Ed. note: A version of this piece ran in January 2020 ahead of the Eagles-Seahawks wild-card game. It’s been updated below to account for Washington winning the NFC East at 7-9.
This season, the Miami Dolphins suffered one of the great injustices of the NFL’s playoff system: They missed out on a playoff berth despite reaching double-digit wins. Since divisional realignment in 2002, just 11 teams have posted 10 or more wins and failed to reach the postseason. Even the newly expanded playoff field couldn’t fit the Dolphins—with the three AFC wild-card teams all reaching 11 wins, Miami will watch this weekend’s games from home.
Adding insult to the Dolphins’ injury: By virtue of winning the NFC East, the 7-9 Washington Football Team will host a playoff game on Saturday. They’ll become the 16th team since 2002 to do so despite not reaching 10 wins in the regular season—and the third with a losing record, following the 2010 Seahawks and the 2014 Panthers. Of course divisions should mean something, but when a team with a sub-.500 record hosts a wild-card game while a 10-win team misses the playoffs, the entire system can feel a bit unfair.
Here’s the thing, though: Once those less-than-stellar division winners get to the playoffs, they often play like anything but an also-ran. Since 2002, when the NFL went to its current alignment, division champs that were 9-7 or worse during the regular season have gone 9-6 in the opening weekend of the postseason. (Perhaps most notably, those wins include wild-card round victories by both the 2010 Seahawks and the 2014 Panthers.) These teams have also been responsible for some of the most memorable playoff moments of this century, including Marshawn Lynch’s fabled Beast Quake run and Tim Tebow’s overtime throw against the Steelers. By those standards, allowing the mediocre teams into the field has been a net positive, at least from an entertainment standard.
This weekend, Washington will host the 11-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On paper, this shouldn’t be a contest: The Bucs looked like one of the five best teams in football in 2020 (when they weren’t playing the Saints), while Washington won its division at least partly because the Eagles played Nate Sudfeld down the stretch in Week 17. But if history tells us anything, it’s that when a subpar division winner meets a seemingly better opponent in the wild-card round, the team with a worse regular-season record is more likely to walk out with a win. (It should be noted, however, this is far from a guarantee: The Ringer ran a version of this piece last year before the 9-7 Eagles played the 11-5 Seahawks; Seattle won 17-9, though Philadelphia was forced to play Josh McCown for most of that game after starting QB Carson Wentz left with a concussion in the first quarter.)
As a refresher, let’s run through those nine previous victories chronologically to see what kind of history Washington–Tampa Bay is up against.
2002 New York Jets
The team: One of three non-Patriots teams to win the AFC East since 2001, the 2002 Jets are best remembered for head coach Herm Edwards’s “You play to win the game” speech. It was an instantly memeable sound bite, but his team did need the reminder: New York started 2-5, a stretch capped by a loss to the Browns in which the Jets were up 21-3 in the second quarter. Their season quickly turned around, however. Chad Pennington, who was named the starter after Week 5, finished the season the league leader in passer rating and completion percentage, and the defense led by defensive end John Abraham let up more than 20 points only once after that Browns loss. The Jets ended up in a three-way tie with the Dolphins and Patriots at 9-7 and claimed their second-ever AFC East title on tiebreakers.
The wild-card round: This game may have been the birth of Peyton Manning’s early reputation as a playoff choker. Winless in his previous two playoff appearances, the fifth-year QB led the 10-6 Colts into the Meadowlands, where they were six-point underdogs. They lost by 41 and never scored a point. The Jets defense clamped down on the Pro Bowler, picking him off twice while limiting him to 137 yards and a 31.3 passer rating. Meanwhile, Pennington completed 19 of his 25 passes for 222 yards and three touchdowns. “This is a breath of fresh air, but it is only the first win on a long road,’’ wideout Wayne Chrebet said after the game.
What happened afterward: Unfortunately, Chrebet’s words were not as impactful as Edwards’s. One year after losing to the Raiders in the wild-card round, New York was bounced by Oakland once again, this time by a 30-10 margin. Pennington looked nothing like the league’s most efficient passer as he completed just 21 of his 47 pass attempts. Since that loss, the Jets have made the playoffs just four times and finished with five or fewer wins on seven separate occasions. Also, with the Browns and Bucs both making the playoffs this year, the Jets now own the NFL’s longest playoff drought at 10 seasons.
2006 Seattle Seahawks
The team: The defending conference champions claimed the NFC West title despite being outscored by six points on the season and losing three straight games from Week 14 to Week 16. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was hamstrung in the second half of the season by a knee injury he suffered in October, and running back Shaun Alexander missed six games and couldn’t crack 900 yards in the follow-up to his 2005 MVP season. An early-season trade for Deion Branch also did little to spark the offense, as the former Super Bowl MVP caught 53 passes for 725 yards. Not exactly what you want for another run at a title.
The wild-card round: We probably would not be talking about the 2006 Seahawks in this exercise had the Cowboys used a holder in their final field goal attempt. While the Cowboys snatched a wild-card berth with an identical 9-7 record, they had played better down the stretch, going 5-1 after Tony Romo took over for Drew Bledsoe and finishing ninth in total DVOA. While the Seahawks outgained the Cowboys in yardage, Dallas won the turnover battle and was set for a likely game-winning 19-yard kick with under two minutes left. And then …
Romo, who served as the team’s holder when he was the backup, never relinquished that duty after becoming the Cowboys starter. He botched the snap, picked up the ball, and attempted to run it in the end zone. He was tackled at the 2-yard line, effectively ending Dallas’s chance at the franchise’s first playoff win since 1996.
What happened afterward: The Seahawks, who were blown out by Chicago earlier in the season, played the Bears close in the divisional round, but lost 27-24 to the eventual NFC champs. They made the playoff again the next season, but went 4-12 in 2008, the last year of Mike Holmgren’s tenure. After a disappointing one-year dance with Jim Mora, Seattle found its way back to contender status after hiring Pete Carroll in 2010 (more about his first season later).
2008 Arizona Cardinals
The team: Before they were the Buzzsaw Cardinals, they were winners of one of the most hapless divisions of the young century. They were the only team in the NFC West that season with a positive point differential—at one point—and they ranked 21st in DVOA, somehow the best mark in the division. Their season included a 56-35 loss to the Jets, a 48-20 loss to the Eagles, and a 47-7 loss to the Matt Cassel–led Patriots. Nobody gave the Cardinals much of a chance in the playoffs, and nobody should’ve.
The wild-card round: Well, turns out nobody was right. Facing the 11-5 Falcons and Offensive Rookie of the Year Matt Ryan, the Cardinals went to their passing game early, as Kurt Warner found Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin for 42- and 71-yard touchdowns, respectively. Atlanta entered halftime up 17-14, but a back-and-forth second half ended with the Cardinals on top after Warner tossed a 23-yard touchdown to tight end Stephen Spach on a third-and-16 with 2:16 left.
What happened afterward: This team’s motto was “Shock the World,” and for a few weeks in early 2009, it looked like they would. In the divisional round as 10-point underdogs against the Panthers, the Cardinals spooked Jake Delhomme into five interceptions and won 33-13. In the NFC championship game, hosting the Eagles in an unprecedented matchup between 4- and 6-seeds, the Cardinals got revenge for that regular-season blowout despite a 375-yard day from Donovan McNabb. Two weeks later, Arizona played Pittsburgh in a Super Bowl that’s become somewhat of a forgotten classic. However, it did feature the least forgettable play of Larry Fitzgerald’s career. If Santonio Holmes hadn’t one-upped him on the ensuing drive, we’d be talking about the 2008 Cardinals as the least likely champions ever.
2008 San Diego Chargers
The team: Yet another entry from 2008, a weird season that saw the Patriots become the second team in league history to win 11 games and miss the playoffs. The Chargers, meanwhile, went 8-8 (after starting 4-8) and won the AFC West. They became the first division champs without a winning record since 1985 and were never above .500 at any point in the regular season. The most memorable part of their regular season was this bad call that went against them in Week 2, which led to referee Ed Hochuli giving possibly the most long-winded explanation of his long-winded career.
The wild-card round: One year after Billy Volek and Michael Turner led the Chargers to glory over the Colts in the divisional round, San Diego met Indy on the first weekend of the playoffs. Peyton Manning was coming off his third MVP regular season, and his 12-4 Colts were favored on the road. Philip Rivers, meanwhile, led the league in touchdowns and passer rating that season. So who starred in a game between two of the league’s best passers? Punter Mike Scifres. He averaged 52.7 yards on six kicks, which included a 67-yarder. All of them landed inside the Colts’ 20, and the last one traveled 52 yards and bounced out of bounds at the Colts’ 1. “I don’t know if you can dream a game like this,” Scifres said after the game. The Chargers won 23-17 in overtime.
What happened afterward: Scifres starred again against the Steelers in the divisional round, averaging 47.2 yards on six punts. But it turns out they needed more than a good punter to beat the eventual champs. Pittsburgh won, 35-24. The next season, the Chargers won 13 games and earned a bye, but they lost in their first postseason game when the historically accurate Nate Kaeding missed three field goals. Chargers gonna Chargers.
2010 Seattle Seahawks
The team: The terrible division winner all others are judged against. In Pete Carroll’s first year with the franchise, Seattle became the first team with a losing record to ever make the playoffs. This wasn’t a case of a solid performance being masked by a bad record—the 2010 Seahawks were terrible. They finished 30th in Football Outsiders DVOA, and all nine of their losses were by more than one score. The nadir of the season came in weeks 8 and 9, when they lost to the Raiders and Giants by a combined score of 74-10. The Seahawks made the playoffs only by virtue of the rest of the NFC West being dogshit: Not a single team finished with a point differential better than negative-39, and the division went 13-27 against teams outside of it.
The wild-card round: And none of that mattered in the opening round of the playoffs. The defending champion Saints came into Seattle as 10-point road favorites and quickly built a 10-point lead, but the Seahawks battled back and found themselves up 24-20 at halftime. The teams traded scores until, with 3:38 left in the fourth quarter, Seattle led 34-30. That’s when one of the most famous runs in NFL history happened.
Running back Marshawn Lynch took the handoff, cut left, and bounced away from linebacker Scott Shanle’s attempted tackle. He cut back to the right and began shedding defenders the way you would shake off a fly that landed on your hand. After the play, the Qwest Field crowd celebrated so loudly that it registered on a nearby seismograph. The Saints were cooked, the legend of Beast Quake was born, and the Seahawks were on to the divisional round.
What happened afterward: Seattle lost to Chicago in the divisional round, 35-24, as Jay Cutler looked every bit like the franchise savior the Bears traded for in 2009. It was easy to write off the Seahawks after the loss—they seemed like a bad team that got lucky against the Saints—but two years later, the nascent Legion of Boom and Russell Wilson shocked the NFL by making the playoffs. They played in the next two Super Bowls, winning one, and became perennial contenders. The Seahawks won the NFC West again this season—though the team looks completely different than it did during those back-to-back Super Bowl appearances.
2011 Denver Broncos
The team: The Tim Tebow year. The 2011 Broncos ranked second to last in passing yards, had a negative-81 point differential, and lost their final three regular-season contests by a combined 48 points. But a six-game winning streak in the middle of the season, five of which were by seven points or fewer, put them in position to win their division. They finished tied in the standings with the Chargers and Raiders, but won the tiebreaker based on winning percentage against common opponents.
The wild-card round: The 12-4 Steelers finished fourth in DVOA that season. The 8-8 Broncos finished 24th. So naturally, the 7.5-point home underdogs pulled off one of the most shocking NFL upsets of the century. On the first play of overtime, Tebow hooked up with Demaryius Thomas for an 80-yard touchdown. Throughout the season, the former Heisman winner had his acolytes who swore he had some kind of late-game magic that helped him pull off close victories. He had many more detractors who thought the team’s relative success was the result of the defense led by Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil, and Champ Bailey. For one Sunday in early January, the latter group had to eat crow.
What happened afterward: The Broncos were curb-stomped by the Patriots 45-10 the following week as Tom Brady threw for six TDs and New England gained more than 500 yards of offense. That offseason, GM John Elway signed a suddenly available Peyton Manning, and the Broncos went on to post the most prolific offensive season in NFL history. Tebow, meanwhile, would start two games for the New York Jets in 2012—as a fullback.
2011 New York Giants
The team: New York started 2011 6-2, including a come-from-behind Week 9 matchup with the Patriots. Things fell apart from there. The Giants lost five of their next six, nearly falling out of the playoff race and seemingly confirming the preseason prognostications that they’d have a rough season. New York’s saving grace: two wins against the Cowboys, including a Week 17 showdown to decide the division. (Things haven’t changed much in the past eight years.) Despite being outscored by six points on the season, the Giants walked away with the NFC East crown and another shot at a miracle Super Bowl run.
The wild-card round: They certainly didn’t look like a mediocre division winner in their first game. The Giants crushed the Falcons as Eli Manning completed 23 of his 32 passes for 277 yards, three touchdowns, and a 129.3 passer rating. The defense, which had struggled throughout the season, held the Falcons scoreless, with the only Atlanta points coming on a second-quarter safety. Everything seemed to click at the right time for the Giants.
What happened afterward: You know the story, but it’s worth recapping. The Giants went into Lambeau the next week and upset the 15-1 Packers thanks in part to Manning’s Hail Mary pass to Hakeem Nicks at the end of the first half. The next week, they beat the 49ers in the NFC championship game after Kyle Williams muffed a punt in overtime, setting up a Lawrence Tynes game-winning field goal. And then two weeks later, the Giants pulled off a Super Bowl XLII repeat, upsetting the New England Patriots again. There were three 13-plus-win NFC teams and three 12-plus-win AFC teams in 2011. But the Lombardi Trophy went home with one that couldn’t crack double digits in the regular season. And that Super Bowl would be the Giants’ last playoff win of the decade.
2014 Carolina Panthers
The team: This Panthers team is lucky the 2010 Seahawks existed, or else we’d be calling Carolina the worst division winner in history. They followed up a Week 6 tie with the Bengals with six straight losses. No team in the NFC South had a positive point differential (the 7-9 Saints led the way at negative-23) and none could win much outside of the division (the Panthers went 3-6-1 outside of it, just edging out the Saints’ 4-6 mark). There’s a reason it was in the discussion for worst division ever.
The wild-card round: Carson Palmer was undefeated as the Cardinals starter in 2014. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL in November of that season. In his place, Drew Stanton went 5-3. But he sprained his MCL in December, ending his year. That left the playoff game to Ryan Lindley, who went 0-2 in relief to close the regular season. He did not improve once January started, as the Cardinals gained just 78 total yards in a 27-16 loss to the Panthers.
What happened afterward: The next week, the Panthers didn’t get the pleasure of facing Lindley, and the Seahawks won 31-17 to advance to the NFC title game. Carolina, however, took a giant leap forward in 2015, winning 15 games as Cam Newton took home MVP honors. They came up just a bit short and have yet to reach the same heights again. (Notably, former Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who was hired by Washington before the 2020 season, is now responsible for two of the three teams who have made the playoffs with a losing record since 2002.)
2016 Houston Texans
The team: This was the only time Brock Osweiler started more than half of a team’s games. One the plus side: The Texans went 8-6 with him under center. On the negative: He threw more interceptions than touchdowns. Not ideal from a guy you just handed a $72 million contract with $37 million guaranteed. Despite being outscored by 72 points on the season, Houston eked out the division crown on tiebreakers.
The wild-card round: It seems like eons ago now, but Derek Carr earned MVP buzz that season before breaking his leg in Week 16. The Raiders turned to Matt McGloin for the first round of the playoffs, but he injured his shoulder. This meant that Connor Cook took most of the snaps at quarterback against the Texans, and the results were about as ugly as you’d expect from a rookie fourth-rounder who didn’t enter a game before Week 17. Cook threw three interceptions and was (narrowly) outdueled by Osweiler, who managed to not fall flat on his face.
What happened afterward: Any time your defense can get Tom Brady to complete less than half of his passes and throw two picks, you have a good shot at winning. That calculus changes when your quarterback is Osweiler, who threw three picks in a 34-16 loss to the Patriots. Houston at least had the good sense to offload Osweiler on Cleveland that offseason and pick Deshaun Watson in the first round that April. Brock still has the same amount of playoff wins as Deshaun. Presumably, that will change soon—the question is whether he gets those wins as a member of the Texans or another team.
So what does this all mean for Washington? The Bucs are heavy favorites heading into the game, and little reason to question that: Tampa Bay finished second in Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric, DVOA, for the season, and the team has been rolling as of late, winning their last four and trouncing teams like the Lions and Falcons in the process. The Washington Football Team, meanwhile, rebounded from a 2-7 start to make the postseason—shouts to the ineptitude of the NFC East—but they’ve hardly been a juggernaut. Washington finished dead last in offensive DVOA for the season. Starting quarterback Alex Smith finished 34th in QBR and 33rd in adjusted net yards per attempt among qualified passers. The strength of the team was its defense—Washington finished third in defensive DVOA—but Tampa Bay was roughly its equal (the Bucs finished fifth in the same category). All signs point to a tough matchup for Washington. Then again, there’s a blueprint for a Washington win. It starts with the front seven, which has been the strength of the Football Team’s playoff push. Led by Defensive Rookie of the Year frontrunner Chase Young and sophomore end Montez Sweat, Washington has been able to consistently generate pressure, averaging nearly three sacks a game. As we’ve seen time and time again throughout the past two decades, the key to beating Tom Brady in the playoffs is getting pressure without having to blitz. And while the Bucs are loaded with pass-catching talent, they could be without star wideout Mike Evans, who will be a game-time decision.
Smart money is on Tampa Bay. But it should be noted that as of Thursday, Bovada had received more action on this game than any other wild-card matchup—and that the line had moved from 8.5 to 8 points, indicating that more bets were coming in for the underdog. Maybe those bettors are onto something: If Washington can execute its game plan and pester Brady on Saturday, it could be a long day for the Bucs. And perhaps the Football Team can sneak out a victory. After all, it’s not as if a Washington win would be without precedent.