Seeds of Doubt

January 2, 2014 by Don Banks
The forecast for Sunday's 49ers-Packers game at Lambeau Field is for a high of 0 degrees with a 30 percent chance of snow. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
The forecast for Sunday’s 49ers-Packers game at Lambeau Field is for a high of 0 degrees with a 30 percent chance of snow. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

I’ll go out on a limb and make one lead-pipe prediction about the NFL playoffs that kick off this weekend:

If the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints hit the road in the NFC’s first round, and the road hits back, the league is going to find itself amid a renewed debate about why it continues to embrace a postseason format where clubs with a better seed but a worse record than their opponent are rewarded with a home game and all the advantages that come with it.

You know what I’m talking about. The 12-4 fifth-seeded 49ers at the 8-7-1 fourth-seeded Packers, in frigid Lambeau Field late Sunday afternoon. And the 11-5 sixth-seeded Saints at the 10-6 third-seeded Eagles, at a frosty Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday night. On their face, those numbers just don’t make sense.

Yep, it’s happening again. The inequality of the NFL’s playoff seeding system will be on full display this weekend, most vividly in the NFC. That’s where two teams which went a combined 23-9 overall and 14-2 at home this season will be on the road and playing in some pretty bitter elements against teams which were just 18-13-1 combined this season (including 8-7-1 at home), but managed to eke out division titles in two of the league’s weakest divisions, the NFC North and NFC East. And in the NFL, division titles trump wild-card qualifiers, no questions asked. Case closed.

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But it’s high time we re-open that case, as the NFL seems to do about every two or three years. You might remember the last time the playoff seeding issue surfaced and prompted sustained conversation within the league regarding the wisdom of prioritizing division titles over overall records. The Saints sure do.

For the second time in four seasons, New Orleans is beginning its playoff run on the road—where its struggles away from the Superdome have been both significant and well-chronicled—against an opponent with a better seed but a worse record.

Three years ago, it was the 11-5 fifth-seeded wild-card Saints at the 7-9 fourth-seeded division champion Seahawks, with Seattle pulling the 41-36 upset in memorable fashion. The win still didn’t get the Seahawks to the .500 mark on the season, but it did get them into the NFC’s divisional round, while the defending Super Bowl champion Saints went home.

In the aftermath of that glaring four-game discrepancy in records, the NFL’s competition committee in early 2011 again considered altering its playoff seeding format in favor of common sense, rewarding teams based on their record rather than giving the four division champions an automatic home game in one of the first two rounds. But the proposal never really went anywhere with the league’s full ownership, because while more than half of the NFL’s teams expressed support, it never came close to garnering the necessary 24 votes for passage.

The verdict? The league always has awarded division champions with at least one home playoff game, and enough owners thought that was a tradition worth keeping. If you didn’t win a division, you didn’t deserve the automatic privilege of playing at home, even if you proved superiority over a certain opponent over the course of the long 16-game regular season.

Not to go all “Fiddler on the Roof’’ on you, but I’m big on tradition, too. I still watch Ohio State-Michigan even when there’s relatively little at stake, can’t imagine Thanksgiving without Detroit and Dallas at home, and like things to stay the same way I remember them. But when tradition stops making sense, we should stop clinging to it. Tradition for tradition sake just isn’t a good enough reason.

I understand you can’t fix everything in the NFL, and there are some challenges that have to be met by teams, rather than smoothed out. But this one is an easy fix, and guaranteeing division champs a playoff berth—but no accompanying home playoff game—seems like the right middle ground to follow.

The bottom line: Finishing with a record that’s 3 1/2 games better than your playoff opponent should count for something.

After all, traditions change all the time. Some are worth keeping. Some aren’t. Believe it or not, the NFL actually used to rotate the home field of its NFC/AFC Championship Games between divisions in the early ‘70s, which is how the undefeated 1972 Dolphins actually had to go on the road to play at 11-3 Pittsburgh in the AFC title game that year. It was the same story in the NFC in 1973, when the 12-2 Vikings had to play the conference title game at Dallas, even though the Cowboys went just 10-4 that season.

If the NFL went by records alone in its playoff seeding, this weekend’s matchups would be quite different in a sense. In the NFC, No. 1 Seattle (13-3) and No. 2 Carolina (12-4) would have still earned a first-round bye, with the Panthers having beaten the 49ers (12-4) head to head in Week 10. But San Francisco would have earned the No. 3 seed with its 12-4 mark, with the Saints being slotted fourth at 11-5. The 10-6 Eagles and 8-7-1 Packers would have brought up the rear at Nos. 5-6.

That would have, of course, flipped this weekend’s two NFC games, with the Packers visiting Candlestick Park, and the Eagles hitting the road for the Superdome and a date with the Saints. Instead of Lambeau and The Linc, the games would have taken place in the relative mild of San Francisco, and under the big top in New Orleans.

This seems like the right time to point out the following:

There’s no team in the playoffs this season with a bigger discrepancy between their home record and road record than the Saints (8-0 versus 3-5), although Cincinnati has the same split. And New Orleans is 0-5 in its playoff history on the road. As for the 49ers, they’ve beaten the Packers three times since the start of 2012, but two of those meetings have come in Candlestick, in last year’s divisional round playoffs and Week 1 of this season. And the bottom line is this: Finishing with a record that’s 3 1/2 games better than your playoff opponent should count for something.

Drew Brees and the Saints didn't lose a game in the Superdome this season, but went 3-5 on the road. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Drew Brees and the Saints didn’t lose a game in the Superdome this season, but went 3-5 on the road. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The AFC playoff picture this weekend would still feature Denver (13-3) and New England (12-4) holding down the top two seeds and receiving a bye. But Indianapolis, rather than earn the No. 4 seed, would be the No. 3 seed, because it would win a three-way tiebreaker at 11-5 with Cincinnati and Kansas City, via its superior conference record. The Bengals would have been the No. 4 seed, while the Chiefs and Chargers (9-7) remained fifth and sixth seeds, respectively.

The change at the No. 3 and No. 4 seed would have resulted in San Diego playing at Indianapolis this weekend, rather than Cincinnati, with Kansas City drawing a trip to the Bengals rather than the Colts. Unless, of course, the locked-into-the-No. 5-seed Chiefs would have played their Week 17 game at the Chargers differently with a high seed still on the line, choosing to not rest seven key starters in what ultimately became a controversial overtime loss to the Chargers.

Which is another good reason the NFL should be interested in seeding by records alone. It would make for more interesting and competitive games late in the season, with teams less likely to rest starters and ease off the gas, because improving one’s seeding would be more within reach. The league a few years back took the welcomed step of moving division games into the final two weeks of the season in order to add more drama to the end of the schedule, but some of those games can still get short-shrift by the vagaries of the seeding system.

It’s time to go all the way on this one, NFL. And it’s time to stop rewarding mediocrity. Just because a team wins a bad division doesn’t mean it deserves the extra treat of a home playoff game. Every win should count for something in the NFL, and homefield advantage should go to the team that won more games all season long, not just proved its mettle in the race with three weak division opponents.

Rather than stay home this weekend, San Francisco will travel to Green Bay and battle both the elements and the Packers at Lambeau. And we know how different the Saints-Eagles game might turn out if New Orleans were in its Superdome comfort zone Saturday night, rather than heading to the chilly northeast on a short week. If the 49ers and Saints hit the road this week, and the road hits back, let’s hope the NFL finally sees fit to outlaw that particular kind of contact in the playoffs.

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