The NFL’s current playoff structure is broken. This season, not one, but two divisions in the league are nothing short of mediocre. We’re talking about you guys, NFC East and AFC South. In both of these divisions, the best possible record is 9-7 (or one game over .500), and even that watermark feels like something of a stretch. The NFC East’s Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, and New York Giants all sit at 6-7 right now — atop the division. Those three have been so up and down that expecting them to win out is unwise.
As for the AFC South, the Indianapolis Colts (in major flux) and Houston Texans are tied at the top with a 6-7 mark, with the Jacksonville Jaguars experiencing some major momentum right behind them at 5-8. Similarly to the NFC East, you’d be hard-pressed to believe that any of those teams will win out, indicating a division winner with a record of 8-8 at best. As bad as these two divisions are, we’d like to give you some perspective on their inability to produce a solid team by showing you some of the worst division winners in league history.
1. Denver Broncos (2011)
With a record of just 8-8 and Tim Tebow at quarterback, the 2011 Denver Broncos likely belonged nowhere near the playoffs that season. They began the season just 2-5 before going on an exciting six-game winning streak to advance their record to 8-5, which was a solid position for the division title. The rest of the teams in the AFC West were even more mediocre, but they nearly overcame the Broncos when Denver lost their final three games of the year. They finished tied with San Diego and Oakland at 8-8, with Kansas City just behind them at 7-9.
The Broncos won the tiebreaker and went on to have one of the more memorable finishes in their postseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, with Tebow hitting Demaryius Thomas for a game-winning touchdown in overtime. Ultimately, they were obliterated by the New England Patriots in the divisional round. Tebow never played another game for Denver, as an era of excellence began for the team with Peyton Manning coming to town the next season.
2. Carolina Panthers (2014)
While the 2015 Carolina Panthers are the NFL’s best team, with a current record of 13-0, last season’s version of the team left much to be desired. Finishing 7-8-1 that season, Carolina suffered through a frustrating six-game slide that left them win-less for nearly two months. However, the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons weren’t impressive during that timespan either, leaving the door wide open for a December run. The Panthers won all four of their games in December 2014, which proved to be the difference between the 7-9 Saints and 6-10 Falcons.
They won the NFC South for a second straight season, becoming the first back-to-back champion in the short history of the division. Carolina went on to have playoff success with Cam Newton under center as well as a solid defense, beating the battered Arizona Cardinals by a score of 26-17. They fell to the eventual conference champion Seattle Seahawks in a hard-fought game in the divisional round. With their 13-0 start this season and their 4-0 finish last season, Carolina has won 17 straight games, indicating that they might become one of the best division winners in league history this season.
3. Green Bay Packers (2013)
We’re used to seeing primarily excellent play from Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. For the first half of the 2013 season, that was pretty much the case, as the team began the season 5-2 through seven games. Rodgers suffered an injury in that seventh game though, opening the door for the other NFC North teams to gain ground and leading to an ugly division. Green Bay went win-less in their next five games, with four losses and one tie. They won two games after that with Matt Flynn at the helm, but with a record of 7-7-1 entering their final game of the season — with the division on the line — they needed Rodgers.
The MVP showed up and delivered. Facing off against their division rival Chicago Bears on the road in Week 17, Green Bay had to win to make the postseason. It was questionable if Rodgers would play, but he took the field and delivered a late game-winning touchdown to Randall Cobb to take the win. Their tie ended up being the difference, as the Packers finished 8-7-1 and the Bears finished 8-8. Green Bay went on to lose to the San Francisco 49ers at home in the wild card round.
4. Seattle Seahawks (2010)
When you compare the worst division winners in NFL history, the 2010 Seattle Seahawks seem to take the cake. With a record of 7-9, the Seahawks became the first team in league history to reach the playoffs with a losing record (the 2014 Panthers did it too). Despite losing three straight games in December to bring their record to 6-9, Seattle still had a chance in a winner-take-all matchup against the St. Louis Rams in the final game of the season. In an ugly contest, the Seahawks survived and went on to create one of the greatest postseason moments in NFL history.
Facing off against the New Orleans Saints in the wild card round, nobody gave Seattle a chance. The Saints had just won the Super Bowl the previous season and were expected to make another run at the big game. Playing at home though, Seattle used the historic “Beast Quake” run by Marshawn Lynch to clinch the win. They went on to give the Chicago Bears a battle in the divisional round, where they came up short. Still, it was a pretty incredible run for a 7-9 ball club.