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NFL division champs deserve a home field

Published 9:49am Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Column: Pothole Prairie, by Tim Engstrom

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell spoke last week about expanding the playoffs. Meanwhile, there has been many calls by fans and people in the media to change the format of the playoffs based on wins, rather than division titles.

Bleh! The NFL playoffs are fine the way they are.

See, the pundits who want change point to the standings this year. They say San Francisco was 12-4 and Green Bay was 8-7, yet because the Packers won their division and the 49ers did not, the Packers got to play the 49ers at Lambeau Field.

NFL owners say there needs to be a reward for winning a division title; otherwise, there is little incentive. Hosting a playoff game is that reward.

They reason I agree with the NFL owners on this issue is based on the schedule formula — which these sports journalists fail to point out when they debate playoff issues. The writers skip over the formula most likely because it can be wordy. But let’s review it anyway.

The formula is based on divisions. Teams play each of the three other teams in their divisions twice. Then the four teams in each division play the four teams from a division within their conference and four teams from a division in the opposite conference. These are determined by an annual rotation of the divisions. The remaining two games on each team’s schedule are based on prior year record, playing teams in the conference that placed the same in their divisions.

Look at at the NFC North as an example. Minnesota, Green Bay, Chicago and Detroit played each other twice. Then each team played the teams in the NFC East once and the teams in the AFC North once. On the Vikings 2013 schedule, the two games based on performance in the prior season were on the road at Seattle and at home against Carolina. Note that both finished second in their divisions. So did the New York Giants, but the Vikings were set to play them anyway because they are in the NFC East.

See how much of the schedule is division-based? I already can tell who the Vikings play next year, just not in what order.

Oftentimes a playoff-bound team might have had an easy schedule because they ended up playing weak divisions, while another playoff-bound team that won their division might have had to slog through tough divisions. That division title is worth something — home-field advantage in the playoffs — regardless of overall record.

It makes me glad that the NFL owners appreciate that. Not everything in sports needs to be based sheerly on win-loss records. Titles count, too.

Goodell last week talked about expanding the playoffs, which sounds fine to me. I can agree that a 10-6 Arizona Cardinals team deserved to make the playoffs. Keep in mind it also opens the doors for some 8-8 teams, too. But I was especially pleased to hear Goodell reiterate the desire of the owners to keep giving a home-field playoff game to division champions.


Besides, playing on the road shouldn’t stop a true champion. Look at the Packers at the end of the 2010 season, when they barely made the playoffs, then won three on-the-road playoff games to make the Super Bowl, where they defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Hope. That’s all a team and its fans need, right?

The 49ers ended up beating the Packers two weeks ago regardless of having to play on frozen tundra, then they beat a quality Panthers squad last Sunday in Charlotte, N.C. They will play this Sunday in the NFC Championship against their main division opponent, the Seattle Seahawks. It should be a good game.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.