Merits of Championships Part 5: The NFL

Well, it’s been a while since the NBA post, so here’s a refresher on how these posts work as we finish off the professional leagues with the NFL. As always, the criteria for evaluating playoff systems will be how well they produce a deserving champion, their effectiveness at crowning the best team, and how entertaining they are. Both the method of selecting teams and the playoffs themselves are evaluated.

The NFL playoffs are very well designed. By taking six of sixteen teams from each conference, making the playoffs remains a major accomplishment while ensuring that only the best teams clinch a playoff spot early, meaning that the playoff race is very compelling. Furthermore, the NFL playoffs give clear advantages to the higher seeds, as the top two seeds in each conference get a bye in the first round and the higher seed always gets home-field advantage in a single-elimination playoff. At the same time, every team in the NFL playoffs is considered to be among the top 12 teams in the league, meaning that every team in the playoffs should be good and by extension capable of making a run to the Super Bowl. This makes the playoffs themselves very compelling.

When we look at the criteria for evaluating playoff systems, we can see that the NFL playoff structure does an admirable job fulfilling them. They certainly are entertaining, as every game is incredibly important and the games themselves are generally high quality. The structure also produces a deserving champion, as the lower seeds have to make up for their less than great regular seasons by winning an extra game against very good competition. The structure does not lend itself to selecting the best team, but this has more to do with the single-elimination structure to the playoffs, which allows for more upsets than a series structure, that is necessitated by the physically punishing nature of football itself that makes it infeasible to play multi-game series. As the NFL playoffs structure fulfill the goals of a playoff system to the highest level that is feasible for a football team, I would say that the NFL playoff structure is perhaps the best designed of all the playoff structures in professional sports.

Unfortunately, the method by which the NFL selects teams is simply horrendous. By a 16 team conference into four divisions with each division winner getting an automatic bid to the playoffs, a team outside of the top six teams in the conference will automatically be assured of winning a division over 18% of the time.* In contrast, this only happens 1.5 % of the time in the NBA and NHL’s division structure. Furthermore, this probability rises when you consider that NFL schedules are highly imbalanced, as each team only plays 13 others. The end result is that highly undeserving teams often make the NFL playoffs and sometimes they even make it to the Super Bowl (a perfect example is the 2008 Arizona Cardinals).

The sad thing about this is that if the NFL simply had two divisions in each conference instead of four, this problem would immediately disappear, even if they used a pod structure so that the Packers and the Bears still played each other twice a year. However, this type of change would require the NFL to not choose to be inanely stupid, which does not appear to be a trait that will disappear any time soon, considering that we just saw the NFL reform overtime for the playoffs but not the regular season.

For those interested: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

*When calculating these probabilities, it is assumed that over a long period of time, all teams will cycle through periods of being good and bad randomly. This is not necessarily true, as some owner-GM-coach combinations will be highly effective (or ineffective) over a much longer period of time than the ‘normal dynasty’. That said, using this assumption probably underestimates the likelihood that a mediocre team will win a division due to the lack of good opponents in the NFL and overestimates that same likelihood in the NHL, owing to their respective division sizes, roster sizes, and various other factors. The NBA is more difficult to figure out with regard to how this would work out because the NBA switched to three divisions quite recently. Also, the MLB was not discussed with regards to the likelihood of an undeserving team winning a division because there is no salary cap, which gives massive institutional advantages to franchises like the Yankees and Red Sox and disadvantages to small market clubs.

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