As there is no mechanism for keeping a losing team out of the NFL playoffs, it is a curiosity that does occur from time to time. Usually, though, when it happens, it happens the way it did four years ago – the last time a losing team received a playoff invitation.
In 2014 the NFC had no shortage of winning teams. That season, there were six NFC clubs with 10 wins or more. But only five of them made it into the dance. The 10-6 Philadelphia Eagles were forced to the sideline in favor of the 7-8-1 Carolina Panthers.
The NFL is now four, five-team divisions, with the champion of each division assured of a playoff spot. It sometimes happens – as it did four years ago – that all the citizens of one of these division will have struggling years and none of them will finish over .500. The NFC South was such a division that year, with the Panthers edging the 7-9 New Orleans Saints and the 6-10 Atlanta Falcons. Tampa Bay – also in that division – was a non-factor at 2-14.
While the equity of this situation could be argued, it is what it is – and playoff opportunities sometimes hinge on what division you are in. As I said, though – pretty rare.
In fact, in the entire history of the NFL it has only happened twice in full seasons. In 2010, a 7-9 Seattle team advanced to the playoffs under similar circumstances. They were the best of a bad division, while the New York Giants and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – both 10-6 – stayed home. (The footnote here excludes the strike-interrupted season of 1982, in which two 4-5 teams made the playoffs.)
So what may happen this season – again, in the NFC – would be unique in the long and storied history of the NFL. Rather than inviting the best of a poor division, the NFC may send a losing team to the playoffs because this year, the NFC may not manage to field six teams that can at least play .500 ball.
There is no such issue in the AFC, which will probably end up with three 9-7 teams (two of which will miss the playoffs) and two other 8-8 teams. But – in a football sense, anyway – the middle class is starting to disappear (temporarily at least) from the NFC.
With three weeks left in the regular season, the NFC has five teams with winning records. All five are guaranteed to finish at least at .500. The Saints and the Rams are both 11-2 and have clinched their divisions. Chicago leads the North with a 9-4 record, and Dallas – at 8-5 – is the likely winner in the East. After them, the Seattle Seahawks (8-5), will likely earn the top wildcard spot.
And after them?
The last playoff spot is currently in the arms of the Minnesota Vikings. They are right at .500 (6-6-1), but the tie means that they cannot finish exactly at .500 (unless they play to another tie somewhere along the line). They can, of course, still finish over .500, but to do that they would need to win at least two of their last three. They are the first of several NFC teams that could finish .500 or better, but all will have to win at least two of their final three – and none of them seem to be very likely candidates to do that.
Let’s begin with the Vikings. Their stretch drive begins this Sunday at home against Miami. Not a given by any means – just ask the Patriots – but since the game is at home, you would lean toward the Viking here. But after that? Detroit on the road and Chicago at home. Nothing about Minnesota suggests to me that they are enough better than the Lions to be favored to beat them in Detroit. Nor should they be a match for the Bears – even if they are at home. It’s not unimaginable that Minnesota could win one of those games. But it truly isn’t likely. Minnesota is probably on track to finish 7-8-1.
Behind them are the fading Carolina Panthers, now 6-7 after losing five games in a row. Bad enough. Two of their final three games are against the high-flying New Orleans Saints – not necessarily a team you want to try to break a long losing streak against. If they could manage to win one of those, their other remaining game is a winnable contest against Atlanta at home. But it’s hard to see this Carolina team beat this Saints team anywhere. If New Orleans has home field advantage all wrapped up by Week 17, then that could play to the Panthers’ advantage. In that scenario, the Saints might be playing under wraps with an eye towards being healthy for the playoffs. But the battle between New Orleans and Los Angeles for that top spot will most likely run through to the end of the season, so a going-through-the-motions final game from New Orleans is improbable. Carolina is likely looking at 7-9.
After them are the defending champions from Philadelphia – also 6-7. They get to play Sunday night in Los Angeles against a Ram team that will be smarting after their loss to the Bears last Sunday night. Doesn’t bode well for the Eagles. After that, they get the Houston Texans – a 9-4 team that has also played better than the Eagles all season. They close against Washington – but in Washington. The Redskins are hurting at quarterback, and may not be able to put up much of a struggle – even at home – but unless this limping Eagle team can find a way to get a win against either the Rams or Texans, even a season ending win in Washington won’t leave them any better than 7-9.
Those Redskins are next on the list – also 6-7. They close at Jacksonville, at Tennessee and home against the Eagles. The Titans are beginning to surge again, and shouldn’t lose at home to this Washington team. The Jags and Eagles might be considered beatable, but with your third-string quarterback? It’s truly hard to see them finishing better than 7-9.
That brings us to four teams for whom the bar is even higher. The Green Bay Packers (5-7-1), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-8), the New York Giants (5-8), and the Detroit Lions (5-8) all must win out to avoid finishing with a losing record. For these teams, winning consecutive games has proved challenging, much less putting together a season-ending three-game winning streak.
The Packers could come close. Their final two games are against the Jets in New York and at home against Detroit. It will be their next game that will tell the tale. Can they go into Chicago this Sunday and beat the Bears? If not, then the best they could manage would be 7-8-1.
Tampa Bay’s closing schedule is fairly brutal for a 5-8 team. Their next two are both road games in Baltimore (the Ravens are 7-6) and Dallas. Had to seeing them winning one of those – much less both.
All of the Giants’ last three games are against teams right in the thick of the playoff hunt. Two of them are home games, but against the Titans and the Cowboys. Tough sledding there. Their road game is just as challenging. They go into Indianapolis to play the Colts. New York has played better of late, but it’s truly difficult to imagine them winning all of those games.
Which brings us, finally, to the Lions. Frankly, honestly, the Lions have a shot – a shocking thing to contemplate in what has been a frustrating year for them. It’s not hard to see them beating Buffalo – even if that game is on the road. After that, they draw the Vikings at home – another winnable contest. But they will then have to go into Green Bay on the last Sunday of the season and beat the Packers. That might be too great a challenge for this re-tooling Detroit team.
With all of these teams in play, I do believe it is more likely than not that at least one of them will win a game they are not supposed to and give the NFC at least an 8-8 record for its final playoff team. But this exercise shows – I think – the depth of the upheaval going on in the NFC. That it is this late in the season and there is still even a reasonable chance that the NFC will be unable to field six teams with at least 8 wins is sobering.
In the NFL, gaps between the haves and the have-nots close very quickly. Just last year, the Colts and Texans were jostling for last place in their division, looking up at the Jaguars; while the Bears were skidding to 5-11, finishing 8 games behind the Vikings. Just two years ago, the Chargers, then in San Diego, were 5-11 (they are 10-3 now), the Eagles were 7-9 (they won the Super Bowl the next year), the Saints were 7-9 and the Rams were 4-12. So it’s premature to suggest that this is the beginning of any kind of long-term trend.
But this level of separation, if it holds – even if only for one year – is unprecedented. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.