Even with the extra wild card spot, not every good team will be guaranteed a playoff berth this season.
Because most of us fans have become used to the NFL’s 12-team playoff format, seeing even the slightest change to the postseason outlook has disturbed our normal thinking around this time of year. As we reach the near halfway point of this indescribably strange 2020 season, the playoff picture with a total of 7 teams per conference has begun to take shape. Unfortunately for those fans hoping this would guarantee every good team a coveted spot, the exact opposite seems to be taking place in the NFC.
The NFC West where everyone is the best!
As fate would have it, 2020 has given us arguably the best and worst divisions to exist since the league realignment in 2002. We might as well get the good stuff out of the way first: the NFC West does not have just 4 playoff contenders, they have 4 Super Bowl contenders. Seattle, as wild as their games have been, sit atop the sprint to the division title with a 5-1 record so far. In terms of the MVP conversation, most football fans would put Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson at the top of the list right now.
Yet Wilson and the ‘Hawks were upset on Sunday night by one of the more fascinating rising stars this league has seen in a long time. Kyler Murray, the Arizona Cardinals outstanding year 2 quarterback, proved in the redbirds latest 37-34 overtime victory over the then-undefeated Seahawks that he is the realest of real deals. His top target DeAndre Hopkins might be the best receiver in the entire league, and there’s no real explanation from me other than he never stops making plays.
So here come the Cardinals, who have jumped to 5-2 with a 2-0 record in the division. You might not be a believer yet, but those guys in the desert are championship caliber.
Flashy, MVP worthy offensive stars on the previously mentioned teams, and now we look at the often overlooked Los Angeles Rams, who linger at 5-2 with an MVP candidate of their own… and he plays on defense.
You could make a case that Aaron Donald has been the best player in the NFL this season. For a guy that always attracts a double (if not triple) team, his 8 sacks through 7 games should put him in the conversation. Maybe there are still a few wires to untangle on the offensive side of the ball for the Rams, but up until this point, they look more like the 2018 NFC Champions as opposed to the team that missed the playoffs last season (they would’ve made it under the new format).
Finally, we have the defending NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers. They’ve had more hiccups than the top three teams, but their two latest wins against the Rams and New England Patriots have brought back their swagger. The 49ers will have to win some more division games as they did against Los Angeles to climb to the top, which I believe they can do. Getting back to the Super Bowl after a loss the year prior does not happen often, but I would not put it past a team like San Francisco.
Four teams with a combined record of 19-8 and none of them seem to be showing signs of slowing down. The thought has popped into my head a few times regarding all four teams from this division making the postseason, and while certainly possible, realistically the chances of that happening are slim. Obviously, each team in the division will beat up on each other, but just by looking at the NFC alone, teams like the 4-2 New Orleans Saints and 5-2 Chicago Bears would have to have a pretty significant fall from grace to not claim that final wild-card spot. Even if those teams fizzle out, what’s stopping the now 3-3 Detroit Lions from sneaking into the picture? Needless to say, whoever the cellar dweller of the NFC West shakes out to be, they will need some help to clinch a playoff berth down the stretch.
Geography has not been on the NFL’s side.
All of this remains way too early to predict. But looking at the impending nightmare the NFL will face come (hopefully) January, we might as well start talking about it now. A looming disaster having to do with the fact that a team from the abysmal NFC East will get a home playoff game. For years this has been the biggest knock on the NFL’s playoff format. Once upon a time, the NFC West was the division of despair, and in 2009 the famous “beastquake” game between Seattle and New Orleans was only possible because of the 7-9 Seahawks squeaking out a division title. While the importance of winning your division could not be more emphasized, not every division will always have a decent team. In the NFC East, none of the four teams have resembled anything close to decent.
As of right now, the 2-4-1 Philadelphia Eagles are sitting comfortably (no exaggeration) in first place as the NFC East’s “best” team. If anything, they are the only team that has a quarterback with some level of success in this league going into week 8. That’s not to say Cowboys third-stringer Ben DiNucci, Washington’s Kyle Allen, and Giants quarterback Daniel Jones won’t one day have success, but it sure doesn’t look like they’ll check the boxes this season. As opposed to the NFC West sitting at a combined 19-8, the NFC East sits at 7-20-1. The only non-division wins for the four teams so far this season were the Cowboys’ insane comeback victory over the Falcons along with the Eagles narrow primetime victory over the 49ers and their backup quarterback Nick Mullens. That’s all. 2 wins total and we are about to hit November.
If things go as planned the second half of the season, which in 2020 you never know, the most likely scenario seems to be 3 teams from the NFC West making the postseason, 1 of them making the trip to Philly/whoever wins the East for a playoff game, and the 4th place team completely missing out on the playoffs. Sure, good teams have missed the playoffs before, but how painful would it be if a 6 or 7 win Eagles team hosts while a 10 or 11 win team from the West has to watch from home.
You can bet this will raise some eyebrows within the NFL’s competition committee. Despite their best efforts to keep things similar while avoiding these scenarios, the emphasis on winning divisions will bite the league once again. This season could play out in such a way that the committee has all but no choice to think about seriously changing things up in terms of how the playoff format goes. Do they eliminate the division title factors altogether? Do they at least give wild card teams with a better record a home game? All things that have to and should be addressed over the next few seasons, if not the end of this one.