The 10 worst playoff teams in NFL history

Published on January 4, 2009 by     Seahawk Fanatic

The 8-8 Chargers and the 9-7 Cardinals are parties to this season’s NFL playoffs despite their pedestrian records.

Meanwhile, the Patriots’ season is over despite their 11-5 mark, leading many observers to call for the NFL to revamp its playoff system.

We’re not going to pretend to have a magical solution to that dilemma, but the debate did get us wondering. Are the 2008 Chargers and Cardinals really that bad? Do they rank among the worst teams ever to qualify for the NFL postseason?

So we crunched the numbers to determine which 10 teams in modern NFL playoff history (1978 to present) were least deserving of their postseason berths. Yes, a couple of these teams got hot (or lucky) at the right time and won a playoff game or two. Nevertheless, this list reflects only regular-season statistics, to determine whether a team belonged in the postseason in the first place.

Here are the 10 lousiest teams in NFL playoff history, listed in reverse order to save the best worst for last. Rankings indicate where a team placed among all NFL teams that regular season.

Keep in mind there were five playoff seeds in each conference from the 1978 through ’89 seasons. A sixth seed was added in each conference beginning with the ’90 season.

10. 1996 Indianapolis Colts

Record Pts. scored rank Total off. rank Pts. allowed rank Total def. rank Pts. differential
9-7 16 25 18 9 -17

Entry: Wild-card qualifier as No. 6 seed in AFC.

Overview: The Colts were coming off an improbable playoff run that brought them within one play of the Super Bowl the previous season. Alas, the momentum didn’t carry over into ’96, as they went 2-6 during an eight-game span in midseason. Star running back Marshall Faulk was slowed by a toe injury, and quarterback Jim Harbaugh was pounded by opposing defenses all season long. Not to be overlooked was the debut of rookie wide receiver Marvin Harrison, who had 64 receptions and eight touchdowns.

Playoff outcome: Lost 42-14 at AFC Central champion Pittsburgh.

Legacy: It was the Indy swan song for Tony Siragusa. Legend has it that seven area steakhouses went out of business in the wake of his departure for the Ravens.

9. 2004 St. Louis Rams

Record Pts. scored rank Total off. rank Pts. allowed rank Total def. rank Pts. differential
8-8 19 6 25 17 -73

Entry: Wild-card qualifier as No. 5 seed in NFC.

Overview: The Rams happened to match up well against NFC West foe Seattle, sweeping both regular-season meetings, then winning their playoff opener at Qwest Field. But when the Rams did lose, they got blasted. Only one of their eight defeats was by fewer than 13 points, and their point differential ranked 25th in the league.

Playoff outcome: Won 27-20 at NFC West champion Seattle. Lost 47-17 at NFC South champion Atlanta.

Legacy: “The Greatest Show on Turf” was at a crossroads as quarterback Marc Bulger officially replaced the jettisoned Kurt Warner and tailback Steven Jackson entered the picture while Marshall Faulk began to show his mileage.

8. 1990 New Orleans Saints

Record Pts. scored rank Total off. rank Pts. allowed rank Total def. rank Pts. differential
8-8 22 23 8 15 -1

Entry: Wild-card qualifier as No. 6 seed in NFC.

Overview: Quarterbacked by former University of Miami star Steve Walsh, the Saints scored just 17.1 points per game, but a solid defense kept them competitive. They were minus-12 on turnover ratio, ranking two spots from the bottom of the league. Craig “Ironhead” Heyward led the team with 599 rushing yards.

Playoff outcome: Lost 16-6 at NFC Central champion Chicago.

Legacy: The Saints dealt a first- and third-round pick in ’91 and a second-rounder in ’92 to Dallas for Walsh. Then Bobby Hebert quarterbacked the team to the playoffs the next two seasons.

7. 1998 Arizona Cardinals

Record Pts. scored rank Total off. rank Pts. allowed rank Total def. rank Pts. differential
9-7 13 15 24 21 -53

Entry: Wild-card qualifier as No. 6 seed in NFC.

Overview: With Jake Plummer under center in his second pro season, the Cardinals beat exactly zero teams that finished the season with a winning record. Four of the team’s losses were by double digits, which helps explain the poor point differential. Arizona averaged 3.6 yards per rush attempt, which is more than this season’s team.

Playoff outcome: Won 20-7 at NFC East champion Dallas. Lost 41-21 at NFC Central champion Minnesota.

Legacy: It remains an NFL truth. The Arizona Cardinals have won a playoff game more recently than the Dallas Cowboys.

6. 1991 Los Angeles Raiders

Record Pts. scored rank Total off. rank Pts. allowed rank Total def. rank Pts. differential
9-7 15 23 12 21 +1

Entry: Wild-card qualifier as No. 5 seed in AFC.

Overview: The Raiders overachieved on offense and employed a prototypical bend-but-don’t-break defense. They also lost their opener by 30 and skidded into the playoffs on a three-game losing streak. Despite toiling in the obscurity of Al Davis’ doghouse, Marcus Allen led the team with 4.6 yards per rush attempt. Too bad he got only 63 carries.

Playoff outcome: Lost 10-6 at wild-card qualifier Kansas City.

Legacy: Future Scurvy lead singer and rhythm guitarist Todd Marinovich started at quarterback in the team’s playoff game as a rookie.

5. 1994 Chicago Bears

Record Pts. scored rank Total off. rank Pts. allowed rank Total def. rank Pts. differential
9-7 24 23 10 13 -36

Entry: Wild-card qualifier as No. 6 seed in NFC.

Overview: With a running game that averaged 3.3 yards per attempt and a relatively young receiving corps, it was the last hurrah for the aforementioned Walsh, who never again served as a regular starter. Meanwhile, it was the first season as a starter for talented but troubled defensive end Alonzo Spellman.

Playoff outcome: Won 35-18 at NFC Central champion Minnesota. Lost 44-15 at NFC West champion and eventual Super Bowl winner San Francisco.

Legacy: In his second season as coach, Dave Wannstedt made his only playoff appearance of what would be a six-year tenure in Chicago. (Yes, the same Wannstedt who coached Pitt to a riveting 3-0 loss to Oregon State in the Sun Bowl this week.)

4. 1983 Seattle Seahawks

Record Pts. scored rank Total off. rank Pts. allowed rank Total def. rank Pts. differential
9-7 6 19 24 27 +6

Entry: Wild-card qualifier as No. 4 seed in AFC.

Overview: Dave Kreig supplanted Jim Zorn at quarterback, and former Penn State star Curt Warner had a monster rookie season, rushing for 1,449 yards and catching 42 passes en route to the Pro Bowl. Steve Largent was in the prime of his Hall of Fame career. The defense, however, was suspect, ranking next-to-last in the league in yards allowed.

Playoff outcome: Won 31-7 at home over wild-card qualifier Denver. Won 27-20 at AFC East champion Miami. Lost 30-14 in AFC Championship Game at the Los Angeles Raiders.

Legacy: It was the most unlikely playoff run this side of the 1979 Los Angeles Rams’ streak to Super Bowl XIV. It’s somewhat ironic that Seattle’s surprising run ended at the hands of the Raiders because the it had beaten them twice during the regular season.

3. 1978 Atlanta Falcons

Record Pts. scored rank Total off. rank Pts. allowed rank Total def. rank Pts. differential
9-7 26 26 14 5 -50

Entry: Wild-card qualifier as No. 5 seed in NFC.

Overview: Atlanta’s defense got rocked on a couple of occasions but usually gave the anemic Falcons offense a chance to compete. Steve Bartkowski played the lead role in the passing game, which had 23 interceptions and only 11 touchdowns. Things would get better with the arrival of Auburn tailback William Andrews in ’79.

Playoff outcome: Won 14-13 at home over wild-card qualifier Philadelphia. Lost 27-20 at NFC East champion Dallas.

Legacy: In the franchise’s 13th season, second-year coach Leeman Bennett led the Falcons to their first playoff appearance.

2. 1983 Denver Broncos

Record Pts. scored rank Total off. rank Pts. allowed rank Total def. rank Pts. differential
9-7 21 26 9 21 -25

Entry: Wild-card qualifier as No. 5 seed in AFC.

Overview: The Broncos beat only one team that finished the season better than 9-7. They were good enough to give the eventual Super Bowl-champion Raiders all they could handle, ultimately falling 22-20 in Week 11. But they closed the regular season with a 31-point loss to Kansas City, which entered the game 5-10. John Elway started 10 games as a rookie, yielding to the more consistent Steve DeBerg in certain situations.

Playoff outcome: Lost 31-7 at wild-card qualifier Seattle.

Legacy: Shed a tear for the end of the DeBerg era in Denver … but that Elway fellow would make nine more playoff appearances with a reasonable amount of success in subsequent years.

1. 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers

Record Pts. scored rank Total off. rank Pts. allowed rank Total def. rank Pts. differential
9-7 24 28 15 19 -61

Entry: Wild-card qualifier as No. 5 seed in AFC.

Overview: Compared to their statistics, the Steelers overachieved greatly to reach 9-7. With Bubby Brister at the wheel, this team finished dead last in the league in offensive yardage. Hey, Weegie Thompson couldn’t do it all by himself.

Playoff outcome: Won 26-23 at wild-card qualifier Houston. Lost 24-23 at AFC West champion and eventual AFC champ Denver.

Legacy: After churning out a mediocre regular season, the Steelers turned on the afterburners to enjoy a respectable playoff engagement in Chuck Noll’s last postseason appearance.

Strike seasons

The Vikings reached the playoffs as a wild-card qualifier after going 8-7 with a point differential of plus-one in 1987. They romped over New Orleans in its first playoff game, 44-13, then won at NFC West champion San Francisco, 36-24. Minnesota’s dream ended with a 17-10 loss at Washington in the NFC Championship Game. As evidenced by their postseason run, the Vikings were better than their record indicated. They had lost all three games involving replacement players and actually had a point differential of plus-38 in the 12 games with “real” players.

Following the disaster that was the nine-game 1982 regular season, four 5-4 teams and two 4-5 teams reached the postseason in a 16-team tournament. Perhaps to sum up the madness of 1982, Washington kicker Mark Moseley was named MVP.

Methodology

If you’ve read this far, you might want to know how this list was compiled. We took every 9-7 and 8-8 team to qualify for the playoffs and averaged their league rankings for that season among the categories charted above, also accounting for the number of teams in the league at the time. We placed the cutoff at 1978 for three reasons:

    • Because 1978 coincides with the adoption of the 16-game schedule and major rule changes to open up the passing game
    • Because no playoff team from 1970 through 1977 won fewer than eight games in what was then a 14-game schedule, which equates to a higher winning percentage (.571) than 9-7 (.563)
    • Because the playoff format prior to 1970 allowed only division champions into the postseason, meaning every playoff team from the first NFL postseason in 1933 until 1969 also had a better winning percentage than .563.

To answer the question posed earlier, the 2008 Chargers and Cardinals don’t deserve to be lumped with the teams mentioned above. Of the 56 teams to reach the postseason with nine or fewer wins in nonstrike seasons since 1978, San Diego and Arizona ranked 42nd and 32nd, respectively, based on averaged league rankings. (Remember, the higher ranking is considered to be the worse team.) Here are the numbers for this season’s playoff barnacles:

2008 San Diego Chargers, No. 42 of 56
Record Pts. scored rank Total off. rank Pts. allowed rank Total def. rank Pts. differential
8-8 2 11 15 25 +92

2008 Arizona Cardinals, No. 32 of 56
Record Pts. scored rank Total off. rank Pts. allowed rank Total def. rank Pts. differential
9-7 3 4 28 19 +1


Other 8-8 teams

In addition to the ’08 Chargers and the two teams listed above, five other 8-8 teams have reached the NFL playoffs over the years. Here are their numbers and where they ranked among the 56 lousiest NFL playoff teams. (Again, the higher the ranking, the worse the team.) Incidentally, only two 8-8 teams have won their divisions: the ’08 Chargers and the ’85 Browns. Also, only two 8-8 teams have won a playoff game: the ’04 Rams and the ’04 Vikings. Both teams then lost in the divisional round.

2006 New York Giants, No. 11 of 56
Record Pts. scored rank Total off. rank Pts. allowed rank Total def. rank Pts. differential
8-8 11 14 24 25 -7

2004 Minnesota Vikings, No. 29 of 56
Record Pts. scored rank Total off. rank Pts. allowed rank Total def. rank Pts. differential
8-8 6 3 26 28 +10

1999 Dallas Cowboys, No. 52 of 56
Record Pts. scored rank Total off. rank Pts. allowed rank Total def. rank Pts. differential
8-8 11 16 5 9 +76

1999 Detroit Lions, No. 16 of 56
Record Pts. scored rank Total off. rank Pts. allowed rank Total def. rank Pts. differential
8-8 15 21 14 18 -1

1991 New York Jets, No. 43 of 56
Record Pts. scored rank Total off. rank Pts. allowed rank Total def. rank Pts. differential
8-8 11 6 10 12 +21

1985 Cleveland Browns, No. 21 of 56
Record Pts. scored rank Total off. rank Pts. allowed rank Total def. rank Pts. differential
8-8 23 21 7 9 -7

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