The 6-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers have an inside track to host a postseason game this winter, despite their sub-.500 record. This is only possible because of the NFL’s divisional structure, which is slowly losing steam in the sport’s other big leagues in college football. This begs the question: Do we really need to reward division winners in 2022?
If you look at college football, the Pac 12 and Big 12 have already eliminated division winners from automatically qualifying for their championship games. The Big 12 simply doesn’t have enough teams, while the Pac 12 has chosen to have the two teams with the best records play each other in the title game. This season, the Pac 12 championship was decided by Utah and USC, which are both in the “Pac 12 South” division. In the Pac 12, divisions remain but are only relevant in the context of scheduling opponents.
Elsewhere in the Power 5, the ACC and SEC have flirted with the idea of doing away with divisions entirely. This will almost certainly happen in the future and the Big Ten could (will) join them when USC and UCLA are added to the conference.
This doesn’t mean that regional rivalries will be canceled. They will still be yearly events. They will just be called “pods” instead of “divisions” and will no longer come with an automatic qualifier in the conference’s championship game. This should help out conferences like the Big Ten — whose East Division has gone 9-0 in title games against the West Division — put together a more competitive end to their conference season.
Why couldn’t the NFL do the same thing? If the Buccaneers (or Panthers, Falcons or Saints for that matter) finish sub-.500, why should they potentially get in the NFC playoffs over another team with a better record? Just because they won a division? Whatever that even means anymore.
At least as of yet, the Buccaneers aren’t kicking any team above .500 out of the postseason, but that could change over the last month of the season. Still, FiveThirtyEight gives Tampa Bay a 67 percent chance to make the playoffs, a drastically higher projection than their losing record peers. For example, the 6-7 Detroit Lions — the next highest sub-.500 team in terms of postseason odds on FiveThirtyEight — have just a 20 percent chance to make the playoffs, per the model. The site also has the Lions ahead of the Buccaneers in their power rankings, meaning the more than three-times difference between Tampa and Detroit’s playoff odds is simply based on their competition in the division.
Does that feel just? Couldn’t the NFL just consider divisions “pods” that are used to consistently build-out schedules, like college football is transitioning to, instead of using them as justification for a postseason ticket? The league could easily flip a switch and just let the seven best records in instead of mandating it being four division winners and three wild card teams.
There’s no reason a potentially 14-3 Dallas Cowboys team should be playing in Tampa against a 7-10 Buccaneers team on wildcard weekend. That, by the way, is a real possibility with how the season has played out so far. There are far too many obvious flaws for division winners to automatically make the playoffs in seasons like this year’s NFC South is having. If automatic playoff spots ended this second, the NFC playoff race would instantly become more wide-open, interesting and meaningful and no one would feel like the Buccaneers were being shorted of their standing in the league.