Friday, March 31 2023

In theory, this year’s NFC South could still have a division champion with a winning record.

Perhaps the Bucs will finish strong and win four of their last six games to get to 9-8, or the Falcons will finish even stronger to salvage the same record.

But with six weeks left in the regular season, none of the four NFC South teams has a winning record, and division-leading Tampa Bay (5-6) is coming off an overtime loss to the Browns. So it’s not a reach to suggest this year’s NFC South could join a rare fraternity of division champs that didn’t have winning records. There have been five such champions since the NFL went to its current eight-division alignment in 2002.

Let it be known: Four of these five teams won in the wild-card round, knocking off teams with as many as 12 wins. So with an eye on potential NFL mediocrity ahead, we look back fondly on five teams that will always have a banner to hang, even as the worst division champs of the past 20 years.

2008 Chargers (8-8)

San Diego was 4-8 before winning its final four games, the last an emphatic 52-21 win over the Broncos, who also finished 8-8 and lost the tiebreaker. The Chargers had a plus-92 point differential, far better than a .500 team should have, but quarterback Philip Rivers led the NFL with 32 touchdowns. They never had a winning record at any point in the regular season, but in the wild-card round, they beat a 12-win, Peyton Manning-led Colts team 23-17 in overtime. The Chargers lost 35-24 in the divisional round to a Steelers team that would go on to win the Super Bowl.

2010 Seahawks (7-9)

Seattle hit a major slump in midseason, losing seven of nine games to drop from 4-2 to 6-9, but the Seahawks beat the Rams in the finale to edge them in the tiebreaker for a losing-record division title. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who managed 12 touchdown passes all season, had seven in the playoffs. That included four in a wild-card win over an 11-5 Saints team and Drew Brees, lifted by a late 67-yard touchdown run from Marshawn Lynch. This wasn’t a good team in the regular season — a point differential of minus-97 — and Seattle ran into a wall in the divisional round against Chicago, falling behind 28-3 in what was ultimately a 34-24 loss.

2011 Broncos (8-8)

Was this the Tim Tebow team, you ask? Yes. Denver opened the year 1-4 with Kyle Orton at quarterback, then turned to Tebow, who went 7-4 while throwing for all of 12 touchdowns. The Broncos won six straight to get to 8-5, then lost their last three, still making the playoffs thanks to the ultimate in divisional parity — the Broncos, Chargers and Raiders all finished 8-8, with the Chiefs just behind at 7-9, all four teams going 3-3 in division play. Denver managed to beat a 12-win Steelers team in the wild-card round, getting an 80-yard touchdown pass from Tebow to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime. The fun ended there, as the Broncos lost 45-10 to Tom Brady and the Patriots, who would eventually lose to the Giants in the Super Bowl.

Tim Tebow led the 2011 Broncos to a 7-4 record and a memorable win in the wild-card round. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

2014 Panthers (7-8-1)

Carolina lost six straight in midseason to fall to 3-8-1, but then won its final four games to win an underwhelming NFC South title. The Panthers’ point differential was minus-35, with Cam Newton throwing for 18 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. Still, they faced an 11-win Cardinals team on its third quarterback in the wild-card round, winning 27-16 and holding Arizona to 78 yards of total offense. Down 14-13 at the half, the Panthers got two touchdown passes from Newton for the win. The wheels came off a week later, as Carolina lost 31-17 at Seattle, with Newton getting two interceptions and a lost fumble in the loss. This NFC South had a combined record of 22-41-1, the worst of any division since 2002, with a 10-29-1 record in non-division games.

2020 Washington (7-9)

The Washington Football Team opened the year 1-5 and 2-7, struggling with Dwayne Haskins (1-5) before veteran Alex Smith returned from a long-term leg injury, going 5-1 as starter. Washington won the division but lost Smith to a calf injury and had to start a fourth quarterback in the playoffs. That QB was current starter Taylor Heinicke, who almost knocked off Tom Brady and the Bucs. Tampa escaped with a 31-23 victory on the way to winning a Super Bowl. This is the only team of the five not to win in the wild-card round, and the division went a combined 23-40-1, one win above the record low. 

This year’s NFC South will likely avoid having the worst record of any division. The four teams would have to go 1-19 in their remaining nondivision games to have a lower winning percentage than their 2014 counterparts.

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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Source: FOX Sports


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