With fourteen weeks of the CFL season played (and in particular, with Hamilton's victory over Winnipeg) the likelihood of the fifth place Western team having the sixth best League record has moved from what seemed at one point to be a near certainty back to a meaningful probability. That said, even if the second place Eastern team does eventually end up with the sixth best League record, the debate on what to do with the CFL's unbalanced and unfair Playoff format must not come to an end with that.
For future seasons, what is at issue is this: the CFL's current Playoff format was designed specifically for an eight team League, and as long as there were eight teams in the League the format worked just fine. But now that there are an odd number of teams in the League once more, a glaring inequity in the format has once again been exposed.
For me, this argument has nothing to do with how bad (or how good) the East is compared to the West. It is a matter of basic principles. I have heard and read alot of people on this forum, on the radio, in the stands and in the bars who have intimated that if you finish dead last in your Division then you shouldn't get in the Playoffs, period. That would be a fair point - IF it applied equally to both Divisions. But, as things stand today it doesn't. Suppose in some future year, the tables are turned and the East is dominant, then their "dead last" team will have every chance of making the Playoffs -displacing the team that finished in the middle of the Western standings in the process.
Furthermore, if a team finish third from bottom in the East, they are absolutely assured of not only getting in the Playoffs, but also getting a home Playoff game. BUT, finish third from bottom in the West, and not only will a team be on the road - they might not make the Playoffs at all if the West happens to be particularly awful in some future season.
Having said all this, I am not arguing for the abolition of the East-West dynamic to the CFL's Playoff format. There is tradition to think of for one, but more importantly we have to consider television. The current Divisional alignment and Playoff format is particularly appealing to TSN because it assures them a Playoff game in both rounds will be played in the Eastern Time Zone. With TSN now putting a significant enough sum of money into the League, their opinion on this matter cannot simply be ignored. With that in mind, the current system of ensuring that the second place teams in each Division host Division Semi-Finals is unlikely to change.
What I am arguing for is for the League to find a way to make the Playoff format fair again without alienating any interested parties, and after considering a few alternatives - even Page Playoffs - I have come to the conclusion that the only logical solution is for the CFL to add one additional Playoff berth to the League.
First off, let's look at the CFL Playoff berths in terms of percentages. In an eight team League, CFL teams have had a 75% chance of qualifying for the Playoffs. In a nine team League, CFL teams have - on average - a 67% chance of qualifying for any of six Playoff berths. Now, if we add a seventh berth, the chance improves to 78% - much closer to the original 75% compared to what we have currently. Of course, I'm sure some people will argue that even two thirds of the League qualifying for the Playoffs is too many, but I would argue that with the CFL still being in large part a gate-driven League, its business interests demand that ensuring that all teams at least almost always have something to play for right up until the end of the season is far more important than trying to ensure that teams with mediocre records can't qualify for the Playoffs.
So for the next question, who would get the seventh Playoff berth? The only answer that is fair to both East and West is that the team with the seventh best record gets the berth, with standard tie-breakers used to break ties, period. I would agree that in case of a multi-way tie for the last Playoff spot then the intradivisional tie(s) should be broken first, then if necessary break the tie for the last Playoff berth between East and West. But the whole notion that the team having the better divisonal placing should always get preference in a tie-breaker is a very messy one once the Divisions are no longer equal in size. Before this season, there was no question that a third place Divisional finish was better than a fourth place Divisional finish. But, as it stands now, is third place in the four team East really that much "better" of a placing than fourth place in the five team West? I for one do not agree that it is.
Add a seventh Playoff berth while still trying to give preference for Divisional placing and it gets even more controversial. Suppose in some future season under a seven-team Playoff format, Ottawa finsihes with a 6-11-1 record and finishes fourth in the East, and suppose Winnipeg finshes fourth in the West with the same record. Now suppose that Ottawa had won one game and tied one game against Winnipeg. I am guessing that under this hypothetical scenario, there would be a very strong disagreement between Redblacks fans and Bombers fans as to whether Ottawa's fourth place Divisional finish was as "good" as Winnipeg's fourth place Divisional finish. On the other hand, if the League is of the opinion that under such a circumstance it is the Redblacks who ought to make the Playoffs, can they still reasonably argue that a team that finishes dead last in the West but tied for seventh overall with an Eastern team that they beat in the Regular Season should not have the same chance of making the Playoffs?
Changing Playoff qualification to the top seven teams overall without preference for Division is the only format I see being fair to the West without compromising Eastern or overall League interests.
So, how do we do all this while maintaining a Divisional basis for the Playoffs - and how do we determine which of the two Division winners gets the first round bye? The answer to the latter question is obvious - the team that finishes first overall in the League should be the team that gets the bye, regardless of Division. Once again, in case of a multi-way tie for first overall, simply break the tie(s) within the Divison(s) first, then break the tie between the resulting Division winners to determine who gets the bye.
From there, we would have a handful of possible scenarios depending on how many teams qualified from each Division and which Division the first overall team played in - here is how it could work:
The easiest scenario is if the first overall team comes from a Division with a total of three qualifiers, in this case the Division Semi-Finals and Division Finals would stay strictly intradivisonal;
The other likely scenario is if the first overall team comes from a Division with a total of four qualifiers, in this case there would need to be a cross-over. In such circumstances, the Divison winner that is contesting a Division Semi-Final would host the team that finished seventh overall. If the seventh overall team was also the fourth place team from the other Division then the other two Division Semi-Finals would remain intradivisional, but if the seventh overall team instead was the third place team from its own Division, then the Divisional runner-up with the better record would host the fourth place finisher and the other Divisional runner-up would host the other qualifying third place finisher;
In the (hopefully rare) instances where five Western teams qualified under this format, then the fifth place Western team would invariably play whichever Divison winner was contesting a Division Semi-Final. The other two Division Semi-Finals would be paired in the same manner as the previous scenario;
Division Finals that involved two teams from each Division would remain intradivisional;
Where only one team from a particular Division qualified for the Division Finals, that team would host the surviving team with the worst record from the other Divison in cases where the team had the best record of all surviving teams, otherwise it would host the surviving team with the second best record from the other Divison;
In the (likely very rare) circumstance where no Eastern teams qualified for the Divison Finals, the Division Finals would be scrapped for that season in favour of Grey Cup Semi-Finals between the surviving Western teams.