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The Case for Rethinking the NFL’s Playoff Format

One of the two best teams in the AFC will be put in the least advantageous playoff situation imaginable. That’s bad news for the Chiefs or the Chargers … but potentially great news for the Patriots dynasty.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Chargers and Chiefs are the two best teams in the AFC, and it’s not particularly close. They’re tied atop the conference at 11-3, but those 11-3 records don’t do them justice: Two of their six combined losses come from matchups against each other. Another two come from matchups against the Rams, who are also 11-3 and have won all of their games this season against AFC competition. Against the 14 other teams in the AFC, the Chargers and Chiefs are a combined 15-2. In a just world, we’d just skip ahead to an AFC championship rubber match between these two.

Unfortunately, the structural format of the NFL playoffs makes such a rematch unlikely. Los Angeles and Kansas City may be near equals on the field, but their roads to a championship will be dramatically different. One will be given a first-round bye and home-field advantage until the Super Bowl, meaning it can make it to the title game merely by winning two home games. But because both teams are in the AFC West, one will be seeded below the conference’s three other division winners—even though it will likely finish with a superior record. Either the Chargers or the Chiefs will be the AFC’s fifth seed, forced to win three road games to make the Super Bowl. If the Chiefs and Chargers both win out, the Chiefs will get the top seed and the Chargers will get bumped to no. 5, since the relevant tiebreaker is divisional record, and L.A. lost a game to the Broncos.

Right now, it may seem like I’m blabbering on about stuff you don’t care about. Phrases such as “first-round bye,” “relevant tiebreaker,” “divisional record,” and “structural format” are boring. So let me cut to the chase: The NFL’s weird rules could give a massive, undeserved advantage to the New England Patriots, the last team in the world that should be given a massive, undeserved advantage. Now that you know the deal, don’t you want to stop this? Read on.

Since 1990, the NFL’s playoffs have featured six teams per conference—an unwieldy number, because it requires some teams to play more games than others. As such, the league divides its playoff teams into three castes, each containing two teams per conference.

• The first caste comprises the two teams that get first-round byes. I cannot stress enough how much of an advantage a first-round bye provides. Every participant in the Super Bowl dating back to the 2012 season has been a team that got a first-round bye. Every Super Bowl that has taken place since the playoffs expanded to four rounds in 1979 has featured at least one team that had a first-round bye. Since 1990, teams with first-round byes have accounted for 112 of 336 total playoff spots—33.3 percent. These teams have accounted for 44 of 56 total Super Bowl spots—78.5 percent. Over the 28 seasons under the current playoff format, teams with first-round byes have had a 39.2 percent chance of making the Super Bowl.

• The second caste is made up of the two teams that host wild-card-round playoff games. As it turns out, having even one game of home-field advantage is huge. Home-field advantage means more in the NFL than in any other sport: Since 2000, teams have won 57.1 percent of their home games during the regular season and 64.7 percent of their home games during the postseason. After taking the quality of the teams into account, FiveThirtyEight calculated that there is a 4.8 percent bump in win percentage for home teams in the postseason. Of the 112 teams in this caste since 1990, nine have reached the Super Bowl—8 percent.

• The third caste is the untouchables, the two teams in each conference that not only have to play in the first round of the postseason, but also must play that game on the road. If teams in this caste win that game, they then must play a road game in the second round. Hypothetically, the no. 5 seed in a playoff field could host the no. 6 seed in a conference championship game, but this has never happened and probably never will. (Of the 56 conference title games held under the current format, 54 have been hosted by a team that had a first-round bye.) Essentially, by forcing these teams to win three road games to make the Super Bowl, this caste is doomed. Of the 112 teams in this position since 1990, just three—2.6 percent—have made the Super Bowl. (The 2005 Steelers, 2007 Giants, and 2010 Packers won it all.)

In theory, the NFL has developed a relatively clean way of separating teams into these three castes. The two division winners with the best records get first-round byes, the other two division winners get to host games in the first round, and the two wild-card teams are put through the road gantlet. Hypothetically, this format gives the most deserving teams the easiest path, a notion that is reflected by the numbers.

But that isn’t always the case. It often works out that the four division winners are not the four teams with the best records in a conference. That means sometimes a wild-card team is forced to play a road game against a division winner with a worse record.

And wouldn’t you know it, the less-deserving team often rides home-field advantage to victory. The 8-8 AFC West champion Chargers beat the 12-4 Colts after the 2008 season; Marshawn Lynch used his famous Beast Mode run to power the 7-9 NFC West champion Seahawks past the 11-5 Saints after the 2010 campaign; the 7-8-1 NFC South champion Panthers defeated the 11-5 Cardinals—who, to be fair, started Ryan Lindley at QB—following the 2014 season. Just two years ago, the 12-4 Raiders and 11-5 Giants lost road playoff games to the 9-7 AFC South champion Texans and the 10-6 NFC North champion Packers, respectively.

However, the situation that’s about to befall the Chargers or Chiefs is unprecedented. Since the league realigned to four-team divisions in 2002, there’s never been a season in which the two best teams in one conference both came from the same division. It’s bad enough that teams with better records have been forced to play road games due to their wild-card status in the past—essentially, bumping a team from caste no. 2 down to caste no. 3. But these teams are both good enough to have first-round byes, and instead one will have to play up to three road games. Somebody—most likely the Chargers—will be bumped all the way from caste no. 1 to caste no. 3. The NFL’s emphasis on divisional championships will put a worthy and legitimate title contender in the least advantageous situation possible.

I firmly believe that the NFL has the best divisions of any sport. They each have just four teams, small enough that every team gets to play each of its divisional opponents twice per year. They’re also small enough that you can legitimately hate every other team in your division. NFL fans probably have distinct takes on the three other members of their division; most NBA fans would likely struggle to identify everyone in, say, the Northwest Division. (This one is especially difficult, since four of those five teams are not from the northwest portion of the United States.)

The NFL’s divisional setup doubles as a nifty scheduling tool. Fourteen of a team’s 16 annual opponents are decided by the division in which it plays. This makes it easy to feel good about which teams are crowned division champions; with so many common opponents, it’s hard to argue that one team coasted by virtue of an easy slate. A division title brings indisputable bragging rights over the three other teams in a given grouping, and I think we can all agree that a playoff spot is a worthy prize for a division champ.

However, the NFL overvalues division championships in its playoff format. A division champion shouldn’t receive priority for a home playoff game over a wild-card team with a better record whose only mistake was being part of a division that has better teams. A division champion definitely shouldn’t receive priority over a wild-card team with a better record for those mega-important first-round byes. If anything, it’s more impressive that teams like the Chargers can manage such stellar records despite having more games against tougher competition. Why do we reward division champs with worse records simply for being lords of their trash heaps?

This is not just an NFL problem. Look at Major League Baseball, which forces its wild-card teams to play in a single-elimination game, regardless of whether they have better records than division champions. That’s why the 100-win Yankees played the 97-win A’s in this year’s American League wild-card game, while the 91-win AL Central champion Indians were given a straight shot to the ALDS, where they were promptly swept. This isn’t exactly the same premise as in the NFL, but it punishes great teams for the sin of being in a difficult division nonetheless.

Sadly, there hasn’t been much talk of change. Nobody has proposed a modification to the current NFL postseason format since 2008, when a pitch to allow wild-card teams to host division winners with lesser records went “down in flames.” Leading the charge against the potential change? Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who argued that “if you win a division, it’s good for your fans to know you will have a home game.”

Of course Kraft would be the guy shooting this proposal down. Nobody has benefited from the NFL’s emphasis on division championships more than his Patriots. Every other division in football has produced at least three champions in the past decade—hell, every NFC division has had at least three champions over the past four years—except the AFC East, where the Pats have won 14 of the past 15 titles. The New York Moes, Buffalo Larrys, and Miami Curlys have posed virtually no threat to New England during the Patriots’ two-decade-long dynasty. Under the current setup, there’s almost no circumstance in which the Pats could be forced to play a road playoff game in the first round. Could you imagine the Pats landing in the scenario the Chargers and Chiefs are in? Where they’d have the second-best record in the conference, but would be bumped down to the fifth seed just because the Jets—the damn Jets!—had the best record in the AFC? Not happening. Not this year, not next year, not even when Tom Brady is 145 years old, when he’ll probably still be playing.

No, this could only happen in other divisions. And guess who stands to benefit from the Chargers and Chiefs’ predicament this season? That’s right, the Patriots. They’re 9-5 heading into Week 16, a game behind the 10-4 Texans in the race for the first-round bye that should rightfully belong to Los Angeles or Kansas City. But Houston has to take on the 7-7 Eagles in Philadelphia on Sunday, while the Patriots will host the Bills. In Week 17, the Pats have a home game against Jets. (Remember how I called the NFL’s divisional scheduling setup “nifty?” I take it all back.)

The Patriots have built their dynasty around first-round byes. They’ve gotten eight in a row, dating back to 2009. In the 12 seasons since 2001 during which New England has secured a first-round bye, it has made eight Super Bowls. In the three seasons the Pats have made the playoffs but failed to get a first-round bye, they have made the conference championship game only once. Believe it or not, the Patriots are a measly 3-4 in road playoff games during this dynasty era. Luckily, they won’t have to play a road game in the first round of the playoffs so long as the AFC East remains weak and the postseason format rewards division champions disproportionately.

The Patriots already have everything going for them: the greatest coach of all time, the greatest QB of all time, and a ton of salary cap space because the greatest QB of all time is married to the richest supermodel of all time and is fine with being the 21st-highest-paid quarterback in a league with 32 teams. This year, the Pats could be treated like the AFC’s second-best team while the AFC’s real second-best team runs a marathon with 20-pound weights strapped to its ankles. Life isn’t fair sometimes, or maybe ever.