There is a strong possibility that the eventual winner of the NFC East in 2019, likely either the Dallas Cowboys or Philadelphia Eagles, will have an 8-8 record or worse. This bring us back to the unavoidable debate about how much these mediocre teams really deserve playoff consideration; should teams with winning records be pushed aside because someone won a bad division?
The most recent example of this was the 2014 Carolina Panthers, who won the NFC South with a 7-8-1 record. Their automatic bid to the postseason left a 10-6 Eagles squad and the 8-8 49ers sitting at home in January.
Carolina silenced many critics of their playoff appearance by winning in the first round over the wild card Arizona Cardinals, who'd gone 11-5 in the regular season. But had that game been in Arizona, and had the Cardinals not been down to their third-string quarterback, things may have gone quite differently.
The Panthers were blown out in the second round when they had to visit Seattle.
There is no denying the occasional unfairness of the NFL's playoff seeding system. The ebb and flow of parity and injury in football means that some divisions are just going to be bad at times, and one or two good teams will be left in the cold some years.
But do these random, sporadic injustices really mean the NFL should change the postseason format? Should provisions be in place to prevent bad teams from stealing playoff spots, or even just home field advantage, away from superior regular-season performers?
For example, let's consider the potential scenario for the Los Angeles Rams this year. They are currently 7-5 and could easily beat the Cowboys next Sunday. Let's say both teams finish 8-8 and Rams have a head-to-head victory over Dallas; do they deserve to miss the playoffs?
Or how about if the Green Bay Packers or Minnesota Vikings, who both defeated the Cowboys this season, wind up as a wild card team seeded against them in the tournament? Is it fair for either to have to come to Dallas for a playoff game just because they didn't win the NFC North?
The easy answer is “no” to the question of fairness. But at the same time, the NFL can't change the rules in a way that neuters the importance of division games and rivalries.
This is a league where helmets matter more than jerseys; fans root for the team more than the players. That trickles down into making rivalry games the real bread and butter of the NFL product.
Winning the division has to mean something or else you'd just have to get rid of them completely. That's why I think the answer here is found in the middle; give division winners a playoff spot and nothing more.
Give the Cowboys or Eagles, or any other future division winner with a weak record, a spot in the tournament. But then make them go on the road if the wild card team has a superior overall record.
This year it's probably going to work out to our benefit, Dallas fans, but imagine if we were that other team. Think how you'd feel if the Cowboys were on the wrong end of the current rules.
I really don't think this is that complicated. Seems like the best solution for overall fairness across the league. Honestly, I'm surprised it didn't come into effect after 2014 or one of the other times this issue has come up.
We'll see if Dallas or Philadelphia does something in January to mitigate this problem. But even if they do, the NFL should still consider the format change to help avoid future debates.