Now that the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks have made dubious history and become the NFL's first division champion with a losing record, the debate about how the league seeds its 12-team playoff field is sure to intensify in the coming days, weeks and months.
NFL competition committee co-chair Rich McKay said last month that the league needs to once again consider altering its playoff seeding format to reward teams based on their record rather than giving the four division champions priority over the two wild-card teams. It's likely that a new playoff seeding proposal will come out of the competition committee in time to be voted on at the league's annual meeting in late March. Similar proposals in the past have generated support from more than half of the league's 32 teams, but not enough to garner the necessary 24 votes for passage.
But what if the seeding method could be magically changed in time for this year's postseason? Suffice to say plenty about next weekend's first-round games would look differently.
In the AFC, instead of having the No. 6 Jets (11-5) at the No. 3 Colts (10-6) and the No. 5 Ravens (12-4) at the No. 4 Chiefs (10-6), we'd have mirror images of those games: Colts at Jets, and Chiefs at Ravens. Both Baltimore and New York finished a game better than their first-round opponents, so they'd get the host duties if the seeding went by records alone.
In the NFC, this weekend's pairings of the No. 5 Saints (11-5) at the No. 4 Seahawks (7-9) and No. 6 Packers (10-6) at the No. 3 Eagles (10-6) also would not stand. Instead, we'd have the No. 5 Eagles playing at the No. 4 Packers (both are 10-6, but Green Bay beat Philadelphia head to head in Week 1), and the No. 6 Seahawks hitting the road for No. 3 Chicago (11-5).
If you're wondering where the Saints went, they would bump up to the No. 2 slot in the NFC and get a first-round bye based on having a better conference record than the Bears (9-3 for New Orleans, 8-4 for Chicago).
In summary, three of the four first-round matchups would stay the same, but the home-field advantage would be flipped. The Jets, Ravens and Packers would be playing at home, and the Colts, Chiefs and Eagles would be traveling. No small change there.
And in the case of the fourth playoff matchup, the sub-.500 Seahawks would be denied the first-round home game that their division championship currently entitles them to. Which, as expected, makes Seattle the poster child for the seeding debate to come: How much should a team be rewarded for a division championship in a weak division? And having finished four games better than the Seahawks, why should the Saints have to travel to play at Seattle next Saturday in a short week?
If the NFL seeded by record this year, the defending Super Bowl champions would go from having to likely win three road games to get back to the Super Bowl, to being off this week, with an automatic home game in the divisional round. That's a pretty drastically different postseason reality than the one New Orleans faces.
A caveat worth mentioning, of course, is that we're talking about the hypothetical situations that would be created by the new seeding rules, while Week 17 was actually played under the current format. Thus, Sunday's results might have played out quite differently. Philadelphia wouldn't have rested a bunch of starters at home against Dallas if its No. 3 seed was at stake, and we probably would have seen an injured Michael Vick at quarterback. Chicago, too, while playing hard in a 10-3 loss at Green Bay, would have had a different level of urgency against the Packers if it knew its No. 2 seed and first-round bye were in jeopardy.
But in serving to at least illustrate the debate about seeding by records alone, this year's playoff field highlights quite starkly the differences that can ensue. Much the way the topic surfaced as well in 2008, when the 8-8 and fourth-seeded Chargers won the AFC West and got a home game against the fifth-seeded Colts, even though Indy beat San Diego during the regular season and its 12-4 record dwarfed San Diego's. The Chargers used their home-field advantage well in that first-round game, beating the Colts 23-17 in overtime, before losing on the road in Pittsburgh in the AFC divisional round.
Seeding by records this year certainly would have underlined what seems to be the best wild-card field in recent NFL history. The Ravens are a 12-game winner, while the Saints and Jets won 11 games. The 10-6 Packers make it four-for-four in terms of double-digit winners, and many consider them the most dangerous wild-card qualifier of all. There are no 9-7 soft touches among this year's second-place playoff qualifiers, and all of them would have earned first-round home games.
Is it fair that in the AFC, the two wild-card teams hit the road after combining to go a gaudy 23-9, while the No. 3 and 4 seeds get to stay home after finished just 20-12? The discrepancy is even greater in the NFC, where the wild-card qualifiers were a combined 21-11, compared to the 17-15 mark compiled by the third and fourth seeds.
For now, the NFL's current postseason seeding rules still apply, and seven-win Seattle, which went 3-7 in its final 10 games, gets to host a playoff game while the 12-win Ravens pack for Kansas City. But come March, if the NFL changes its seeding methods, the Seahawks might be remembered not only as the league's first division champion with a losing record, but the last one to have its mediocrity rewarded with a home playoff game.