Noted commenter Brandon -- of World of B fame -- thinks he has a solution to the problem of NFL teams playing like wieners (his word) when their playoff fate has already been locked in. We had this e-mail exchange yesterday:
Brandon: Is it just me, or was yesterday's slate of NFL games nearly unwatchable? This may very well be an annual week 17 tradition, but this year's unholy tankfest seemed much more egregious than in the past. I may have a proposed (and possibly also obvious and oft-argued) solution, but I want to check with you to see if it's even possible. It goes as such: playoff seeding is determined solely by record, rather than division placement. A division championship does not guarantee a 1-through-4 seed; a wild card team with a better record than said division champ would be granted a higher seed. Let us ponder a scenario. If the Vikes went 16-0, and the Lions went 14-2 and had the second-best record in the NFC, the Lions would still only receive a 5 seed in the playoffs due to their wild-card status. Is this true? And if so, can we agree it's flat-out ridiculous? In this made-up scenario, I feel the Lions deserve the 2 seed. Last week, three teams -- the Cardinals, Bengals and Patriots -- would have had something on the line and therefore would have presumably not played like wieners, which would've added to the late-season drama and avoided them taking a giant [redacted] on all their fans who paid money to attend the games or set aside time to watch. I see no downside to this scenario. Have I missed something? Does this not make all the sense in the world? I eagerly await your response.
RandBall: I think it makes a great deal of sense and is absolutely correct. The only bad thing is that teams in a weak division (where they get to beat up on other teams 6 times under the current scheduling format) would gain an advantage over teams in a tough division. But they already do now in some senses, so ...
Brandon: Yes, exactly. In the current format, teams in a weak division are DOUBLY rewarded for playing bad division foes: not only do they have an easier schedule, but they are guaranteed 4-or-higher seed as the division winner. My seemingly elementary solution is merely removing one of those rewards. It would also result in a more competitive week 17, as well as present a fairer playoff scenario. Some ideas just make too much sense, I suppose.
This is where the e-mail exchange ended, but we like the general theme (and the NBA employs this to a degree). It would surely give more teams something to play for down to the end (though one could argue that the Vikings AND Lions in that scenario would simply pack it in at 15-0 and 13-2, respectively, if no other team could catch them for the top 2 spots). So: The idea doesn't fix every problem. Indianapolis and New Orleans still would have had nothing to play for, and we imagine this would be a continuing problem some years. To remedy that, we would propose the NFL -- instead of enticing teams with extra draft picks, as is being discussed -- mandate that teams who have clinched their playoff position must play their healthy allotment of starters in any game that has playoff implications for the opponent. And the penalty for pulling any shenanigans would be the loss of a draft pick. If Indy had played St. Louis in its second-to-last game, the Colts could feel free to use Curtis Painter and the rest of their scrubs. But against the Jets -- who benefited from the Colts' backups in Week 16 and the Bengals' backups in Week 17, while other teams like Houston had to play those teams earlier in the season at full strength -- the Colts would be bound by a written rule similar to baseball's unwritten rule: give a reasonable effort in games that have playoff implications in order to honor the integrity of the game. That doesn't mean every player listed as "questionable" on the injury report has to suit up and gut it out, but it does mean Peyton Manning and Drew Brees can't ride the pine when they are more than healthy enough to play.