By any objective metric, the Seattle Seahawks were a bad team. In a 32-team league, they finished 28th in offensive yards per game, 27th in yards allowed per game. They were 25th in points scored, and also 25th in points allowed. The Seahawks had the 29th rated scoring differential in the league at -97, which means they allowed 6 points a game more than they scored.
Based upon these metrics, one could conclude that the team probably over-performed by finishing with a 7-9 record. What facilitated this? Consider that Seattle finished 4-2 against their 3 division foes. And how good were these teams? Consider that in the total of 40 non-division games played by the 4 NFC West teams, they won a combined 13 games. The NFC West's combined points differential was -322. Only two of the 7 other divisions had negative overall differentials, the NFC East at -8 and the AFC South at -39!
In the NFC, there are two 10-6 teams, the N.Y. Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who will miss the playoffs. It so happens that both these teams played the Seahawks this season, one home and one away, and they both won their games by a combined scored of 79-25.
The Seattle Seahawks will make the playoffs, due to the fact that they were the "best" among the 4 teams in their division. This is how the NFL is structured: You only need to beat three other teams - which is to say finish with a better or even record (and win tiebreakers) - and you will host a playoff game, regardless of your record, regardless of the strength of your division. If you are not fortunate enough to be in an easy division, or unfortunate to be in a strong division, there are only two other available "wild card" spots amongst the 12 remaining teams in your conference, and you will be given one of the last two seeds into the playoffs - regardless of your record that may be better than a division winner's - and you will not be able to host a playoff game (there is a very small chance if you are the better of the two "wild card" teams, but both the wild card teams would need to win two road playoff games for this to happen).
On the surface, this system seems a little bit silly. In a League of 32 teams, you only need to be the best among a group of 4 to have a shot at the championship (and history has shown that all 12 teams in the playoffs have a legitimate shot at the championship).
For the most part, the system works out, and the NFL is wildly popular so few people spend much time dwelling on it. However, there are occasional notable injustices. The system has been in place since 2002, giving it a 9-year run, and in at least two of those years glaring injustices have taken place, once in the 2008 season (playoff games actually played in '09) and once again this year.
In both these seasons, there was a conference with at least 2 non-playoff teams with better overall records than a division winner (and at least one of those teams with 3 more wins than a division winner) and a "wild card" team with 4 more wins than the division winner they must travel to play in the first round. In 2008 it was the 8-8 Chargers making the playoffs as AFC West winners over 11-5 Patriots and 9-7 Jets teams, and hosting a 12-4 Colts team in the first round. This year it will be 7-9 Seattle - the first division winners with a losing record in NFL history - making the playoffs over the aforementioned Bucs and Giants and hosting the 11-5 New Orleans Saints.
There are, of course, many, many reasons for this format to the NFL, including geography, preserving "rivalries", and scheduling (which in itself includes the fact that the violent nature of the sport precludes a long season).
Like I said, the NFL is popular, and has few true detractors, so these situations are met with insipid platitudes which don't address the true issues of competitive balance and, for lack of a better word - "fairness" of the season.
But what about a sport that isn't so popular, that is struggling for acceptance and credibility? What about a sport that is showing signs of copying many aspects of the NFL's model? I'm talking, of course, about the MLS.
Many of us have been flabbergasted these past few years about the MLS sticking with a conference format and a playoff system that many of us have complained is, for lack of a better word, "unfair."
Dave visited this topic recently, but it bears repeating. And we can be pretty sure there will be a conference and division structure once the MLS expands beyond 18 teams (which we know will happen).
It's all offered as food for thought.... and to once again raise the question of "is this a good thing?!"