The NFL has a major playoff flaw, that continues to hide in plain sight — with no apparent desire to fix it.
Nine years ago, the 7-9 Seahawks hosted the 11-5 Saints in the wild-card round. Seattle “earned” a home game in the postseason by being the best of four really bad teams. The Saints, who finished in second place in the NFC South behind the 13-3 Falcons, had to travel to one of the toughest places to play.
The Seahawks won, prompting some to say that the outcomes proved that they were the better team. The better explanation was that, if the game had been played in New Orleans, the Saints would have won.
This year, the Seahawks could be burned by the rule from which they benefited. Either Seattle or San Francisco likely will finish 13-3 or 12-4, and whoever doesn’t win the NFC West will have to travel either Dallas or Philadelphia, one of which will win the division, possibly with a record of 8-8 or worse.
With the Cowboys currently leading the NFC East by one game, a win over the Eagles in Week 16 could clinch the division for Dallas, allowing the Cowboys to rest their starters in Week 17, which the 49ers and Seahawks engage in a bare-knuckled, winner-take-all fight for the NFC West crown, with the loser limping to Dallas — and possibly losing there, too.
It shouldn’t be that way. The four best teams from each conference should host playoff games. While winning a division should guarantee a spot in the playoffs, it shouldn’t guarantee a home game.
Maybe the rule should be that the division winner has to have a winning record to host a wild-card game. Maybe the division winner should be required to generate a record of 10-6 or better.
Whatever the formula, the current one is grossly unfair. The four worst, most dysfunctional teams could all be in the same division, and one of them will be guaranteed to host a playoff game, no matter how much better the fifth seed in the conference may be.
What’s the argument against it? That winning a division is so special and magical that a home game must be granted to at least one team from pre-determined each four-team cluster? That it’s tradition?
Whatever the arguments may be, fairness dictates a different approach. The Cowboys or Eagles have no business hosting a home game this year in the playoffs, and the 49ers or Seahawks should not be going on the road. Just like the Saints shouldn’t have gone on the road nine years ago.
So here’s the question: Will the owners ever take up this issue? If they ever do, how will they justify embracing the status quo?
One of the 32 teams should propose the rule change, putting it on the agenda for March. And the owners, if they choose not to change the rules, should be ready to explain why the ultimate meritocracy determines playoff positioning based on factors other than merit as reflected by wins versus losses.