A five-win NFC South champion is a real possibility


If you’ve been following the NFL this year, you’re probably aware that the NFC South is terrible. But you might not realize how terrible.

Consider this: It’s entirely possible that a five-win team will win the NFC South, and therefore win a playoff game.

Using the ESPN Playoff Machine to simulate the rest of the season, I found a fairly plausible scenario in which the Panthers win the NFC South with a 5-10-1 record, with the Falcons and Saints tied for second at 5-11 and the Buccaneers last at 3-13. This isn’t the most likely scenario, but it didn’t require a lot of crazy upsets, either.

So what is the most likely scenario? Football Outsiders does a playoff projection for the rest of the season that says the Saints are the most likely team to win the division, and their most likely record is 7-9. But there’s still a decent chance of the Falcons winning the division, and the Panthers are definitely not out of it. Even the 2-8 Buccaneers are only two games out of first place and still have a 0.3 percent chance of winning the division, even though according to Football Outsiders stats the Bucs are actually the worst team in the league, even worse than the Raiders.

At the moment, the 4-6 Falcons are in first place even though they’re 0-6 outside the division. It wouldn’t be a shock to see the Falcons lose their next four games to drop to 4-10, then win their remaining division games (against the Saints and Panthers in Weeks 16 and 17), and win the division with a record of 6-10, which would be 6-0 against the NFC South and 0-10 against the rest of the NFL.

So if a five-win team or a six-win team ends up winning the NFC South, what would the point spread be for their first-round playoff game? The last time a team with a losing record won its division was in January of 2011, when the 7-9 Seahawks hosted the wild card Saints, and the Saints opened as a 10.5-point favorite. At the moment, the Packers would be the No. 5 seed in the NFC, and given the way the Packers have played lately, they could easily be favored by that much at Atlanta.

Realistically, however, if the Packers keep playing the way they’ve been playing, they won’t be a wild card team. In the Playoff Machine scenario I ran, the Lions were the wild card team heading to Carolina to play the 5-10-1 Panthers in the first round of the playoffs. And the Lions would not be huge favorites at Carolina, especially considering that the Panthers beat the Lions 24-7 in Week Two. It’s entirely possible that a 5-10-1 Panthers team could not only make the playoffs, but advance.

So, those of us who enjoy crazy, chaotic stories in the NFL should perhaps root for everyone in the NFC South to keep losing — until January, when they turn things around. Perhaps we could see a Super Bowl featuring a team with a losing record.

79 responses to “A five-win NFC South champion is a real possibility

  1. If the Saints could get out of their own way they could take the division.
    The Falcons will do just good enough to #savesmitty and the Carolina Cats will do just enough to take another 5 years off of Cam Newton’s career.

  2. In a weird way, this is one of the reasons I like the division format. It may exclude deserving teams sometimes, but it also keeps fan hope alive much longer. In a straight playoff seeding format, all of these NFC south teams would have given up weeks ago.

  3. 2011 – Defending superbowl champion Saints travel to Seattle to face a 7-9 division winning Seahawks team.

    2015 – Defending superbowl champion Seahakws travel to New Orleans to face a 7-9 division winning Saints team?

  4. A 6/7/8 win team should be stripped of their playoff birth if a 10/11 win team is out of the postseason because of this BS. What a huge logical fallacy; win your division against 3 trash teams and it’s perfectly fine to make the playoffs when a 10/11 team had more of a struggle against tougher opponents to make the playoffs? You shouldn’t make the playoffs because you automatically win your division. Look at the crap 7-9 Seahawks; The 10-6 Bucs & Giants killed the Seahawks but yet the 7-9 Seahawks still made the postseason over those 2 far more deserving teams.

  5. People should stop complaining about this. If a 5-10-1 team wins its division, whatever. They still deserve the division crown and they still deserve the home game.

    Every team in the NFL has a clear and distinct mission at the beginning of the season: Be better than these 3 teams. Plain and simple. If 5-10-1 wins the division, it’s not that team’s fault the other three teams were even worse. And if a team with an 11-5 or even 12-4 record has to travel and play at that awful team in the playoffs as a wild card, well that means they didn’t beat the 3 teams they were supposed to worry about.

    It might suck. If might seem stupid. But it isn’t surprising or unfair. Every team knows what it needs to do at the start if the season. Period.

  6. When you look at it that way… the Seahawks getting in with the record they had a few years ago doesn’t seem so bad.

  7. Would never happen…but the league should consider a simple rule change…If a division or divisions do not produce a team with a winning record, those divisions forfeit the right to an automatic playoff team and the slot reverts to a 4th or 5th wild card…

  8. Worst sports division in the last 20 years, at least. The winner should get a participation medal while a much more deserving team actually goes to the playoffs.

  9. I think you meant to say HOST a playoff game, not WIN a playoff game. And if that DID happen, the NFL would almost be forced to change the current playoff format, especially as it pertains to who gets to host the game. If some pathetic team from a pathetic division manages to get to the playoffs with just five wins, that’s terrible. If that team gets to HOST a playoff game, THAT’S a frickin travesty.

  10. The 7-9 Seahawks were bad enough a few years ago.

    If a 6-10, or 5-10-1 team goes to the Playoffs, the NFL absolutely has to change the playoff format, immediately.

    If a division is so poor that nobody ends up even at 7-9, and everybody is under .500, none of those teams deserve to be in the “PLAYOFFS?!”

    The NFL Playoffs should be the teams with the 12 best records. If that does not include each of the 8 teams that happened to finish as leaders of their divisions that year, then you need to win more games next year to be invited to the table.

    This is not a difficult proposition to enact.

  11. I expect the next article about this will be should a division winner host a game against a team with a better record. Pull out the article from when the Seahawks hosted the saints from a few years back.

  12. Consider this: It’s entirely possible that a five-win team will win the NFC South, and therefore win a playoff game.

    I wasn’t aware of the fact that if you win your division you automatically win a playoff game. This must be a new rule.

  13. The way things stand, the Saints could return the favor to the Seahawks, although, I think the Saints would be favored hosting the wild card game.

  14. It is one of the worst parts of the NLF Playoff. Every year you have teams that should not have made it and teams that should have. As a result the playoffs never feature the best teams over all. Yep, this year may be worse than normal but it is just an extreme case of business as normal.

  15. It’s a Division system. In that system, the Division winners get a home game. Am I saying it’s the best way of doing things? I don’t know if it is for the NFL. They got rid of it for the NHL.

    But either way, that’s the way it is now. To change something as basic to the rule structure as this during the season shouldn’t ever happen. So if we get a 5-10 team to host a playoff game, that’s what we get. Maybe it will fuel alternative ideas.

    But to suggest something happen this season if a 5-10 team wins that division is wrong. That’s a huge disservice to whoever wins that division and their fans and the rulebook.

  16. It seems almost every year there is a crappy division that puts out a crappy division champ. In the previous 5 years, the NFC South champ won 12, 13, 13, 13, and 12 games. That’s probably the best five year stretch of any division in football or very close. So, I think we can give the division a break for having a down year. And it’s a division with good coaches and front offices. They’ll be back next year. And if the champ has a losing record this year but wins in the playoffs, then they deserved to be there anyway.

  17. Some of you have short memories. Take a look at the division winners over the last 10-12 years; there are multiple 8-8 teams (including 2 in one season), 9-7 teams, and that 7-9 Seattle team that beat the Saints in 2010. It happens; get over it…

  18. Consider the possibility of Saints or Falcons (poor outdoor/ cold weather teams) being in playoff, hosting a game in their dome, winning that game, then playing other playoff games in domes. (Detroit, Dallas) Superbowl in the desert! It could happen.

  19. As a Carolina Kitten fan I don’t want this to happen but probably will…Kittens will win their last 5 and f’up a high draft choice.


    11/30 Minn
    12/07 NO
    12/14 Tampa
    12/21 Clev
    12/28 ATL.

  20. Well if history is a guide, 2011 pretty much marked the bottom for the NFC west. Bad teams stockpiling high draft picks eventually produces strength. Don’t be surprised if the NFC South is the best division in football in a couple of years, if only because they get to draft much better players than everyone else. And even if the Falcons make the playoffs they better fire Smitty and hire a real coach.

  21. Simple solution: the division winner still gets a playoff spot (I don’t agree but its a compromise) but doesn’t get to host the 1st round game. In this scenario, the 2014 Saints would get destroyed just like the 2010 Seahawks and 2011 Giants would have had they not hosted their games.

  22. What a dumpster fire. I’m all about division winners going to the playoffs, but not if you’re not a .500 football team. This isn’t a case of good teams beating up on each other. It’s a case of bad teams beating up on each other.

  23. Even at 5-11 (which no one will be winning the NFC South at 5-11) saints would still be a home favorite according to Vegas.

  24. The Divisional system not only allows for a way to guarantee that every team plays every other team over a determined rotation, it also provides those rivalries everyone salivates over.

    No owner is going to vote away the possibility of hosting a playoff game, regardless of what his team’s record is.

  25. I literally can’t believe there are that many people who like the idea of a bad team being in the playoffs.

    No wonder Roger Goodell does whatever he wants.

  26. The worst Titans team I’ve ever seen is being put on the field this year. And you’re telling me if my Tennessee boys were in the NFC South (instead of the AFC South), they’d be in the running? … That’s insanity.

  27. Saints could win out and be 10-6. Their only loss to a sub-.500 was at ATL. They have BAL, CAR & ATL at home. They have PITT, CHI, & TB away. They should get 8 or 9 wins, and could win out.

  28. bucrightoff says:
    Nov 20, 2014 11:10 AM
    Worst sports division in the last 20 years, at least. The winner should get a participation medal while a much more deserving team actually goes to the playoffs.

    NFC East fan here. In the last 20 years, all 4 NFC South teams have made it to the Super Bowl, and the Bucs and Saints have won. How many other divisions have sent all of their teams to the Super Bowl in the past 20 years – or any 20 year span for that matter? I know the NFC East did it from ’80-’95 (not counting the Cardinals).

  29. If Saints win their division they DESERVE to host a playoff game since they had to go to Seattle a few years back under the same exact circumstances its only fair..

  30. The NFC South has been one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL for many years. Big deal, one bad year. All you fans of NFC West teams need to slow down a bit cause that division has been straight horrible for way more years than it was good. In fact, it has historically been the worst division in the NFL since the 2002 realignment by far. It’s actually about time that division is finally competitive.

  31. 1999 Rams
    2001 Rams
    2005 Seahawks
    2008 Cardinals
    2012 49ers
    2013 Seahawks

    Technically, you shouldn’t go back beyond Realignment (which started with the 2002 season), but that would still make 3 out of 4 teams in the NFC West as well as the NFC South (Atlanta would be out).

  32. I thought the salary cap was primarily a tool to ensure parity in the league. How’s that working out? Doesn’t look like it even gets close to a passing grade.

    Correct me if I’m wrong – I know you will!

  33. One of these teams will get on a roll and finish with 7 or 8 wins. Lots of division matchups left. Carolina has a bye week to get healthy, the easier schedule down the stretch, and the tie with the Bengals, so they might be a dark horse. They did beat Detroit and played tough vs. Seattle and Cincy.
    Every year a mediocre team wins their division and goes to the playoffs, which is great for the sake of rivalries and keeping the regular season alive longer. All divisions have benefitted and been punished at some point. In 2010 Tampa Bay went 10-6 and watched the playoffs from home.
    All the comments like “it would be so unfair if the NFC South team won it all” are baffling. Any team that wins 4 playoff games, including 2 on the road, is rightly the Champion no matter how you got there.

  34. NFL playoff history is littered with 15-1 and 14-2 teams who didn’t make the Super Bowl (and one 16-0 team that failed to win it).

    Why this obsession about only the “best” teams making the playoffs, when so often the “best” teams don’t win?

    It’s a DIVISION format. Win your division. Make the playoffs.

    Anything can happen. That’s why we watch, right?

  35. I have a simple solution that will keep the divisional games important and make sure quality teams make the playoffs. A division winner must reach the .500 mark to qualify for the playoffs. If not that spot is forfeit to the highest qualifying wildcard team. Divisional match ups will mean just as much down the stretch as teams strive for that .500 mark to keep themselves eligible for the post season.

    It wouldn’t turn the league’s current format upside down and would ensure us some better football in the post season. This is fair, no?

  36. tootitan says:
    Nov 20, 2014 1:45 PM
    I thought the salary cap was primarily a tool to ensure parity in the league. How’s that working out? Doesn’t look like it even gets close to a passing grade.

    Correct me if I’m wrong – I know you will!
    Parity is the main reason the NFCS champ may have only 5 wins and there are no dominant teams in the entire league this year. When parity didn’t exist like in the 80’s, we had like 5 good teams (dynasty) and the rest of the league was terrible

  37. Well if all ya’ll are really that upset about a team with a losing record potentially HOSTING a playoff game – you need to start hoping the Saints are that team.

    No doubt once is happens to their advantage – they’ll try to change the rule. (see Overtime rule change aka ‘FarveRule’)

  38. Funny how it was all hunky-dory and fine when the Saints had to travel to Seattle a few years ago.

    Oh, but now the “wrong” team is benefitting and THIS MUST BE CHANGED NOW OMG

  39. Seahawks fans, Beast Mode is waving adios to your team after this season. You may well be the next 6-10 team hoping to win your division and rightfully make the playoffs.

  40. Don’t care what their records are as long as there is still competition within the division. Would rather see 3 or 4 teams tied at 6-9 going into week 17 than one team with 10 wins and the others below .500.

  41. Chaos is good! In 2010 the infamous offensive pass interference call on Winslow against Detroit dropped the Bucs record to 10-6 and they missed the playoffs. The NFL “apologized” but that didn’t make it any better.

    That allowed the Packers to squeeze into the playoffs instead of Tampa and they went on to win the Super Bowl.

  42. For those bashing the South… since realignment all four NFC South teams have won the division three times and no team has repeated as a division winner. I think we’re allowed a bad year.

    As a Panther fan I know my team is bad but it would be cool to win the division with five wins(highly unlikely), break the back to back division winner streak and get a decent draft pick.

    And for those that are happy with their teams winning record ….well you probably played the south this year, you should be thanking us 🙂

  43. I am and always will be a Saints fan, and they could benefit from the current format, but I think any team should AT LEAST have a winning record to make the playoffs, regardless of having the best division record.

  44. I would not want to win the South with a sub-.500 record…especially with the thought of non-playoff teams with a better record drafting ahead of me….is it worth it to (maybe) win a home game in the first round only to get smoked at the NFC North/East/West winner in the second?

  45. This topic comes up almost every year. It is what it is. Divisional. Any team at the top of their division wins it. No-one had a problem when the 11-5 Saints had to play the 7-9 Seahawks on the road with their pumped in noise stadium. It’s called Karma,and frankly, the Saints deserve a turnabout of fair play,so to speak.

  46. Saints have too many easy teams at the end of their schedule to fold up. Bears Atlanta Carolina Bucs Pittsburg and Baltimore with 3 at home. They can easy go on a run into the Playoffs. Dream scenario would have the Seahawks come to the Dome as a Wildcard.

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