Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The 10-Win Commandments

But these go to 11, or so they wished

My ears are still ringing from the phony outrage generated by the run-up to the 2004 NFL playoffs, when it appeared that a 7-9 team might make the postseason as an NFC wildcard. When the NFC wildcard slots went instead to two 8-8 stumblebums (Minnesota and St. Louis), the din barely subsided. Fans of slightly less mediocre 9-7 teams from the AFC beat their reedy chests and demanded that the NFL's hugely successful six-teams-per-conference playoff configuration be scrapped so as to prevent any recurrence of this once-in-a-blue-moon travesty. That demand, they rushed to assure us, was rooted in principle rather than their own rooting interest. Ain't it always.

This season, there's a whole new set of complaints. And though the hairshirt is a different color, the cut is the same: "My team didn't make the playoffs, so the system must be flawed." This time around, the leading spokesman for the disgruntled masses(?) is Kansas City Chiefs President Carl Peterson, who believes the playoff field should be expanded from 12 teams to 14 because "it shorts the fans, the franchises and the cities to have teams with successful seasons but still not qualify for the playoffs." And how do we define success? "I don't like it when teams can win 10 games and not make the playoffs."

The Down and Distance research department has compiled the following list of teams that won 10 games this year but did not make the playoffs:
  • Kansas City Chiefs
To be fair (rats!), this is not the first time Peterson has called for the playoffs to be expanded -- but it's certainly the most inopportune time, if he wants to be taken seriously. Even people who might be open to the idea are doing that thing with the eyebrow that makes it obvious they're not buying it.

Going into Sunday's games, the Chiefs needed a win and a Steelers loss to make the playoffs. The Chiefs did their part by beating a Bengals team that had stopped trying before their plane even left Cincinnati, but Pittsburgh wouldn't play along. The Steelers wiped their feet on the Lions to improve to 11-5, claim the final AFC wildcard spot, and send K.C. home with their 10 wins tucked between their legs.

Had the Chiefs finished with 12 wins, they'd have made the playoffs. But they didn't finish with 12 wins, because they blew a 24-7 lead, at home, against the Eagles in Week 4. Had the Chiefs finished with 11 wins, they'd have made the playoffs. But they didn't finish with 11 wins, because they embarrassed themselves in a 14-3 loss to the borderline-awful Buffalo Bills in Week 10. Had they won either of these games, they'd have tied the Steelers at 11-5 and taken the wildcard based on a better record in conference games. Pittsburgh would be done for the year, and Bill Cowher would be at home coming up with adjustments for 2006 (rather than, say, excuses for 2005).

And that's what it always comes down to: You want to make the playoffs? Take care of your own business. Win games against 3-5 chumps like the Bills. Don't play gooey defense on national TV against the Giants. And when 10 wins aren't enough, ask yourself why you couldn't get over the bar. Don't complain that the bar isn't set low enough.

But suppose Peterson gets his wish, and the playoffs expand. That means more 10-win teams in the postseason, right? Let's see. The playoffs went to six teams per conference in 1990. Here are the No. 7 teams from the AFC and NFC since then. Under the Peterson Plan, these are now playoff-caliber teams:

NO. 7

NO. 7

2004Saints 8-8 Jaguars 9-7
2003Vikings 9-7 Dolphins10-6
2002Saints 9-7 Broncos 9-7
2001Redskins 8-8 Seahawks9-7
2000Packers 9-7 Steelers9-7
1999Panthers 9-7 Chiefs 9-7
1998Buccaneers 8-8 Titans 8-8
1997Redskins 8-7-1Jets 9-7
1996Redskins 9-7 Chiefs 9-7
1995Bears 9-7 Seahawks8-8
1994Giants 9-7 Raiders 9-7
1993Eagles 8-8 Dolphins9-7
1992Packers 9-7 Colts 9-7
199149ers 10-6 Dolphins8-8
1990Cowboys 7-9 Seahawks9-7

Remember what a travesty it was last year when two 8-8 teams made the playoffs? The Peterson Plan makes room for seven more, plus one team with eight wins and a tie. Nineteen teams that finished 9-7, which is one good bounce of the ball away from 8-8, also get into the playoffs. Only three 10-6 teams get in, including this year's Chiefs. Unfortunately, they bring a 7-9 team (the 1990 Cowboys) in with them.

Ultimately, the Peterson Plan is a reward for mediocrity. It's social promotion. The NFL, thank goodness, isn't the NBA. It isn't the NHL. You don't get into the NFL playoffs by being slightly better than bad. You don't get into the NFL playoffs by being average. You get into the NFL playoffs by being better than other teams in your division and in your conference. If you can't finish 11-5, if that's what it takes, then you don't deserve to go to the playoffs.

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