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Should the NFL playoff structure change?

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By Brandon Niles EBS Sports Columnist

We’re past the midway mark of the NFL season, which means the playoff picture is beginning to come into focus.

We know that the New England Patriots are not ready to relinquish their defending champion status; the Arizona Cardinals look like one of the best teams in the NFC; and the Carolina Panthers are looking formidable with their undefeated start to the season.

But what about the divisions that are lacking a clear-cut champion? This time of year not only breeds anticipation for the postseason, but also the annual debate about the playoff structure in the NFL, and whether it needs to be changed.

In the AFC South, the Indianapolis Colts and the Houston Texans share the division lead, despite the Texans being widely considered one of the worst teams in football this season.

Should a team like the Colts or Texans make the playoffs, while a better team in a more competitive division is left out?

In pro football, there are two conferences with four divisions each. The winner of each division makes the playoffs, and two wildcard teams from each conference also get in based on their record.

This format is good for teams that win their divisions. But for other franchises, jockeying for a final wildcard spot can be frustrating while teams in less competitive divisions get into the playoffs automatically.

This isn’t a new complaint either. It comes up every couple of seasons. The Panthers made the playoffs last year with a losing record, as did the Seattle Seahawks in 2010, and each time it happens sports pundits around the country start to whine about the format.

My response to this is always the same: Settle down. Parity in the NFL creates this “problem,” since teams can improve or regress dramatically in just one offseason. Meanwhile, divisional breakdowns in professional sports foster long-term rivalries between teams, making the sport more exciting for fans.

And the phrase “on any given Sunday” isn’t just a cliché. In the NFL, anything can happen. In Week 10 alone, the Detroit Lions beat the heavily favored Green Bay Packers, and the lowly Texans beat the previously undefeated Cincinnati Bengals.

Anything is possible, and the NFL’s one-and-done playoff system only enhances that possibility. If a team that doesn’t “deserve” to be in the playoffs does well in the postseason, it only enhances the intrigue.

Last year’s Panthers team and the 2010 Seahawks both won their first playoff games against teams with better regular season records. And in 2011, the New York Giants beat the heavily favored Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI, after winning the NFC East with a 9-7 regular season record.

We’ve become so reactionary in the sports world – just look to some of the extremely short coaching tenures for evidence. The NFL is wildly successful and making record profits. Let’s not overreact by changing the entire competitive system just because a team with an inferior record makes the postseason every couple of years.

Besides, if you’re a frustrated fan of a team on the wildcard borderline, there’s a tried-and-true way to make the postseason: Win the division.

Brandon Niles is a longtime fan of football and scotch, and has been writing about sports for the past decade. He is a fantasy football scout for 4for4 Fantasy Football and is co-host of the 2 Guys Podcast.

The Outlaw Partners is a creative marketing, media and events company based in Big Sky, Montana.

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