The conversation took place on New Years Eve 1997. Ironically, it was in Cincinnati, in Clifton, on a balcony overlooking towards the city’s downtown area. The participants were myself and a good friend named Greg, and two innocent bystanders, Dave and Melanie who had zero interest in the topic at hand.
The topic was the NFL playoffs. The 1997 the Pittsburgh Steelers had secured the second seed and a first round bye in the playoffs.
The Denver Broncos had also secured a playoff berth, but as a Wild Card, by virtue of twin losses to the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Steelers were 11-5, the Broncos 12-5. My friend Greg, a Columbus native was a football fan without strong rooting loyalty. I can’t pretend to remember his exact words, but they went something like this:
I am not sure who I am going to back this year. I mean, I like the Steelers, I like Kordell Stewart, I love Bill Cowher, but I can’t shake the fact that they’ve got a first round bye that they don’t deserve.
My retort was, of course they deserve it – they’re division champions. Greg fired back, calling into question the NFL’s playoff format, going so far as to say that if the Steelers were to win the Super Bowl that year, their victory would be tainted, because they got an unjust advantage over a team with a better record.
So the argument ensued, with my friend Greg even accusing me of, what in Spanish we would say is “Double Discourso” which is to say, hypocrisy as he insisted, “Come on, you know that if the situation was reverse, and the Steelers were a wild card with a better record than a division champion, you’d be agreeing with me.”
No, I wouldn’t, I stood firm.
Well, 1997 was a long time ago (makes one feel less old to throw out the year than to calculate the number of years).
And, barring a major upset in the Queen City, the Steelers will find themselves in the very same place – having to go on the road against a division winner who has a worse record than they do.
Divisonal Play Should Mean Something
While this fact is unfortunate, especially given the Steelers tremendous difficulties on the road, I nonetheless stand pat behind the NFL’s current playoff format.
My argument then and now is simply this: If you’re going to have divisional play, division titles should mean something. In addition to fostering natural rivalries and helping the league forge an indentity, divisional play provides an excellent crucible for classifying teams.
A home playoff game is a big deal not only to the team in question, but to the community. This is particularly true for small and mid-sized markets, where a home playoff game can mean millions of more dollars for local merchants, restaurants, and hotels.
In a competitive sense, home field does provide an advantage, but not an overwhelming advantage. As there are times when a team struggles at one point during the season, gets its act together enough to qualify for a Wild Card and makes a successful run as the ’05 Steelers, ’10 Packers and ’97 Broncos did.
The two top dogs in the AFC North are the Steelers and the Ravens. Both teams are similar, both in terms of talent, style and, this year, on the field performance. Both the Steelers and the Ravens have been strong home teams, but weak road teams.
It is fitting then than the right to host a home playoff game will fall to the team that performs the best in its final game on the road.
Hopefully, although perhaps not likely, that will be the Steelers. If not, so be it, the Steelers had their shots at locking up the division without neededing help and they fell short. Everyone in the organization is well aware of that, and the NFL should not be asked to alter its playoff format as a consequence.