With the controversy surrounding the NFC South, and its soon to be losing record winner, there has been talk about a possible playoff realignment for the future. Is it necessary?
The NFC South of 2014
The NFC South was supposed to be one of the most loaded divisions coming into this year. The previous 12-4 Panthers were expected to take some sort of a step back with their losses in free agency, but a mid-season 6 game losing streak was not in the least bit expected. The Saints were expected to be their usual double-digit win selves, and were the favorites to win the division entering the season. But five straight losses AT HOME, yes, the Superdome, which was previously one of the toughest places to play, marks the low point for this team in a long while. The Falcons were expected to progress with a revamped offensive line, and to an extent they have done that. But their defense has been among the bottom of the league all season long. The Buccaneers were expected to seriously compete for the division title with new coach Lovie Smith, but instead finds themselves looking at a Top 3 pick in the 2015 NFL draft.
In the last quarter of the NFL Season, we have seen two of these four teams emerge in the division.
The Atlanta Falcons blew out the 11-4 Arizona Cardinals at home, and came within one touchdown of the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, all of which have clinched the playoffs. Then they took care of business in the Superdome to knock the Saints out of the playoffs. The improved play of the defense and a healthy Julio Jones means trouble. Matt Ryan is reminding the NFL of the stud Quarterback that he is.
The Carolina Panthers are truly coming together at the right time. Riverboat Ron River may have also earned a second nickname, Mr. December. Since he has been the head coach (2011), the Carolina Panthers have gone 14-3 in the month of December, tied for second in the NFL behind only New England. Less than two weeks after being injured in a terrible car crash, Quarterback Cam Newton has somehow returned to Supercam form, making the rest of his team believe. On top of this, Jonathon Stewart has had led the NFL in rushing yards in the last 4 weeks and the Panthers have finally found continuity in the Offensive line and the Secondary, and it couldn’t come at a better time.
In Week 16 the Falcons beat the Saints 30-14 and the Panthers beat the Browns 17-13. This sets up the NFC South Championship in Week 17 in Atlanta between the two. The winner of the NFC South will earn the #4 seed in the playoffs and host a playoff game. And they will also have 7 wins.
Before you start complaining that a team with a losing record making the playoffs is ridiculous, lets take a look back at similar situations in the past. Since the division realignment, there have been three teams that have won their division with an 8-8 record or worse. In 2008 it was the San Diego Chargers, who won the AFC West with an 8-8 record. They proceeded to beat the Colts 23-17 in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. In 2010 it was the Seattle Seahawks, who won the NFC West with a 7-9 record. They proceeded to beat the Saints in New Orleans. And in 2011 it was the Denver Broncos who won the AFC West with an 8-8 record and they beat the Steelers in the Wild Card round. What’s the theme here? It doesn’t matter what your record is going into the postseason, any team can make noise in the playoffs. And these teams, the ones that won their division without a winning record, took advantage of the opportunity and shocked the League.
Oh, and if you’re worried about divisions becoming consistently terrible, lets look at these divisions with an 8-8 winner (or less) a few years later. The Chargers and the Broncos came out of the AFC West with 8-8 records in 2008 and 2011. Look at this division now. They have three playoff contending teams in the Denver Broncos (11-4), San Diego Chargers (9-6), and Kansas City Chiefs (8-7), arguably two Super Bowl contenders in the Broncos and Chargers, and one emerging Oakland Raiders team.
The Seattle Seahawks, who won their division with a 7-9 record in 2010 won the Super Bowl in 2013-14, and by currently holding the #1 seed in the NFC with an 11-4 record, they are threatening to do just that again in 2014-15. As for the rest of this division, the 49ers have been to 3 straight NFC Championships (1 Super Bowl), the Arizona Cardinals have had back-to-back 11 win seasons, and the Rams boast one of the NFL’s top defenses.
Most people think whoever wins the NFC South division will be the “Sacrificial lamb” of this years playoffs. This will probably not be the case. The winner of the NFC South will most likely face the Arizona Cardinals, who are down to their 3rd string rookie Quarterback Logan Thomas. It is hard to picture the somewhat struggling Cardinals team going into the Georgia Dome or Bank of America Stadium behind a rookie Quarterback and taking down either of these teams, especially with how they are playing right now. In other words, people shouldn’t be worried about the NFC South representative being uncompetitive in the playoffs. Yes, they probably won’t be able to beat the Packers, Seahawks or Cowboys, but against the Lions and Cardinals they have a real opportunity to make some noise.
Is playoff realignment necessary? Absolutely not. It is proven that sub par divisions don’t last. The lowly divisions of 2010-2011 are now some of the most competitive divisions of today. The NFC South had a terrible start to the season but now the Panthers and Falcons are rolling. Look for whichever team keeps rolling (with a win on Sunday) to take down the Cardinals in the NFL Playoffs Wild Card Round.
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