Should the NFL change their playoff structure?

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The NFL playoffs are one of the most highly anticipated sporting events of the year. Fans are treated to a win-or-go-home tournament, leading to the ultimate day in all of sports – the Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl has become a part of American culture. It brings people together, regardless of their affection for the sport. It is a chance to socialize and come together to view a collection of sports, entertainment, musical performances, and of course some funny commercials. Women, men, kids, and adults. All of us look forward to Super Bowl Sunday each year.

But I’d like to take a second to address the path we take to get there. Does the current playoffs structure leave more to be desired? Is there room to improve the current system?

As it stands, there are two conferences in the NFL – the AFC and NFC. Each conference is further divided into four divisions. At the end of the regular season, each conference has six teams competing in a playoff. So how are the 12 teams determined?

When the NFL expanded to 32 teams in 2002, they also went from having three divisions per conference (six total) to four (eight total). The NFL playoffs reward teams for winning their respective divisions, granting an automatic bid to each winner. The remaining two teams with the best records, will each claim one of the final two “Wild Card” spots.

But should the NFL give the automatic entry to each team that won their division? People generally enjoy having an even playing field. The problem is that this system fails to do that in a truly fair way. That is because some divisions are obviously easier than others. This structure then rewards inferior teams with a playoff berth, simply due to the division they are playing in.

The flaws with the current setup are obvious when you look at the 2011 Seattle Seahawks. In Pete Carroll’s first season as Head Coach of the team, the Seahawks finished just 7-9. Their division was truly terrible that season. They were rewarded for being the best of the worst. They were a below average team, in a very low level division.

While the Seahawks celebrated their playoff berth, two teams with 10-6 records were left out of the postseason – the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Why would the NFL reward a team that failed to win half of its games, and against what was inferior competition in its own division?

Both the Giants and Bucs were able to get ten wins against much stronger opponents, and they get sent packing? Does that make any sense? Is that what the NFL wants? In our modern society, we should strive to reward greatness, rather than to reward mediocrity due to circumstance.

It’s a situation that feels flawed at its core. But wait, it gets worse. Not only did those Seahawks get a playoff berth, but they got to play at home. The current system gives a Bye Week to the top two division winners in each conference. Meanwhile, the next two division winners get to host a game in the Wild Card round.

Essentially, a team that shouldn’t even be in the postseason tournament is further rewarded for its shortcomings. It is truly baffling that this is still the system that the NFL employs. In the case of the 2011 Seahawks, they were unjustifiably given the chance to host a home game against the defending Super Bowl champs New Orleans Saints, who had a 11-5 record that season. It really makes no sense when you think about it.

Let’s compare the NFL’s system to that of the NBA. In the NBA, there are also divisions. While these divisions act as a good way of gauging competition and can be used as tiebreakers in late season playoff pushes, they are not used to dictate playoff berths. The NBA uses conference standings, and awards the top eight teams with the best records, with an entry into the playoffs. This creates a more accurate representation of the best teams in the league, rather than rewarding an inferior team, simply due to their circumstance – playing in a weaker division.

In the end, I’d like to believe that fans enjoy watching the best possible matchups. It’s the best thing for the NFL, the teams, and of course the fans. Nobody wants to watch a bad team play in the postseason simply because their division is composed of even worse teams. We want to watch the best teams with the best players. It’s those matchups that get us all excited.

The NFL should know better. We live in a time where change is often welcomed. We are always looking to improve outdated policies in all aspects of life. It seems people are less inclined to simply accept existing notions, but rather we look to fix something that is broken. And rightfully so. With the NFL always making changes to its rules, they should really take a long look at its unjust and simply illogical postseason structure.