There are six good teams in the NFC.
The Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, Seattle Seahawks, and Arizona Cardinals all have at least two more wins than any other team in the NFC going into Week 15.
All of them are projected to finish with 10 wins or more, according to Nate Silver’s model. Only one other team in the conference (the 49ers) is projected to finish with more than seven wins.
There are six playoff spots. There are six good teams. Yet only five of those six teams are going to make the playoffs because of the league’s continued use of divisions — an arbitrary convention that makes little sense in 2014.
The NFC South division is an abomination. Here are the current standings:
- Atlanta Falcons: 5-8
- New Orleans Saints: 5-8
- Carolina Panthers: 4-8-1
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2-11
The division is 8-27-1 against the rest of the NFL. The first-place Atlanta Falcons are 1-8 against teams not in the NFC South.
Since the four division champions from each conference automatically make the playoffs, one of these teams is going to take a playoff spot from one of the six good teams. They’re also going to get a home game.
Silver’s numbers say there’s a 69% chance that the NFC South champion finishes with a losing record, and a 10% chance that it finishes at 6-10 — a record that would have been bad enough for a top-10 draft pick last year. Best-case scenario, the NFC South champ finishes 8-8.
There’s no reason to have divisions. The NFL will tell you that it wants to preserve historical rivalries, but these historical rivalries have been meaningless for a while. There are no eternal rivalries in the NFL. Rivalries emerge between two franchises that are good at the same time, and then disappear once one of them falls off. There was one point in the early-00s when the Eagles and the Bucs had a rivalry. The Patriots used to have a rivalry with the Colts because of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, and now that has shifted to the Broncos. What we call rivalries is more accurately defined as “good teams that play each other in meaningful games a few times over a two-or-three-year window.”
This isn’t the Premier League — where rivalries can still exist because the teams and their supporters look at themselves as stand-alone clubs that represent a specific place and people. Cardiff and Swansea would hate each other even if both clubs were relegated seven times and they were playing in front of 12 fans. That’s not the case in the NFL. NFL teams are franchises in the way Chick-fil-A’s are franchises. They’re representatives of the central brand and wouldn’t exist without that brand.
In 2014, divisions only exist to give more teams a shot at making the playoffs. It’s an arbitrary, unfair way to decide a playoff field, but it serves the league’s mission of giving every fan of every team hope.
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