The End of the Wildcard Era

It’s obvious to even the casual viewer that wildcard weekend has some of the dullest storylines of the year. Another weekend where a powerhouse divisional champion hosts an underdog wildcard winner. On paper, this is exciting. The NFL playoffs are on a single-game format, so any team could end up making a historic run to the Super Bowl.

We’ve seen it twice in recent history, the New York Giants were an underdog team and ended up dethroning the great Tom Brady. This is the type of storyline fans want to see every year. Unfortunately, this is not what we’ve come to expect from the wildcard weekend. Too many times we’ve seen a completely boring matchup between a team we expect to win, and a team we expect to lose, badly.

One matchup indicates the time of the wildcard is over, or at least on the path to being adjusted. The Philadelphia Eagles will be hosting the Seattle Seahawks on wildcard Sunday. You might be wondering why this matchup is so special. The powerhouse Seahawks are 11-5 on the season, while the Eagles are only 9-7. Why does a lesser team have the right to home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs? The answer is simple; divisional winners will always host a wildcard team.

This makes total sense considering the divisional winner usually has a better record than the team they are hosting, but this isn’t the case for two teams this season. The Minnesota Vikings are 10-6 and the Seahawks are 11-5. Why should either of these teams be punished because of a terrible NFC East division? If either the Seahawks or the Vikings were in the NFC East, they would be hosting a wildcard team this weekend. While ‘fairness’ should be a factor in changing the rules, excitement is a better reason to do so.

A good football team like the Seahawks shouldn’t have to prove they can win on the road to a Philadelphia Eagles squad that barely snuck into the playoffs. It should be the other way around, as it has been in many of the NFL’s great underdog stories, with the unexpected team having to prove themselves. Watching the Eagles escape with a victory on CenturyLink Field in Seattle would create a much more exciting divisional matchup next week.

While most people do not expect the Eagles to hold off the Seahawks, a string of injuries for both teams will make this game closer than originally expected. Going forward, the NFL should consider changing the seeding to reflect the standings rather than division winners. It is already a rare occurrence for a divisional winner to have a worse record than a wildcard so why not reward the better team?

Sunday night’s matchup between the Seahawks and 49ers was exciting and meant the winner would go on to have a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. And the loser? The loser (the Seahawks) plays wildcard weekend on the road in Philadelphia. How does this make any sense? Why should the Seahawks end up playing on the road throughout the entire playoffs due to the lack of success in the NFC East? There isn’t really a good answer to either of these questions but there is a solution going forward; to eliminate divisional seeding all together and to have divisional records impact seeding based on the teams in each division. This would mean that two teams with identical records would be seeded based on their divisional records or games played between the two teams.

A Sunday night game between the (at the time) 11-4 Seahawks and 12-3 49ers shouldn’t indicate who escapes the wildcard spot but rather who will have the home-field advantage. Yes, this would make season matchups less exciting, especially when so much was on the line in Sunday night’s game. However, this would alleviate the problem of lackluster conferences.

It is highly unlikely that a division has two Super Bowl contenders in the first place, but when it does happen, you better believe one of the teams will get screwed and end up on the road during the wildcard weekend. It’s time to stop rewarding poor divisions and teams with a free home game in the playoffs and start making them work even harder. While the season matchups could be affected by this rule change, the playoffs would be a lot more exciting, just like when Eli Manning led the lowly New York Giants on the road to a spectacular Super Bowl victory in 2007.

Even the 2011 Giants Super Bowl run had a similar storyline to 2019. The Giants played at home against a 10-6 Falcons team who were pushed into the wildcard by a better New Orleans Saints team in their division. Had the format been changed back then, Eli Manning might only have 1 Super Bowl championship but if he had ended up winning on the road again, it would have made for an even better story.

This may be the main reason the NFL would have for changing the playoff seeding. It is a sport and league rich with history and unbelievable stories, which shouldn’t allow an underachieving team to sneak into home-field advantage and ride that momentum to the Super Bowl. If the NFL ever does change this format, we could have many amazing underdog stories. Teams like the Seahawks wouldn’t be on the road for the first round of the playoffs while fans remain in disbelief that a 9-7 Eagles team is hosting wildcard weekend.

NFL Standings on FOX Sports: https://www.foxsports.com/nfl/standings


Aric Kirsten

Currently a senior at The University of Arizona, studying sports management with a minor in computer science. Sports are my pride and joy, especially basketball and football!

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