The Washington Football Team ended the 20-21 season with a 7-9 record. Normally, this means an early start to the off-season. But Washington will host a playoff game. 7-9 was good enough to win the pitiful NFC East this year, and so not only does Washington make the playoffs, they also, as division winners, host the 11-5 Tampa Bay Bucs in the Wild Card Round.
This doesn’t happen too often. The Carolina Panthers won their division and made the playoffs in 2014 with a 7-8-1 record and the Seattle Seahawks won the NFC West in 2010 with a 7-9 record. Both went on to win their Wild Card games and lose in the Divisional round. (The strike shortened season in 1982 also had teams with losing records in the playoffs.)
On one hand, there is no basis for an objection. The conditions for qualifying for the playoffs are set prior to the season and a winning record is not a condition for winning the division. The division winners make the postseason and host the game.
On the other hand, this just seems wrong. The postseason is supposed to be a tournament of the best teams in the league to determine the champion. Shouldn’t a winning record be a pre-condition for qualifying? Isn’t this unfair to teams with better records who don’t make the playoffs?
This year is not as egregious as previous years. In 2010 while Seattle hosted a playoff game, the Giants and the Bucs stayed home, both with 10-6 records. In 2014, Philadelphia had a 10-6 record but didn’t make the playoffs. This year, of the teams not making the playoffs, only the Arizona Cardinals have a better record. But at 8-8, they also failed to have a winning record.
Given the way the NFL schedules its games, there is a case to be made for the way the NFL does things regarding the playoff qualifications. If each team played each other at least once, then the Eagles, Bucs, and Giants would have a better case. But with the unbalanced schedules, the divisional structure, and the fact that some teams do not play each other in a given season, what is ‘fair’ here gets very murky very quickly.
Still, I’d favor adding some kind of rule that requires all playoff teams to have winning record (and maybe allow for .500 teams) and only allow a team with a losing record in when no teams with winning records remain. The team with the best record (or tiebreakers) that otherwise didn’t make the playoffs would get the playoff spot instead. The teams would be re-seeded with this newly qualifying team being the lowest seed.
For example, under a rule of this sort, in 2010, Seattle wouldn’t have made the playoffs. Instead the Giants would have qualified (based on tie-breakers). They would have then been the sixth seed.
Maybe this wouldn’t work or would introduce other problems. Still, at the very least, the team with the losing record shouldn’t be able to host the playoff game. That’s just embarrassing.