Why the NFL needs to change its playoff format


San Francisco 49ers running back Raheem Mostert (31) is congratulated by wide receiver Kendrick Bourne (84) after scoring against the Atlanta Falcons during the first half of an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019.

By Matt Boecker

DeKALB — The NFL’s current playoff format does a disservice to the best teams from each conference, and it’s time for the league to change the rules.


The current playoff format

The four division winners and the two teams with the best record from each conference who didn’t win their division qualify for the playoffs. 

The division winners are seeded one through four based on record, with the top two teams receiving byes during the wildcard round of the playoffs. 

The two teams who didn’t win their division, referred to as wildcard teams, are also seeded based on records.

Then, the third seed hosts the sixth seed and the fourth seed hosts the fifth seed in the wildcard round.


Why change is necessary

The issue with this format is that it doesn’t always give the better team home-field advantage in the wildcard round. As the playoff seeding currently sits, the 7-7 Dallas Cowboys would host the 11-3 San Francisco 49ers, and the 9-5 Houston Texans would host the 10-4 Buffalo Bills come wildcard weekend.

This is an issue because the Texans and Cowboys don’t deserve to host these games just because they’re currently winning their division. The Bills have played better football than the Texans, and the 49ers have played significantly better than the Cowboys based on each team’s record. Therefore, the Bills and 49ers should be the home team in the first round of the playoffs.


New playoff format proposal

The criteria for making the playoffs shouldn’t change, but once a team has made the playoffs, a team’s record should take precedence over winning a division when seeding occurs.

To emphasize why this rule change is necessary, let’s focus on the potential matchup between the Cowboys and 49ers. The NFC East has been abysmal this season. Teams in that division have a combined record of 20-36. Meanwhile, teams in the NFC West have a combined record of 34-21-1. The 49ers would be penalized for not winning the West because they’d have to travel to face the Cowboys who are currently winning the East.

The 49ers have played far superior opponents in the West than the Cowboys have in the East. Because of this, the Cowboys should be traveling to California to face the 49ers in Levi’s Stadium.

If this change were to be made, it would do a much better job of rewarding the dominant teams who make the playoffs. The 49ers have to compete with the 11-3 Seattle Seahawks to win the West, while the Cowboys are competing with the 7-7 Philadelphia Eagles to win the East. These things should be considered when playoff seeding takes place.

This rule change would maintain the importance of winning a division, it just wouldn’t put the accomplishment on as much of a pedestal as it currently is with the NFL’s playoff formatting.