Reminder: Automatic Home Game for Division Winners is a Dumb Rule

By Jason Lisk

The NFL has given all division winners home games, and made all wildcards go on the road regardless of record, since the league changed the division format in 2002. I’ve been banging on this drum for a long time, and write about it every few years to get it off my chest, but I want to say it again: it’s a dumb rule.

Not only is it a dumb rule, but it creates situations that incentivize more teams resting starters late in the season, and that impacts the quality of games people see.

My proposal would be that the top two division winners get a bye (so that there is incentive/reward to winning a division as a great team), but that the wildcard round is seeded in such a way that wildcards could host against division winner if they are the better team. I would make the first tiebreaker “did you win a division?” so that division winners with the same record as wildcards host, but allow wildcards to host if they had the superior record.

This year, we could have a multitude of situations where my rule would be both more equitable, and incentivize teams to continue playing.

The Chiefs and Chargers could finish with the two best records in the AFC. One of them is likely going to have to go on the road in the first round, playing at a team they have already beaten. Both of them went in to Pittsburgh and got victories in the regular season, and the reward is … to go back to Pittsburgh.

The NFC is separated in such a way that the rule makes for a lot of meaningless games in Week 17 and maybe even in Week 16. The Rams and Saints should seal up a bye, and no one else has a realistic chance barring a complete collapse. The Bears and Cowboys are almost certainly going to win their divisions. The Seahawks cannot win theirs, but are almost certainly going to be a wildcard if they beat San Francisco this week. All three of those teams may have little incentive soon and be resting starters. But if Seattle could still get that home game in the Wildcard Round, all three would have something to play for.

I’ve repeatedly heard the objections lobbed from owners when they refuse to consider changing the home games for playoff teams. I think most of them lack merit. Here are some of the most frequent (click the earlier link to see quotes):

There should be a reward for winning the division: There is, you get into the playoffs by merely being the best of a random grouping of four teams, even if you may not be one of the best teams. Getting into the playoffs is an extremely good reward. But just like the NCAA Tournament gives conference winners an automatic bid, they should still be willing to seed at-larges or wildcards above them when it makes sense.

It would punish teams in tough divisions: Categorically false. The current method punishes teams in tough divisions. Just use some logic. If a team wins a division at 8-8 or 9-7, then what does the record of the other teams have to be?

It’s tradition: not really, I mean I guess it’s as much of a tradition as bowl games involving companies you’ve never heard of. The NFL has had a number of methods for assigning playoff games, and there is no set requirement. They used to rotate which division got to host games back in the 1970’s, regardless of record (The undefeated Dolphins had to play the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh). Wildcards used to host games before we went to eight divisions. The worst division winner did not get a home game before the wildcard round came into being. The tradition of every division winner getting at least one home game for winning the division dates to 2002.

Home games are zero sum. If one team loses one, another gains. So the question is what method makes sense. In a given year, a team’s particular position may make them more likely to favor one or the other because of political expediency. But if you were to design the fairest system over time, it would be that the best teams get home games. Teams that go 7-9 should go on the road if they luck into the playoffs. Teams that go 12-4 should get a home game. Teams in the middle shouldn’t be able to rest starters because they happen to be locked into a division title but are trailing the conference leaders by too much.