Thursday, November 13, 2014

NFL Playoff Picture after 9 Games


Week 10 is in the books, so it is time to look at the playoff picture after 9 games. I'm including the records after 8 games for comparison:

NFC

Ari 7-1     Ari 8-1
Det 6-2     Det 7-2
Phi 6-2     Phi 7-2 
NO  4-4     NO  4-5
Dal 6-2     Sea 6-3
Sea 5-3     Dal 6-3
--------    --------
GB  5-3     GB  6-3
SF  4-4     SF  5-4
Car 3-4-1

Detroit gets the second seed due to a better conference record, the same reason that Seattle (4-2) beats Dallas and Green Bay at 4-3. The Cowboys take the final spot because their strength of victory is better than the Packers. The six playoff teams should come from these eight clubs, although Carolina (3-5-1 after 9 games) still has an outside shot at beating New Orleans for the NFL South title.

AFC

NE  6-2     NE  7-2 
Den 6-2     Den 7-2
Cin 5-2-1   Pit 6-3
Ind 5-3     Ind 6-3
KC  5-3     KC  6-3
SD  5-3     Cle 6-3
--------    --------
Buf 5-3     Cin 5-3-1
Mia 5-3     SD  5-4
Bal 5-3     Buf 5-4
Pit 5-3     Mia 5-4
Cle 5-3     Bal 5-4
Hou 4-4     Hou 4-5

Pittsburgh takes the AFC Central over Cleveland based on record in common games (they split the season series and both have 2-2 divisional records). New England takes top seed as they defeated Denver in Week 9, while Pittsburgh hammered Indy in Week 8 so they get the third seed. Kansas City's conference record is better than the Browns′ so the Chiefs get a playoff rematch with the Colts while Cleveland sneaks into the playoffs by a half-game in front of Cincinnati.

Only 6 teams are left with byes: Dallas, Jacksonville, New York, and Baltimore this weekend, and Pittsburgh and Carolina next. After that, I will return to using ESPN's playoff picture for the rest of the season.

Seeded Playoff?

Note that the Saints are 4-5 yet a playoff team. This led Gregg Easterbrook, ESPN's TMQ, to write his annual "The NFL needs to have a seeded playoff" column. Ignoring the fact that the season has just passed the halfway point making the timing of his column a bit silly, Easterbrook's contention that divisions are OK for scheduling but not for seeding is misguided. If you want a seeded playoff, then you should have a perfectly balanced schedule. The NFL has a mostly balanced schedule within each division (14 of 16 common games) so a division championship is meaningful, even if the top club is weak.

Of course, a balanced schedule is not possible within each conference, which leads to situations that we see now (and in 2008, when New England at 11-5 missed the playoffs while the 8-8 Chargers got in). Yes, the NFC South is weak this year, getting beaten up by the other NFC divisions (4-12) and the AFC North (1-7-1). But this doesn't mean that they should not be represented in the playoffs. Other teams have easier schedules: Easterbrook notes that the all four AFC North teams are at least two games above .500, partially because they are pounding the NFC South (not to mention the anemic AFC South). According to him, at least one good team from the AFC North will miss the playoffs, but then again, other good teams in the AFC will miss the playoffs because they play stronger conferences! With such a short season and unbalanced schedules, the teams with the top six win-loss records in each conference are not necessarily the six "best" teams. Are all four AFC North clubs truly strong or just beneficiaries of fortunate scheduling? None of them have impressed on a regular basis (Cleveland lost to Jacksonville, Pittsburgh lost to the Jets, Cincinnati could not beat Carolina, and Baltimore is in last place), so I'll go with the latter theory. In general, any playoff system with an unbalanced schedule is unfair but punishing division champions for being in a weak division is not the solution.

One potential fix: add a team to each conference, eliminate interconference games, and have each club play 16 games, one against each team in their conference. Perfectly balanced schedule, and the top six clubs in each conference make the playoffs, with the Super Bowl the only AFC vs. NFC meeting of the season. Would that appeal to anyone? Probably not, so the NFL will fix the situation by adding a 7th playoff team in each conference.

Best,

Sean

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