Wildcard Playoff Seeding & Divisional Issues: The Origin of It and the Post to Make Your Arguments

So as we know, there has been much discussion centered around how the seeding system works (or doesn't) for wildcard playoff teams. Some people are of the mindset that it balances out over time so don't bother with fixing it. Others believe that the current system unfairly rewards teams with poor records who happen to win their division. So I wanted to first take a look at what created this problem to begin with, and a brief NFL history lesson for those younger fans. But I'm going only to focus on the modern times as there were too many changes that occurred pre 1980 to make them relevant to the discussion.

Prior to 2002, the NFL consisted of two conferences like it still does today. But before 2002, there were only three divisions per conference. And the division alignment looked like this:



San Francisco 49ers
St. Louis Rams
Atlanta Falcons
New Orleans Saints
Carolina Panthers

Chicago Bears
Green Bay Packers
Detroit Lions
Minnesota Vikings
Tampa Bay Bucaneers

New York Giants
Dallas Cowboys
Washington Redskins
Philadelphia Eagles
Arizona Cardinals



Oakland Raiders
Seattle Seahawks
San Diego Chargers
Kansas City Chiefs
Denver Broncos

Cleveland Browns
Pittsburgh Steelers
Cincinnati Bengals
Jacksonville Jaguars
Tennessee Oilers
Baltimore Ravens
Miami Dolphins
New York Jets
Indianapolis Colts
New England Patriots
Buffalo Bills

As you can see, there are some obvious issues with this alignment mainly all of them in the NFC West. The 49ers were the only team in the division west of the Mississippi in a "West" division. So when the Houston Texans joined the league in 2002, they took the opportunity to realign the divisions into what they are now which is this:


New England
NY Jets
Kansas City
San Diego

NY Giants
Green Bay
New Orleans
Tampa Bay
St. Louis
San Francisco

With Seattle being moved to the NFCW from the AFCW, along with Arizona coming from the NFCE to the NFCW, you now had an alignment that made more sense. But you also created one more division per conference which is where our new issue has been created with relation to seeding. So I will cover quickly how seeding works in the playoffs, both before and after the divisions were realigned:


  • Three division winners get into playoffs as 1-2-3 seeds and have home field advantage for their first game (1 seed has it throughout)
  • Three teams with the next best records get in as a wildcard and are seeded 4-5-6
  • First round wildcard games are 3(Home) vs. 6(Away), 4(Home) vs. 5 (Away)

So in this format, it's the same as we have now except there are fewer division winners and one wildcard team is guaranteed a home game. But now we look at the current format which is as follows:


  • Four division winners get into playoffs as 1-2-3-4 seeds and have home field advantage for their first game (1 seed has it throughout)
  • Two teams with the next best records get in as a wildcard and are seeded 5-6
  • First round wildcard games are 3(Home) vs. 6(Away), 4(Home) vs. 5 (Away)

We are pretty familiar with this format so there is not much need for discussing it. But what I wanted to know was how many times in the first round did a team with a worse record host a team with a better record in the playoffs both pre and post realignment? Basically by spreading the divisions out into smaller groups and adding another, how did that affect the seeding for wildcard teams? I got some great help from sycasey on this today in a forum.

So taking a look at the 12 years BEFORE realignment versus the last twelve AFTER realignment, here are the numbers:

  • PRE-REALIGNMENT: From the year 1990 to 2001 no time did a team host a first round game with a worse record than their opponent
  • POST-REALIGNMENT: 17 times in 48 games (35%) a team with a lesser record hosted a team with a better record in the first round of the playoffs. And in recent years, the frequency has been increasing. There has been a minimum of two games where this has occurred in the last four years. Those times were as follows:

2002 Jets (9-7) hosted Colts (10-6)
2003 Ravens (10-6) hosted Titans (12-4)
2004 None
2005 Patriots (10-6) hosted Jaguars (12-4)
2006 None
2007 Steelers (10-6) hosted Jaguars (11-5); Bucs (9-7) hosted Giants (10-6)
2008 Chargers (8-8) hosted Colts (12-4); Cardinals (9-7) hosted Falcons (11-5)
2009 Cardinals (10-6) hosted Packers (11-5)
2010 Colts (10-6) hosted Jets (11-5); Chiefs (10-6) hosted Ravens (12-4); Seahawks (7-9) hosted Saints (11-5)
2011 Broncos (8-8) hosted Steelers (12-4); Giants (9-7) hosted Falcons (10-6)
2012 Ravens (10-6) hosted Colts (11-5); Redskins (10-6) hosted Seahawks (11-5)
2013 Packers (8-7-1) hosted 49ers (12-4); Eagles (10-6) hosted Saints (11-5)

So I would think it would be easy to make the case that by adding an extra division, you have divided out the herd and allowed some weaker teams to claim titles they would not have been able to do so in a larger division. And with the seeding giving priority to division winners, this gives them an unfair advantage over teams that may have an extremely strong division and that may have three 10 win teams (wink, wink).

I would agree with most that keeping the divisional games importance and rivalries intact is vital to the game. My take away would be to seed based on record once you get in, but leave the qualifications for playoff entry as they are. The arguments can be made that some teams would prefer to keep it this way because it may give them an advantage. But I have to think no team plans to "just win enough" to get the division. The goal of every team is to get wins and those wins should be rewarded as such.

And I would say the same thing if my team was 8-8 and hosting a 12-4 team. I see it as not fair no matter which team you root for. Basically this seeding issue seems to be an unintended consequence of the 2002 divisional realignment, and it needs to get addressed in my opinion.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors.

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