Three years ago, the 7-9 Seahawks hosted the 11-5 Saints in the wild-card round of the playoffs. After the Seahawks won, some actually argued that the victory validated the notion that the Seahawks were the better team.
In reality, Seattle parlayed its automatic home-field advantage at the stadium with one of the best home-field advantages into a berth the divisional round. If the game had been played in New Orleans, the Saints would have been favored to win by 10 or more points — and the Saints likely would have covered the spread.
The Saints traveled to Seattle because the Saints finished second to the top-seeded Falcons, while the 6-9 Seahawks beat the 7-8 Rams on the final day of the regular season to win what at the time was the worst division by far in football.
Today, the NFC West has a trio of 10-win teams; the fourth-place Rams have the same record as the Seahawks did when they won the division in 2010.
But winning the division, no matter how bad a division may be, continues to carry a playoff berth and a home game. While it would be unfair and impractical strip a division winner from a berth in the postseason, why does the best of four bad teams deserve a home playoff game?
This year, a seeding of the teams without regard to division championships would have turned wild-card weekend on its head in the NFC. The top two seeds (Seattle and Carolina) would have remained the same, since the 12-4 Panthers beat the 12-4 49er. But San Francisco’s 12-4 record would have given it the No. 3 seed. At No. 4 would have been the 11-5 Saints. The 10-6 Eagles would have been No. 5 and the Packers would have secured the sixth seed at 8-7-1.
More importantly, the Saints would be hosting the Eagles instead of traveling to Philly, and the Niners would be playing one more game at Candlestick Park, instead of traveling to the tundra, which by definition is frozen.
In the AFC, the Broncos and Patriots would have remained the top two seed. But the inclusion of Kansas City in the tiebreaker between the Colts and Bengals at 11-5 would have given Indy the No. 3 seed, via superior conference record. The Bengals would have gotten the No. 4 seed based on conference record, the Chiefs would have stayed at No. 5, and the Chargers would have qualified for the No. 6 seed.
The flip-flopping of No. 3 and No. 4 would have sent San Diego to Indy and Kansas City to Cincinnati.
The league has shown no inclination to take the automatic home game away from the division winner, but there’s no reason to continue to reward the best of four bad teams with a home playoff game. Home-field advantage in the postseason should be earned not via six divisional games but by all 16.