The 49ers have been one of the dominant teams of the 2019 NFL season since Mitch Wishnowsky put his toes into football and started in the arena above Raymond James Stadium on the second Sunday in September. When it landed, the Buccaneers advanced three and six, and the 49ers began an era of renewed excellence.
Only five of the league’s 32 teams have reached double figures in 13 weeks, and the 49ers, at 10-2, are one. The problem: One of the other four, the Seahawks, are competing in the same division, the NFC West. That means either the 49ers or the Seahawks will have to make the playoffs as a wild-card team.
That would be great if the NFL playoffs were based on logic.
Unfortunately, it’s more based on habit.
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If the season is over today, San Francisco and its 10-2 record will head to Dallas for a first-round playoff game. The Cowboys are 6-6. There is no universe in which a team that is 50% less successful has won a competitive advantage in a championship tournament – except for the NFL universe, which assures that all eight competition winners will host a post-win game.
This kind of imbalance can happen at both conferences this season. In the AFC, Buffalo’s 9-3 record is higher than the division leaders in both the West (Kansas City, 8-4) and the South (Houston, 8-4).
And this is not an unusual season. In fact, it is rare when there is at least one case in the NFL playoffs, where a team with a record high is heading for a first playoff game simply because the NFL continues to insist on granting playoff benefits to the division champions, regardless of the record.
It has happened 15 times in this decade. The only season in which there was at least one example of this inequality was in 2017. There were three in 2010 and at least two in seven of the nine completed seasons. And it wasn’t inconsistent: When sent out on the road in the wild card round, the team with the highest record won just 53 percent of the time.
In 2010, the Saints 11-5 visited the 7-9 Seahawks. A year later, the 12-4 Steelers were sent to Denver to play the 8-8 Broncos. An 11-5 Cardinals team was sent across the country to play a 7-8-1 Panthers team after the 2014 season. All of those visitors lost their playoff games.
The NFL has seen this game for decades and its response has been inert.
The 49ers and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (above), whose record of 10-2 is tied with the best in the NFC, will be the No. 1 seed. 5, if the playoffs start today.
The NBA responded to the imbalances that developed in the structure of the playoffs, making major changes several years ago. The eight playoff teams in each conference now have spirals in relation to their winning records. There is no reason for the NFL to continue opposing such logic.
The NFL does not need a radical change to fix what is happening. You just need an open-minded room willing to consider the obvious; that a division championship should guarantee entry into the playoffs, but not the preferred entry. Excellence must always guarantee the highest returns.
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It has been suggested that the NFL should simply abolish its division form to reward the best teams of each season, but this is not necessary to achieve a fair result. There is great utility in the partial format:
- Scheduling: Having each member of one division play the other three members twice as well as the other two members creates a relatively balanced program that adds integrity to the competition.
- Competitiveness: Members of a division play each other twice a year, fueling the disobedience that leads to the Cowboys-Skins, Bears-Packers, Niners-Rams.
- Consistency: Competitions are part of the entertainment of professional sports. The Niners vs. Seahawks will be an important part of what makes December in the current NFL season exciting. The winner should benefit from a high seed and a first round goodbye. The loser should not be sentenced to play a road game with a team that has not beaten an opponent with a winning record all year.
Teams have to get what they earn in the NFL. According to the rules in force, very often they do not.
Solving this problem does not require radical changes. It requires common sense. There must be a significant offer available, as it is certain that it will not be exhausted in the insertion repetition revisions.