One of the most popular topics of discussion during this year's NFL playoffs involves the discrepancy among the teams who qualified for the postseason.
While 9-7 teams in Baltimore, Buffalo and Jacksonville all failed to make the AFC playoffs, 8-8 clubs in Minnesota and St. Louis got into the NFC tournament. In fact, each won a game before being ousted.
My question is this: Why do we need to have conferences? Now don't blirt out a quickie reply about tradition. I'd like you to think this through a little. It's a given that tradition would be sacrificed. But allowing bulls to rumble down the middle of a Spanish town gouging foolish humans who are intentionally running in their path is tradition, too. That doesn't mean it's a particularly good idea.
My point is that the tradition of two conferences isn't necessarily beneficial or necessary.
If conference affiliations were eliminated, we'd simply have eight divisions. With the current allotment of 12 total teams making the playoffs, that means four wild-card teams would join the eight division champs -- the four BEST non-division winners.
Why couldn't we simply seed these dozen qualifiers, 1 through 12, and give the top four seeds a bye into the second round of the playoffs? We'd call the second round the NFL Quarterfinals.
That means in the first round, the fifth seed would host the 12th seed, the sixth seed would play at home against the 11th seed, etc. For the second round, the top seed would host the lowest seeded first round winner.
Oh yes, this is great... it's truly fun because it allows for the possibility of ANY TWO TEAMS REACHING THE SUPER BOWL.
Why is this a good thing? Okay, do you believe that a Dallas-San Francisco Super Bowl in the early 1990s would have been fascinating? The Cowboys and 49ers were recognized by most experts and fans alike as the class of the league during that stretch. The AFC victor (usually Buffalo) simply didn't measure up. Some even conclude that the Super Bowls during this stretch were anti-climactic.
When the NFL and American Football League first began pitting their champions against one another in January of 1967, the vastly contrasting leagues... which later became the conferences within a single National Football League... were in themselves justification for the format we now take for granted as being integral.
But at some point around the late 1970s, it became symbolic more than anything else. Keep in mind that the most successful AFC team in terms of Super Bowl titles, the Pittsburgh Steelers, was an NFL team moved into the newly-formed AFC during the 1970 merger of the leagues.
So let's look at how the 2004 season would have shaped up without conferences. Pittsburgh (15-1) would be the top seed, followed by New England (14-2), Philadelphia (13-3) and Indianapolis (12-4). Those four would have earned first round byes. The rest of the playoff field would have fallen in as follows: 5. San Diego (12-4), 6. Atlanta (11-5), 7. Green Bay (10-6), 8. Seattle (9-7), 9. New York Jets (10-6), 10. Denver (10-6), 11. Jacksonville (9-7), 12. Baltimore (9-7).
(Note - I used how the teams were ranked based on the real standings to determine seedings, and to eliminate 9-7 Buffalo from the field of 12. The Bills lost to both the Jaguars and Ravens.)
The first round of the playoffs would have had Baltimore at San Diego, Jacksonville at Atlanta, Denver at Green Bay, and the New York Jets at Seattle. Wow, three of those four matchups are currently impossible in the postseason except in a Super Bowl.
For the sake of our discussion, let's pretend that the Chargers, Falcons, Packers and Jets won. Then the Jets would go to Pittsburgh, Green Bay would travel to New England, Atlanta would head to Philadelphia, and San Diego would get a rematch at Indianapolis. Hmmm... a couple of those games are familiar. Again, fascinating.
Let's do some more make-believe. Say that the Steelers, Patriots, Eagles and Colts prevailed. You'd have our current Super Bowl matchup - New England vs. Philadelphia - as one semifinal, with the top-seeded Steelers hosting Indianapolis in the other.
Why is this more fair? Look at the real-life scenario. Despite having the best record in football the Steelers were forced to have to go through 14-2/defending champion New England to get to the Super Bowl (and failed), while 13-3 Philadelphia only had to deal with 11-5 Atlanta. The Steelers proved earlier this season they're a better team than Philadelphia by crushing the Eagles head-to-head, so I contend that a Super Bowl pitting the two best teams in football this year actually happened in last week's AFC Championship Game when the Patriots won at Pittsburgh.
I'm just talking about the records, here.
To disband the conferences would logically be followed by geographical realignment, in which case the Steelers and Eagles probably would be in the same division and the results for 2004 would have been altogether different.
I realize that the NFL will never discontinue the conference set-up... not while I'm alive, anyway... but I think it's fun to ponder the possibilities.
Especially when there's an alternative that makes so much sense.