Last week, I outlined how the NFL could deal with a shortened schedule, similar to how MLB is handling it. In that scenario, the Texans would be taking on the AFC and NFC South for eight games including one “interleague rival” game against the New Orleans Saints. Playing five games against the NFC South would not be a bad compromise for the Texans, but there are other options the NFL should be looking into as this second wave of COVID-19 is turning more into a plateau.
Option Two: Four Division Round-Robin
In this second scenario, I propose the NFL realign the divisions geographically to create four eight-team divisions along AFC and NFC lines and then play a round-robin style schedule. In an eight-game schedule, each team would play every team in its division at least once. The goal would be to minimize the amount of travel while maintaining the general structure of the league. The quantity of creativity is limited and lacks the drama of the NBA bubble, but this is the most practicable plan the NFL has at its disposal.
After taking a look at a map of the teams and corresponding divisions, it makes sense to combine the NFC North and NFC West and then combine the NFC South and NFC East divisions. Conversely, the AFC’s North and East divisions will merge, and the AFC’s South and West will do the same. Of course every NFL conspiracy theorist would come out of the woodwork if the league didn’t mirror the divisional merges, but take a look at this map and tell me it doesn't make sense.
The new divisions would be as follows:
NFC North & West
Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, Detroit Lions, Greenbay Packers, Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings
NFC South & East
Atlanta Falcons, Caroline Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, and Washington TBDs
AFC North & East
New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, Pittsburg Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens, and Cincinnati Bengals
AFC South & West
Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos, Las Vegas Raiders, and Los Angeles Chargers
Though finicky at best, the new “AFC Southwest” would be the least geographically-sound division of the four. Spreading from coast to coast, this division absorbs distance while the densely compact the “AFC Northeast” only has to travel the distance from Baltimore to Buffalo.
Since there are eight teams in each division in this exercise, the eighth game leaves room for hypothesizing. The most straight-forward option would be a match-up based on division ranking from the previous season. This would increase the number of high-quality games in a shortened season, something the NFL would desperately crave for revenue purposes. For the Texans, this would mean a second showdown against the Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs in 2020. Other top match-ups we’d see twice would be Ravens vs. Patriots, Packers vs. 49ers, Vikings vs. Seahawks, and Saints vs. Eagles. There is minimal ground gained by having the eight game be an interleague (AFC vs. NFC) contest.
Looking further ahead, minimal adjustment for the NFL Playoffs would be a necessary under a four-division league. The three top teams from each division will move on to the postseason. The third-place team would assume the Wild Card role and play the other division’s second-place team at their stadium. The winner of each division would receive a first-round bye and have home-field advantage in the Divisional Round.
What this scenario lacks in flavor it makes up in hardiness. The closer we get to the presumed season start, the less options the NFL will have at their disposal. Simplifying the structure of the league and centralizing the divisions would be a smooth transition for the NFL in a shortened season.
Though many people are questioning the ability and even efficacy of an NFL season, I believe there’s enough internal pressure and desire for normalcy to play at least some football in 2020. If not, a lost season would be a historic occurrence in sports history. It’s something none of us want to see, but it would be the best decision to keep the players safe.