The NFC East is in position to make history in 2020 and not for a good reason. With the real possibility that a team could take the division with a 6-10 record, could this finally force the NFL to rethink its rules about playoff seeding?
We’re already going to see a new playoff format this season with the inclusion of a third playoff team. There will now be six games on Wild Card weekend and only the top team from each conference will enjoy a 1st-round bye.
This change will mollify some complaints about a team with a superior record losing a playoff spot to a division winner. But still, 2020 has the potential to keep that debate going if the Cowboys, Eagles, Giants, or Football Team don’t go on a late-season hot streak.
Dallas, New York, and Washington would have to win out the final six weeks just to get to 9-7. Philadelphia can get to 9-6-1 at best, but none of these seem likely based on what we’ve seen from all four teams so far.
Only twice in standard seasons (not counting the 1982 strike-shortened year) have losing teams made the playoffs. The 2010 Seattle Seahakws won their division at 7-9 and the 2014 Carolina Panthers did it at 7-8-1.
Both instances caused discussion about whether or not division winners with losing records deserved automatic playoff bids and/or home games in the 1st round. And if this year’s NFC East Champion comes in at six wins or less, that debate is guaranteed to return and be more intense than ever.
The current NFL standings going into Week 12 have the 5-5 Chicago Bears as the 8th team in the standings; the team who would be denied a playoff spot if the season ended today. If Chicago or whoever finishes 8th in the conference doesn’t have a winning record themselves then it might cool the conversation a little.
Still, even if the Bears are only 8-8 that’s still better than a potential 6-10 or 7-9 winner from the NFC East. The cause for complaint still exists.
The issue for the NFL is that you can’t make division championships irrelevant, otherwise you make divisions and the rivalries within them meaningless. And two of the biggest drivers for interest weekly for the NFL are team rivalries and the high stakes of division games.
An exception I’d consider to this, though, is if the team missing the playoffs had a head-to-head victory over the division winner with a worse record.
For example, the Bears defeated the Giants back in Week 2. If the Giants were to wind up winning the NFC East but had a worse overall record than Chicago, I could see them forfeiting their playoff spot in that scenario (but only if New York actually had a losing record overall).
One far more simple change I think may come from this, and should, is that the division winner is ONLY guaranteed a playoff spot. That’s more than enough reward and preserves the integrity of the division system.
Hosting a game in the first round or any round of the playoffs should depend entirely on overall record and subsequent tiebreakers. If two teams have the same overall record then give the nod to a division winner over a wild card team, but otherwise the team that performed better in the regular season should get the home game.
Again, there are still six weeks to go and the final playoff picture is far from clear. Maybe someone form the NFC East will indeed get hot and take this topic off the table.
But based on the current trajectories of all parties involved, I have a feeling we’ll be coming back to this discussion with renewed vigor once the 2020 playoffs begin.