Playoff Battles Make Strange Bedfellows

With the advent of wild card playoff berths concomitant with the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, and even more so with the awarding of home-field advantage by record in 1975, followed by first-round byes, also awarded by record, in 1990, it has become almost customary for teams to root for "hated" division rivals if it helps them get into the playoffs, or to earn a higher seed therein.

(And with the signing of the new collective bargaining agreement in 2020, a new perk was added for the teams getting a first-round bye: a first-round postseason share for each player, even though they do not actually play a first-round, or wild card, game).

In Week 16, the Ravens clinched a playoff berth because AFC North rival Cincinnati defeated New England, after they had taken care of their own business against the Falcons. And in Week 17, two NFC East teams will be looking for help from division rivals — the Eagles from the Giants, and the Commanders from the Eagles.

If the Giants beat the lowly Colts in the shadow of Moonachie's oil drums — which former New York City mayor Ed Koch made famous in 1986, when he, with his usual abrasive candor, suggested that "If they (the Giants) want to parade, let them parade in front of the oil drums in Moonachie" (also mispronouncing the latter, rendering it as "moon-ARCH-ee" — a malaprop that has gained considerable traction ever since) as the Giants marched toward their victory over Denver in Super Bowl XXI — on Sunday, they will have nothing to play for when they travel down Interstate 95 to take on the Eagles on January 8th; and if the Eagles choke again this coming week and lose to the Saints, even Ian Book could lead them to victory over the Giants' second- and third-stringers.

But the Commanders desperately need the Eagles to beat the Saints — since if the Eagles do, the Cowboys will have nothing to play for when Mr. Prescott and the rest of "America's Team" go to Washington (actually, Englewood, Maryland, formerly Landover, Maryland) to take on a Washington team at FedEx Field that may very well have Carson Wentz starting under center, the talent-challenged Taylor Heineke having been benched by head coach Ron Rivera midway through the fourth quarter of the team's 37-20 loss at Santa Clara, California.

(San Francisco's notoriously goofy Board of Supervisors toyed with the idea of prohibiting the 49ers from using "San Francisco" as part of their name when they abandoned the city in favor of Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara in 2014; furthermore, when, a dozen years earlier, the Bay Area's NBC affiliate, KRON, Channel 4, had sold their network license to San Jose-based KNTV, Channel 11, it left mostly low-income over-the-air TV viewers unable to watch NBC programs, including Sunday Night Football).

Of course Washington must first beat Cleveland at home on New Year's Day. But the Browns just lost to a domed-stadium team (the Saints) in a -17 degree wind chill. You can't sink much lower than that.

All of this illogical business entered full swing in 2010, when the NFL adopted a policy under which every game on the season's final week shall henceforth be a same-division game. The reason they cited for this is that it would result in there being fewer "meaningless" games, mainly because it would make one team clinching a tie-breaker; e.g., division record, before then less likely.

It probably has done that. But by how much? One per cent? Maybe two per cent at the outside?

But if the league was consistent with this line of thinking, they would make it more likely for games to end in a tie (only during the regular season, obviously); that way, far more battles for division titles, playoff berths, and playoff seeds would end up being decided by half a game (as it was in the AFC last year, and very likely, in the NFC this year) rather than by tie-breaking procedures that at least as often as not give the nod to the wrong team. It would also simplify figuring out the draft order (no more nine-way ties, as in 1999).

In most years, there are interdivisional, often interconference, matchups that would make ideal season-enders; e.g., the Jets and Giants are scheduled to play each other in 2023. Also, if the teams that had played each other in the Super Bowl, or in a conference championship game, the year before, are playing a regular-season rematch, they can play one another in a Week 18 game (this year's Rams notwithstanding, the two teams who had met in the one season's Super Bowl are pretty good bets to be at least contenders the following season).

But what the NFL has been doing for the last 13 years has grown as stale as three-day-old pizza.

No one is advocating that all of the Week 18 games be outside the division — just that not all of them should be within the division either. And what is going to happen when the inevitable expansion occurs and leaves some divisions with five teams?

It's time for a change — and then, maybe fans won't be reduced to rooting for one of their team's bitterest rivals in the season's final week anywhere near as often.

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