Tuesday, December 28, 2010

NFL Goes World Cup

Sunday marks the final day of the NFL regular season. There are playoff spots, division titles, and conference No. 1 seeds all up for grabs as all 16 games will be played on Sunday. That's the only time this will happen during the season.

To set up the most compelling TV viewing, the NFL is taking a page out of the World Cup's playbook.

No, really. And to think, most of you probably think soccer is stupid. Apparently, the NFL is smart enough not to think that way.

Every four years, the World Cup is contested. The current format involves eight groups of four teams apiece playing a round robin, with the top two teams from each group advancing to the "knockout" stage. Game times are staggered over the first two games of the three-game round robin schedule, so no games are being played at the same time.

Once they get to the final round, though, each group's two-match slate is played at the same time. The reason behind this is that you will get an honest effort from all four teams. At least three of them are usually alive for the knockout phase, and sometimes all four are. By playing both matches simultaneously, no one has the advantage of knowing if they will be through to the knockout phase based on the other result in their group. If a team controls their own fate and needs a win to advance, they have to play to win, because they can't assume the other match will go their way.

Now, look at Sunday's NFL schedule.

Think now about the playoff scenarios that exist for Week 17.

The Steelers and Ravens are in the playoffs, but the AFC North hasn't been clinched. They play early games Sunday, and the Steelers can't sit on a Baltimore loss. They have to go all-out to beat Cleveland.

Atlanta hasn't won the NFC South yet, and must beat Carolina to clinch that and the NFC's No. 1 seed. No one thinks that will be a problem, but the Falcons don't get the luxury of resting their starters for that game. Tampa Bay is still in the hunt for a spot, but they need a win and help, and a loss to New Orleans won't clinch anything for anyone. Therefore, there's no harm to the Wild Card chase to have that as an early game.

The other playoff spots will be decided in late afternoon and night games. St. Louis and Seattle got the night game, and the winner is a division champion. Loser goes home.

In the late afternoon, you find Chicago-Green Bay, Dallas-Philadelphia, and the Giants at Washington. Those three games will decide the final NFC playoff spot, along with a first-round bye in the NFC. Having them go off at the same time ensures that no one will assume anything, and all six teams will give it their best effort, whether the goal is a playoff spot, a higher seed, or just to play spoiler.

In the AFC, the South Division will be decided in the late afternoon window, too. Jacksonville needs a win and an Indianapolis loss, while Indy can clinch the division if Jacksonville loses.

Give the NFL credit. They know how to create compelling television, and they've done that with their game-time tinkering for Sunday. They've also copied a successful formula from another sport.

It is a copycat society, after all.

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