ATLANTA (AP) The Atlanta Falcons won't apologize for somehow being in first place with a losing record.
They shouldn't have to.
This one is on the NFL.
The league should seriously consider realignment - or, at the very least, a revamping of the playoff system - to prevent a repeat of this looming postseason embarrassment: the Falcons or New Orleans Saints or whoever emerges as champion of the woeful NFC South actually getting to host a first-round game when they have no business playing after December.
''It's set up the way it is,'' Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan said with a shrug. ''We're not worried about what people say.''
The NFL should be.
The playoffs are supposed to reward the best teams, and no one would put Atlanta (4-6), New Orleans (4-6), Carolina (3-7-1) or Tampa Bay (2-8) in that group.
Yep, even the Buccaneers are still in the postseason mix, a team that trailed the Falcons 56-0 early in the season and just doubled its win output with a victory over Washington.
''Normally this time of year, when you're talking about that second win, you're not throwing a lot of parties,'' coach Lovie Smith quipped. ''But for us, to be two wins out of first place in the win column, that is big.''
It's not like this is all that unusual, either.
In the last six years, three mediocre teams - San Diego in 2008 and Denver in 2011 with 8-8 records, Seattle in 2010 at 7-9 - not only made the playoffs at the expense of more-deserving teams, but won their opening playoff games against superior opponents largely because they were playing at home.
The NFL, you see, gives the top four seeds in each conference to the division champions, regardless of whether a wild-card team - or, as was the case in the aforementioned years - both wild-card teams have better records.
That's certainly going to be the case again this season in the NFC.
The Falcons, in fact, could actually win the division with a 6-10 record, having beaten no one outside the South.
If that happens, they would still open the playoffs at the Georgia Dome.
Other than the World Series, where home-field advantage is ridiculously based on which league wins the All-Star Game, every other postseason series in every other sport gives that edge to the team with the best record.
The NBA saw the light a few years ago. Its six division champions are still guaranteed playoff berths and slotted into the top three seeds in each conference, but they don't get home court if they team they're paired against has a better mark.
It's past time for the NFL to adopt something similar.
But that doesn't go far enough.
The current eight-division alignment and scheduling format should be scrapped immediately, since it clearly breeds these sort of travesties. With only four teams in each division, and just six of 16 games against division opponents, it's really not all that farfetched to have wind up with a wretched group such as the NFC South.
The NFL should go back to the six-division alignment that worked just fine for so many years before the league expanded to 32 teams. It might look something like this:
- AFC East: Buffalo, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Miami, New England and New York Jets.
- AFC Central: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Tennessee.
- AFC West: Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Oakland and San Diego.
- NFC East: Carolina, Dallas, New York Giants, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Washington.
- NFC Central: Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay, Minnesota and St. Louis.
- NFC West: Arizona, Atlanta, New Orleans, San Francisco and Seattle.
This alignment would preserve most of the most important rivalries, with only one geographical anomaly - Atlanta and New Orleans in the NFC West - that actually has historical precedence. The Falcons and the Saints were members of that division from 1970 until the current alignment was adopted for the 2002 season.
With larger divisions, the odds are much better that at least one worthy team would emerge from each, allowing the NFL to still guarantee automatic berths to each division champion while freeing up two extra wild-card berths for the worthiest teams. Also, this setup would lead to half of the 16-game schedule being made up of division contests; in the five-team divisions, everyone would still play home and home, while six-team divisions would have three home-and-homes on a rotating basis and single games against the other two rivals.
The rest of the schedule would be made up of four intra-conference games, and retain the current setup of four games against the opposing conference. It wouldn't be quite as neat as the current arrangement, but it shouldn't be much of a problem coming up with a formula - based largely on playing teams with similar records the previous season - that would result in even more parity.
Parity is fine.
A losing team in the playoffs is not.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
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