- LZ Granderson, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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There are a handful of reasons the Green Bay Packers are my dark horse pick come the playoffs.
One, the lil' devil in me would love to see that salt rubbed all over Brett Favre's wounded ego. Two, despite battling injuries all season long, the Pack have one of the league's stingiest defenses -- coughing up an NFL-low 15.2 points per contest. The last time they led the league in that category was 1996, the last time they won the Super Bowl. And three, they have Aaron Rodgers, who, like in 2009, has heated up in the second half of the season -- 11 TD passes, zero interceptions since Week 8 heading into Sunday's game at Detroit.
The Packers are 8-4 -- with the four losses coming by a combined 12 points -- and I wouldn't bat an eye if they finished 11-5 and repped the NFC in Dallas come February.
Provided 11-5 is good enough to get into the playoffs.
With one game separating five good teams heading into Week 14, chances are the Pack, or a similar team, are gonna get screwed thanks to the automatic inclusion of the NFC West "champ." Which means fans are getting screwed.
The NFL needs to stop turning a blind eye to this flaw in the system. The NFL needs to grant the six teams with the best records postseason berths and stop rewarding bad teams for being in Missouri.
Look, I understand every major sports league has had a mediocre division or conference that made it easier for greatly flawed teams to get into the playoffs and harder for teams from talent-heavy divisions or conferences. Last season in the NBA, 50 wins earned first-round home-court advantage in the East; 50 wins earned sixth, seventh and eighth seeds in the West. In 2008, there were four National League teams that didn't make the playoffs despite better records than the 84-78 Dodgers. Joe Torre's squad got in because it won a weak division. These things are cyclical and I get that.
But the NFL drives me crazy because the season is so doggone short -- just 16 games. A baseball team could lose more than half that many in a row and still wind up with a wild card. There are just a lot more opportunities for good teams to be good or great players to be great in baseball or basketball or hockey. These moments are not as plentiful in the black-and-blue league, and so the opportunities to enjoy watching them play are also few.
That's why I cringe at the prospect of an All-Pro like Rodgers or a Super Bowl MVP like Drew Brees sitting at home in January while 49ers coach Mike Singletary uses a Ouija board to decide which Smith he's going to start -- Alex or Troy. Let the regular-season division title be the reward for stinking less. Let the postseason be the reward for being good, if not great.
Take a look at what NASCAR is doing. Each race is worth the same amount of points and after 26 races, the 12 drivers with the most points are locked into a playoff of sorts and battle it out for the championship over the remainder of the season. While winning the Daytona 500 is a tremendous accomplishment, it does not guarantee a spot in the Chase. A driver must have consistently high finishes over the bulk of the season to be included. And despite the lack of divisions or conferences, there are enough colorful rivalries to rile fans into screaming at the track and chattering online the rest of the week.
If the NFL did away with automatic bids for division champs and instead corralled the best six records after 16 games -- using tiebreakers such as head-to-head matchups or strength of schedule as opposed to conference record to help separate wheat and chaff -- the game as a whole would benefit.
For example, after a 7-3 start in 2008, the Arizona Cardinals played uninspired ball from Thanksgiving until January in large part because they had already wrapped up their division and thus were assured a playoff spot. They finished 9-7 and rallied to make a historic run to the Super Bowl, but imagine the caliber of football the Cards might have played in December if the team's postseason fate hadn't been decided in Week 11. If 9-7 got them a division title but no playoffs -- three 9-7 NFC teams went home after the regular season that year -- then "resting starters" in November wouldn't have even been considered. In short, fans would be less likely to see a preseason-caliber game in December.
Most years, division winners are likely to be among the six playoff teams. But for cases such as 2008, when the 8-8 Chargers also snatched a playoff spot (that should have gone to the Hoodie's 11-5 Pats) a weak team from a poor division shouldn't be allowed to take the playoff spot away from a solid team (this year that could be Philadelphia and a resurgent Michael Vick).
Since the owners are so interested in tweaking the schedule, instead of expanding a brutal regular season to get more cash, why not fix the broken postseason to get more fairness for the players and fans? If omitting a divisional champ from the playoffs is too politically risky for commissioner Roger Goodell or too radical for the league's dogmatic leaders, at least consider taking a page from the NBA and re-seed the participants based upon records.
This would be a positive step toward the bigger change because it would at least eliminate the possibility of home-field advantage being granted to the worst of the lot. It's bad enough that a sub.-500 could make the playoffs. Do they have to be handed title of host as well?
Postseason glory should be something earned on the field, not gifted by some haphazard grouping (which currently implies Cincinnati is north of Indianapolis and St. Louis is west of Dallas).
South is north; east is west; a losing team could make the playoffs and winners get sent home. That all makes about as much sense as a coin flip heavily determining the outcome of games ... and we all know no professional league would ever let that fly.
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
19hBy Jackie MacMullan