2020 has been one of the stranger NFL seasons on record, with COVID-19 wreaking havoc on the schedule, players’ health, and allowing fans in the stands. Having said that, the games have been as entertaining as ever, and for the most part, teams we expected to do well have done well, save for a few surprises. (Did anyone think the Falcons would be the worst team in the NFC?)
Of course, there have been some flukey and unpredictable occurrences. In the AFC, a 10-win team will miss the playoffs. The Titans, Browns, Dolphins and Colts are all 10-5, but there is only enough room for three.
On the other hand… the winner of the NFC East is guaranteed a losing record. It’s likely someone will win at 7-9, but a 6-10 team could still win the division. It doesn’t seem quite fair, does it?
The NFC East is currently led by the Washington Football Team and Dallas Cowboys with records of 6-9. Six and nine! That’s the best record a team from that division could muster. 6-9 heading into Week 17 for teams in normal divisions (49ers, Chargers, Vikings) means possibly trying to lose to better your draft positioning, or giving an opportunity to guys buried on the bench.
But if you’re the Football Team, Cowboys, or even the Giants (who are actually even worse at 5-10, by the way), you’re playing for the chance to host a first-round playoff game! Yes, not only making the playoffs, but hosting a Wild Card game as a division winner.
Week 17 Scenarios
The remaining scenarios are pretty straightforward for these three teams. As Zack Morris once said to Screech while disguised as a Russian chess player who he had kidnapped, “Jawz vin ze game!” Or, in layman’s terms, just win the game.
Since all the games to end the season are divisional, that makes things a lot easier to keep track of. The Giants play the Cowboys, while the Football Team plays the poor Eagles, whose tie earlier this year to the Bengals has proved very costly. If the Football Team wins, they’re in, thanks to the tiebreaker of better divisional record. If the Cowboys win, they have to hope the Football Team loses. And if both teams lose, that would mean the Giants, with a record of 6-10, would actually win the division.
Should the NFL Change the Rules?
As the rules stand, the top team in each conference earns a first-round bye, while the other three divisional winners host a first-round “Wild Card” game, regardless of how pitiful their final record is. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before. Less than a decade ago, the Seahawks finished 7-9 and won the NFC West, and then actually won their first-round playoff game!
So there is recent precedent for losing teams not being a total playoff pushover. The 5-6-7 seeds in the NFC, likely the Buccaneers, Rams, and Bears, no doubt don’t want to travel anywhere for a first-round game. It’s a hassle to get on a plane in early January and fly to what is likely a cold-weather city and play on another team’s familiar field—fans in the stands or not.
Maybe the league should institute a rule that in order to qualify for the playoffs, you must finish at least .500 (8-8). If no team in the division does so, no one qualifies for the playoffs and the other teams all move up a spot. In this scenario, the 8-7 Cardinals would be playoff-bound, while the 5-seed Buccaneers would host a first-round game despite not winning the division.
That’s unlikely to happen, though. All the other major sports allow losers into the playoffs. The Houston Astros were just a game away from the World Series despite finishing 2 games under .500 this past season!