A losing team could make the playoffs

Posted: Tuesday, December 14, 2004

In 1982, the NFL season was shortened to nine games by a strike, and the playoffs were expanded to 16 teams, including a pair that went 4-5.

That is the only time a losing team made the postseason, although given the sorry state of the NFC, there's a possibility it will happen for the first time in a full season. In fact, if the playoffs started now, the Carolina Panthers (6-7) would be the final wild-card team.

At least they would be somewhat deserving.

The Panthers were the conference champion last season and have won five straight games after a 1-7 start. Right now, they might just be the NFC's second-best team behind Philadelphia after adjusting to the loss of wide receiver Steve Smith, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins and running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster.

Brett Favre summed up the NFC perfectly after Green Bay struggled to beat Detroit Sunday to take the lead in the North.

''We should feel good about this win,'' he said. ''But we're not good enough to feel that good.''

Although New England, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Atlanta have clinched divisions, the jury is still out on everyone else.

Right now, the first wild card in the NFC would be Minnesota, which is 7-6 despite losing five of seven to fall a game behind the Packers. The way the Vikings usually finish — they were 3-7 after a 6-0 start last season — nothing is guaranteed.

The strangest disparity the NFL had was in 1985, when Cleveland won the AFC Central at 8-8.

In those days, there were two wild-card teams from each conference, and Denver (11-5) missed the playoffs in a three-way tiebreaker with the Jets and Patriots.

Broncos linebacker Tom Jackson summed that up 20 years ago with the bluntness that has served him well in his television career.

''The situation with us points up how unfair the system is now,'' he said then. ''I don't think there's any way that you can have a team be in double figures in victories and have one of the best records in the conference and yet be at home when the playoffs start.''

Jackson's sense of unfairness was assuaged somewhat when the Broncos ended up making the Super Bowl (and losing) in three of the next four seasons. And the Browns, who not only made the postseason that year but got a first-round bye, lost just 24-21 to defending conference champion Miami, which finished 12-4.

Four other 8-8 teams have made the playoffs: New Orleans in 1990, the New York Jets in 1991, and Dallas and Detroit in 1999. But no better teams within their conferences were left out.

This year, plenty of AFC teams will go home knowing that they are more deserving than NFC teams that make the playoffs.

Right now, the Jets (9-4) would be one AFC wild-card team, with Baltimore and Denver (8-5) battling for the other spot, and Jacksonville and Buffalo (7-6) on the outside. The Bills, who held Cleveland to just 17 yards Sunday (15 of them in garbage time) have won four straight games and six of seven since Willis McGahee became the starting running back.

''If we're in the other conference, I'd have some hope. But we got a little behind the field in our conference,'' Bills owner Ralph Wilson said.

In the NFC, even 5-8 doesn't eliminate a team. And inconsistency is the norm.

Dallas's stirring comeback in Seattle last Monday night seemed to herald a late-season playoff run with rookie Julius Jones doing for them what McGahee has done for Buffalo. Then Dallas went home and lost 27-13 to New Orleans, managing just 269 total yards against a team near the bottom in nearly every defensive category.

''Every time we have an opportunity with this team to do something and to maybe make something out of our season, we revert to the kind of thing you saw today, which was a very, very poor example of how to try to win,'' Cowboys coach Bill Parcells said.

That's the NFC: Miami is 2-11, and its only wins are over NFC teams St. Louis and San Francisco.

Philadelphia is 12-1 and can clinch home-field advantage for the playoffs with one more win or an Atlanta loss. But even the Eagles have had trouble with AFC teams.

Their only loss was a 27-3 pounding in Pittsburgh. They were forced into overtime by Cleveland (which is just 3-10) and had to work to beat Baltimore 15-10 at home in a game in which the Ravens were without Jamal Lewis, Jonathan Ogden and Todd Heap.

At that rate, maybe the Eagles will lose their fourth straight NFC title game — to Carolina, a team below .500.

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