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Debate follows Seattle into playoffs

Never has the NFL truism "winning the division is our first goal" been more accurate. Just ask the Seattle Seahawks.

Or ask the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, two teams with 10 wins who did not make the playoffs while the 7-9 Seahawks are in. Not only in, but hosting a game next Saturday against the defending Super Bowl champion Saints, who merely went 11-5.

The NFL is enamored of its divisional structure, placing heavy emphasis on intradivision games. So much so that regardless of what's going on elsewhere, a division title is a guarantee to host at least one postseason game.

That's Seattle's reward for a losing record: four of its wins were within the NFC West, better than the Rams' 3-3 mark, making the Seahawks the first division winner with a losing record in league history.

"We battled like crazy for this, as did the other teams in our division, as did the teams in other divisions, so we're the last guys standing here," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said Monday. "We're proud of that and we're going to go represent and hopefully do something really special with our opportunity and see how far we can go."

The debate on how fair Seattle's situation is will certainly go on.

"This is not a new issue," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said last month. "We have considered many alternatives for our playoff format, including the possibility of seeding all playoff teams on the basis of their records once they qualify for the playoffs.

"I'm certain this will get additional consideration by our competition committee and our membership in the offseason. As with any system, there are pluses and minuses."

The Giants know all about the minuses, especially considering their 41-7 manhandling of the Seahawks in Seattle on Nov. 7 — a victory that meant relatively nothing in the playoff breakdown.

"It stinks, that's all I can say," guard Chris Snee said. "You get 10 wins and you think you're a playoff team. We have no one to blame but ourselves."

True. No team blew its chances to win its division worse than New York, which led Philadelphia 31-10 at home midway in the fourth quarter last month and managed to lose 38-31. The Eagles won the NFC East.

Then the Giants fell to Green Bay, which gave the Packers the tiebreaker for the NFC's second wild-card; New Orleans easily earned the first one.

"That's how the system is, you know?" Snee said. "When I'm in this position, sure, I can say that ... they should take the top six teams. But one year, maybe it'll be the opposite, and we get in. You can't really control that. It's just the way the system is — and we didn't win the games that we had to win."

Fair or not, go looking elsewhere for apologies. The Seahawks realize their fortune, especially after finishing 3-7 in their final 10 games, but they aren't trying to placate the critical masses.

"If you win your division, I think you deserve to go, despite what your record is," New Orleans cornerback Tracy Porter said. "That's an NFL first, a team with a losing record to win their division and host a playoff game, but I mean, they achieved their goal and that was to win their division. They did that and I think they should be rewarded."

Any chance the system might change?

As Goodell mentioned, this topic comes up occasionally at owners meetings. It's more certain than ever to be raised in March at the main league meetings in New Orleans.

But the likelihood of diminishing the importance of division races is negligible. After all, the NFL got a winner-take-all matchup in prime time for the final game of the year. Under a format where, say, the top six teams in the conference make the postseason regardless of divisions, St. Louis-Seattle would have been totally ignorable.

So might have been the Colts' win over the Titans on Sunday to take the AFC South. The division races tend to prolong the drama through to Week 17.