The NFL is considering scheduling divisional matchups in the final two weeks of the season to try to avoid something we’ve railed on before – teams that have clinched playoff berths sitting their starters.
Is it a foolproof plan? No, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Such a plan is unlikely to eliminate meaningless games – in most recent NFL seasons there’s been at least one team that rolls through the first 3/4 of the regular season and clinches home field advantage with a week or two to go. However, finishing with two divisional games greatly increases the chance a division title or a playoff berth will be on the line for even the best teams in the league in the final weeks of the season.
There are several things wrong, in my eyes, with teams who sit starters for extended periods of time at the end the regular season. Without debating the merits of the two schools of thought in NFL coaching circles – 1. avoid potential injury for the playoffs (sit your starters), or 2. keep your momentum going into the playoffs (play your starters) – here are the problems.
First, teams who sit their starters cheapen the integrity of the playoffs. I don’t have historical data, but I do know there is a good chance the playoff field would have looked different last season had everyone played at full strength down the stretch. The New York Jets were the main beneficiary of teams who purposefully tanked at the end of the season. This isn’t to say the Jets were a bad team and they did make a hell of a run in the playoffs, but had Indianapolis played their starters in week 16 and Cincinnati played theirs in week 17, it’s probable the Jets wouldn’t have made the playoffs at all. If they had lost one of those final contests, the defending Super Bowl Champion Steelers would have been in and the Jets would have been out. The Jets got a free pass, and they took full advantage of it, but if I were a Steelers fan, I would have been irate, considering both teams finished with identical records and the Steelers had to win against starters in the final two weeks.
Second, fans pay a lot of money to go to an NFL game – not just for their ticket, but for parking, concessions, etc. In most cases, they get their tickets well in advance. When I shell out all that money I want to see what I paid for – the A unit versus the A unit, not guys like Matt Flynn, Curtis Painter and Matt Leinart.
Maybe the NFL doesn’t really care about who gets into the playoffs and how they got there, but at the very least, the league should show some respect to the fans who are responsible for their billions of dollars in profit.