Two games threw the NFC’s playoff seeding system into a tizzy over the last couple of days. The 49ers’ 20-17 loss to the Ravens, and the Seahawks’ 37-30 win over the Vikings knocked San Francisco from first to fifth, and took Seattle to the second spot, behind New Orleans. Fair enough at the top, as Seattle and the Saints each have 10-2 records, and the Seahawks lost to the Saints, 33-27, in Week 3.
But things are not quite so fair at the bottom of the conference’s current seeding system. If the regular season ended today, the 49ers, who also have a 10-2 record with losses to the Ravens and Seahawks, would travel to Dallas during the wild-card round to face the Cowboys, who currently lead the NFC East with a record of… 6-6.
Yes, indeed. Kyle Shanahan’s team has lost one game in the conference, but they’d have to go on the road to play a team with four fewer victories, and three conference losses. One could argue in Dallas’ favor that they’re 4-0 in their own division, but these days, about the only teams that can’t beat NFC East teams are other NFC East teams.
Jimmy Kempski of PhilyVoice.com laid it all out nicely here:
Records and point differentials, by division, updated after Week 13: pic.twitter.com/BA9jZ9qMrj
— Jimmy Kempski (@JimmyKempski) December 3, 2019
Kempski also pointed out that when NFC East teams play outside their division through the first 13 weeks of the 2019 season, they have a 10-26 record. Meanwhile, the 49ers have gone through a comparative buzzsaw, especially in their own division, and the Cowboys get to host them?
Based on what? The ill-conceived idea of divisional supremacy. A few years back, the NFL’s schedule-makers weighted the last month of the season to inter-divisional games, to make those races more interesting. It was a great idea, but it also illustrates the advantage a team like Dallas has down the stretch. In their last four games, the Cowboys will play the Bears, Rams, Eagles, and Redskins. Philadelphia and Washington, the two other NFC East teams on that schedule, have a combined record of 8-16. Have we also mentioned that Dallas hasn’t beaten a team with a winning record all season?
Meanwhile, in their last four games, the 49ers face the Saints, Falcons, Rams, and Seahawks. Those last two opponents are also in the NFC West, and they have a combined record of 17-7.
Not exactly fair.
There’s one way to easily alter the current system, and though it may take the spark out of division championships, that’s a concept without much spark these days. Ask the 2010 Saints, who finished their regular season 11-5, but had to go on the road to play a 7-9 Seahawks team because Seattle had won an NFC West that didn’t have a single team with a winning record, and the Saints were in an NFC South with a 13-3 Falcons squad, and a 10-6 Buccaneers team.
Just as there was no way Seattle should have hosted that game (the “Beastquake” notwithstanding), there is no way the 49ers, or any other team whose situation is better than Dallas’, should have to travel to JerryWorld in the wild-card round.
So, let the NFL have its division champions, but take division wins out of the seeding process. Factor in everything else — overall records, head-to-head records, records against common opponents, strength of victory, strength of schedule, net points, net touchdowns, et al. But remove the divisional tie-breakers altogether, because they don’t make sense. There is no way a divisionao tie-breaker can work when one division has a point differential of plus-139, and another division has a point differential of minus-162.
Were the current seeds to be worked without divisional factors, it would look like this:
1. Baltimore Ravens (10-2)
2. New England Patriots (10-2)
3. Buffalo Bills (9-3)
4. Houston Texans (8-4)
5. Kansas City Chiefs (8-4)
6. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-3)
The only problem I see here is that the Bills leap over the Texans and Chiefs (who are slotted based on head-to-head win percentage) with their overall record, but their strength of schedule (.368) is by far the worst of any playoff entrant. But that’s the only alteration we’re making in the AFC seed — the Steelers would rank sixth based on their record, and that they have a better record than Tennessee (7-5) in conference games.
1. New Orleans Saints (10-2)
2. Seattle Seahawks (10-2)
3. San Francisco 49ers (10-2)
4. Green Bay Packers (9-3)
5. Minnesota Vikings (8-4)
6. Los Angeles Rams (7-5)
No Cowboys? No problem. As has been proven, there’s no reason for the Cowboys, or any other NFC East team, to be anywhere near the postseason as it currently stands. Now, here’s where the NFC seeding gets interesting. The 49ers and Saints face off in Week 14. Currently, a San Francisco win would give Seattle the one-seed if the Seahawks beat the Rams. But if the 49ers win? It’s a different ballgame. San Francisco would become the second seed, and that would give even more weight to the Week 17 game between Seattle and San Francisco. But as it stands, the 49ers can beat the Saints by 300 points, and it won’t matter. They’re stuck in fifth because of that pesky Cowboys thing.
The NBA already took this step a few years back. In September, 2015, Commissioner Adam Silver announced that team owners had voted to remove divisional seeding, and instead reward teams based on their records. This happened after the Portland Trail Blazers were given the fourth seed in the Western Conference despite a 51-win record that would have put them behind the 55-win San Antonio Spurs, but because Portland won the Northwest Division, and the Spurs came second to the Houston Rockets in the Southwest Division, San Antonio got an unfair disadvantage, and fell to the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the playoffs.
The NBA also made other changes to their playoff format, making head-to-head results the first criteria for playoff seeding and home-court advantage between two teams with the same regular-season records. The next criteria? Whether a team won its division or not. That’s as it should be. The more you win, the better your seeding should be. And if you believe that this idea somehow reduces the magnitude of the divisional concept… well, if the system doesn’t work, you change the system. No matter how much tradition seems to be in the way.
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