As the NFC East and AFC South races careen toward the finish line with the distinct possibility that those divisional champions will finish with losing records, out come the naysayers who demand that the NFL reconfigure its playoff system and reward the teams with the best records with the chance to compete for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Why should a losing team get into the tournament, they argue, while a team with a better record in another division can’t play because it neither wins its division nor qualifies for a wild-card spot? If the Giants, Washington or Philadelphia win the NFC East title at 7-9, why should any of them get in ahead of a team that finishes with a better record? And if the AFC South champion — be it Houston, Indianapolis or Jacksonville — can’t get to .500, why should the Jets sit out if they get to 11-5 but miss out on a wild card because the Steelers and Chiefs finish with the same record?
It’s a complaint that inevitably bubbles to the surface on the rare occasions when it appears as if a division title will be won by a team at .500 or below, and the drumbeat for a seeding system to replace the current setup grows louder.
Two words for those who suggest that a divisional winner forfeit the right to go to the playoffs because of a losing record: Get lost.
There’s a reason the NFL is the greatest sports league going, and blowing up its time-honored tradition of winning the right to play for a Super Bowl by winning your division is simply not the way to go. In a league in which divisional races are the lifeblood of its popularity, compromising that entire system to avoid the occasional — I repeat, occasional — situation in which worthy teams with better records than divisional champions are excluded from the playoffs is foolish.
“If you want to do it that way,” Giants defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins said, “then why bother playing everyone in your division twice a year? If you had a seeding system, there would really be no need to play teams twice a year. I like the idea of divisions, as opposed to seeding. It consolidates things a little bit, so it gives you a smaller area to focus on first before you look at the bigger picture.”
Jenkins brings up a great point, and he’s spot on about the issue of divisional games and the unintended consequences of seeding teams instead of going with the current system. If you seek to avoid the infrequent inequities in which teams with better records are shut out of the playoffs, you take away the meaningfulness of winning your own division. And that’s just not worth it, especially in a league in which decades-old rivalries mean so much and create the kind of interest and intrigue that have gotten the league to where it is today.
Take it from a coach who has won a divisional title with a losing record. Ron Rivera, whose Panthers won last year’s NFC South title at 7-8-1 and now are the NFL’s only unbeaten team at 13-0 heading into Sunday’s game against the Giants, argues that it’s essentially ludicrous to blow up the current system.
“This is about winning your division,” he said. “There’s a reason you have divisions, so you continue to keep the excitement for the fans, and because you’re in that division. It doesn’t mean that every year is going to be a down year. This just happened to be a down year for the NFC East, but a team that gets hot and gets on a roll like we did last year, you can make some noise in the playoffs.”
Rivera’s message: There’s no need to change now.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is a part of the game,” he said. “People want to talk about, ‘Well, you have to change it.’ No. Why? To satisfy other people? This is the way it is, and it needs to stay this way.”
Rivera offered up the 2011 Giants as an example of a team that deserves to get into the playoffs because it won its division, regardless of its record. The Giants were 9-7 that season, got on a playoff roll and won the Super Bowl.
“They weren’t one of the best six records, but yet they won the Super Bowl,” Rivera said. “There’s no reason to apologize. That’s how I felt about last year. I’ve been in this league almost 30 years, and every time I turn around, somebody wants to change something. The league is fine.”
He’s right. Leave it the way it is.
End of story.