Home field advantage for the playoff opener would have been at stake late in the 2007 season if a different seeding format was already in place
On Sunday, the New York Giants put the final touches on a stunning postseason run, one that included three straight road wins in the playoffs before a Super Bowl XLII victory over New England.
That streak began in Raymond James Stadium, unfortunately, as the Giants forced the NFC South champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers into an early playoff exit with a 24-14 upset in the opening round. Including the regular season, the Giants posted a remarkable 11-1 record in road or neutral-site games in 2007, including a contest in London and, of course, the Super Bowl in Arizona.
Still, the Giants probably would have accepted home field advantage in any of those playoff games, if given the offer. The funny thing is, if a new playoff-seeding format the NFL is considering had already been in place in 2007, the Bucs-Giants game would have been held at the Meadowlands.
Or at least it would have been a home game for New York assuming the same records for the two teams. That's an important qualifier, because the records might not have been the same under the proposed new system…and that's exactly the point.
In a nutshell, the NFL is looking into the possibility of putting more weight on a team's record when seeding the playoff qualifiers in future seasons. Currently, a division-winning team is always given home field advantage over a Wild Card-qualifying team, regardless of the two team's records. This past season, the Buccaneers finished 9-7 to take the South while the Giants' 10-6 record was good for just second in the NFC East.
At his "state-of-the-league" press conference in Phoenix last Friday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged that the league is contemplating such a change. There are a variety of ways to adjust the seeding process, of course, but the NFL is keeping the focus narrow for now.
"You could re-seed right from the beginning, but I think we'd probably address this in smaller steps here," said Goodell. "The focus that we will probably give it in the short-term would be to look at our seeding process. You qualify if you win your division, then you have the two wild-card teams. I think what we'd like to look at is if a wild-card team has a record better than a division winner, should that give the advantage to the wild-card team that has the better record? That will probably be our short-term focus. But as we look at how we continue to innovate and we continue to make our game more interesting to our fan base, we'll probably look at the broader issues at the same time."
Such an approach would have affected two games this postseason, as the 11-5 Jacksonville Jaguars also played on the road (and won) against the 10-6 Pittsburgh Steelers, winners of the AFC North. In the previous five seasons, since the league realigned to eight four-team divisions in 2002, there were three other occurrences of the team with the better record hitting the road.
In 2002, the 10-6 Indianapolis Colts had to go to New York to play the 9-7 Jets, with the Jets delivering a 41-0 drubbing. In 2003, the 12-4 Tennessee Titans lost the AFC South title to Indy on a tiebreaker and thus had to go to Baltimore to play the 10-6 Colts. The Titans won, 20-17. In 2005, Jacksonville was again on the road despite a 12-4 record, and they couldn't overcome the 10-6 Patriots, losing 28-3.
The new format would have kept the team with the better record at home in each of those cases…or maybe even erased several of those situations before they even arose. See, part of the motivation for considering the new seeding system is to eliminate as many "meaningless" games as possible from the end of the season.
Consider the Buccaneers and Giants this year, for instance. After Tampa Bay won the NFC South in Week 15, it looked highly likely that they would end up with the fourth seed and a visit from the Giants. Sure enough, the Buccaneers rested many of their starters through the majority of the last two weeks, absorbed a pair of losses to San Francisco and Carolina and, in the end, had the fourth seed and a home game with the Giants. The Bucs didn't particularly enjoy their approach to the last two games but believed their hands were tied by a wide rash of late-season injuries. Would they have approached those last two games any differently, despite their injury troubles, had they needed one or two more victories to secure home field advantage in the opening round?
"The incentive should be for every team to win as many games as possible," said Goodell. "We owe that to our fans and it's important for clubs to be [given that incentive]. We are going to look into the potential of seeding our teams differently after they qualify for the playoffs, so that you could potentially make more of the regular season games have significance for the postseason. Last season there were nine games, in the last two weeks of the season, where at least one of the teams did not have any impact on their postseason seeding. We think that by looking at our seeding process that we could have affected three of those nine games and made those have meaning."
Of course, every team's initial goal when a new season begins is to win its division and thereby guarantee a playoff spot. That wouldn't change even if the NFL does eventually massage its postseason seeding process. The criteria for qualifying for the playoffs wouldn't change, and winning one's division would still produce a home playoff game for most teams, if history is any indication. The NFL is simply contemplating the notion that a 12-4 team should have home field advantage over an 8-8 team, no matter how the two got there. And, if that becomes the rule, then a few more teams might shoot for that 12-4 record.