Posted by Jason Lisk on June 19, 2009
I’m going to jump the gun a little here. I don’t have a strong opinion on whether the NFL should remain with a 16-game schedule or expand the regular season to 18 games. I don’t know what the right answer is here. There is a limit to how many games of football can be played in a year, I just don’t know if we are at that limit.
The one thing I do have an opinion on is that the league needs to do something to improve the competitive incentive for the final week of the season, so that it is not like a fourth pre-season game for a lot of teams. A year and a half ago, I wrote about a proposal to eliminate automatic home games for division winners now that we have four divisions of only four teams each in both conferences. A similar proposal was raised by the competition committee but failed to pass.
Despite my complaints about the uptick in competitive games in week 17 because wildcard teams have no chance at a home game, and division winners get locked in earlier with fewer teams in a division, the current scheduling format has several things going for it. First and foremost, it is simple and consistent. Compared to the scheduling formats used in the 1970’s and 1980’s, it is far fairer within divisions and less complex. Teams also get to play non-divisional opponents on a set rotating schedule, and these matchups are guaranteed—unlike the past where things like Miami going 15 years without playing a game in Denver were possible.
The rotating conference schedules are both good and bad, though. Good for simplicity and insuring that conference members will play each other regularly. Bad because it basically creates two separate groupings within a conference, where there are very few common games across groups. Yet, when tiebreakers like conference record come into play, completely different conference schedules, without head to head matchups, may be determining playoff spots and seeding.
If the league is going to add games, I have an alternate proposal to keep the current uniform 16-game schedule format, while creating exciting and competitive matchups in the final weeks with the additional two games.
Play flex games in the final two weeks of the regular season, setting the matchups based on how the season has progressed. The recent television deal with NBC on Sunday Night Football has already introduced the concept of a flexible schedule in terms of setting the night matchup closer to the time of the game. This idea simply builds on that. My idea would simply pair up those teams that have something to play for within a conference, and set up matchups that would decide playoff positioning on the field. For teams that had nothing to play for, the matchups could still be set up in such a way that geographic rivals can play at season’s end.
Here’s how my idea would work:
1) After 16 games have been played, the final two matchups are set based on record and playoff eligibility to that point.
2) The home team dates will be known ahead of time, by setting which divisions will have home games for game 17 versus game 18, so tickets for the games can be sold with just the identity of the opponent to be determined. For example, in 2009, the AFC West and North play each other. The AFC West/North would be at home for week 18 and on the road in week 19. The reverse would be true in the NFC, so that there would still be a roughly equal geographic distribution of home games both weekends.
3) All teams that have not clinched a specific playoff seed (even if they have clinched a playoff spot) and all remaining teams that are mathematically alive for a playoff spot are put into the Playoff Pool of teams.
4) All teams that have been eliminated from playoff contention, or have clinched a specific playoff seed are put into the Non-Playoff Pool of teams.
5) If the number of playoff pool teams within a conference is imbalanced across the two halves of a conference (In 2009, West+North versus East+South), then the necessary number of teams will move up from the Non-Playoff Pool to give an even number of matchups for Playoff Pool teams. The Non-Playoff Pool Team with the best record, from the half of the conference with fewer teams, will move to the Playoff Pool, if necessary, to balance out the matchups.
6) For Playoff Pool games, all games will be played between conference opponents. AFC Playoff eligible teams will only play AFC, and NFC teams will only play other NFC teams.
7) For Non-Playoff Pool teams, games can be played against both conference and non-conference opponents.
8) Teams will not play a non-divisional opponent they already played in the regular season in the flex games.
9) The matchups within the Playoff Pool will be set based on a priority order (subject to Rule #8). I would love to let teams select their home opponent, but I doubt this would ever happen in real life. Teams that were tied for a playoff position would meet, with the team holding the current tiebreaker getting home field for the matchup. The priority rules for setting matchups would have to be spelled out in detail, but for now, let’s say generally that first priority would go to teams that had not clinched a playoff spot, but were in playoff position after 16 games, followed by teams that had clinched playoff berth but not positioning, followed by teams out of playoff position but still in contention.
If we applied that to last year, here is one version of the matchups that could have resulted. The Ravens and Patriots ended up tied on record with the Patriots missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker. In this system, those teams meeting is a high priority, and New England at least gets to play their way in on the field in a play-in game in Week 19. In the NFC, several teams were still in playoff competition for that final spot, and the Eagles get to play two of the teams right behind them, while several other matchups also feature teams directly fighting for playoff spots.
Baltimore at San Diego
Tennessee at New England
Pittsburgh at Denver
Indianapolis at Miami
San Fransisco at Atlanta
Washington at Minnesota
Dallas at Carolina
NY Giants at Tampa Bay
Arizona at Chicago
Philadelphia at New Orleans
Houston at NY Jets
Cincinnati at Buffalo
Saint Louis at Green Bay
Seattle at Oakland
Jacksonville at Kansas City
Cleveland at Detroit
New England at Baltimore
San Diego at Tennessee
Denver at Indianapolis
Miami at Pittsburgh
Tampa Bay at Philadelphia
New Orleans at Arizona
Chicago at New York Giants
Minnesota at Dallas
Carolina at San Fransisco
Atlanta at Washington
Buffalo at Houston
NY Jets at Jacksonville
Green Bay at Cincinnati
Detroit at Seattle
Oakland at Cleveland
Kansas City at Saint Louis