It’s Time For the NFL to “Cross Over”

For decades, the CFL has had nine teams — a four-team Eastern Division and a five-team Western Division. At the end of its 18-game regular season — take that, NFL! — the top three teams in each division used to advance to the playoffs, where the first-place teams earned first-round byes, and the second-place team in each division hosted the third-place team from the same division, the winners moving on to visit the first-place team from that division in the semifinals. The winners therein then faced off for the Grey Cup.

However, in 1996 a change was made: henceforth, only the top two teams in each division were guaranteed playoff berths, to be joined by the next two teams with the best records regardless of division — with one caveat: in order for a fourth-place team to make it, they must have finished with an outright better record than the third-place team from the other division. A tie is no good — even if the fourth-place team won both of the two games that all teams not from the same division play against each other every year.

In the event that four teams from one division qualify while only two teams from the other division do, the fourth-place team "crosses over" and visits the second-place team from the other division in the first round of the playoffs (the second-place team gets the home-field advantage in this game even if they, too, finished with a poorer record than the team that crossed over). The balance of the postseason then proceeds as it always has.

While all the attention in the NFL this season has focused on the plight, for lack of a better word, of the NFC East, another situation needs to be addressed: the AFC's 10-6 Dolphins missed the playoffs this season while the NFC's 8-8 Bears made it — and that is hardly fair.

And with the 17-game season adding a fifth interconference game to each team's schedule beginning next year, things like this will become all the more likely to happen if, in a given season, one conference just happens to be much stronger than the other — in 2004, for example, the AFC won the interconference season series by an imposing 44 victories to the NFC's 20 (this year the AFC won the interconference season series 35-28-1).

Adopting the CFL's crossover format would eliminate virtually all "overlaps," except in cases, as in this season with the NFC East, where a team wins their division with a losing record (but at least, as proposed in these lines last week, such teams can be stripped of their automatic home game in the first round — but such a team would not be subject to the crossover rule, and would remain assured of a playoff berth).

Interestingly, this makes it possible for two teams in the same conference, or even the same division, to meet in the Super Bowl — yet it has always been possible for two teams who were in the same round-robin pool in the preliminary round of the World Cup soccer tournament to have a rematch in the finals.

When the NFL added wild card playoff berths concomitant with the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 (mainly because of what had happened to the then-Baltimore Colts three years earlier — that year, the Colts finished 11-1-2, and entered their season finale undefeated, but didn't make the playoffs because the Rams also finished 11-1-2 and the first meeting between the two Coastal Division rivals ended in a tie while the Rams won the second meeting), it was said that the owners did not realize how much excitement — and how much confusion — they were creating.

Well, a new layer of excitement and confusion has just been added by going to 17 games — and with it the possibility of some very real inequities, unless they are retroactively dealt with.

The year 2021 in the NFL can play host to either a spring of hope if the appropriate action is taken during the upcoming offseason, or a winter of despair for the teams — and the fans of those teams — that are unjustly done out of a spot in the playoffs.

It is all up to the owners.

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