It's bad enough that the Panthers made the playoffs with a losing record. But the historic ineptitude of the division also had a wide-ranging effect on which other teams made the playoffs.
Two of the three divisions with multiple playoff teams this year are the NFC North (Lions and Packers) and the AFC North (Steelers, Bengals, and Ravens). Not so coincidentally, those are also the two divisions that got to play all four NFC South teams.
The NFL is the only sport to which I pay attention these days (though Roger Goodell appears to be trying his damnedest to dissuade me), and this controversy over the NFC South is utterly confusing to me. I simply cannot wrap my head around why some people are upset that a) a team with a losing record is in the playoffs and b) why said team is hosting a playoff game in the first round of the playoffs.
Allegations of some cosmic “unfairness” are bandied about (as in the linked article)—as if the matter in question is of supreme importance instead of being merely a boys’ game played by men—while some also wish to completely alter a system generally well-geared for parity on the basis of a highly irregular aberration. This is somewhat troubling to me, as it is indicative of a rather significant intellectual failure and also a rather significant moral failure.
The intellectual failure is rather straightforward: In complaining about how a supposedly “bad” team has made “the playoffs,” one makes the mistake of confusing the subjective with the objective. The goodness or badness of a team is a purely subjective valuation; for proof, look at any set of power rankings that have been updated weekly throughout the season. Astute observers will note, for example, that FOXSports had the Seahawks ranked first and the Titans ranked last in week seventeen, but in week eight those teams were ranked tenth and twenty-ninth, respectively. Incidentally, I do not quibble with those rankings in either of those weeks because, at the time, those teams were roughly playing at those ranks.
My point, then, is that the “best” team in the league is more or less always in a state of flux. Some teams look good on paper, while others look bad. Some play well early in the season and then fade a little, like the Broncos. Some look good when playing poor teams but get beat up by playoff contenders, like the Colts. Some teams look dominant the first week, have a rough stretch, then regain their dominance, like the Seahawks. What is obvious is that the best team in the league is generally in flux, and its status is contingent on a host of variables. Would the Broncos still be considered a good team if they lost Peyton Manning? Would the Patriots be favorites if Belichick died and went straight to Satan’s bosom? Clearly not. Thus, it is obvious that a team’s value is not only subjective, but also dynamic given that no human is immortal or infallible, and that all teams and management are comprised of humans.
The beauty of the playoff system of which the NFL makes use is that it is objective and temporal, which is to say that the system is rigidly defined by time. There is a champion for every season, and the process by which a champion is decided is objective. The purpose of the system is clarity and decisiveness, which is why playoff games are not allowed to end in ties. The point is to crown a champion in a straightforward manner. Concessions are made towards the more-accomplished teams by way of determining seeding, home-field advantage, etc. However, the whole point of the playoffs is to introduce the element of uncertainty into the championship process. The NFL could skip the playoff process altogether and award the title to the team with the best regular season record. Tiebreakers could be decided as they are now: divisional and conference records, strength of wins, etc.
Frankly, those pushing for an upheaval of the playoff system make absolutely no sense. If the whole point of the playoff is to make sure that the best team wins, then the playoffs themselves are meaningless; the regular season records will suffice to determine that, especially given how the NFL schedule works. However, if one concedes that the point of the playoffs is to introduce a greater level of uncertainty into the process of determining a league champion, then giving a mediocre team a long shot to win the Super Bowl would do the trick. Thus, altering the playoffs to only include the best teams or favor the teams with better records over the winners of weaker divisions will only undermine the playoff system and ultimately lead to its undoing.
Of greater concern, though, is the moral failure of the intellectual half-wits who blindly champion this change in the name of fairness. Of utmost concern is the sheer amount of energy spent arguing about a trivial detail of a game.
Of even greater concern, though, is how there are a not insignificant number of people who are willing to considering radically altering a tradition simply because of a highly irregular aberration. There have been remarkably few teams with losing records in the playoffs, and no losing team has ever played in a Super Bowl, let alone won one.
Some might argue that it’s “unfair” for a losing team to not only make the playoffs but host a game. This is simply not true. The rules for the playoffs have existed in their current state for quite some team. Every team and organization, and probably even most fans know what those rules are. There is no mystery about how to make the playoffs; the only question is of execution: can you do it. And every year, twenty teams cannot.
The rules and processes are straightforward and clear. If you want to make the playoffs, you need to win. If a team doesn’t make the playoffs, it’s because it didn’t win enough games. Relying on luck for victory is the mindset of losers, so those who complain about not winning the schedule lottery have no place in the playoffs because they don’t have the mentality of winning.
Frankly, it is disgusting that anyone heeds this nonsensical celebration of pusillanimous loserdom. Throwing out tradition because one time a mediocre team got a chance to make a playoff run while other teams with better records are sitting out in spite of having ample opportunities to knock of their competitors is sick. Everyone knows the rules, so don’t complain about them when you can’t execute well enough to make the playoffs. You had your chance and you lost; deal with it.
Is luck a factor? Yes. It’s funny, though, how often it is the case that the lucky teams also happen to be pretty damn good. It’s also funny how the good teams don’t use bad luck as an excuse. Maybe there’s a lesson in that.