File this column under the heading "It'll never happen, but how much fun would it be if it did?"
With the NCAA tournament down to its final four teams, I started thinking about the best postseason in all of sports, which undoubtedly is March Madness. And then I started thinking, what if the NFL adopted the college hoops format for its playoffs? How would that go over? You talk about changing the world ...
With the graphic at the top of this page, I present to you how last season's playoffs would've looked in this model, from Selection Sunday all the way through the Super Bowl.
So, how did I get there? Well, allow me to present my inspired (distorted?) line of thinking.
Since the NCAA lets in a bunch of teams and that seems to work well, we'll do the same. 32 NFL teams, so 16 make the postseason. The eight automatic berths go to the 2011 division winners (Patriots, Ravens, Texans, Broncos, Giants, Packers, Saints and 49ers). That leaves eight "at-large bids" for the best remaining teams.
Quick side note: I'd reveal these teams in a special Sunday night show on the NFL Network which would annually become the highest-rated show on cable TV. The selection committee would be comprised of Roger Goodell, Steve Mariucci, Tony Dungy and Mel Kiper Jr.
So, now we're down to just three remaining spots. Who gets in? The Eagles' four straight wins to end the season are impossible to ignore, so they qualify. The Chargers closed by winning four of their last five games, including a trouncing of Baltimore and a Week 17 drubbing of division rival Oakland, so their RPI gets them in. (In this format, playing well at the end of the campaign becomes the most important quality a team can have, in addition to key wins.) The final spot comes down to either the Jets, Raiders or Cardinals. Arizona has the best résumé, with quality wins over San Francisco and Philadelphia to go along with five wins in their last six games, so the Cardinals are in.
Naturally, it's time to address the snubs. And here's where it gets fun. Rex Ryan holds a press conference ripping the selection committee: "We could beat all of these teams TOMORROW!" As does Hue Jackson: "We lost our starting quarterback and had to break in a new one who hadn't played in a year. ... How can the committee not take that into account?" Lovie Smith is outraged, as his team had wins against Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit and San Diego -- yet Chicago was left out. The committee points to the fact that the Bears finished the season in a 1-5 tailspin after Jay Cutler's injury and weren't viewed as a good enough team without him. For every important Cowboys win Jerry Jones points to in a hastily scheduled conference call, reporters point out an equally important loss. Now back to our show.
Smith: NFL Hunger Games
The NFL Playoff Selection Show then breaks down the seeds and the matchups, as the 16 teams are separated into four quadrants, with each team seeded 1-4. Dungy tells us why teams were placed where they were. Squads aren't seeded regionally, but according to how good each team is overall. The show also reveals complete playoff rankings from No. 1 to 16. In my model above, Green Bay is the No. 1 overall seed, followed by New England, New Orleans and then Baltimore. The highest-seeded teams always host the playoff game. (You gotta have home field count for something, since no one gets a bye.) In case two teams with the same seed meet in a semifinal (for example: two No. 1 seeds facing off, like the Saints and Pats above), the host team is determined by the overall rankings. The Super Bowl is, as always, played at a neutral site. And just because you win a division doesn't mean you're a high seed or get to host a playoff game.
So, take another glance at the graphic at the top of this page. That's how the seeding bracket would've looked in January. And that's how I envisioned the action playing out.
What does this style of playoffs give us? Here are some thoughts:
• It might be fair for a huge favorite to play the worst teams in the first round instead of having a bye and getting rusty. (I'm looking at you, Packers.)
• Seedings make sure the best teams are always playing at home, which is only fair, considering they've earned it with their play during the season. (No 12-win Pittsburgh traveling to .500 Denver.)
• Some slow-starting teams that seem to get red hot at the end of the regular season -- playing better than some playoff teams -- get a chance to prove it, instead of just missing out and leaving people to wonder "What if?" But they also face the toughest draw.
• In the end, everyone has to equally earn a berth in the Super Bowl, because each team has to win three games of varying degrees of difficulty.
And let me give you one more thought: How great would it be to have Saturday/Sunday first-round slates where you get four playoff games each day, and can sit in front of your TV from 1 p.m. until midnight? I think that alone makes the NCAA-inspired playoffs better.
OK, one more: You can do brackets!