I think winning a division should secure a team a playoff spot, but I don't think it should guarantee a home game in the playoffs.
The playoffs should be seeded the way logic dictates the seeds should fall – by record. The team with the most wins in the conference is No. 1, the team with the fewest is No. 6. I'm fine with division champions getting the better seed over a wild-card team as a tiebreaker but, even then, I'd want a head-to-head matchup between those teams to be the first tiebreaker on the list. If they didn't play each other, then the division champ gets the nod.
The NFL's current structure, with only four teams per division, has increased the odds over the old days of an 8-8 or 9-7 team placing first. Or, heaven forbid, a 7-9 team like Seattle in 2010.
Four-team divisions can be weak top to bottom, like the NFC West was last year and the AFC West is this year. Winning a weak division, with a .500 (or worse) record, shouldn't give a team a home game against another team with a better record. If you want to play at home in the playoffs, win more games. Earn it, please. The Seahawks beat the 11-5 Saints in the wild-card round last year due in part to a home-field advantage they didn't earn.
The fact that 12-4 Pittsburgh is playing at 8-8 Denver this weekend is troubling to me. Think about it. Yes, Pittsburgh placed second in its division, but the Steelers still won 12 games despite having to play two games against a better team in its own division. That practically guarantees that any 12-4 second-place team's schedule was tougher than an 8-8 division winner's slate.
So you're going to give the team with the weaker record against weaker competition a home game? I don't get that. The fact that Pittsburgh had a shot at the No. 1 seed in the AFC going into last weekend, won its game and ended up the No. 5 seed behind two teams with worse records just doesn't fly with me.
Similarly, 10-6 Atlanta shouldn't have to travel to New York to play the 9-7 Giants this weekend. The Giants went 5-7 in the NFC, for Pete's sake. They went 4-0 against the AFC East, which included a win over the Patriots, but how does a team that was below .500 in its own conference get to host another conference foe in a playoff game? This silly system, that's how.
Look, I'm not suggesting the NFL blow up its current divisional alignment or do anything drastic to the season's structure. Divisions give scheduling a sensible foundation and preserve rivalries. There should be a reward for coming out on top within that group.
But the reward of a playoff spot is plenty. A true seeding system for the postseason would take into account the entire body of work in that season (e.g., the final record), not just a placement among four teams, none of which may be any good.
Advantages should be earned, not bestowed. The parity of this great league demands it.
Whether it's fair or unfair isn't the issue. The issue is what's best for the league and creating division-title drama and rewarding regionalism is good for the business of professional football.
How do we know that? We know that because as recently as the owners meetings in the spring of 2008, it was proposed that the NFL adopt a best-record-only formula for seeding its playoff teams, and the proposal didn't garner enough support among the rest of the teams in the league to even get to a vote. In other words, nobody wants to change the system from the way it has been since wild cards were first awarded.
Unless something dramatic happens to change the minds of the league's ownership, the league will continue to reward all of its division winners with home playoff games, even division winners that couldn't break .500, such as the 2010 Seahawks (7-9) and 2011 Broncos (8-8). By the way, didn't those 7-9 Seahawks upset the defending Super Bowl-champion Saints in last season's playoffs?
Yeah, I know, the Broncos will play host to a 12-4 Steelers team this Sunday, so the Steelers' reward for having won more games than half of the league's playoff field is to play a game on the road that will force them to play without their starting safety because the last time he played in Denver's altitude he nearly lost his life. Hey, you wanna play at home? Win your division.
It's really that simple. The league isn't saying you can't host a playoff game. It's just saying that to guarantee you'll host one, you'll have to win your division's title. Everyone knows the rules going into the season. Make it your goal.
In a league that is often too big, its eight divisions are a cozy retreat. They encourage fans to travel within the division, which stimulates commerce. They promote identity which, in many cases, is geographic, giving the cold world of professional football a warm, college feel.
Take note of the league's scheduling in recent years. Division games are dominating the final month of the season. This season, the Packers finished at home against the Bears and Lions in the final two weeks.
The intent of that scheduling is to create regional drama. By rewarding each division with something as valuable as a home playoff game, the league hopes to turn those late-season games into regional TV blockbusters. Imagine eight championship matchups on the final weekend of the season.
So what would happen if a home playoff game wasn't the reward for some of those teams? The games' drama, of course, would decline dramatically.
Look, if we're going to obsess about fairness, then let's start with scheduling, OK? It's a fact of life in the NFL that some teams play tougher schedules than other teams, just as it's a fact of life in the NFL that some things just aren't fair.
Mike McCarthy calls it adversity football. You deal with it and it makes you stronger.
What do you think?