Winning your division in the NFL is an important goal every season. It comes with an automatic playoff bid and, at worst, a home game in the first round. But with ample evidence that not all divisions are created equal, do all division winners really deserve the same privilege?
This is well illustrated right now in the NFC. In the NFC South, nobody has a winning record. The Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints are tied at 5-6 while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 4-7. Any of them could still win the division, but odds are that none of them will be better than 9-8 when they do it. Somebody could even win with a below .500 record.
The Dallas Cowboys are the heavy favorites to wind up as the NFC’s top wild-card team and the fifth seed. That would put them on the road in the first round against the NFC South “winner.” While they have some tough December games coming, it would take an epic collapse for Dallas to wind up with a worse record than whoever comes out of the South.
After Thursday’s win over the Seahawks, Dallas has the second-best record in the entire conference. The only issue is that they're stuck behind the Eagles in their own division, which caps their seeding potential at the fifth seed if Philly takes the NFC East.
2023 isn’t the first time we’ve seen this issue. In fact, we saw it last year when the 8-9 Buccaneers won the NFC South and hosted the 12-5 Cowboys in the first round. Washington was 7-9 when they won the NFC East in 2020. Even more common is when a division winner doesn’t have a losing record overall but also doesn’t have one of the four best records in the conference.
In 2019, Philadelphia won the NFC East with a 9-7 record. They hosted the 11-5 Seahawks in the first round, who had the third-best record in the NFC but were bested by the 49ers within their division. What really made this one goofy, though, was Seattle had actually beaten the Eagles during the regular season.
A home playoff game is a reward. Less travel for the team, another game for the home crowd; it’s supposed to acknowledge what a team accomplished and give them a boon to start the tournament. So why are the rules set up to reward mediocrity?
We’re not saying winning your division shouldn’t matter. But why isn’t a guaranteed playoff spot enough? Why should the Falcons, Saints, or Bucs get bumped up to the fourth seed and leapfrog superior wild-card teams just because they were the best team in the NFL’s worst division?
Yes, we’re talking about this because it’s been landing on the Cowboys lately. And no, blowing out Tom Brady and the Bucs in their own house last year was far from distressing. But the point here is that Dallas is probably finishing the regular season as one of the four best teams in the NFC and having to travel to play someone who’s only in the playoffs on a technicality seems far from equitable.
The answer is probably in the middle with mitigating rules. Maybe a division winner with a losing record should automatically get dropped to the seventh seed. Or if you have a head-to-head win over a division winner with a worse record, like the Eagles-Seahawks scenario from 2019, they have to come to your house. There are some simple ways to bridge the gap without decimating the value of division titles.
In the end, the NFL wants the best playoff tournament possible and for the top teams from the regular season to be recognized. The current format weighs division titles too heavily; just getting a playoff spot is more than enough reward. The NFC South has been atrocious for two years now and yet one of them is a month away from hosting a playoff game. It’s time to stop penalizing good teams for happening to be in the same division with other good teams.