Why NFL Playoff Seeding Should Change
The Pittsburgh Steelers are very likely to finish 12-4 this season and end up with the 5 seed in the AFC. What’s wrong with this picture? I know what you’re thinking. 12-4 seems like an awfully good record for a 5 seed. Since switching to the divisional format that was put in place before the 2002 season, the NFL has attempted to reward the division winners by guaranteeing them a top four seed in the playoffs regardless of record. This reward is misguided, however, as the case of the Steelers demonstrates.
As long as the Ravens and Patriots both win in week 17, the Steelers will indeed be the 5 seed. This will result in them playing the winner of the AFC West, either the 8-7 Raiders or the 8-7 Broncos on the road. In other words, the 11-4 Steelers will have to play a vastly inferior team on the road in the first week of the playoffs simply because they play in a harder division. The way playoff seeding is currently set up, teams are almost penalized for playing in a quality division like the AFC North. If a team can go 12-4 and still not win their division, then it’s obviously a strong division. This in turn means that the team likely played a far more difficult schedule than a team in a weaker division would have due to the fact that they had to play each divisional opponent twice.
Unfortunately, with the unevenness of divisions in the NFL the Steelers are just this year’s example of the issue. They’re not even this year’s only example either, as the Falcons and the Lions will both finish with better records and worse seeds than whichever team, the Giants or the Cowboys, takes home the NFC East title. Perhaps the worst example came in 2010 when the 11-5 Saints had to travel to Seattle to take on the 7-9 Seahawks. Despite being 10 point favorites in the game, the Seahawks were able to take utilize their home field advantage, knocking the defending champion Saints out of the playoffs. The situation in the AFC North was reversed last year, when 12-4 Baltimore had to travel to Arrowhead to take on the 10-6 Chiefs. This just makes no sense.
Changing the seeding format to one based on record would also result in more meaningful games in the final weeks of the regular season. For instance, if a team has a division already wrapped up going into week 17 with a 10-5 record they could sit their starters knowing they have a playoff spot. Under my proposed format, this team would have to play to win because every game matters for playoff seeding. This playoff system would make far more sense and make every game count more in the NFL. Each division would still have one representative in the playoff, but they are not guaranteed a top 4 seed.