Thursday January 14th, 2016

The divisional round of the playoffs is often called the best weekend of the NFL season, and this year’s schedule looks especially compelling. We’ve got Hall of Fame quarterbacks, great offenses and powerful defenses, and to top it off, eight of the top nine teams as measured by Football Outsiders’s total DVOA through 18 weeks. 

You could make a case that the eight teams left standing are the eight best teams in football, despite the fact that—as you’ve surely heard by now—all four road teams won on wild-card weekend for the first time ever. After yet another regular season in which many fans and pundits spent considerable time complaining about the postseason format, this year the ends seem to justify the means.

This realization led me to consider a potentially unpopular opinion: Maybe the playoff format is fine as it is.

The current setup has existed since the NFL realigned into eight divisions in 2002. Six teams from each conference make the field, division winners earn the top four seeds and home playoff games, and then the brackets re-seed going into the divisional round.

The most common complaints, which definitely deserve consideration, stem from the fact that most people believe the teams with the best records should be rewarded as much as possible. 

I think most people agree that each division winner should make the playoffs—otherwise divisions would essentially be meaningless. The sticking point with public opinion usually centers on the fact that division winners are allowed to host wild-card games against teams with superior regular season records. 

So after last weekend’s clean sweep from the four road teams, including wins by two teams with better records than their division-winning hosts, I decided to look back at every instance of what I’ll now describe as an “unjust” home game—though the degree of injustice will be up for debate.

There have been 20 wild-card games since 2002 in which a division winner got to host a team with a better record:

As you can see above, home and road teams have split the 20 games an even 10–10.

Twenty games is a relatively small sample size, prone to fluctuation that could skew data. For proof of that, look no further than the fact that division winners hosting a wild-card opponent with at least three more wins in the regular season are an unsustainable 4–1 in their “extra-unjust” home games.

In the 14 years under this format (including this season), there have been 56 wild-card games in all. Home teams are 30–26 overall. That means home teams are 20–16 when playing against teams that finished the regular season with a worse record (or the same record) and 10–10 when playing at home against a team with more wins.

Again, it’s still a small sample size, with numbers overly impacted by minor events like, say, a 27-yard Blair Walsh field goal attempt or a Vontaze Burfict penalty.

But one lesson is certain from that 10–10 overall record: Playing an “unjust” road game is hardly a death sentence. As you might expect, teams playing “unjust” road games have a higher winning percentage than your typical road wild-card teams.

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Many people still dislike this concept. But as is often the case, a few high-profile examples make it appear to be a much more widespread issue than it really is. This comes back to that 4–1 record for home teams giving up three games in the standings—a run buoyed by small-sample-size-flukiness, Ryan Lindley starting at QB, Tim Tebow magic and Marshawn Lynch’s Beastquake.

But these are the games many people used as their primary examples, especially earlier this season, when it looked like the AFC South and/or NFC East champions might win eight or fewer games.

***

So that’s a mostly objective look at the 20 previous games, but this debate pivots on a very subjective question: Just because a team can win a road game against an inferior opponent (at least based on regular season record), is making them actually do it in the first round fair?

I wanted to see if a particular type of team was punished more by having to play an “unjust” road game, so I calculated the cumulative regular season home and road splits for the 10 winners and 10 losers. They are amazingly close. For added context, I compared the numbers to Super Bowl champions over the same time frame:

 
  No. of teams record win % Road Record Road Win %
Unjust road game winners 10 111–49 .694 50–30 .625
Unjust road game losers 10 111–49 .694 49–31 .613
All unjust road game teams 20 222–98 .694 99–61 .619
Super Bowl winners 13 152–56 .731 71–33 .682

Yes, it may seem unfair to force a potential Super Bowl contender to go on the road for wild-card weekend. But frankly, if a team is good enough to win a Super Bowl, it ought to be good enough to win a road game, especially against an opponent with a worse record. 

And we can see above that the average Super Bowl champion over the last 13 years is better (both overall and on the road) than teams that lose unjust road games, or teams that put themselves in that situation regardless of the outcome.

And keep in mind that Super Bowl winners have better overall records despite the fact that A.) we’ve seen wild-card Super Bowl champions; and B) the “unjust” road game participants are self-selecting in that we know those teams have good records—that’s what makes their road trip unjust in the first place.

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It may seem like the NFL playoff format has imperfections, but many times—such as this season—it works itself out with the best teams advancing anyway. And maybe the issues are actually features and not bugs. 

One of the main benefits of the playoff format is the way it incentivizes teams to win their division. Dangling a home playoff game as a carrot in front of division winners helps prevent tanking. Teams in the lackluster AFC South or NFC East who were still alive in the division race at 4–6 or 5–7 had reasons to keep playing hard, despite also being in range for a top 10 draft pick. 

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It also puts a premium on division games (a whopping 96 out of 256 on the NFL schedule) because winning your division becomes such a critical goal for the regular season. In a league where almost every game matters already, the league can manufacture elevated stakes for almost 40% of the schedule.

The final point to make with regard to fairness is that even though we like to get wrapped up in each individual season, a lot of luck evens out over time. The finagling of the playoff seeds is a zero-sum game, and many of the same franchises that “unjustly” lost a home game over the last 13 years also “unjustly” gained one at some point over that same span—including both Green Bay and Kansas City, the two teams sent on the road this season.

Last week we saw four road teams win. Some wrote it off as a quirk, or an anomaly, or a sign of parity. Maybe it was simply proof that the playoff format itself is just fine. 

Because somehow, someway, the eight best teams are all still standing after wild-card weekend. And the stage is set for the NFL’s most exciting weekend of the year.

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