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With controversy looming, NFL must reconsider playoff structure

If you've been in the game long enough, you see some controversies coming from a ways off.

The playoff picture
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Over the next couple weeks, we can anticipate a storm of complaints and debates as the playoff picture comes into focus and the implications of the regular season become apparent. This is a season in which the NFL's present seeding system will come under heavy scrutiny. With two games remaining for every team, we're looking at a few disconcerting scenarios:

» The 9-5 Arizona Cardinals are presently on the outside looking in, despite the fact that they have a better record than two NFC division leaders (Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Bears).

» The Kansas City Chiefs could finish tied with the Denver Broncos for best record in the AFC ... and still wind up with the fifth overall seed.

» Wild-card weekend might have an awkward feel when the visitors have better records than the hosts in (at least) three of four games. (For the record, this phenomenon has occurred in 15 wild-card games since 2002.)

First things first: The plight of the Cardinals. At 9-5, Arizona has been surprisingly good, already clinching a winning season in Year 1 under Bruce Arians. With remaining games against the Seattle Seahawks (away) and San Francisco 49ers (home), the Cardinals could very well lose out, finish at 9-7 and not have much of a beef for missing the playoffs. But the Cardinals could also win their last two games, finish at 11-5 ... and still miss the playoffs. In that scenario, Arizona would become just the second 11-5 team to miss the playoffs under the 12-team format, joining the 2008 New England Patriots.

For teams that come up just short, there could be help on the way. At the NFL Fall Meeting in October, Commissioner Roger Goodell said the competition committee will continue to examine playoff expansion to 14 teams. With seven playoff teams in each conference, only the No. 1 overall seeds would get a bye during wild-card weekend.

The downside would be a slight dilution of the regular season. Among professional sports leagues in America, the NFL has the most meaningful regular season because it has avoided the playoff inflation that has beset the NBA and NHL. Not to mention, limited action heightens single-game intrigue (one NFL contest carries the same competitive weight in a team's season as 10 MLB ballgames). With an extra playoff team in each conference, the NFL's unparalleled regular season would lose at least some of its gravity.

On the other hand, advantages provided to the teams with the best records heading into the postseason -- home-field advantage in the wild-card round, a bye, home-field advantage throughout the playoffs -- would still be tangible and important enough that clubs would continue to compete fiercely for them.

Would enlarging the playoff field to 14 bring in a raft of poor teams? Not likely. In the past decade alone, seven teams with double-digit wins have missed out on playoff spots.

Football is a more fluid game than it was a generation ago, and we're seeing more low playoff seeds showing an ability to not only be competitive, but championship-caliber come January (see: the 2010 Green Bay Packers, who won the Super Bowl from the sixth seed). If there were seven teams going to the playoffs from the AFC this year, it's hard to believe that a team like the Pittsburgh Steelers -- finally rounding into form after a sputtering, injury-marred start to the season -- couldn't be a worthy first-round opponent for a No. 2 seed.

Not only would playoff expansion not be a terrible thing, it also wouldn't represent a screaming inequity. Unfortunately, the present seeding system is exactly that -- and it will be even more apparent this season.

The present playoff plan was put into place with the move from six to eight divisions in 2002, cutting the number of wild-card teams from three to two in each conference. This was done under the presumption that winning your division would have outsized value and thus should always be rewarded with a home playoff game.

Unfortunately, this principle runs headlong into the larger and more persuasive case that teams with better records should be rewarded. It just isn't fair that San Francisco could win 12 games and end up hitting the road to face a 9-7 NFC East winner. It's also ludicrous that Kansas City could finish in a tie for the best AFC record at 13-3 and not only be denied a bye, but also be relegated to the No. 5 seed.

This problem is easy enough to fix, and the solution would still provide a generous break to division winners: Simply seed teams according to records, but make being a division champion the first tiebreaker. If a division champion at 11-5 is facing a wild-card team that's also 11-5, the division champ earns the right to play at home. But beyond that, the team with the better record over the course of the 16-game regular season deserves home-field advantage in the playoffs. It's simple, and I hope it gets fixed in the not-too-distant future.

In the meantime, some very good teams are going to be sent on the road come wild-card weekend.

Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick.

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