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Staring Down a Disaster

How bad is the NFC South? How broken is the playoff format? In one scenario, the NFL could have its first division champ with 10 or more losses and its first 12-win team miss the postseason. It’s time for common sense to trump tradition

Fresh off another embarrassing winless week in the laughingstock NFC South—and if you’re keeping score, that’s three of those this season, compared to two for the league’s other seven divisions combined—the NFL finds itself staring down the disaster that now is more likely than ever to unfold. And that it so richly deserves.

Get ready for the NFL’s first double-digit loss division champion, football fans. And don’t forget this is a league that values tradition above all else. Especially common sense.

With the Falcons (4-7) and Saints (4-7) locked into an epic race for the title of Worst Playoff Team in League History, now seems like a good time to once again reexamine the flaws and inequity of the NFL’s playoff seeding format, which stubbornly continues to reward and prioritize division champions, even if their records are far inferior to wild-card qualifiers. And I don’t mean to slight the lowly Carolina Panthers (3-7-1) or Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-9) whatsoever in this discussion, because it’s virtually impossible to eliminate yourself in the NFC South this season. Lord knows the Panthers and Bucs have tried. Then again, so have the Falcons and Saints.

If was four years ago, of course, that we finally hit the new low of having a division champ with a losing record, when the 7-9 Seahawks won the NFC West and a No. 4 seed, which meant they got to host the 11-5 wild-card Saints, the NFC’s No. 5 seed. Naturally, Seattle took full advantage and sent the defending Super Bowl champions home for the winter. The same way the No. 4-seeded Chargers (8-8) did at home against the 12-4, fifth-seeded visiting Colts in 2008, despite Indianapolis having already beaten San Diego in the regular season.

The NFL has featured weak divisions before. But it has never come close to the four-team train wreck that is this year’s NFC South. The entire division should be forced to play games encircled by yellow police tape.

But 6-10 and still Super Bowl dreaming? What in the name of Pete Rozelle’s beloved parity is going on here? It not only could happen in the NFC South this year, it probably will. I’m no math major, but consider that either the Falcons or Saints will have to play winning ball at 3-2 over the last five weeks of the season just to get to 7-9—and the whole concept of playing winning ball has been rather elusive this year in the division.

The NFL has featured weak divisions before. But it has never come close to the four-team train wreck that is this year’s NFC South. The entire division should be forced to play games encircled by yellow police tape, that’s how much of a calamity the NFC South has been in 2014. When the Saints lost their third straight at home on Monday night, falling 34-27 to the Ravens, the entire division was at least three games under .500—the first time that has ever happened in any division at the close of a week, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

The topic of re-seeding the playoffs by records has become a familiar debate by now. Every few years or so it resurfaces, and every time we get the same tired answer from NFL ownership: The league has always awarded division champions with at least one home playoff game, and that’s a tradition that enough owners believe merits keeping.

When the NFL’s competition committee last dared to recommend the idea of seeding the playoffs strictly by record—as it did in early 2011—a majority of the owners expressed support for the plan, but the idea died because it never came remotely close to garnering the necessary 24 out of 32 votes for passage.

One longtime NFL competition committee member told me he remembers being surprised by the strength and depth of push-back from some owners, who in 2011 lobbied strenuously on behalf of the “sanctity’’ of division winners being awarded a home playoff game. That same committee member thinks the current outdated format will eventually be changed, once the right tipping point has been reached and a sufficient firestorm of protest ensues from a wholly undeserving division champion.

Hello, NFC South! It’s time to do your part.

Playoff scenarios are dime a dozen at this time of year, but there are fairly plausible permutations in which the NFC South could wind up with a 5-11 or 6-10 champion, while a vastly more deserving 11-5 wild-card contender could miss the playoffs entirely. Let’s say the Falcons and Cowboys play those two bizarro-world roles and see what chaos ensues in today’s social media-driven atmosphere. Or substitute the Saints and Packers. You choose. It’s mind-blowing fun. For a league that’s already a little gun-shy on the bad public relations front, it’d be almost worth a penalty for piling on.

In at least one specific playoff scenario, the NFL could have a historic double whammy on its hands: its first division champ with 10 or more losses and its first 12-win team to miss the postseason. That would require some deft explaining from a league that talks endlessly about the quality of its on-field product. Even the specter of the 6-10 Saints playing host to the 12-4 Cowboys in a first-round playoff game at the Superdome would be almost indefensible for the NFL, especially if you’re Jerry Jones and you built a $1.3 billion stadium that goes empty that weekend.

The first round of the playoffs is all but guaranteed to set a new ugly precedent that will make everyone question the NFL’s overzealous defense of tradition. If the events of this lost season in the NFC South don’t loosen some owners’ grip on the ill-advised belief that division titles trump all, nothing ever will.

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