Expansion, Realignment Mean No More “NFC Leasts”

Three times in the history of the NFL's present alignment of eight four-team divisions, which dates from 2002, teams have won division titles with losing records — the Seahawks in 2010 (7-9), the Panthers in 2014 (7-8-1), and last year, the Washington Football Team (7-9).

But what if two expansion teams are added to each conference?

Then the conferences can be realigned into three six-team divisions — and to paraphrase something that Diane Keaton said to Al Pacino in Godfather 2, there would be no way, Roger, no way that a team would ever win a division with a losing record again. Not with every team playing 10 of their 17 games within their division! (And no one's face would need to be slapped as in the movie.)

In a story carried by NBC Sports that was published on Valentine's Day — and one with no love involved — the city of St. Louis announced that it plans to sue the NFL for "at least one billion dollars" because the city claims that the league violated its own relocation rules when they allowed the Rams to return to Los Angeles in 2016.

Ever heard the joke about the businessman who bought his secretary a mink coat to keep her warm — then bought his wife one to keep her cool? The NFL can do the same thing by granting St. Louis an expansion team to replace the Rams — just like Cleveland got an expansion team to replace the (original) Browns in 1999, then Houston got an expansion team to replace the Oilers three years later (the Texans).

Lawsuit quashed retroactively — and one down, three to go.

San Diego's population has just passed the 1.5 million mark, and San Antonio's exceeded that figure last year. Besides, it is nothing short of secular heresy that the state that annually contributes more NFL players than any other should have only two pro football franchises.

So now it's three down, one to go.

If one goes strictly by population, Columbus would be the favorite to land the final expansion team, with the 2020 Census figures expected to show that the city has more than 900,000 residents, topping Cleveland and Cincinnati combined. But Columbus may have to overcome its "college town" stereotype (after all, it is the home of the Ohio State) — and if it can't, Portland, Memphis (which almost got an expansion team in 1995), Orlando, Oklahoma City, and even Oakland (which also lost its team to relocation) enter the picture.

How would the schedule work?

The first two expansion teams get added in the first year, whenever that is — and the "17th game" that each team plays changes from a fifth interconference game to a game against the expansion team in their own conference. The two expansion teams get to play each other, along with all 16 established teams in their own conference (this is exactly what was done with Seattle and Tampa Bay in their first two years as expansion teams — 1976 and 1977).

In the second year, when the other two new teams go in, and beyond, besides the obligatory home-and-away games within their now six-team divisions, each team plays four games against teams in the other two divisions within the same conference, assigned based on the previous season's division finish: first-place teams play both first-place teams, one second, and one third; second-place teams play one first-place team, both seconds, and one fourth; third-place teams play one first-place team, both thirds, and one fifth; fourth-place teams play one second-place team, both fourths, and one sixth; fifth-place teams play one third-place team, both fifths, and one sixth; and sixth-place teams play one fourth-place team, one fifth, and both sixths.

As for the out-of-conference schedule, each team plays three games against three teams in the same division of the other conference. In the first three seasons, the matchups are also determined by the previous season's division finish, with the first, fourth, and fifth-place teams from one conference playing the like-placed teams from the other conference, and the second, third, and sixth-place teams doing the same. In the next three seasons, each team plays the three teams from the appropriate division that they did not play three seasons prior (example: if New England played the Giants, Philadelphia, and Washington in Season 2 of the new alignment, in Season 5 the Patriots would play the other three teams from the NFC East, whoever they turn out to be).

Then, in the three seasons after that, the same format used in the first three seasons is observed again, followed by that of Seasons 4 through 6 in Seasons 9 through 12, and so on (this is the same procedure that the league used to determine interconference matchups from 1978 until Jacksonville and Carolina entered the league as expansion teams in 1995).

And the procedure of the AFC getting nine home games and eight away games one year, and the NFC getting nine home games and eight away games the following year, can be easily maintained, with each team getting three interconference games every year.

What if the owners can't agree on what teams should be placed in what divisions? We've seen that movie before — in 1970, when a secretary settled that by pulling one of many rolls of paper out of a fishbowl to determine the NFC's alignment (the AFC's owners having agreed to what teams went into that conference's divisions).

And we may see that exact same movie again: Assuming that Columbus and San Diego get two of the expansion teams, they would rather obviously go into the AFC Central and AFC West, respectively, with the Jaguars getting moved into the AFC East to give the Dolphins a natural geographical rival, joining the Titans, whose predecessors, the Houston Oilers, were an original member of the AFL's Eastern Division, with the Colts going into the AFC Central, and the Texans into the AFC West.

As in 1970, however, there is no logical alignment that readily presents itself for the NFC, so the secretary and the fishbowl could very well make a second appearance to decide matters there.

Another major virtue of this plan is that with four more teams, the playoff field can — and almost certainly will — be increased from 14 teams to 16; and with the much heavier emphasis on same-division games — the percentage of such games going up from 35.3% to 58.8% — the most logical format is for the top two teams in each division to qualify, along with the next two teams with the best records regardless of division.

The NFL got a lot of bad publicity when the "Football Team" not only made the playoffs at 7-9, but got to host a playoff game, as well.

By adopting these changes, not only does the NFL pretty much guarantee that a redux of last year's "NFC Least" will never happen again, but it can also add not only four more teams, but two more teams to its postseason.

Like Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, it's a win-win.

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