Never has the NFL truism "winning the division is our first goal" been more accurate. Just ask the Seattle Seahawks.
Or ask the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, two teams with 10 wins who did not make the playoffs while the 7-9 Seahawks are in. Not only in, but hosting a game next Saturday against the defending Super Bowl champion Saints, who merely went 11-5.
The NFL is enamored of its divisional structure, placing heavy emphasis on intradivision games. So much so that regardless of what's going on elsewhere, a division title is a guarantee to host at least one postseason game.
That's Seattle's reward for a losing record: four of its wins were within the NFC West, better than the Rams' 3-3 mark, making the Seahawks the first division winner with a losing record in league history.
And sparking debate on how fair that is.
"This is not a new issue," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said last month. "We have considered many alternatives for our playoff format, including the possibility of seeding all playoff teams on the basis of their records once they qualify for the playoffs.
"I'm certain this will get additional consideration by our competition committee and our membership in the offseason. As with any system, there are pluses and minuses."
The Giants know all about the minuses, especially considering their 41-7 manhandling of the Seahawks in Seattle on Nov. 7 — a victory that meant relatively nothing in the playoff breakdown.
"It stinks, that's all I can say," guard Chris Snee said. "You get 10 wins and you think you're a playoff team. We have no one to blame but ourselves."
True. No team blew its chances to win its division worse than New York, which led Philadelphia 31-10 at home midway in the fourth quarter last month and managed to lose 38-31. The Eagles won the NFC East.
Then the Giants fell to Green Bay, which gave the Packers the tiebreaker for the NFC's second wild-card; New Orleans easily earned the first one.
"That's how the system is, you know?" Snee said. "When I'm in this position, sure, I can say that ... they should take the top six teams. But one year, maybe it'll be the opposite, and we get in. You can't really control that. It's just the way the system is — and we didn't win the games that we had to win."
Any chance the system might change?
As Goodell mentioned, this topic comes up occasionally at owners meetings. It's more certain than ever to be raised in March at the main league meetings in New Orleans, perhaps brought up by the Giants or Bucs.
But the likelihood of diminishing the importance of division races is negligible. After all, the NFL got a winner-take-all matchup in prime time for the final game of the year. Under a format where, say, the top six teams in the conference make the postseason regardless of divisions, St. Louis-Seattle would have been totally ignorable.
So might have been the Colts' win over the Titans on Sunday to take the AFC South. The division races tend to prolong the drama through to Week 17.
One tweak that could be coming is for a wild-card team with a better record than a division winner being the host for a playoff game. This weekend, all four road teams could stake claims to deserving to be the host.
Not only are the Saints four games better than the Seahawks — a team they routed 34-19 in November — but the Jets (11-5) have a better record than their hosts on Saturday, the Colts (10-6). Same for the Ravens (12-4) and Chiefs (10-6).Comment on this story
The Packers and Eagles both are 10-6, with Green Bay beating Philadelphia in the season opener. Yet the wild-card game on Sunday is in Philly.
Maybe all of this simply is an aberration.
"This is an unusual year in which a team won the division with a not outstanding record," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "Well, maybe it's just a different and unusual year. I don't know. From a standpoint of the league and the overall, I don't have any complaints with the system. From a standpoint of being selfish right now, yeah, we'd like to be playing, sure."
AP Football Writer Howard Fendrich in Washington, and Sports Writer Tom Canavan in East Rutherford, N.J., contributed to this report.