Following the New Orleans Saints 34-27 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Monday Night Football, the Atlanta Falcons remain in first place in the NFC South with a 4-7 record.
This means that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, at 2-9 , are as close to first place as the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks. What if Tampa Bay were to come out of the NFC South with five or six wins and end up hosting one of those two NFC teams in the Wild Card round of the playoffs?
Would that be enough for the NFL to consider a new playoff format? Heck, is it possible that the league could go away from guaranteeing division winners a spot in the playoffs?
The scenario at play here could include a team like San Francisco, Seattle, Detroit, Dallas or Philadelphia missing out on the playoffs with nearly twice as many wins as the eventual NFC South champions.
After all, the four-win Falcons stand in first place despite the fact that they have yet to win a single football game outside of the division this season. Examining it further, the NFC South has just one win outside of the division since New Orleans defeated the Green Bay Packers back in Week 8.
Realistically, we could be looking at the Falcons earning the division championship at 6-10 or 5-11 and without winning a single game outside of the division. Their remaining non-division matchups are against the Arizona Cardinals, Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Let’s say for a second that the Falcons continue their late-game meltdowns moving forward this season, what other teams stand a chance of winning the NFC South?
Despite losing three consecutive homes games in the same season for the first time since 2005, the Saints are practically tied for the division lead with Atlanta. With three division games remaining on the schedule, Sean Payton’s squad could conceivably lose out outside of the division and still earn a playoff spot at 7-9. Meanwhile, the 49ers and Seahawks could miss out on the playoffs at 11-5 with their only remaining losses coming against one another.
If this story sounds familiar, it should.
Back in 2010, Seattle earned the NFC West championship with a 7-9 record. It then took on the aforementioned Saints at home in the Wild Card game. This despite the fact that the then defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints had finished the regular season with an 11-5 record.
The rest is history there. Riding the domination of one Marshawn Lynch, Seattle pulled off one of the biggest upsets in playoff history. It did so with a clear home-field advantage that no one can argue Pete Carroll’s squad earned during the regular year.
But the larger question at hand here is whether the Seahawks should have been playing that game at home. While it’s hard to strip a division champion of a playoff spot altogether, why not allow the team with the best overall record heading into the playoffs to host that particular playoff game?
Looking at it realistically, there would be something ridiculous about an 11-win 49ers or Seahawks team having to travel to New Orleans to take on a six or seven win Saints team in the playoffs. This also isn’t much different than Jim Harbaugh’s squad, who won 12 games last season, being forced to travel to Lambeau to take on an eight-win Packers team in the playoffs.
Last season saw the Arizona Cardinals finish with 10 wins and miss the playoffs while Green Bay earned a trip to the second season. Unfortunately, that just might be the luck of the draw.
The larger issue at hand here is who hosts playoff games. In reality, that could very well change depending on what happens in the NFC South moving forward this season.
Photo: USA Today