First off, I’m a football fanatic. I love NFL football more than all other sports put together, so this is a bit of friendly criticism. But it is hard to deny that the NFL largely created the situation that has permitted a 7-9 team to win its division and make it to the playoffs. In other words, no whining is allowed! That the Seattle Seahawks made the playoffs in 2010 is partly a result of the continual restructuring of the postseason, and regular increasing of the number of teams who make it in. Let us briefly review the history of the NFL playoff system since the 1970 merger.
3 divisions in each conference – 4 playoff teams [8 in the entire league]
In 1970, each conference had three divisions, the “East, Central, and West.” The three division winners made the playoffs, plus one wild card team – the remaining team with the best record. Under this system, while fewer teams have the honor of reaching the postseason, it is extremely unlikely for a team with a losing record to make the playoffs. It’s simple math, really. (And guess what – it never happened!) A response is that since there were fewer teams in the league (26, with 13 in each conference, compared to 32/16 today), then there should be fewer playoff spots. Fair enough I suppose.
3 divisions – 5 playoff teams [10 in entire league]
In 1978, the NFL increased the number of playoff spots in each conference from 4 to 5. Two years prior, two expansion teams were added, the Seahawks (aha, conspiracy!) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The NFL probably figured: “Two more teams, therefore we need more playoff spots.” Well, this begins to increase the possibility of teams with lesser records advancing.
3 divisions – 6 playoff teams [12 in entire league]
1990 saw an increase from 5 to 6. Notice the trend? More teams means…more teams, regardless of record. I have been highlighting the number of divisions because that plays an important part as well.
4 divisions – 6 playoff teams [12 in entire league]
A major realignment changed the division structure in 2002. With the previous addition of more expansion teams, the league was up to 32 teams. The NFL thought it would be logical to have 8 total divisions with 4 teams each. Each conference has 4 divisions, the “North, South, East, West.” That’s fine…but it increases the odds of a 7-9 team sneaking into the playoffs because now there are more divisions to be won. (I kinda miss the old “Central” divisions.)
The odds are indeed against it, but the continual restructuring slowly raised the chances of team with a losing record making the playoffs. There have been some close calls. The ’85 Cleveland Browns (8-8) and ’08 San Diego Chargers (8-8) were both division champs. In 2010, the inevitable happened.
I was a little amused by all the questions such as, “How could this have happened? How could a losing team make the playoffs?” I agree that it’s unfortunate that a 7-9 team made it instead of 10-6 teams like the Giants or Buccaneers. But that is the system the NFL has created. They either need to put another major restructuring in place, or at least quit complaining about it. Usually the blame was placed on the NFC West itself for being a crappy division. There is some truth to that, but part of the blame should lie with the division and playoff structure.
The icing on the cake to the 2010 mess was Marshawn Lynch’s amazing 67-yard TD run to seal the victory against the 11-5 Saints. My general take has been, within the current structure, that if the teams with the better record feel they are superior to the lesser teams then all they have to do is beat them in the playoffs and get ’em out of there. “The proof is in the pudding” as they say. I’m not a Seahawks fan, but I admired their stand.