NFL Sad Bracket: The Browns, Texans and potential never realized
So many good teams will miss the NFL playoffs this year. Let’s make them play each other.
This is a time of reckoning. This weekend, we may see the first two spots of the 12-team playoff filled. Postseason tickets will be punched. Most teams will be left out. Just consider the cut-throat AFC where 11 teams are above .500. That’s 11 teams doing a better than average job this season. Take away the four automatic bids for division champs, and that leaves seven teams who have reasonable claims to one of two wild card slots. Right now, fans are brushing up on complex tiebreakers, and that effort will likely be wasted.
This is tragedy — potential unrealized because of a system that is cold, exact and immutable. Sports are filled with tragedy, but perhaps none more so than football, where there are so few opportunities for teams to prove themselves, and so every odd bounce means so much more. In few other sports are competitors as much at the mercy of things other than themselves.
This makes the NFL unique, rivoting and “fun” in a sick sense. It’s fun to see teams flounder in ever more creative ways. The NFL’s saddest teams deserve a different kind of worship. Hence the tournament below.
The rules are simple: Take the 12 worst teams in the NFL, and have them actually try to beat each other. The winner isn’t the worst team, but the best of the worst teams and arguably the most tragic. It’s the team on the edge of being relevant, yet also precariously close to being utterly terrible. It will have nothing to celebrate except my condolences and a nine-month existential funk. Let’s begin.
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-10, 4th place NFC South)
5. Washington (3-9, 4th place NFC East)
4. St. Louis Rams (5-7, 4th place NFC West)
3. Minnesota Vikings (5-7, 4th place NFC North) [Tiebreak winner over Rams due to head-to-head result]
2. New York Giants (3-9, 3rd place NFC East)
1. Carolina Panthers (3-8-1, 3rd place NFC South)
The NFC doesn’t stand up well next to the AFC. In the NFC, just seven teams have winning records. In the AFC, that number climbs to 11. That means that the NFC’s pool of “bad” teams is particularly bad, and that’s a how a three-win Panthers squad winds up with a No. 1 seed.
The Panthers are No. 1 only because they have to be, however. One would be crazy to think they’re strongest team in this group coming off a blowout loss to the No. 4 seed in this group. They’re an emperor with no clothes, only the emperor knows and simply doesn’t care anymore. You have just the slimmest of playoff hopes, Carolina, thanks to your cruddy division. Enjoy your place atop something while you can.
6. Oakland Raiders (1-11, 4th place AFC West)
5. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-10, 4th place AFC South)
4. New York Jets (2-10, 4th place AFC East) [Tiebreak winner over Jaguars due to in-conference record]
3. Cleveland Browns (7-5, 4th place AFC North)
2. Tennessee Titans (2-10, 3rd place AFC South)
1. Houston Texans (6-6, 2nd place AFC South)
The Browns and Texans got locked into this loony bin against their will. They own the two best overall records of teams in the 12-team pool, and the Browns could conceivably claim they’re as good as any of the five other 7-5 teams in the conference. They have wins over two of them: The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals.
The playoff tiebreaker isn’t moved by valiant effort, however. It is simply a system of tripwires that may differentiate good teams from bad ones to some extent, but more importantly gives us closure. We would tear ourselves apart if we had to decide playoff seedings by the naked eye (see: football, NCAA). But that means that the Browns won’t even get to plead their case. Their best season in the last seven years will likely end just like the others have.
Wild card (winners in bold)
6. Buccaneers vs. 3. Vikings
5. Washington vs. 4. Rams
The teams in the NFC wild card actually aren’t as moribund as their records suggest at a glance. Well, Washington is in awful shape, but the Bucs, Vikings and Rams have all been playing relatively well of late. The Vikings played Green Bay tight before running over the Panthers, and the Rams just notched perhaps the most lopsided win of any team this season. The Buccaneers proved they were 20 points better than Washington in November, and could have (should have?) beaten the AFC North-leading Bengals last weekend.
4. Rams vs. 1. Panthers
3. Vikings vs. 2. Giants
The most competitive matchups in this side of the bracket would actually be the Nos. 5 and 6 seeds against the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds. Just set it up like an NFC South vs. East challenge. Washington and Carolina are trying to stave off apathy, with Colt McCoy and Luke Kuechly leading the respective charges. In New York and Tampa Bay, we get two temperamental clubs that have fallen well short of even their most meager expectations. The matchups would be better than the sum of the teams themselves.
4. Rams vs. 3. Vikings
But the Rams and Vikings are clearly the class of the pool based on recent results. The Rams have wins over the Seahawks, Broncos and 49ers in addition to their 52-0 pasting of the Raiders. The Vikings don’t have a win over a team with a winning record, but they did beat the Rams in Week 1 rather handily. Teddy Bridgewater is coming off his most proficient performance — 15-for-21 for 138 yards and two touchdowns for a 120.7 quarterback rating.
The Rams are the better team right now, and they’re the more tragic team, anyway. The Vikings know who they are –a juuuuust sub-.500 team that plays like it. The Rams have been all over the spectrum, and are finding a strong equilibrium perhaps too late to slide into the real life playoffs. They also ended the 2012 and 2013 season in fits of success. Perhaps fans should just accept that this is who the Rams are — a team that comes up with too little, too late.
6. Raiders vs. 3. Browns
5. Jaguars vs. 4. Jets
We don’t have to dwell long on this wild card scenario. The Raiders, Jaguars and Jets are perhaps the three worst teams in the NFL right now. They’re at least in the bottom five, according to SB Nation’s latest power rankings. There is nothing tragic about them. They were expected to be miserable this season. They are. They deserve this. Next slide.
4. Jets vs. 1. Texans
3. Browns vs. 2. Titans
Again, no drama here. The Titans have had some bad luck this season, but they’re still a 2-10 team in a division that really isn’t all that strong (hence, three teams from the AFC South in the field). They’ve taken a significant step back from their usual 7-to-9 wins, and the team isn’t so much tragic as it is pitiable. Perhaps this is what a team deserves after teasing fans for so long, enough losses so that it can finally acknowledge that something is seriously wrong.
3. Browns vs. 1. Texans
The Texans are coming off perhaps their best performance of the season, so it’d be hard not to pick them here. Brian Hoyer has regressed enough to induce a quarterback controversy, and when that point hits, it can be tough for a team to refocus and regain the momentum it once had. It’s no one’s fault, this has to happen for Cleveland, but it’s too bad that Hoyer vs. Manziel down the back stretch of the season could overshadow what has been a fun season for the Browns.
I wouldn’t be confident in the Texans winning this game if it actually happened, but if the matchup is tight then (in this case) we might as well side with the team with the most tragic story. J.J. Watt does so many wonderful things — sacking quarterbacks, catching touchdowns and playing with children — and it doesn’t seem fair that such a likable player competes for the team that is spinning its wheels more than any other.
The Saddest Super Bowl
Rams vs. Texans
Of course the saddest team in the NFL is also the league’s only .500 team. Rams vs. Texans would be close. Both are coming off blowout wins of terrible opponents. But the Texans’ win over the Titans was more revealing. It answered the biggest “if.”
IF the Texans had a quarterback, or if Ryan Fitzpatrick played every week like he did his last, then maybe it would mean something that the offensive line is still capable of leading one of the most effective running games in the NFL and that DeAndre Hopkins is one of the most highlight-capable receivers in the league. It would mean that Watt is doing more than making our jaws drop — he would actually be winning games for Houston and putting himself even more prominently in the MVP conversation.
IF the Texans had a quarterback, then maybe they wouldn’t have just a 6.8 percent chance of making the playoffs. They don’t, so barring help, they’ll be sitting home for the postseason.
Winner: The Houston Texans