One thing I do from time to time is imagine ways to fix various things that don't really need fixing. One of my favorite hypothetical things to imagine is introducing relegation into the NFL.
For reference, the current alignment of the NFL is in eight divisions, roughly split by geography and/or league history, as follows:
East: New England Patriots, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins
North: Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals
South: Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans
West: Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers
East: New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys
South: Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints
North: Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings
West: St. Louis Rams, Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers.
And here's a map, courtesy of wikipedia. I didn't feel like labeling each individual team, so use your powers of geography and work it out for yourself?
So, relegation. My plan calls for eight-team divisions. Since I'm going to be completely ignoring current alignment anyway, I'm simply going to dispense with league history, and attempt to group teams together as closely as possible geographically.*
West: Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Arizona Cardinals, Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys, Kansas City Chiefs
South: Houston Texans, New Orleans Saints, Miami Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons, Tennessee Titans, Carolina Panthers
Midwest: Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams, Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts, Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns
Northeast: Pittsburgh Steelers, Buffalo Bills, Washington Redskins, Baltimore Ravens, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Jets, New York Giants, New England Patriots
Each division would be re-aligned each year into two subdivisions based on record. For instance, at the beginning of the 2011 season we would have had:
West A: Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders, Seattle Seahawks
West B: Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals, Denver Broncos
South A: Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jacksonville Jaguars
South B: Miami Dolphins, Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans, Carolina Panthers
Midwest A: Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, St. Louis Rams
Midwest B: Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals
Northeast A: New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets
Northeast B: Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, Washington Redskins, Buffalo Bills
Every team would play one game against each other team in the division, and against two of the three same-class subdivisions outside their division on a rotating basis, for 15 games total. (Alternatively, could play all three same-class subdivisions for 19 games.) Game sites would be determined by site of last meeting (if last home then away and vice versa), modified by last result (can be moved if home win or away loss), so that each team has either 4 away and 3 home or 3 away and 4 home in division, alternating each year; and 8 home and 7 away or vice versa, alternating each year if possible (19 games: 10 home and 9 away or vice versa). If further movement is necessary, random draw to move games.
Atlanta's schedule this year might have been games against: New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Miami, Houston, Tennessee, Carolina, Chicago, Green Bay, Indianapolis, St. Louis, New England, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, New York Jets; West Division off schedule by rotation.
Playoff spots would remain at the current twelve, but the now-artificial AFC-NFC distinction is removed completely. Seeds would be: 1-4 subdivision A winners, by record (overall record, division record, head-to-head); 5-8 best record from Subdivision A teams, by record (overall record, head-to-head, common opponents, strength of schedule, scoring margin?), unless not enough teams with winning record; 9-12 (plus any extra 5-8 seeds remaining) best remaining record among all teams as before. Seeds 1-4 would have byes. 5 plays 12, 6 plays 11, etc. The next round is reseeded so that 1 plays the lowest remaining seed, etc.; after this winner of 1 vs ? plays winner of 4 vs ? and winner of 2 vs ? plays winner of 3 vs ?. The Super Bowl is the last remaining teams. (Duh.)
Relegation: Each season each division is re-seeded by record. Overall record, division record, and head-to-head are considered in that order. Any playoff team is exempt from relegation to Subdivision B unless another playoff team with a better record in the same division displaces them (this would require 5 playoff teams from one division, which is unlikely but I don't feel like running the math to see if it's possible).
While I'm at it, I'm also going to remove overtime from regular-season games and institute overtime for playoff games as two ten-minute periods, followed by a single sudden-death un-timed period if necessary.
As plans go, it's not brilliant, but it's an idea.
*In the interest of fair competition. There's some evidence, this years' 49ers notwithstanding, that jetlag, especially on West to East flights, is a significant handicap beyond the "normal" stress of an away game. The other option would be to split the league horizontally, into several "bands" each encompassing most time zones, but this distributes the problem equally instead of trying to eliminate it. Also trying to make it work is hilariously implausible.