“Automatic Bids” and the NFL

In 1995, despite an 11-18 record, Florida International's men's basketball team received an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament by virtue of the Panthers winning the post-season tournament of something called the Atlantic Sun Conference.

In that same year, Connecticut, at 25-4, had to settle for an at-large bid after getting upset by Villanova in the championship game of the Big East tournament.

Yet the Huskies still got a 2-seed in the West region — the same region in which FIU was seeded 16th.

The following year, essentially the same thing happened when Central Florida also made the field with the same 11-18 record as Florida International, while Rick Pitino's Kentucky Wildcats were an at-large team at 28-2 after losing the SEC Championship game to Mississippi State.

But that loss did not even deny Kentucky a No. 1 regional seed — while naturally, the Knights were seeded 16th in their region after winning the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament, as Florida International did.

And as if to prove that these two instances were not flukes, it happened again, for the third year in a row, in 1997, when the Fairfield Stags got an automatic bid, also despite an 11-18 record, after winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament. Their fitting "reward" was a 16th seed — while 23-6 Wake Forest got a 3-seed after having been eliminated in the semifinals of the ACC tournament by North Carolina.

The NFL can learn from these instances.

In 2020, the then-Washington Football Team "won" a very different NFC East from today's version with a 7-9 record — and as a result were seeded higher, and got home-field advantage over, an 11-5 Tampa Bay team in the wild card round — and just because justice prevailed at the end when the Buccaneers won Super Bowl LV does not make the situation any less unfair.

Only two years later, this scenario is going to repeat itself at least once — and maybe even twice.

It will definitely arise in the NFC, where (very likely) the Cowboys will have to play a wild-card game at Tampa Bay (as Chelsea Manning and Caitlyn Jenner might say, turnabout is fair play) in spite of having finished four games ahead of the Bucs, give or take a game in either direction; and in the AFC, the "winner" of the AFC South will almost certainly win fewer games than the best of that conference's three wild-card qualifiers (the Ravens if the season ended today) — although the margin by which they will win fewer games probably won't be quite as grotesque as in the NFC.

Either way, that will make it three gross inequities in as many years — three more than the NCAA men's basketball tournament had over the same period a quarter century ago.

The owners should have seen this coming when they created four 4-team divisions in each conference in 2002, since it resulted in teams playing only 37.5% of their games within their own division (down from 50% from 1995 through 2001) — a percentage that is now down to 35.3% with the addition of a 17th game for each team in 2021. In an 18-game schedule, which the owners covet so much that they can taste it, teams would be playing only one-third of their games within the division.

But this year could be the proverbial last straw that breaks the camel's back, since it will be the NFL's flagship franchise, "America's Team," aka the Dallas Cowboys, whose interests will be sacrificed.

Who else has trouble envisioning Jerry Jones remaining silent over this? (In 1987, then-Eagles owner Norman Braman's kvetching about how unfair it was to force a team that had finished fourth in their division the previous season to play five games against teams that had won their division the year before was, leading to a change being made therein starting in 1988 — and Braman had far less overall clout back then than Jones has today). And Jones is now, at least arguably, the league's most powerful owner, after most of its "old guard" — Al Davis, Lamar Hunt, George Halas, Bill Bidwill, Ralph Wilson etc. — have died off.

If Jerry Jones blowing his stack is what it takes to move the NFL forward, then bring it on.

The bottom line is — or should be — that if a team wins their division, they should get an automatic bid into the playoffs — and nothing more.

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