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.