Welcome to week 17 of the 2010 NFL season where, when all is said and done, it is probable the NFC West will send to the playoffs a team with a record below .500. That team would be the Seattle Seahawks. A victory Sunday night at Qwest Field over the visiting St. Louis Rams would result in both teams posting identical 7-9 records with the tiebreaker going to the victorious Seahawks. A sub-average team getting a ticket to the big dance (a.k.a. the playoffs) is an unfortunate anomaly that will always be possible as long as we have divisions consisting of only four teams. I am a strong supporter of the current divisional structure. The notion I find far more troubling is rewarding mediocrity with the right to host a playoff game and thus be afforded an advantage on the road to Super Bowl XLV.

This Sunday night’s game will prove the perfect stage to highlight the problem as I see it. For those who are newer to the NFL, Seattle’s Qwest Field is famous for being one of the most difficult venues in sports for opposing teams to win in (mostly due to the pesky 12th man – i.e., the crowd noise). The Seahawks home advantage is on par with Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, New Orleans’ Superdome and Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium (in the winter). These are places with markedly significant homefield advantages. If any of those teams were to win their division with sub .500 records they would have a similarly marked advantage, all while hosting a team with a vastly superior record.

The whole point of having a first round bye for the top two seeds in their respective divisions, and home games for the remaining division winners, is to reward excellence. I have heard people suggest that the inherent inequity of teams not playing identical schedules is the reason the current system should not be tampered with. I do not understand the logic of this argument at all. What one has to do with the other is completely lost on me. What is apparent is that a Seahawks’ victory will result in them hosting the best wild-card team from their division, which at this point would be the New Orleans Saints.

New Orleans would be required to go into the not-so-kind confines of Qwest Field, submit their ears to the deafening reality of the 12th man, and put themselves at a decided disadvantage in their attempt to repeat as winners of the Lombardi trophy. Lame! The wild-card round of the playoffs frequently consists of games that seem unbalanced. The difference here is that NEVER before have we required a team to go on the road in the playoffs and play a team with a losing record. This situation should be permitted this one time and when the rules committee meets in February a rule change should be forthcoming.

Look at it this way, the Seahawks would likely be underdogs by more than two touchdowns if they were to play in the New Orleans Superdome while they would likely be four point underdogs at Qwest Field. How does one account for the 10-point differential? It is all about the venues. The teams would not be any different, but the location of the game makes all the difference. A more acoustically sophisticated venue and vociferous fan base should not be beneficial to such a team. The Seahawks have not beaten anybody of note since their week six, post-bye week victory over the Chicago Bears.

Given that I live in Los Angeles I could offer a self-serving solution: have such games played in a neutral city. If that were to be the case the Saints margin of victory would likely be determined by whether or not the venue were a dome or outdoors. If said game were played in a dome, the Saints would be approximately 11-point favorites. If it were outside that margin would drop to eight or nine points. Bottom line: the New Orleans Saints should not have to be the guest of ANY team that cannot win half its games! For me the issue is less about the venue’s potential to affect the outcome of the game and more a matter of the inherent unfairness of good teams being required to play vastly inferior teams in a play-off game, on the road.