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NFL playoff format needs some adjustments

Matt Ryan and his 6-9 Falcons could make the playoffs. The 9-6 Eagles won’t make the postseason.Bill Haber/Associated Press

Christmas is Sunday for the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers. Instead of an ugly sweater or pair of tube socks, one of them will get the gift of an NFL playoff spot. And what a gift it is.

The teams will play for the NFC South title Sunday at the Georgia Dome. The division "champion" is guaranteed of two paradoxical occurrences — it will finish with a losing record and host a playoff game. It's been a race to the bottom for the top spot in the NFC South all season, and the 6-9 Falcons and 6-8-1 Panthers are the last two teams standing in Weak, err, Week 17.

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And some people think the AFC East is the equivalent of the Staples easy button.

Bestowing playoff berths and home playoff games on teams with losing records that win divisions with fewer occupants than a college dorm room is what former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein would call a "fatal flaw" in the NFL's playoff system.

It devalues the chase for the Lombardi Trophy and undermines the notion that the 16-game regular season serves to distill the league to the most deserving teams.

There shouldn't be more teams to beat out to win your fantasy football league than earn an NFL playoff berth.

This season will mark the fifth time since 2008 that a division winner will make the playoffs despite having a worse record than a non-playoff team (2008, 2010, 2011, 2013). It's the second time since 2010 that a division winner is going to make the playoffs with a sub-.500 record — the 2010 Seattle Seahawks went 7-9 to shut out 10-win Tampa Bay and New York Giants teams.

Patriots fans recall 2008, when the Matt Cassel-led Patriots were left standing outside the playoff club door with an 11-5 record, while the San Diego Chargers and their 8-8 record sauntered right in with the AFC West winner stamp.

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It's unfathomable that a league that won't tolerate players wearing too colorful cleats would allow non-winning teams to keep moonwalking into the playoffs.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is on record saying he expects the league to expand the playoffs from 12 teams to 14 teams, adding a seventh team in each conference, for the 2015 season.

The league considered expanding the playoffs this season, but NFL owners tabled the discussions in May.

A 14-team playoff will go a long way to ameliorating the problem of rewarding mediocrity by geography. The league's pigskin patricians shouldn't stop there. They should re-write the playoff format to preclude a division-winner with a non-winning record from being a higher seed than a wild-card club with a winning record.

This year that would mean that instead of the NFC South winner automatically getting the fourth seed in the playoffs and a home playoff date, they would drop to fifth and have to travel to face an opponent with double-digits wins (Detroit, Green Bay, Seattle, or Arizona).

Traditionalists are regurgitating their Cheerios at the idea that a division championship would be so devalued, some would say desecrated. A division title should mean something is the oft-recited retort.

It does. It means you get to make the playoffs, even when you're a lousy team.

What does a division championship really mean in today's NFL? It means you beat out three of the other 31 teams. Congratulations.

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The NFL has set up four-team divisions too small to fail, even when the teams in them do.

The league went to the current playoff format, which has four four-team divisions in each conference and two wild-card entries, in 2002. From 1990 to 2001, each conference had three divisions and three wild-card berths.

The playoff expansion for 2015 is really a playoff correction, restoring access for a third wild-card team.

ESPN's Mike Sando crunched the numbers on playoff expansion. He found the average win total of the additional playoff team in each conference from 2002 to 2013 would be 9.1 wins. The average win total for the lowest-seeded division winners in each conference over that same time period was 9.6.

From 2008 to 2013, Sando found that the first teams out of the playoffs and the worst division winners averaged an identical 9.2 wins per season.

That's proof that some deserving teams are being left out of the playoffs on the basis of semi-random, semi-accurate geographical groupings.

Not having the right teams in the postseason waters down the playoffs more than having additional teams.

Even with a move to 14 teams, the NFL isn't handing out playoff berths as participation trophies. Fewer than half the 32 teams would make the postseason. In the everybody-in-the-playoff-pool NBA and NHL more than half the league makes the playoffs.

This year, the seventh team in the AFC is guaranteed to have at least nine wins. The same goes for the NFC, where the 9-6 Philadelphia Eagles can only look on in envy as their avian brethren in Atlanta play for a playoff berth.

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It's tough to advocate for the playoff worthiness of an (Off the) Mark Sanchez-quarterbacked team. If anyone questions whether Rex Ryan can coach in the NFL, look at the fact he went to two AFC title games with Sanchez. Even offensive savant Chip Kelly can't save Sanchez.

But fading Philadelphia's three-game losing streak is nothing compared to the sinkholes in the résumés of the Falcons and Panthers.

The Panthers had a six-game losing streak this season and went seven consecutive games without a win. The Falcons had a five-game losing streak and haven't been above .500 since September.

Teams with losing streaks like that make the NBA playoffs, not the NFL ones.

Bigger really is better if the NFL wants to fix its playoff format.

Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.