Imagine a 3-13 team hosting a playoff game. Impossible, right? Not according to the mathematical wizards over at Nate Silver’s 538 Blog. Silver stunned the political and statistical worlds (there’s a joke in there somewhere) by accurately predicting 49 of 50 states correctly during the 2008 US Presidential Election and then outdid himself in 2012 by pitching the perfect game. These top 10 terrible playoff teams could only dream of such exceptional stats. But at least they got more than three wins… if only barely.
There is always that one division in the NFL that simply doesn’t belong amongst the rest. This year it is the lowly NFC South, where it is highly likely that either Atlanta or New Orleans, heck maybe even Carolina, will emerge to host a playoff game with a losing record. This is an injustice to the great teams who have 10 or even 11 wins and will miss out on the playoffs. Every year it happens again and again. A losing team should never be given even a sliver of a chance of reaching the Super Bowl.
To be fair, the NFL is not the NHL or NBA, leagues in which bad teams consistently make the playoffs. There is no worse illustration of this trend that the 1952-53 Baltimore Bullets who made the NBA Playoffs in spite of posting a dismal 16-54 record. That’s a 0.228 winning percentage. But the past faults of other leagues do not excuse the problems in football today. The NFL holds itself to a higher standard and cannot let this unfairness persist. In all likelihood, another losing team will host a playoff game this year. The Competition Committee should have only one top priority this off-season.
10 2011 Denver Broncos (8-8)
Tim Tebow, the miracle man, gave us one of the most exciting playoff upsets ever in 2011 over Pittsburgh, but Denver should never even have been there in the first place. Including the playoffs, Tebow had six game-winning drives in the fourth quarter and/or overtime. But, Denver was never even close to the NFL’s elite that year, losing by an average of almost 30 points to the Pats (twice), the Lions and the Packers. Five times, Denver’s pitiful defense allowed 40 points or more. In spite of that epic playoff win, it will be a long time before Broncos fans are chanting the name Tim Tebow again.
9 2008 Miami Dolphins (11-5)
8 2006 New York Giants (8-8)
A team of such pronounced inconsistency does not deserve a playoff berth, but the 2006 Giants were exactly that: consistently inconsistent. That year, the team rattled off five consecutive wins from weeks five through nine, followed by a dreadful losing streak the following four weeks. The Giants were nothing if not a perfectly balanced testament to mediocrity: a .500 record; a 0 point differential; a 0 turnover margin; and both five wins and losses of 10 points or more. New York does get credit for the incredible final season of the legendary Tiki Barber, who tallied more than 2,000 total yards that season.
7 2008 San Diego Chargers (8-8)
The Chargers of 2008 had a legitimate offense, though the league’s 25th ranked defense in terms of yards allowed had no business gaining the advantage of a 12th man in their wild-card home upset of Indianapolis that year. The Chargers had the added benefit of playing in the woeful AFC West that year, going 5-1 inside the division and 3-7 outside of its cozy confines. To be fair, the Chargers were riddled with injuries that year and they closed the season with an impressive four-game winning streak. Having said that, no team from the AFC West truly deserved to qualify that season. They were also aided with a simultaneous collapse by the Denver Broncos, who lost four of their last six games, allowing San Diego to vault from the quicksand and steal the division.
6 T-6. 1982 Cleveland Browns (4-5)
5 T-6. 1982 Detroit Lions (4-5)
The Lions of 1982 are one of three teams in NFL history (all of whom make this list) who qualified for the playoffs with a losing record. The Lions would qualify at 4-5 after losing five of their last seven games. Their offense was 24th out of 28 teams in terms of total yards. Thankfully, Detroit was disposed of quickly in their opening playoff game when they were spanked 31-7 by Washington. Detroit and Cleveland prove the point that strike-shortened seasons deserve the asterisk placed next to them.
4 1999 Detroit Lions (8-8)
3 1998 Arizona Cardinals (9-7)
The Arizona Cardinals managed a miracle at the turn of millennium with Jake Plummer at the helm in his sophomore year. Arizona lost four of its games by 10 or more points, had a -53 point differential, and their defense ranked 24th in the league. Moreover, that year, the Cardinals failed to win a single game against an opponent that finished the season with a winning record.
The Football Outsiders called the ’98 Cards “one of the greatest fluke teams of all time.” They say you have to be good to be lucky, and lucky to be good. Sometimes though, all you need is Lady Luck by your side. Perhaps the Cardinals had earned a stroke of luck. The 1998 season was the franchise's only playoff appearance between 1983 and 2008. The Cards stunningly knocked off the team of the 90s, the Dallas Cowboys 20-7 in the wild card round. That was the Cardinals' first playoff victory since 1947. They were then served on a platter to the 15-1 Vikings who brushed them off 41-21 in the divisional round.
2 2004 St. Louis Rams (8-8)
The St. Louis Rams may have pulled out some narrow victories in 2004, but they were absolutely demolished when they lost. Seven of their eight losses were by 13 points or more, good enough for the league’s 7th worst point differential. The Rams had only three wins outside of their dreary division that season. Though they were able to pull off a road victory against Seattle (who they beat three times that year); they were flattened 47-17 by Atlanta. The “Greatest Show on Turf” had hit a roadblock and it remains the Rams' last playoff appearance
1 2010 Seattle Seahawks (7-9)
Seattle tops our list for the completely unjust nature of its playoff win over New Orleans in 2010 and serves as the perfect illustration for why the NFL needs to alter its playoff seeding rules. A team with a losing record should never host a playoff game. Period. The stats don’t lie and Nate Silver tells the tale: Seattle had the worst point differential at -97 of any playoff team in history; in terms of yardage, their offense ranked 28th and the defense ranked 27th; and, according to the advanced statistic Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average, Seattle was the worst team in football that year.
To make matters worse, the Seahawks actually had the fifth easiest schedule in football and lost five of their last seven games. Their only two wins during that stretch coming against the pitiful 2-14 Panthers and the Rams, whom Seattle defeated 16-6 in Week 17 to win the woeful NFC West. Even the quick-witted Richard Sherman couldn’t justify this team’s playoff appearance. Football fans can at least take solace in the fact we got to see Marshawn Lynch pull off perhaps the most electrifying run in NFL history. This all came at the expense of the 11-5 Saints, who were defending champions, yet had to travel to the toughest stadium in the NFL for the wild card round.
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