Off-Topic: Realigning the NFL Conferences

This is an idea that's been bugging me the last two days, and not knowing anywhere else to post this I brought it here.

With all the conference shuffling in college football going on at the moment, it reminded me of talk earlier this year about the baseball leagues getting rid of their divisions, putting all AL teams in one AL basket and all NL teams in one NL basket as it were, shuffling one NL team back to the AL to balance out both leagues, and then have the top 4 teams in each league earn playoff spots... and with that system, maybe even expand each league's postseason lineups to 6 or 8 teams each.

While it may sound a bit questionable for baseball - since they have so many regular season games to weed out good teams from bad, they don't have to worry about figuring out who makes the postseason - a couple of nights ago I realized it makes much more sense for the NFL to do this.

Last year was a perfect example: because Division winners get a seat at the postseason regardless of win-loss, we had a 7-9 Seattle team in the playoffs while 10-6 Tampa Bay sat at home.  Not to mention the divisions as we have them now are tiny - just 4 teams per - and limit the number of matchups between teams in other divisions.

So instead of having small divisions, why not just one large conference?  You don't have to worry about geographic locations of teams within conferences anymore (hello, relocation to LA! ...what?), and the new alignment of teams can create better competition for postseason spots.

Here's how it would work: in each conference (AFC and NFC) you'll have 16 teams.  Based on the previous season's win-loss record (adjusted for Conference title winner to be at the top regardless of record) you then create Tiers of 4 teams: Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3, Tier 4.

You set the following season's schedule like this: Your team plays home-and-home against the teams in your Tier for that year.  This expands the odds of playing enough different teams within the conference, which is good: you don't have to play the same old-division opponents every year while missing out on playing other teams for 3 years just when certain teams might be the best-possible matchups against you.  There's 6 games scheduled right there.

Next, your Tier will get scheduled for one game against teams in another Tier of your Conference... and to make it relatively fair, Tier 1 (the best) will play against Tier 3 (the not-that-bad), while Tier 2 (the almost-won) plays Tier 4 (the draft winners).  Rotation of who gets a home game vs. an away game can be determined by even-odd ranking within the Conference.  That's 4 games scheduled there.

For interconference games, this is easy: AFC teams in a Tier will play each NFC teams once in the matching Tier.  While who gets to be at home vs away needs to be figured out, the fairest way is that it rotates: one year, the top AFC team gets home field vs. the top NFC team, next year home field alternates to the NFC and so forth.  There's 4 more games.

At this point, you'll have 14 games.  Before 1978, that was a football season, so we could stop there.  However, knowing the owners they'll want to squeeze in at least two more regular season games, so we may have to think up how to determine two more games to fit a 16-game schedule...

The best thing I can think of is allowing the teams to choose one home-game opponent.  This helps teams with heated, historic rivalries - say, Dallas/Washington, Green Bay/Chicago, Denver/Oakland, Miami/NY Jets - get in a rivalry game in case the Tier scheduling doesn't allow for one.  The rules would be, lowest team in either conference chooses first (to allow parity) for the home game; they can choose outside of conference; they cannot choose a team automatically scheduled to play them; the team they choose is taken off the list for any other team to invite them; that chosen team does get to pick their one home game when their turn comes against another team that would still be on the availability list.  There's a possibility - although it depends on the circumstances - that there could be a logjam of available teams at some point, but right now I can't see it.  I hope not.  But this way, everyone gets to choose a team for a home game, and everyone gets chosen to be a visiting team for another.  That should fill out the 16 games if needed.  But I would suggest against a 16-game schedule because...

...At the end of the season, the top 8 teams in each Conference gets a postseason spot.  Considering this would expand the postseason, keeping the regular season to a short 14-game schedule helps.

Let's say this season plays out like this for the NFC and at the end of the year it looks like this:

1) Chicago 11-5 (NFC title winner)

2) Atlanta 13-3

3) Green Bay 12-4

4) Philadelphia 11-5

5) New Orleans 11-5 (tiebreakers needed to determine Tier placement, I know)

6) New York Giants 10-6

7) Tampa Bay 10-6

8) St. Louis 10-6

9) Detroit 9-7

10) San Francisco 8-8

11) Washington 8-8

12) Arizona 6-10

13) Dallas 5-11

14) Seattle 5-11

15) Carolina 4-12

16) Minnesota 3-13


For Tampa Bay, at the seventh spot, this puts them in Tier 2 with New Orleans, New York, and St. Louis.  So we have home-and-homes vs. them the next year.  We also get games against the Tier 4 teams (Dallas, Seattle, Carolina, and Minnesota) with home games vs I think Seattle and Minnesota (depending on how the scheduling geniuses can coordinate the even-odd alignment).  For the AFC matchups the Bucs play the Tier 2 AFC teams, which could be oh New England, Denver, San Diego and Cleveland with New England and San Diego as the home games.  If we go with the 16-game schedule, the Bucs may find themselves invited to Arizona (as they'll choose ahead of us) for the Cardinals home game, and Tampa Bay can end up choosing Jacksonville (because we're already scheduled to play games with teams we want to play like New Orleans and Carolina, and the teams we might have old rivalries like Green Bay or Chicago could already be taken by the time we get to choose).

Then, for next year, all the Bucs have to do is win enough games into the top 8 spots to make the playoffs.  Say, they make it to 3) on the list, moving up to Tier 1 that year, and adjusting a new schedule from that.

The only disadvantage to this system is the possible mathematical chance of teams moving up and down the Tier sets in such a way that they end up playing each other all the time anyway.  It's not too likely, as chance and the At-Large team invitations can mix up the schedules well enough... but we could end up playing St. Louis FOREVER AND EVER AND EVER AND...

Does this work?  Is this a feasible pro football scheduling system?  Please provide comments below.

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