Fairness being raised over divisional alignment

While cries of unfairness coming from Patriots Nation are likely to fall mostly on deaf ears outside of Massachusetts these days, Sunday's finales could lead to more questions about the current divisional and playoff formats.

Not only is it possible that the New England Patriots could miss the playoffs at 11-5, but there's the potential that two of the NFL's eight division winners will be mediocre 8-8.


The Patriots' flattening of the Cards ultimately might not matter.

(US Presswire/David Butler II)

The Arizona Cardinals, who didn't do much more than warm up the team bus on their way to getting waxed 47-7 on Sunday at New England, and the San Diego Chargers, if they beat Denver, will win their respective NFC and AFC West divisions with eight wins. No team has won a division at 8-8 since the Cleveland Browns captured the AFC Central in 1985.

Meanwhile, even if the Patriots beat the Buffalo Bills to reach 11 wins, they'll miss the playoffs if the Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens win. However, this is about more than the Patriots getting the short end of the stick.

Since the NFL switched to its current eight-division format in 2002, which made the possibility of an 8-8 division winner more likely, three times have teams won their division with only a 9-7 mark. One of those teams, last season's Buccaneers, went to the playoffs while the Browns sat home with a 10-6 record. This season, there's a chance that seven teams could finish with better records than two division winners, but not make the postseason.

Still, the reaction from those with the greatest influence is simple: Remain calm.

"This is something we warned the owners that could happen when we switched to this format, so it's not unexpected," said Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, who is also the co-chairman of the NFL competition committee. "The feeling is that this is an aberration, not a sign of some trend … Now, if it were to happen again over the next two or three years, maybe it's something we look at."

Likewise, Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian said: "It's definitely something we anticipated when we went with this eight-division format. This is not a surprise nor is it something we should over-react to … when we proposed this system, this is something the owners ultimately wanted and felt good about."

Moreover, it's something that ultimately the owners believe improves interest in the game, even if it's occasionally frustrating for fans.

Polian knows that well from having grown up as a baseball fan in New York. Until 1969, major league baseball featured a one-division format in each league. The division winner went to the World Series. No playoffs, no wild cards, no anything to keep fans in multiple cities interested to the end.

"At most, you might have three teams competing in a given year," Polian said. "In the system we have now, you have fans in multiple cities excited right up to the end."

Going into the final week of the season, there are 11 teams still competing for five spots. In addition, Atlanta and the Carolina Panthers are still battling for the NFC South title, putting 13 teams in play during the final weekend. That puts the final Sunday of the NFL season on par with the first weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament in terms of wide-ranging interest.

Ultimately, more excitement equals more fan interest which equals more money being pumped into the game. The exchange for the almighty dollar is that occasionally some team that seems more deserving might get left out.

New England coach Bill Belichick didn't seem upset about his team's predicament, even after a remarkable season by Belichick's high standards. The Patriots have a chance to go 11-5 despite having 15 players on injured reserve, including 2007 Most Valuable Player Tom Brady.

"Well, that isn't really anything we have any control over. We just have to do what we can do," Belichick said Sunday after his team humiliated Arizona. "We would like to be in the playoffs. That's what we are here for. I think our guys are playing hard, preparing well and they are playing very competitively. But, we are not in it with Arizona at this point. They are in a different conference."

Would Belichick like to see the format change?

"That is not for me to decide. I have my hands full trying to coach a football team," he said.

Some of Belichick's players weren't so accommodating.

"Typical stuff you see around the NFL," one Patriot said. "How do you get to go to the playoffs at 8-8 or whatever when other teams win 10 or 11 games and don't get in?"

Said another: "Doesn't make much sense to me, but I'm not in charge. I mean, Arizona didn't even show up [against New England] and when you look at the tape, they haven't shown up in about a month."

The Cardinals are in the playoffs despite having lost four of their past five games. In those four losses, Arizona gave up 37, 48, 35 and 47 points. The only win in that span was over 2-13 St. Louis.

Likewise, Denver has had a chance to clinch the AFC West the past two weeks, but lost both and allowed 30 points in each game. In fact, for the season, both Arizona and Denver have been outscored.

Finally, San Diego is in position to win the division despite being 4-8 at one point. At least in the case of the Chargers, they beat the Patriots 30-10 earlier this season.

"At least with them, they can play," one of the Patriots players said. "I don't know how the heck they were so bad, but I know they have talent."