What Can Be Done About the “NFC Least”

Twice in NFL history, a team with a losing record has won a division — the NFC West in 2010 and the NFC South in 2014.

But where the 2010 NFC West went a combined 25-39 and the 2014 NFC South 22-41-1, this season's NFC East is on pace to go 20-44 (or would be if not for the tie game that the Eagles have already played to) — and where the Seahawks won the 2010 NFC West at 7-9 and the Panthers won the 2014 NFC South at 7-8-1, the 2020 NFC East figures to be won by a 6-9-1 team if it is won by the Eagles, or 6-10 if some other team emerges as the division's "champion."

Surely someone at the league's ivory-tower headquarters at the corner of Park Avenue and 51st Street in midtown Manhattan must have seen this coming when the 2002 realignment was proceeded with (concomitant with the admission of the Texans as the NFL's 32nd franchise), which gave every team only six intradivision games out of 16.

But they went ahead and did it anyway.

After both 2010 and 2014, the owners chose to do nothing to change either the playoff format — still guaranteeing all division winners, including those with sub-.500 records, a home game in the playoffs — or the regular-season schedule, when they could have increased the number of intradivision games to make differences in talent between divisions less noticeable.

But a six-win team winning a division might be just the thing that will force them to make some changes.

And what changes could the owners make?

First, get rid of the automatic home playoff game for a team that wins their division — and it's not like the NFL hasn't done this before: from 1978 through 1989, all inclusive, the division winner with the worst record among the three such teams in each conference did not get a guaranteed home playoff game, but the best wild card team actually did get such a game (if the worst division winner pulled off an upset in their divisional playoff game and the winner of the wild card game also pulled off an upset in that round, the worst division winner would be at home in the conference championship game, but that happened only once during the dozen aforementioned years — in 1987, when Washington, the NFC's worst division winner, got to host wild card Minnesota after Washington had upset Chicago and Minnesota had upset San Francisco in the divisional playoffs).

Then-Eagles owner Norman Braman, who kvetched endlessly about how the out-of-division schedule format during that same era was unfair — it actually was, because it saddled teams that finished fourth in a five-team division, as that era's Eagles all-too-often did, with the toughest schedules in the league the following season while giving the fifth-place teams in those same divisions the easiest schedules; and Braman's caterwauling proved productive when the format was changed in 1988 — kvetched again when the Eagles won the NFC East that same year (their first playoff appearance since Braman bought the team from Leonard Tose three years prior) and didn't get a home playoff game while the Vikings, one the of the NFC's two wild card teams, did get such a game — so in 1990, the NFL expanded its playoff field from 10 teams to 12, thus guaranteeing every division winner a home game in the postseason, proving that the owners will shamelessly exploit any situation, especially if it makes them more money.

(Braman never did overcome his habit of chronic complaining, going so far as to sell the franchise to Jeffrey Lurie after free agency came to the NFL courtesy of Judge Doty in 1993.)

Another relevant issue here is seeding: 18 teams with losing records have qualified for the NCAA men's basketball tournament after winning their conference tournaments (in most cases anyway) since the NCAA field expanded to 64 teams in 1985 because each conference champion receives an automatic bid. But were any of them seeded higher than every single at-large team — the NCAA's version of wild card teams — including the runners-up in the Big East, the ACC, and all the rest of the power conferences?

Besides being grossly unfair, that would have been thoroughly absurd, because it would have totally defeated the purpose of seeding.

And with the 17-game schedule coming online as soon as 2021, a third meeting between all division rivals can be added, and the anachronistic first-place-vs.-first-place, second-place-vs.-second-place etc. games from the previous season can be eliminated — and the reason these games are anachronistic is that under the scheduling procedures adopted in 2002, which other divisions all four teams in a particular division are going to play the following season plays a far more prominent role in determining how difficult (or easy) their schedules will be than where they finished in their division — and how can anyone possibly call a schedule under which all four teams in the same division play 17 out of 17 common opponents "unfair?"

Besides, the NFL has done this before, too — in the last three years before the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, when every NFL team played their three division rivals twice each, all four teams from the other division in their own conference once each (in these three years the NFL had 16 teams, split into two eight-team conferences, each conference having two four-team divisions), and all four teams from one of the two divisions in the other conference once each, for 14 common opponents in 14 games for all four teams in the same division.

A third thing that can be done is to determine the inter-divisional assignments by seeding rather than rotation: Within the same conference, the two divisions with the best combined records the previous season play each other, and the two divisions with the worst combined records the previous season play each other. For interconference games, the two best divisions in each conference from the previous season play each other, the two worst divisions in each conference from the previous season play each other, and the divisions with the second best record in one conference and the divisions with the third best record in the other conference play each other.

True, teams in different divisions within the same conference would no longer be guaranteed one meeting every three years, and teams in different conferences would no longer be guaranteed one meeting every four years. But the NFL went 24 consecutive seasons, from when the regular season was lengthened from 14 games to 16 in 1978 until the 2002 realignment, when no such guarantee existed, and the league survived just fine. Doing everything humanly possible to keep undeserving teams out of the playoffs (and to not give such teams home-field advantage therein) is clearly the greater good — and matching up strong divisions against each other, and weak divisions against each other, means far fewer mismatches.

As for three meetings between division rivals, the CFL has been doing that for decades (albeit only some division rivals meeting three times in a given season, not all) — and in the days of yore, the NFL did it as well, most recently in 1936.

With all teams playing a majority of games within their own division for the first time since 1966 and the other two changes proposed herein also being made, the NFL would almost certainly be spared a repeat of the "NFC Least" and all the jokes that its plight has generated.

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