The Sports Revolution: The Division Tournament

Pierre as a young boy was a contrarian. He was the kind who favored The Plague over The Stranger, Beauvoir over Sartre, Henry over Zidane, the left rook’s pawn over the right rook’s pawn.

Pierre as a man retains so much of that contrarianism, but there is within him, he can now say, some sentiment for the Man, the Authority, the Establishment—in short, the common nouns that require proper capitalization.

It is with this perspective of the potentate in mind that I have reached a conclusion I once thought not possible. The NFL, that American Establishment of Establishments, must begin playing an 18-game season.

We can swim against the tide of history or we can ride it. The latter is not, however, a pure acquiescence, as our very presence causes change and rupture and redefinition—perhaps to meet our own needs.

And so we approach tremulously the Mordor of the 18-game concept.

The idea of an 18-game schedule creates several obvious problems. Even more players will injure themselves, both in the short- and long-term. The season will extend from something like mid-August to mid-February. And chief of all these, the aesthetic beauty of 16-game records will be wrecked. 11-7? What the hell is that?

The benefits of an 18-game schedule are even easier to see. First, we get more football. People enjoy their football. That means an extension of the season is actually unproblematic; in fact, it’s ideal. The idea that the NFL season can’t run for six months is undercut by the fact that every other professional season already runs for longer. Of paramount importance, the philistines’ fantasy seasons can be played out for longer—perhaps with longer playoffs to really hammer home who is the best at consuming season-preview literature and the Red Zone channel.

There is no getting around the long-term injuries. To Pierre, CTE is a means of getting from here to someplace higher; to others, it is quite different indeed.

As for the short-term problem, I am tempted to find it no problem at all. It is not ideal that our best practitioners of the sport cannot regularly complete the full slate handed to them, but this is the case already. Better yet to devise a system that acknowledges this, no? A longer season creates meaningful distinctions between the severity of an injury and a team’s ability to cover it up. The Lions would have won the NFC North in a 12-game season; they didn’t lose their quarterback. The Bears would have won the NFC North in a 14-game season; they had the best backup. The Packers won it in a 16-game season; they were the best team.

Further, we add one little wrinkle that ensures we provide greater incentives to the teams that are most whole as the season reaches its conclusion.

Ahh, but the aesthetics. How to find out way around that peccadillo?

Pierre was stumped, he must admit, until that cold December night when he found himself in the unenviable position of watching a Cowboys-Eagles game. The contest would determine the NFC East champion, and consequently NBC ran a graphic dubbing it the NFC East Championship.

The NFC East Championship. Now that’s something we could do every year.

Putting aside that, well, we do do the NFC East Championship every year it seems, what if there were a way to formalize the process across divisions—to take the excitement of a rare concatenation of circumstances and make it into an annual occurrence regardless, much like MLB has done with the wild-card playoff. That would be a way to make an 18-game season work while also preserving our aesthetic principles and the 16-game record.

So here is what Pierre proposes: The NFL regular season remains the same. It will be 16 games, and the marvel that is its scheduling process will remain intact. To account for the extra games we’ll be adding on, two preseason ones will be cut, and the season will begin in the middle of August—right as the sports world yearns for an escape from more baseball.

The quote-unquote dog days shall become the glory ones.

The 16-game, 17-week season shall conclude right around the middle of December. At that point, we shall seed the teams in their own divisions, one through four, according to record. And we shall hold, much like that madness of March, a small-scale tournament before the big one.

I introduce you to the Division Tournament.

On the first weekend, one hosts four, two hosts three. A week later, the winners battle in the division championship, the losers in a consolation that matters more than you think.

Winning your division tournament merits you inclusion in the actual postseason, regardless of what your record was during the season. You also now host a postseason game, as the four division tournament winners would be seeded one through four, based on record.

Madness, you say! What if a truly great team were to lose in its division tournament? What would happen to them?

Pierre says relax, mon frère. There are still playoff spots left—three of them in each conference, in fact, since we would simultaneously adopt the occasionally-ballyhooed idea of adding to the postseason. The teams with the three best 18-game records would still advance to the postseason, seeded five through seven.

The top seed in each conference would be the only one with a bye.

In abstraction, it can be confusing, so let us engage in the so-called nitty gritty. We shall take for our specifics the conference where anarchy was nearly loosed upon the world in the final fortnight of the season, the AFC. Let us assume for simplicity’s sake that the very existence of the division tournament did not alter the 16-game regular-season results.*

*This requires the acknowledgement that this is an incorrect assumption. Under the proposed system, there would be much less chance that a Week 17 game would be meaningless for any team. Even the best team in a conference would need to be at least two games clear of any rival for the final game to not mean anything. This season, the Chiefs would not have been able to rest their starters against San Diego, since a playoff berth would have been far from guaranteed.

And so, the teams enter the tournament seeded by finish in their respective divisions, or as follows:

East

1. Patriots (12-4)

2. Jets (8-8)

3. Dolphins (8-8)

4. Bills (6-10)

North

1. Bengals (11-5)

2. Steelers (8-8)

3. Ravens (8-8)

4. Browns (4-12)

South

1. Colts (11-5)

2. Titans (7-9)

3. Jaguars (4-12)

4. Texans (2-14)

West

1. Broncos (13-3)

2. Chiefs (11-5)

3. Chargers (9-7)

4. Raiders (4-12)

The division semifinals would be split between Saturday and Sunday, two AFC divisions playing Saturday and two playing Sunday (and the same goes for the NFC). There would be three blocks of games at 1, 4:30 and 8:00 Eastern time, with three games in each of the afternoon slots (carried by the three major networks) and two at night, carried by the conference’s chief provider (CBS for the AFC, FOX for the NFC).

Tickets will work as they do for postseason games in the current system. The chief and some would say sole flaw in this proposal is that not every team gets the same number of home games over the 18-game schedule. Pierre does not view this as a flaw: To each according to his abilities, to paraphrase.

Unfortunately, we cannot be as precise with our assumptions of how things would play out, so it’s time to get a bit hypothetical. On Semifinal Saturday, the Patriots dispatch of the Bills—as is their wont—and the Dolphins upend the Jets in the Meadowlands—as is their wont. The Colts easily defeat the Texans, but the Jaguars continue their second-half uprising and take down the Titans, putting Jacksonville within a game of the postseason.

A day later, we see major turmoil in the North, as the Browns shock the Bengals in Cincinnati—easily the biggest game in the rivalry since Paul Brown beat the Browns. The Steelers and Ravens renew their rivalry of attrition, and who cares who wins because let’s face it, Cleveland’s winning next week, too. The Broncos take care of Oakland, the Chargers win for a second time at Arrowhead.

We now have two 11-6 teams whose playoff chances hang upon the ability of the favorites to take care of business—and their own ability to do so against lesser foes. In addition, the 10-7 Chargers hold their fate in their own hands. Win and they’re in. A loss and…?

The final weekend is set up similarly, though with the consolation games taking a necessary backseat. (Obviously, the games for Cincinnati and Kansas City are of critical importance.)

In those consolation games, the Bills end their season on a high note by winning in New Jersey, and Houston ends that pesky 15-game losing streak with a win over ex-Houston. Jamaal Charles is personally responsible for nine touchdowns in a Chiefs romp over the Raiders. But woe is Andy Dalton, whose history of playoff ineptitude manifests itself yet again in a loss to the Ravens/Steelers loser. The 11-7 Bengals are in trouble.

In the championship games, the Dolphins rise up and defeat the Patriots in Foxboro, securing a playoff berth for just the second time in a decade. The Colts turn away a game Jaguars squad late in Indy. You know the Browns join Miami as a surprise playoff participant, and Peyton Manning scores late to lift the Broncos over the Chargers in a Sunday night classic—denying San Diego a playoff bid.

A wild playoff round is now set, with the following seeds:

1. Broncos (15-3)

2. Colts (13-5)

3. Dolphins (10-8)

4. Browns (6-12)

5. Patriots (12-6)

6. Chiefs (12-6)

7. Bengals (11-7)

Your initial reaction, of course, is that this makes a mockery of the regular season, and that it places far too much emphasis on the strength of a team’s individual division. In many respects, you are correct.

But see things from the other side: Do the playoffs not already make a mockery of the regular season? Did the best regular-season team in the sport’s history not only lose in the postseason, but to a rather pedestrian 10-6 team? Did that rather pedestrian team submit an even worse regular season en route to yet another “championship” a short time later?

Are the schedules not already defined by a team’s division? Six of 16 games are played in the division, and thus the records are out of balance as is. The Colts only got a home game against the Chiefs because their former quarterback signed in Kansas City’s division.

And so your concerns may be amplified, but all in the service of excitement! Two unforgettable weekends each season…before the postseason even starts! For the fact is that someday, Tony Romo will no longer steer the Cowboys to 8-7 and the brink of a postseason berth—with one last game against the exact team standing in his way!—each and every season.

Sometimes, memories must be manufactured. Sometimes, the Establishment is right.

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