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Point, counterpoint: Division games

Should the bulk of division games be played late in the season?


! Editor Vic Ketchman says yes.

I can think of several reasons for not loading the late-season schedule with all-important division games, but I can think of only one reason for doing it, and it's for the best reason of all: It creates good theater.

That was a favorite line of Pete Rozelle's when he was commissioner. It was also the intent of the NFL's long-time director of broadcasting and schedule-maker, Val Pinchbeck.

Pinchbeck was a master at crafting a schedule that delivered to the league's fans and TV partners alike a schedule that seemed to heighten in drama with each passing week. With playoff berths on the line, the final weeks of the season, of course, are the days of greatest drama.

That's why loading the schedule with division games late in the season is a good idea. It's a good idea because division games represent a two-game swing in the standings and because they go directly to the tiebreakers. In most cases, they also represent games between teams playing where they live, which means dealing with weather conditions that shouldn't be foreign to them.

A 9-4 team playing at a 10-3 division rival can move into the division lead and clinch the No. 1 tiebreaker with a win that sweeps the two-game series between the two teams. How's that for drama in Week 15?

In contrast, the 1997 Packers played their second game against the Bears that season in Week 7, which meant no chance of such late-season drama between the two rivals existed. In fact, only one of the Packers' final seven games that season was against a division rival.

Loading the late-season schedule with division games is done with one goal in mind, to create drama and excitement for the fans and the league's broadcast partners, because happy fans and broadcast partners are good for business.

! Staff Writer Mike Spofford says no.

I realize it makes for great drama and good theater but, frankly, I just don't think it's fair.

The six division games should be spread out over the schedule, which would put just as much importance on teams being able to play well in meaningful games early as well as late. It's a more balanced approach that wouldn't allow a team to go in the tank for a whole month without losing at least one division game.

I think if the division games were more spread out, you'd get a truer division champion because a team is tested by its fiercest rivals throughout the long season, not just at a bunch of times at the end.

This year, it has created the drama in the NFC North that the NFL seeks. The Bears, Packers and Vikings are all within two games of one another with five to go, and plenty of head-to-head clashes remain. Had the Vikings beaten the Bears last Sunday, it would be a three-way tie right now.

But how this was scheduled, I don't like. It took until last week for the Bears and Vikings to meet for the first time, and now they're going to meet again next week. This Sunday, Dec. 2, is the first Packers-Vikings game of 2012. To wait until December to see a division rival is too long. Last year, Thanksgiving Day was the first time the Packers and Lions met. Again, too long.

Here's the other part I don't like: the injury factor. With all these division games bunched together – the Packers play three straight starting this week and four in the last five weeks – if a team loses a key player to injury at the wrong time, its fortunes can sink.

There's enough dumb luck involved with injuries in the NFL. We don't need to be adding an element to the schedule that makes the timing of injuries paramount.

The Bears recently lost QB Jay Cutler for two games, but the Bears are fortunate those two games weren't in Weeks 14 and 15, against the Vikings and Packers. They were much better off that he missed games against the Texans and 49ers instead.

The same could be said for the Packers' Greg Jennings. If he returns this week, as expected, he will have missed seven straight games, but just one division game. If there's anything lucky about Jennings' injury, that's it.

Back in 2010, the league mandated that all Week 17 games be division contests, across the board. If the league wanted to amend that policy to feature the final two weeks – one home and away division game for each team – I could go for that. It would help avoid what happened to the Packers in 2009, when their two games against the Vikings were done by Week 8. That wasn't right, either.

Other than the last week or two, the rest of the division slate needs to be spread out from September through November. Playing four division games in five weeks, as the Packers are doing, or the same division opponent twice in three weeks, as the Bears and Vikings are doing, just seems out of whack.

Cast your vote in the poll on the right, please.

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