Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.
The NBA this season tweaked its playoff system to render division standings essentially meaningless, other than giving four extra teams a chance to hang a division championship banner next autumn.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, to the extent it makes life a little bit less interesting but a lot more fair.
Which brings us to the NFL, which takes the opposite approach to divisional integrity. That’s no surprise for the world’s most anal sports entity, where everything must be organized into eight neat, tiny packages of four-team mini-worlds.
Interesting? Often. Fair? Often not.
To be clear, this is not a call to change the system, which is a net positive because in show business interesting trumps fair every time. So count me in for the NFL’s rivalry-friendly frenzy.
But sometimes it hurts.
Exhibit A: The 2015 Jets, who if they win their final two regular-season games — one against the Patriots Sunday, the other against Rex Ryan’s Bills Jan. 3 — could well have a six-game winning streak, an 11-5 record and the rest of January off.
This in a league where entering Saturday night’s game there were two division leaders — the Redskins and Texans — with .500 records.
If the Jets miss out under those circumstances — especially key veterans such as Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brandon Marshall who never have made the playoffs — it would be impossible not to feel for them.
I asked cornerback Darrelle Revis, who earned a Super Bowl ring as a Patriot last season, whether it would be hard to take missing the postseason if the Jets finish 11-5.
“Uh, yeah,” he said. “The league has been a little erratic this year with how the records have been with teams and wins and losses and how the conference is going to pan out and the outcome of it. It’s a little wacky year.
“We just have to continue to just focus, and focus on this week, focus on this game right here and we’ll see down the road what happens.”
When I tried the same question on coach Todd Bowles, he answered with typical Bowles-ian matter-of-fact-itude.
“No, it’s not frustrating,” he said. “You have to win enough to get in, whether that’s 10, 11 or 12. The rules have been the same. We went 10-6 in Arizona in my first year and we got beaten out by tiebreakers.
“You have to win the games. You have to win to get in. If we do happen to go 11-5 and don’t get in, then we didn’t get in.”
Actually the 2013 Cardinals, for whom Bowles was defensive coordinator, did not miss the playoffs on a tiebreaker. They lost their final game to the 49ers while the Saints won to secure the last NFC wild-card spot at 11-5.
But even if the Cardinals had beaten the 49ers to go 11-5, they would have lost out on a tiebreaker.
Before that game Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer said, “To be 11-5 and not get in the playoffs, it almost seems unfair and unjust, but that’s how it is.”
The only teams to finish 11-5 and miss the postseason were the 1985 Broncos and 2008 Patriots, and only those Patriots did so under the current format.
They also did so after losing quarterback Tom Brady in the opener and going with backup Matt Cassel — the same Matt Cassel who was so awful for the Cowboys against the Jets last weekend that he was pulled in the second quarter.
(The ’08 Pats finished with a 13-0 victory at Buffalo, by the way. But that was before Ryan was the coach there.)
The 1985 Browns and 2008 Chargers each qualified in those seasons as division titlists at 8-8.
For now, of course, all of this is academic. The Jets still must pull off a mild upset Sunday or risk eventually joining the longer list of 10-6 teams that fell short of playoff berths.
That would be unusual. Missing out at 11-5 would be cruel.