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Heroes & Villains: Parity works, but playoffs need help

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All season long, Around The NFL's Marc Sessler will offer up his laundry list of heroes and villains from the week that was.

We normally offer a barrage of players and coaches, but with the playoff chase in full swing, it's time to look at what works -- and what doesn't -- with the NFL's current postseason format.

Let's get down to it:

Heroes


The 25 Teams Still Alive in December: Parity is a plus.

When I discovered the NFL way back in 1985, Sundays were spent with my dad watching the local Jets and Giants do battle with a rash of distant foes. Bored by the methodical Giants and seeing nothing to adore in the Jets, I made a gargantuan miscalculation at age 13: I became a Browns fan.

Siding with Cleveland sent my middle-school heart into the abyss as the Browns -- right after I fell for them -- lost to Denver in back-to-back AFC title devastations known forever as The Drive and The Fumble. Reeling from those defeats and tapping into some sort of seventh-grade self-defense mechanism, I convinced myself that being a Broncos fan would actually be worse. Why? Because winning three AFC titles over the Browns only meant embarrassment on football's biggest stage for Denver as the Broncos went on to lose a trio of Super Bowls by a combined score of 136-40.

The problem for Denver -- and the entire AFC -- in the mid-1980s was a National Football Conference littered with top-heavy dynasties. One half-baked AFC entry after the next was thrown to the slaughter against Joe Montana's 49ers, Joe Gibbs' Redskins, Troy Aikman's Cowboys or Bill Parcells and his frolicking G-Men. It was same story every season.

When Cleveland moved to Baltimore in 1996, I found myself inherently rooting for the AFC to snap the NFC's outrageous streak of 13 straight Super Bowl wins, which finally came true when Elway's Broncos topped the Packers in January of '98. The AFC has since won 10 Lombardis; the NFC seven. New England aside, today's championship gold is split more evenly with today's NFL operating as the most competitive and unpredictable sports juggernaut around.  

That's how the league wants it, and who can complain? Bucs fans are giddy over meaningful football in December. Same goes for those in love with the Raiders, Texans, Bills and every team still breathing in the NFC East.

Parity has its problems, but I'd argue the NFL is better when all but seven teams remain mathematically alive 10 days before Christmas.

The real problems begin in January.

Villains


NFL's Wacky Playoff Seeding Needs Major Reboot: While parity is preferred, the NFL's top teams deserve their due in the postseason.

While it was entertaining see the 7-9 Seahawks host and beat the 11-5 Saints in a wild-card tilt five seasons ago, it's hardly a model to strive for. It's time to blow up the machine.

Why should this year's Redskins -- or anyone from the NFC East -- be handed the fourth seed and a home game in January? Why should the moribund AFC South keep the Chiefs, Steelers or Jets out of the playoffs?

Division rivalries matter, but if the best club in the NFC East finishes 7-9, they don't deserve an invite to the party.

We asked Bill Smith of NFL Research to help recast the playoffs using two formats. The first, below, uses the NFL's current tie-breaking system to give fans the six best teams in each conference, regardless of division standings. Here's how it would look after Week 14 in the AFC:

And in the NFC:

We then asked Mr. Smith to go one step deeper into the abyss and wipe out conferences altogether come January. In this model, the NFL's top 12 teams would battle in an NCAA-type tournament. To juice it up further, we'd include a play-in game for the No. 12 seed between the Oakland Raiders and Washington Redskins. Would this not be fun?:

Change isn't easy, but it's time to radicalize the postseason for the perfect blend of regular-season parity and playoff thrills. Who's with me?

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