The NFC South could produce a playoff team with a losing record, whether that’s the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, or the Carolina Panthers. That invites the question of whether the NFL should do anything about it, or care.
Could the NFC South Send Another Losing Team to the Playoffs?
The first team to make the playoffs with a losing record in a full season was the 2010 Seattle Seahawks, who parlayed their home-field playoff appearance into one of the most memorable playoff wins of the decade and, eventually, a dynasty.
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Soon after, the 2014 Carolina Panthers won their division to make the playoffs despite a losing record, as did the likewise-Ron Rivera-led 2020 Washington Football Team. The Panthers would go on to make a Super Bowl run a year later, and the Washington Football Team would go on to collapse into one of the most embarrassing organizations in the NFL.
We may yet see another losing team make the playoffs. Every team in the NFC South has a losing record, and we’re left with absurd truths like the fact that the Carolina Panthers, after having won on Thursday Night Football, are in the hunt for a playoff spot at 3-7.
That’s because they’re only a game and a half behind the division-leading Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are 4-5. Even better for Carolina, they already have a win against the Buccaneers and can secure the tiebreaker in Week 17.
More interesting than the question of whether or not the Panthers will specifically make the playoffs is whether or not we’ll see another losing team enter the postseason. Tampa Bay is best positioned to win the division; the Buccaneers are the overwhelming favorites, per Vegas, and have a 68 percent chance of winning the division, according to FiveThirtyEight. According to, Football Outsiders, the Bucs have a 60 percent chance of winning the division.
Tampa Bay is favored against the Seattle Seahawks this weekend, but not everyone is buying it. FiveThirtyEight and Football Outsiders both see the Seahawks as a better team, and how much one buys into home-field advantage perhaps plays a role in determining which team is more likely to win the game. If the Buccaneers lose Sunday’s game, things become a lot more interesting – they can still win the division, but with a losing record.
If the Buccaneers don’t win the division, it’s almost certainly the case that the team that beats them to the title has a losing record. The Falcons are just behind the Buccaneers in divisional odds and have already lost six games. In order to come out of this season with a winning record, of course, they can only drop two more.
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Right now, Football Outsiders predicts an 8.7-win season for Tampa Bay, which could either materialize as an 8-8-1 or 9-8, neither of which are losing seasons. But that’s the median projection. In about half of all outcomes, the Buccaneers end up with a record below .500, and a good chunk of those outcomes see them winning the division.
If they win every game that FiveThirtyEight favors them to win, they’ll win the division outright regardless of other results and make the playoffs, finishing with a 10-7 record. But it’s easy to construct a schedule where the Buccaneers win every game that they’re big favorites in and end up with a losing record to make the playoffs.
For example, Tampa Bay can go 8-9 in a scenario where they only beat the Browns, Saints, Panthers, and Falcons. Should they go 7-10 and lose against the Browns, they would still be favored to win the division.
Should a Losing Team Make the Playoffs?
The NFL is lucky that there’s a reasonable chance that this losing division will produce a winning record, but that’s still a much worse chance than should be necessary. It raises the question of whether or not the NFL should keep this playoff system.
This is not a product of the recent playoff expansion that added a Wild Card team, which already creates the issue of watering down the talent pool in the playoffs and removing some incentive to win the division. Division winners get automatic bids regardless, creating this situation in the first place.
Given how often this is happening – first in 2010 and then multiple times shortly after – it might be worth considering whether the automatic bid system is worth it.
For my money, it is. In-division rivalries mean more because of the stakes. Playing the same teams twice a year certainly creates a level of familiarity important for rivalries to develop, but if a win against a rival means the same as – or less – than a win against a random opponent, it takes a lot of the sting out.
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The Jets beating the Patriots doesn’t just sit well with Jets fans just because they like to win or because it means the Patriots lose. It also sets the Patriots back in the divisional race, dealing more of a blow to them than a loss against a non-division opponent.
Seeing teams construct their rosters around what their divisional opponents do best is fun, and it creates interesting stylistic contrasts across the NFL – preventing the homogenization of a product that leans toward uniformity.
There are many benefits to that approach. It just happens to come at the cost of the occasional losing team making it to the playoffs. For many people, that’s worth it.