The 49ers have been one of the dominant teams of the 2019 NFL season from the moment Mitch Wishnowsky put his toe to the football and launched it into the air above Raymond James Stadium on the second Sunday in September. When it landed, the Buccaneers proceeded to go three-and-out, and the 49ers were launched into a season of renewed excellence.
Only five of the league's 32 teams have reached double-figures in victories through 13 weeks, and the 49ers, at 10-2, are one. The problem: One of the other four, the Seahawks, compete in the same division, the NFC West. That means either the 49ers or Seahawks will be forced to enter the playoffs as a wild-card team.
This would be fine if the NFL's playoff format was based on logic.
Alas, it is based more on habit.
If the season were to end today, San Francisco and its 10-2 record would be headed to Dallas for a first-round playoff game. The Cowboys are 6-6. There is no universe in which a team that is 50 percent less successful has earned a competitive advantage in a championship tournament — except the NFL universe, which assures that all eight division winners shall play host to a postseason game.
This sort of imbalance could happen in both conferences this season. In the AFC, Buffalo's 9-3 record is superior to division leaders in both the West (Kansas City, 8-4) and South (Houston, 8-4).
And this is not an unusual season. In fact, it’s rare when there isn’t at least one instance in the NFL playoffs where a team with a superior record is going on the road for a first-round playoff game simply because the NFL continues to insist on granting playoff advantages to its division champions, regardless of record.
It has happened 15 times this decade. The only season in which there wasn’t at least one example of this inequity was 2017. There were three in 2010, and at least two in seven of nine completed seasons. And it hasn’t been without consequence: When sent on the road in the wild-card round, the team with the superior record has won only 53 percent of the time.
In 2010, the 11-5 Saints visited the 7-9 Seahawks. A year later, it was the 12-4 Steelers shipped to Denver to play the 8-8 Broncos. An 11-5 Cardinals team was sent across the country to play a 7-8-1 Panthers team after the 2014 season. All of those visitors lost their playoff games.
The NFL has seen this play out for decades, and its response has been inertia.
The NBA responded to imbalances that developed in its playoff structure by making significant changes several years ago. The eight playoff teams in each conference now are seeded relative to their win-loss records. There is no reason for the NFL to continue resisting similar logic.
The NFL does not need radical change to fix what's wrong. It just needs a roomful of open minds willing to consider the obvious; that a division championship should guarantee entry into the playoffs, but not preferred entry. Excellence always should warrant the greatest returns.
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It has been suggested the NFL should simply do away with its divisional format in order to reward each season’s best teams, but that is not necessary to achieve a just result. There is great utility in the divisional format:
Scheduling: Having each member of a division play the other three members twice each, as well as the members of two other divisions, creates a relatively balanced schedule that adds integrity to the competition.
Rivalry: Members of a division playing each other twice annually foments the dislike that leads to Cowboys-Skins, Bears-Packers, Niners-Rams.
Consequence: Divisional races are part of the entertainment of professional sports. The Niners vs. the Seahawks will be an important part of what makes December in the current NFL season thrilling. The winner should be advantaged by a high seed and a first-round bye. The loser should not be condemned to play a road game against a team that hasn’t beaten an opponent with a winning record all year.
Teams should get what they earn in the NFL. Under the current rules, too often they do not.
Fixing that problem does not require radical change. It requires common sense. There must be a considerable supply available, because it’s sure not getting used up on the pass-interference replay reviews.