This type of thing has happened to the New Orleans Saints before. Nine years ago, the year after the Super Bowl, to be exact.
The Philadelphia Eagles won the NFC East Sunday, beating the New York Giants to finish the season at 9-7. The Seattle Seahawks lost at home to San Francisco Sunday night, handing the NFC West division to the 49ers and resigning the Seahawks to the fifth seed wild card with a solid 11-5 record.
One victory–one victory and yet more horrendous officiating–dropped Seattle from the second seed to the fifth seed. It also lost them the division crown and a bye in the first round of the playoffs.
It is, admittedly, one thing that makes the NFL playoff chase so tantalizing to follow.
But it also makes a neutral fan rooting for none of these teams this year take note of how utterly unjust it all is, especially when you consider the human element of stunningly bad officiating that can decide a game one way or another, that can decide three full spots in playoff seeding for a much more deserving team.
Sadly, the NFC East “champions,” by way of a record that fell two full games behind Seattle, will get to host the vastly superior team from the Pacific northwest next weekend in the first round of the playoffs.
It’ll be Seahawks at Eagles this weekend.
In 2002, the NFL added the Houston Texans to round out the league at 32 teams. The addition allowed the league to implement a uniform schedule and reset some of the geographical issues that had arisen over the years due to team relocation and league expansion. The NFL went to an eight-division, four-team-per-division format, which set up each of the eight division winners to host at least one playoff game.
In theory, this sounds equitable, and most seasons play out smoothly enough to where there is no alarming disparity between the records of a team that hosts and the wild card that has to go on the road.
Usually it all makes sense.
But 2019, a year in which the abysmal Philadelphia Eagles get to host a coveted playoff game against a complete, dangerous team in Seattle, is different. It is the type of year that calls for a tweak in the current playoff model.
This record gap happens enough to make the change, but not so often as to endanger the integrity of the standard playoff format. Back in the 2010 season, Seattle became the first team in NFL history to win its division with a losing record at 7-9, but they got to host the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints (11-5) who simply fell into a much tougher division that year. The Saints finished a full four games ahead of Seattle record-wise that year, twice as many as the two games that separated them from NFC South champion Atlanta (13-3). Yet still, because of the inflexible model, the Saints, who had mauled the Seahawks in the Superdome in the regular season 34-19, had to travel out west on a rainy, miserable Saturday afternoon.
And they lost 41-36.
Another defending Super Bowl champion suffered the same fate the very next season. The Pittsburgh Steelers, with the same 12-4 record as AFC North champion Baltimore, had to travel to Denver to face Tim Tebow and the Broncos, who won the AFC West with an 8-8 record.
The Steelers fell in overtime, 29-23.
In 2013, the 8-7-1 NFC North champion Green Bay Packers gave the 12-4 49ers all they could handle in a 23-20 first round loss.
And in 2014, the 7-8-1 NFC South champion Carolina Panthers defeated the 11-5 Arizona Cardinals, 26-17 in the opening round.
Four instances this decade where mediocrity was rewarded. And in three of those instances, the much worse team won the game.
Understandably, those who would disagree with the idea of tweaking the current model would point to exactly that fact–the division winner won the game–as proof that the team was better than the wild card. That point is not what is being disputed here. There have been plenty of wild card teams with lesser records to go on to win the Super Bowl.
But at least in those cases the division winners with better records had their chance to advance at home.
The tweak? Award a home game to a wild card team with a two-game or more advantage over a division winner, or a one-game advantage with a head-to-head regular season victory over the division winner. Conversely, a head-to-head regular season win by the lesser team would mean the better-record wild card team would have to own at least a three-game advantage in the record column in order to host.
In this model, the Saints would have owned a four-game advantage and the head-to-head over the Seahawks after that 2010 season. Clearly, New Orleans earned the home game.
In this model, a 9-7 division winner would not have to travel to a 10-6 wild card, but it would have to travel to an 11-5 wild card. Case in point: this year’s Philadelphia and Seattle teams.
It should be Eagles at Seahawks this weekend. But it won’t be. And in this objective observer’s opinion, that dilutes the integrity and power of the regular season.
The regular season, played in the fall, mostly in decent weather, should mean more. In the current format, a January blizzard or any other of nature’s fickle whims can have more influence than team skill and season resume. The league deserves, and fans want to see, the best teams squaring off in the later rounds of the playoffs, not a cupcake getting crushed by the top seed. And if it does happen to go that way, fine, but at least give the clearly superior teams a better chance to prove their mettle over the mediocre “champions” of a weak division. It would make for a much better product on the field, and a much more trustworthy barometer in determining the most deserving Super Bowl champion.
Writer Jeff LeJeune has an M.A. in English, is a high school and college instructor, and is a former college athlete. In addition to his writing work for The Hayride, he is a ghostwriter, editor, and novelist. His website is www.jefflejeune.net.