Perhaps you're asking how a win-or-go-home postseason designed to accentuate legitimate Super Bowl threats could ever allow sub-.500 squads into the bracket. It's a fair question. Having NFL playoff teams with losing records goes against the very nature of the league's setup. They pride themselves on an ever-shifting competitive landscape that rewards exclusivity.
Still, the presence of losing records in the playoffs can be explained in two words: Division titles.
The NFL sends every division winner to the playoffs, regardless of record. So let's say the Dallas Cowboys win the NFC East in a given year with a record of 7-9. They are automatically in the postseason. It doesn't matter if the NFC South has four teams all with better records. Every division winner gets to make the playoffs.
Wild Card entries can also technically be below .500, but this is much rarer since those are determined irrespective of division. In most cases, any NFL playoff team with a losing record will have won its division in a down year.
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Granted, this hasn't happened often. Five times isn't a lot throughout the course of NFL history. But it's worth exploring which five teams actually squeaked into the playoffs despite actually losing most of their games—in large part because it happened recently, during the 2020 NFL season.
Cleveland Browns (1982)
strike-shortened seasons are a recipe for losing records to crack the playoff picture. And that's exactly what the NFL delivered in 1982.
Every team only played nine games due to the strike. And not only that, but both the NFC and AFC conferences sent eight squads apiece to the postseason. That was an absolutely huge deal back then, because there were only 12 teams on either side, compared to the 16 we have today. The vast majority of the league wound up with a playoff spot.
This included the Cleveland Browns. They snuck into the postseason with a 4-5 record while finishing just third in their own division. Again: It was a weird year.
Not surprisingly, they didn't make any noise on the biggest stage. The Los Angeles Raiders chopped them down in a 27-10 victory that was barely ever close and reemphasized Cleveland's inability to put up points with sub-mediocre quarterbacks under center.
Detroit Lions (1982)
Here we have another instance in which the 1982 strike-shortened season sent an unworthy squad to the playoffs.
The Detroit Lions were actually more deserving of their postseason bid than the Browns. They ranked middle of the road in both points scored (15th) and allowed (14th) and actually sported one of the league's best rushing defenses.
Of course, this didn't do them much good when they reached the playoffs. They immediately ran into a buzzsaw when they met Washington, losing 31-7 in the wild card round while committing a whopping five turnovers.
Seattle Seahawks (2010)
No, a strike did not aid the 2010 Seattle Seahawks' entry into the playoffs. A wildly crappy NFC West did. They won the division with a record of 7-9, and with a bottom-10 offense and defense.
It's actually a miracle the Seahawks even won their dumpster fire of a division. Opponents outscored them by a total of 91 points over the course of the regular season. Both the second-place 7-9 St. Louis Rams (minus-39) and third place 6-10 San Francisco 49ers (minus-41) had better point differentials. So consider this your reminder that divisional regular-season matchups always matter. They can determine playoff tiebreakers.
Anyway, unlike the previous two losing postseason teams before them, the Seahawks actually made it out of the Wild Card round. They upset the New Orleans Saints thanks to a masterful performance from running back Marshawn Lynch before falling to the Chicago Bears in the divisional round.
Carolina Panthers (2014)
It turns out a record of 7-8-1 was enough to win the Carolina Panthers the NFC South division back in 2014. The 7-9 Saints actually had a better point differential that year, but once more, regular-season matchup tiebreakers can flip playoff fates on their head.
Led by quarterback Cam Newton and running back Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers managed to escape the Wild Card round, upending the Arizona Cardinals 27-16. They were then destroyed by the Seahawks in the Divisional Playoffs, but the gritty defense they played in the 2014 postseason laid the groundwork for much better performances in the coming years.
Washington Football Team (2020)
This past season's NFC East division was epically bad. The Washington Football Team ran away with it by posting a 7-9 record and becoming the fifth sub-.500 team in NFL history to make the playoffs.
To their credit, they did put together a convincing defense under head coach Ron Rivera. Washington ranked fourth in points allowed per game and fielded one of the league's passing blockades. Only one other team surrendered fewer total passing yards and touchdowns.
Too bad for Washington they became first-round fodder for the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They kept things relatively close and put up 23 points against a budding Tampa Bay defense, but they didn't have the offensive experience or depth to compete later in the game.
Some expect next year's NFC East winner to once again finish below .500. It's possible. The Philadelphia Eagles traded Carson Wentz, and his prospective replacement, Jalen Hurts, doesn't have a ton of reps. The Dallas Cowboys re-signed QB1 Dak Prescott but he's coming back from a major injury. The New York Giants have the inconsistent Daniel Jones under center. And Washington itself doesn't have a long-term answer at quarterback.
So buckle up. The 2021 NFC East race could be equally ugly.
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