At the end of the NFL regular season Sunday evening, the winner of the NFC West will be decided. It will either be the Seattle Seahawks at 7-9, or the St. Louis Rams at 8-8. In fact, all of the 2010 playoff scenarios will have been settled. Immediately afterward, there will be people in Tampa Bay, and people in either New York or Green Bay, who are going to be very upset. All three of those teams will have better records than the NFC West champion, but only one of them will get a playoff spot. They will express outrage over the fact that their team will be staying home, while an inferior team from the West will be moving on.
The fans of the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs, either the New Orleans Saints or the Atlanta Falcons, will complain as well. They'll tell you that they should have home-field advantage over the team from the West. To make their case even more compelling, they will point out that their football team has already beaten the NFC West champs, in the regular season.
Does that mean that there are some inequities in the current playoff format? Yes. It does.
But is the system unfair? No.
The current system works exactly as it's intended. The best team from each division gets a playoff game. Wild cards were introduced when there were three divisions to a conference. The current system was instituted in 2002. The reality is, a playoff berth has always been a reward for winning your division. The first wild card was just to even out the pack. The NFL could have eliminated the wild card altogether, now having an even number of divisions, but it would have gone against one of their core principles: making tons of money. The reasoning is simple, 'If the people like more, they'll love even more more'. That's also the reasoning behind 'Golden Corral' buffets, incidentally.
Wild card teams are in the playoffs solely to help round things out. They are useful, but not integral, to the process. They are like Guam, or the U.S. Virgin Islands. They get to send representatives to Congress, but they don't get to vote.
And their fans don't get to complain. You're lucky to be at the party, don't complain about how big a slice of the cake you receive. And if your team didn't get an invite this year, well, there's always next year. Win your division.
The concern is that the NFL will take these complaints to heart. The league's current management is very conciliatory, and has shown an almost fawning willingness to slather grease on any wheel that squeaks loudly enough. (As always, Pittsburgh is the exception. Sorry, Steelers fans, the league is certain they can't lose you no matter what, so they won't bother listening to your complaints.)
The most glaring example of this comes from last season's NFC Championship game. The Minnesota Vikings were robbed of a trip to the Super Bowl, for no other reason than their quarterback threw an interception in the closing seconds of regulation. It was a pass that should never have been thrown, Minnesota was in field goal range indoors, and there were only 12 seconds left on the clock. But he threw the ball and the Saints intercepted. New Orleans won the game with a field goal on the first possession of overtime.
If that doesn't seem like a very good reason for rule change, let me just add: That quarterback's name was... Brett Favre!
That's right, Brett Favre, who was the NFL's feel-good story of 2009. His road to the Super Bowl was already strewn with purple and gold flowers by an adoring public who had been fed a steady diet of Favre-related PR nuggets all season long. It was a storybook ending gone wrong. Brett and Co. were not supposed to lose the big game! It didn't fit the script.
Clearly, it was unfair that the Vikings didn't get a chance to have the ball in overtime. It's unfair to get a chance to win the game on the first possession! Something had to be done.
Enter the No Fair League.
As a result of Favre's interception, they actually changed the rules in playoff games to give both teams a chance to have the ball in overtime. Did that fix an historic advantage that the winners of the coin toss had? Well, no. That game was only the fifth overtime playoff game in NFL history (out of 27) in which the team that got the ball first scored on the opening possession of OT. It was unnecessary to fix this imagined problem. But it was done as a public relations salve for a cross-section of spoiled fans behaving like children who didn't get the fairy-tale ending they were all but promised.
Most players and coaches (quietly) expressed a dislike for the new rules. It's an added burden to play extra possessions in overtime. They've already played 60 minutes of intense playoff-caliber football. Both teams have the same chance to win the coin toss, both teams have special teams and defenses built specifically to stop offenses from gaining yards and scoring points.
The bottom line is that everybody wants the same thing: They want things to go their way. In every situation.
If the NFL considers 'fixing' the playoff system, all they'll do is quiet fans from certain cities. And only for now. If five years from now, Tampa Bay wins the NFC South with fewer victories than, say St. Louis has as a wild card, they're going to fully expect their home-field advantage.
You can't make every situation 100% equitable for every team or person. You just make a set of rules and procedures that apply to everyone, and play your best. Unlike children's leagues, in the NFL not everyone gets a trophy. But they all get paid really well, so don't feel too sorry for anyone who gets left out.