round opponents, New Orleans and San Francisco will get penalized in the playoffs because another team in their respective–read: tougher–divisions had a slightly better record.

One, you can’t have it both ways. Either a team’s record is more important than home field advantage, so the “punishment” of playing on the road is trivial, or home field advantage must be given utmost consideration. Since realignment in 2002, wildcard teams have won three of eleven Super Bowls, suggesting it’s possible to overcome playing on the road.

Two, if the NFL reseeded so that the “best” teams6 always hosted playoff games, why shouldn’t all the best teams get into the playoffs, regardless of which division they play in? How about regardless of which conference they play in?

Now, if we’re already in agreement to reseed the conferences, a case can be made to reseed every team, combining the AFC and NFC teams into one big postseason tournament based on overall record. Even giving a slot to each division winner, the Cardinals would be in as a wild-card team if we did that.

There is, however, great importance to keeping the tradition of AFC versus NFC intact for the Super Bowl, so the Cardinals were justifiably the odd team out in the NFC this season.

But is that really fair? With teams playing an imbalanced schedule, is the way the league picks wild-card teams fair and balanced enough?

So there is some value in continuing tradition! It isn’t just about the best teams (duh). But it is about fairness. It all hinges on what you think is fair enough. Again, a double round-robin would be fair, but no one wants that. Is the current system fair? Within a division, 14 of each team’s 16 games are in-common, although with different home-road splits. Within a conference, there is a one in three chance that teams from different divisions have six of their thirteen opponents in-common. That is fair enough.7

But you, or Levy, think it isn’t, and want the teams reseeded by record, because the 8-7-1 Packers (and other such teams) making the playoffs, and especially hosting a playoff game, isn’t fair, because they’re bad.8 The 49ers shouldn’t have had to go on the road to beat them. It’s an unfair punishment.

Reseeding by record within the conference, this season the 49ers would have played the Arizona Cardinals, who finished… 10-6. Seemingly better than 8-7-1, right? Such a system might actually punish teams in the 49ers position, who get to play an alleged bad team in the first round. I guess the 49ers would have gotten the Cardinals at home, though. Wait, which matters more, playing at home or having a better record? Oh, right, it’s inconsistent. You could find similar scenarios by reseeding the whole league by record, or reseeding but keeping the division winners in regardless, whatever.

And that’s the point: all of these different systems are really similar anyway! A case can always be made for a team playing an opponent they “shouldn’t have to”, in a venue they “shouldn’t have to”. “It isn’t fair.” “It’s all about the money.” “It doesn’t produce the very best team.”

4. Get Over It

Fairness matters, definitely. It’s “the right thing”, and it also produces a higher level of competition in the postseason. No one wants to watch the Houston Texans any more this year than one already had to. Fans want to be entertained by close games and upsets, but they also want a baseline level of fairness.

That’s fine, that’s good… we already have it! The NFL doesn’t draw playoff teams out of a hat.9 A balanced system is already in place. The very best teams (through sixteen games) always make the playoffs in the current system, and usually end up with at least one home game. Good, not elite teams almost always make the playoffs. Rewarding the division winners not only produces some postseason excitement (a la the 2010 Seahawks), it also provides in-season excitement, with most of the 96 intra-division games each season meaning quite a bit.

Leave the NFL playoffs alone. “Deserving” teams can win on the road if they want to win the Super Bowl (as the Saints, Chargers, 49ers, and very nearly the Chiefs did last weekend). The division format is geographically logical, rooted in tradition, reasonably fair, and most importantly, fun! Quit whining.

Though not quite relevant enough to work its way in this piece, I wanted to note that in his article, Levy mentioned that “The NFC West was 42-22 overall this season, while the NFC North was 28-34-2. Looking at just non-division games, the NFC West was 30-10 against other divisions, while the putrid NFC North was 17-23 outside of its division.” This is hilarious! If it’s an intra-division game, the division record can’t net one way or the other; one team’s win is the other’s loss. Note that he subtracted the same number of wins and losses from each division, because a division is guaranteed to go .500 against itself! Thanks for the statistical insight!

  1. And if you really wanted a true test, the ranking criteria wouldn’t be on the resulting win-loss-tie records, but a metric more indicative of talent and less subject to randomness, such as Pythagorean win-loss-tie record, or DVOA. Is finding the best team still your number one priority? 
  2. If you’re still having trouble: the 49ers can make the playoffs by winning the NFC West division (1), having the best non-division-winner record (2), or having the second-best non-division-winner record (3). Routes two and three to the playoffs have nothing to do with the 49ers winning their division. 
  3. This is not true in the conference championship round if both wildcards win their first two playoff games, in which case the five seed would host the six seed. A precursory search indicates that this has never happened. 
  4. 16 teams in each conference, minus the four division winners equals twelve teams potentially chasing the wildcard. 
  5. Two of the following–Arizona, Carolina, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Seattle–could have ended up with a wildcard. But two of them were guaranteed to win their division (either Carolina/New Orleans and San Francisco/Seattle), effectively leaving three teams fighting for two wildcards. 
  6. Teams with better records are not always better. There is an element of luck involved in wins and losses. 
  7. See? I can say it too! Notice, I provided at least a little bit of non-anecdotal evidence before doing so. Go me! 
  8. The whole Aaron Rodgers thing makes this a little weird, because obviously with him they are way better than 8-7-1. Just assume the Packers are bad or imagine an actually bad 8-7-1 team making the playoffs, or remember the 7-9 NFC West champion 2010 Seahawks, or whatever. 
  9. Yeah, that’s the other end of the excitement-fairness spectrum, the opposite of a double round-robin, and surprise surprise, no one wants that either.