No matter what happens tonight in Chicago between the Saints and Bears, one thing’s for sure–the NFC South champ will not have a winning mark this year. It’s OK, America. We will survive this.
Even if the New Orleans Saints win their final three games of the regular season, the eventual NFC South winner will enter the playoffs with, at best, a .500 record. Should the Saints run the table, they’ll still only finish the regular season 8-8.
Until 2010, no team had reached the playoffs with a losing record other than during the strike-shortened 1982 season when clubs played only nine games. That’s saying something for a league that started in 1920. In 2010, however the Seattle Seahawks made history, capturing the NFC West at 7-9. The uproar was on.
Seattle’s under .500 division title sparked calls for re-seeding, for no home games for division champs with losing records, for not allowing losing teams in at all. It happened once. Ever. Yet, the revolt was on. Four years later, with the NFC South’s sub-par performance catalyzing the outrage, the cries for change return. These calls, however, are unwarranted. Folks need to calm down and think a little more about the issue.
Just like the NFC West in 2010, the 2014 NFC South is weak, no doubt, but in the end either New Orleans, Carolina, or Atlanta will do what they need to do to get in the playoffs. When the season starts, teams strive to win their division. It comes with an automatic bid to the postseason. It should. Unlike college, the NFL relies on no judges or style points. It’s in your hands. As Al Davis might put it, “Just win, baby.” If you have divisions, and play regimented schedules based on those divisions, coming out on top should matter.
I could see a problem if this happened year in and year out. But it doesn’t. In the NHL, success for six, seven, and even eight seeds is the norm. Losing teams qualify for the NBA playoffs almost annually. Everyone thought it was cute when the just-over .500 Mets won the pennant in 1973. It was even cuter when the 1987 Twins and 2006 Cards won it all after barely posting winning marks in the regular campaign.
The NFL has done a great job rewarding teams that have done what they set out to do–win their division. Enough damage has already been done by Goodell and company. You can’t hit anyone, you can’t play in big snow, you can’t celebrate a touchdown, and you can’t have sudden death overtime. Can we at least allow division winners in the playoffs?
The 7-9 Seahawks validated their unique playoff appearance following the 2010 season by beating the defending champion Saints in the wildcard round of the playoffs. In fact every team that has won a division with a non-winning record since the NFL went to the eight division format in 2002 has won their opening playoff game. Along with the Seahawks, the 2008 Chargers and the Tim Tebow-led Broncos of 2011 posted playoff wins. Those who argue that these teams don’t belong claim they aren’t good enough to be in the playoffs.
Winning postseason games debunks that argument.
What this really comes down to is math–sheer numbers. With four divisions in each conference we are bound to see more division winners with single-digit victories. Since 2002, when the league went to eight divisions of four teams each, three have captured division titles at 8-8 or worse. The NFC South winner this year will make it four. Compare that to the old format of six divisions. From 1970-2001 only once did a non-winning team win a division title. The 1985 Cleveland Browns clinched the AFC Central with a record of 8-8. They actually took a 21-3 lead over the Miami Dolphins in the divisional round before Dan Marino led the Fins to a big comeback victory.
So really, it comes down to the divisional set-up more than anything. Those in favor of a change should call for bringing back three bigger divisions in each conference, not for penalizing teams that are doing all that is necessary to make the postseason.
Because the NFC South winner will take up one of the playoff spots that means that of the Cowboys, Eagles, Lions, Packers, and Seahawks–at least one of these teams will not make the playoffs this season. Tough break but this happens. The Cardinals were shut out in 2013 despite going 10-6. The Bears went 10-6 the year before, missed the postseason, and fired Lovie Smith. Meantime, the Giants went 9-7 in 2011 and went on to win the Super Bowl. The 1979 Rams and 2008 Cards reached the Super Bowl after 9-7 regular seasons. There are peaks and valleys in the NFL standings but it all works out. Division winners are a necessary cog in the machine.
Granting a wild card team a home game in the first round when a division winner has a losing record would be arbitrary at best. Keeping a division winner out would be plain wrong. Whether you’re 16-0 or 0-10-6, you are part of the playoffs if that record is good enough to win your division.
The NFL system is kind of like the Electoral College. Presidential candidates square off in, say, Florida, and whoever gets the most votes wins that state. You can win by one vote or hundreds of thousands. It doesn’t matter. Just like in football. You need to win your division by doing better than the three teams you play twice every year. It matters.
Just like the world of politics you’ll have people complain about the system based on whether the results fall in their favor. In other words, Bush backers were OK with losing the popular vote in 2000 while Gore supporters attacked the Electoral College. Don’t you think Democrats would have been singing a different tune had Gore won without the popular vote? Same deal in the NFL. Fans of whatever team left on the outside looking in two weeks from now will call for change. If they were the 8-and-8-or-under team clinching a berth, however, you’d likely hear them chalk it up to a quirky season.
If the NFL doesn’t reward division champions, then you can’t have divisions. So, either get rid of them, keep them, or expand them. If you do have divisions, though, and play schedules based on them, then winning your division needs to be something that’s rewarded.
Until then, to paraphrase Dan Aykroyd as Jimmy Carter on Saturday Night Live when he took a call from a young man spaced out on orange sunshine: “Try taking some vitamin B complex, vitamin C complex… if you have a beer, go ahead and drink it…. Just remember you’re a living organism on this planet, and you’re very safe. You’ve just taken a heavy drug. Relax, stay inside and listen to some music. OK? Do you have any Allman Brothers?”
In other words, relax. A Saints, Panthers, or Falcons playoff berth won’t kill anyone. Furthermore, don’t be surprised if that NFC South winner notches a playoff victory after all this crying is over.