The NFL’s current structure of four divisions per conference and four teams per division creates a neat, tidy, and symmetrical collection of franchises. It looks great on paper. And it makes it easier for the league to craft a scheduling formula that permits every team to play every other team every four years. It also gives season-ticket holders a chance to see every team in the league once every eight years. (Unless one of those interconference games gets shipped to London.)
But the structure has its flaws. To get to the playoffs — and to host a postseason game — a team needs only to be the best of four teams. No matter how bad any of those four teams are in any given year.
This year, four teams with bad records have congregated in the NFC South, where the Saints and Falcons stand at 4-7, the Panthers have a record of 3-7-1, and the Buccaneers sit only two games back, despite winning only two of 11 games.
The best cure to the problem would come from shifting back to three divisions per conference. The league used that structure before the Texans joined the NFL in 2002, with five divisions having five teams each and one sporting six. Now with 32 franchises, four divisions would have five teams, and two would have six.
Having at least five teams in a given division would make it much harder for a team to win a division with a non-winning record. Which would result in three divisions winners plus three wild cards per conference filling out the postseason dance card.
The next best alternative would be to remove the guaranteed home game in the wild-card round for a division winner. Give the four division champs plus the next best two teams tickets to the party, but seed them based not on division title but on overall record.
Some would say that would be an overreaction to the possibility that a five-win team will be hosting a playoff game in January. Actually, it would be an appropriate reaction to a trend that has forced better teams to travel to face lesser teams in the postseason.
Last year, the 12-4 49ers had to play the 8-7-1 Packers in Green Bay. The home-field advantage was exacerbated by dangerously cold conditions, but the 49ers overcame the inherently unfair requirement that a team with 50 percent more wins had to hit the road.
The prior season, a 10-6 Ravens team launched its Super Bowl run by hosting an 11-5 Colts team. While the difference in records wasn’t as glaring, the Colts had a better season than the Ravens. The game should have been played in Indianapolis.
After 2011, the 8-8 Broncos earned a home game against the 12-4 Steelers. Pittsburgh headed to Denver without safety Ryan Clark, whose sickle-cell trait prevents him from playing at altitude. If that game had been played at Heinz Field, Clark would have been available — and perhaps Tebowmania wouldn’t have fueled an unlikely overtime win.
The issue bubbled to the surface most conspicuously in 2010, when the 7-9 Seahawks hosted the 11-5 Saints. After Seattle won, some argued that the outcome validated the structure, since Seattle proved to be the better team. The truth is that the Seahawks rode an unearned home-field advantage to the win; if the game had been played in New Orleans, the Saints would have been far more likely to prevail.
Perhaps it will take an extreme outcome to provoke change. If, for example, the Saints finish 5-11 or 6-10 and defeat in the Superdome, for example, an 11-5 or 12-4 Seahawks team, maybe the league will take notice — and take action. That specific result also would represent the appropriate bookend to the game that first brought the biggest flaw of having eight four-team divisions into focus.