The Carolina Panthers (6-8-1) and the Atlanta Falcons (6-9) will clash on Sunday in a definitive NFC South matchup to determine who will join the 2010 Seattle Seahawks as the only other team ever to make the NFL playoffs with a losing record. For critics, the possibility of a seriously flawed, sub-.500 team playing for a Super Bowl berth while the 9-6 Eagles go home early is proves the NFL’s playoff system needs a serious overhaul.
But for others, the tooth-and-nail struggle for the NFC South division title isn’t so much an example of poor play as an indication that competitive parity in the NFL is at an all-time high. And grumblings about Carolina’s flaws or Atlanta’s shortcomings have just generated another storyline for fans and pundits alike to track during the 2014 NFL postseason, experts said.
“The NFL is all about great stories and lots of gambling. You have a lot of betting and a lot of great stories around the idea of a losing team making its way through the playoffs,” said Don Yaeger, a New York Times best-selling author and former associate editor of Sports Illustrated.
There’s no denying that both the Falcons and the Panthers have taken a strange road to a possible playoff berth. Carolina entered the season with Super Bowl expectations but floundered early due to an inconsistent offensive and poor play in the secondary. Carolina’s postseason prospects looked all but dead by Week 14 after a six-game losing streak that gave the Panthers a 3-8-1 record.
Star quarterback Cam Newton has struggled all season, recording career lows in games played and total touchdowns. Carolina’s rushing attack – usually a hallmark of its success – failed to produce even one 800-yard rusher this season. The same defense that anchored the Panthers’ 12-4 team last season has allowed nearly 25 points per game this season.
The Falcons haven’t fared much better. Atlanta’s explosive passing attack, anchored by quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones, was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise mediocre 2014 campaign. The team is one of just nine NFL teams to average less than 100 yards rushing per game. Statistically, Atlanta’s defense is atrocious. The Falcons are the only team in the NFL to surrender more than 400 net total yards per contest this season.
Both teams achieved winning records within the NFC South, but struggled outside of division play. The Falcons, for example, went undefeated within the division, but failed to win a single nonconference game.
And yet, for all the criticism and mockery leveled at the NFC South this season, interest in its critical Week 17 matchup has reached a fever pitch. The battle to determine the NFL’s “Worst Playoff Team Ever” has generated enough attention that the league announced Monday it would “flex” the game to the 4:25 p.m. time slot, presumably to allow the maximum number of people to watch.
Regardless of who wins the matchup, fans will tune in to see if either squad can replicate the 2010 Seahawks’ feat of winning a first-round playoff game despite a losing record in the regular season. “It’s definitely something that makes [the playoffs] interesting,” said Dave Meltzer, CEO at Sports 1 Marketing. “Kind of like the NCAA playoffs, as long as there’s discussion around it, it’s good for the NFL.”
The sudden appearance of two sub-.500 NFL playoff teams within five year is not a fluke. Measures such as the NFL’s hard salary cap, league-wide revenue-sharing and standardized rookie contracts ensure that no team, big or small market, gains a financial advantage. Teams have to make hard choices annually on which players to re-sign and which systems to implement. The quality of college football programs rises by the year, producing faster, stronger players.
It’s harder than ever to build a decade-long dynasty. At the same time, divisions composed entirely of doormat teams one season can produce two or three legitimate Super Bowl contenders the next. There's a growing belief that even a struggling NFL team can defeat a juggernaut on "any given Sunday."
The 2010 NFC West featured four teams with losing records. The Seahawks won the division at 7-9 and won a first-round playoff game against the New Orleans Saints, much to the dismay of critics who decried the NFC West as historically weak. But in the next three years, at least one NFC West team was featured in every single NFC Championship game. The 2013-14 NFC Championship was an all-NFC West clash between the Seahawks and the 49ers. It’s not absurd to suggest the NFC South could soon make a similar turnaround.
“Five years ago, the division that everyone was worried about was the NFC West. Now, that generally is considered one of the better [divisions]. Everything in this league is cyclical,” Yaeger said.
The wait may not be long. The sudden-death nature of the NFL playoffs means that even the Panthers or Falcons could overcome their shortcomings this year and make a run toward the Super Bowl. It's unlikely, but sports fans love a good Cinderella story.