The Saints and 49ers had better regular-season records than their vanquished foes, the Eagles and Packers, respectively. Their playoff victories, narrow though they were, say plenty about the relative weakness of the NFC East and NFC North this season, and the fragility of the teams that emerged from them. But they say more about the antiquated idea that a wild-card road trip for a team with a mark that is superior to that of its opponent is so insurmountable, so patently unfair, that it simply must be removed to restore order to a game built on a fundamental tenet that the sides are so closely matched that any team can beat anyone, anywhere, at any time.
Historically, home-field advantage has been more pronounced in the playoffs, with the host squad's winning percentage jumping to .675 during the postseasons of the Super Bowl era (from .575 in the regular season), according to STATS Inc.
But this weekend, three of the four road teams won -- and the fourth, Kansas City, lost only because it fell victim to a historic comeback by Indianapolis. The Niners did it in bitter cold at Lambeau Field. The Saints, arguably the most home-field advantaged team in football, did it while finally shedding one of their heaviest anvils: The franchise had never won a road playoff game, and this year's team was an uninspiring 3-5 on the road entering Saturday night's contest in Philadelphia. Last year, the Seattle Seahawks hauled their superior record across the country to beat the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. The better -- or, at least, hotter -- teams won in each of those cases.
No decision about something as significant as playoff seeding should be made based on just two years of results, of course. The traditional argument mounted by many team owners against reseeding is that division champions -- no matter how weak the division they just conquered -- should be rewarded with a home game for themselves and their fans. If reseeding were approved, it would diminish the importance of trying to win the division to assure a home game. Predominance in the conference would be more important.
The less-nuanced reasoning goes like this: You want home-field advantage? Win the division when you have the chance. The Saints, for instance, gave up a gut-punch of a two-minute drill to Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers in Week 16 with the NFC South title hanging in the balance. Reseeding would reward them nonetheless.
But the NFL rarely lets tradition get in the way of a good -- or at least lucrative -- idea.
Last fall, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in an interview with NFL.com that he is open to a wholesale restructuring of the season that could include reducing the number of preseason games, possibly converting some to scrimmages, and expanding the playoff field by adding at least one more wild card in each conference. That idea, which would have to be approved by owners and which is extremely unlikely to be ready for implementation by the 2014 season, is not without risk. An expanded playoff field could dilute the meaning of the regular-season games -- would Ryan Succop's missed field goal have been as dramatic if the Steelers were going to get into the playoffs anyway?
That said, the advancement of both No. 6 seeds over the weekend -- for the second time in the last four postseasons -- will only strengthen the argument that the field would be enhanced by the addition of two more teams. And an extra round of playoffs would keep more cities and fans interested in the playoff race and mean hundreds of millions of additional dollars for the television contracts it would demand. That is a reward owners will have to weigh whenever they vote on expanding the field.
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The reward for reseeding, though, is missing. Because the NFL has already -- brilliantly -- solved one of the worrisome problems that led to the consideration of reseeding in the first place.
The NFL had long been concerned about teams that had already secured playoff position resting their starters in later regular-season games. That devalued those games for ticketed fans, made them unattractive to television viewers and, maybe most critically, created a competitive advantage for opponents, perhaps constructing an uneven playing field in other playoff races. But four years ago, the NFL decided to push as many division games as possible into the last three weeks of the regular season. The result was probably better than even Goodell could have imagined.
This season, the final week of the regular season began with 13 of 16 games holding potential playoff implications. Few postseason spots were secured and almost none of the seedings were set. The result was that only one team -- the Chiefs, who already knew they would be the No. 5 seed in the AFC and no better -- rested many starters in Week 17, and a scintillating day of meaningful football played out.
It might be time to leave well enough alone, especially if the playoffs could be in for the broader reshaping that expansion of the field would create. There appears to be little interest among owners in reseeding anyway, although it is regularly discussed.
The last time reseeding received serious consideration was in 2008, when the Competition Committee put forward a proposal that would have opened the door for wild-card teams to host a playoff game if they finished with better records than the third- or fourth-seeded division champions. The proposal was so unpopular that it was never even put to a vote. An informal show of hands in the meeting room indicated such little interest that the idea was withdrawn.
Let it remain there, resting in peace, while the playoffs raucously roll on without it.