Gridiron fans angrily speculated about the prospect of a 7-9 team not only making the playoffs but also hosting a post-season game. And then it happened when the Seattle Seahawks, benefiting from tie-breakers, won the NFC West with a losing record.
For Saints fans, this bit of sanctimonious outrage is new; it’s not for Indianapolis Colts fans, whose 12-4 team in 2008 had to travel to southern California to play the 8-8 San Diego Chargers. The Colts were even further annoyed when the obviously inferior Chargers had the temerity to ruin Peyton Manning’s season by winning in overtime 23-17.
The debate about whether Seattle belongs in the post-season or hosting a playoff game begs the question: do divisions matter? I say yes.
The NFL divisions have been shaped by a combination of tradition, geography and expedience. After all, the Cincinnati Bengals have to be placed somewhere.
Longstanding rivalries have defined some of the divisions, thus defying the divisional names.
As a grade schooler who could read a map, I thought it was odd that the New Orleans Saints were in the NFC West while the Dallas Cowboys were in the NFC East. Yet who would let geography (which is also one of Americans’ worst subjects anyway) diminish the rivalry between the Redskins and the Cowboys?
Currently, the Indianapolis (nee Baltimore) Colts are in the AFC South while the Baltimore Ravens (nee Cleveland Browns) are in the AFC North despite the fact that Maryland provides the southern border of the Mason-Dixon line and Indiana is very much a northern state. In fact there’s a large monument in downtown Indianapolis putting one and all on notice to which side they favored in the War Between the States.
It should also be noted that Cincinnati is well south of Indianapolis but resides in the AFC North.
That said, I would prefer locationally fudged division names to having divisions haughtily dubbed “legends” and “leaders”. Only a fool would do something like that.
So if divisions do matter, then should winning the division be worth something? Absolutely. And the prize is hosting at least one playoff game.
The divisions nurture rivalries by guaranteeing two games against the other teams in the division. Don’t tell me that the intensity isn’t higher for the Chicago Bears when they play the Green Bay Packers as opposed to when the Monsters of the Midway face the Arizona Cardinals.
The wild card playoff slots serve as a counter-balance to disparity of divisional strength (which is common with college football’s conferences) as it is entirely possible that the best two teams in the AFC might very well occupy the same division.
One proposal would seed teams in each conference by record instead of division standing, though I believe this would add an unneeded degree of complexity while also undermining the status of winning the divisions, which would consequently take a bite out of the league’s merchandising sales.
How many Saints fans own a t-shirt and hat from each the team’s division, conference and championship milestones? I would wager plenty since I had trouble finding an NFC South t-shirt after the Super Bowl.
Another alternative to the status quo is the pre-1969 Major League Baseball system where there were no divisions and the teams with the best record in each league simply met in the World Series. But that’s not as much fun nor is it nearly as profitable.
More has been made out of Seattle’s playoff appearance than necessary. The fact that this the first time an NFL team with a losing record won its only proves that the system works far more often than not.
So why the outrage?
Furthermore, Seattle accomplished a mighty feat that the defending Super Bowl Champions could not: they beat the awful Arizona Cardinals. Twice.
Rather than grumbling about how the Black and Gold has to make the long journey to Seattle, Saints fans should be thrilled to be playing such a weak team. I’d much prefer the Saints take an extended road trip to the Pacific Northwest than a shorter run to the City of Brotherly Shove.
If anything that was a big incentive for the Saints to play their best against Atlanta in the regular season’s penultimate game. The division wasn’t so much on the line realistically as the opportunity to face the weakest division winner. The Saints achieved their goal and will reap their reward on Saturday afternoon while the Green Bay Packers visit the House That Booed Santa Claus.
And if the Saints do drop the game to the Seahawks, then it would be as much of a reflection on our post-season worthiness as the home team’s.