By MILES WRAY
The Carolina Panthers have already made history as a playoff team - and not just because their first-round opponent was forced to use its third-string quarterback in the season's biggest game. For one thing, the Panthers are just the second team with a losing record to make the playoffs in a non-strike season. They also are the first team in NFL history to reach the postseason despite enduring a seven-game winless streak during the regular season. Oh, and they actually won their first postseason tilt, joining a very, very small and (I guess) exclusive group of teams who have won playoff games after finishing .500 or worse.
As the NFL has moved to an eight-division setup, it means that .500-or-worse teams will end up in the postseason every now and again nowadays, instead of once-in-a-blue-moon back in the day.
In 1969, the Houston Oilers launched a bold new tradition by marching into the postseason with a bizarre 6–6–2 record, and promptly got eviscerated, 56–7, by John Madden's Oakland Raiders. In 1982, a strike-shortened nine-game regular season was followed up with a 16-team postseason, including the 4–5 Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns. Between them, they were collectively outscored by 41 points in their sorry first-round contests.
The legacy of .500-or-worse postseason teams was carried on by the 1985 Browns, who entered the playoffs at 8–8. This was followed by the 1990 New Orleans Saints, the 1991 New York Jets (whose defensive coordinator was one Pete Carroll), the 1999 double-whammy of the Dallas Cowboys and (again) the Lions, and the 2004 Minnesota Vikings.
Also in 2004, the St. Louis Rams - discussed below, and featuring both Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson - not only entered the playoffs at .500, but managed to actually win a game. Here's a look at those Rams and the rest of the recent teams with good timing and fortune:
2004 St. Louis Rams (8–8)
Who They Beat: Mike Holmgren's Seahawks, featuring Shaun Alexander in his prime, and also 42-year-old Jerry Rice in his final season.
How They Did It: Seahawks receiver Bobby Engram dropped a touchdown that would have tied the game - on fourth down - with under 30 seconds to go:
At Their Best: Although Marc Bulger, not Kurt Warner, was the starting quarterback in 2004, the Rams still had Greatest Show on Turf receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce around. Bulger thrived in the Rams' high-powered offensive scheme, throwing for the sixth-most yards of any quarterback that season.
At Their Worst: Across 16 regular-season games, the Rams were outscored by a total of 73 points, which is typically the point differential for a six-win team.
How It Ended: The Rams gave up 327 rushing yards and were erased by Michael Vick and the Falcons, 47–17, in the Divisional round.
2008 San Diego Chargers (8–8)
Who They Beat: Peyton Manning's 12–4 Indianapolis Colts, in the last year of Marvin Harrison's Hall of Fame career.
How They Did It: After rushing for 330 yards all season, Darren Sproles stepped in for the injured LaDanian Tomlinson and went off for 105 yards, including this game-sealing touchdown in overtime:
At Their Best: The Chargers had a +92 point differential on the season, which means that their true talent level was probably more like that of a 10-win team.
At Their Worst: San Diego gave up the second-most passing yards of any team in the league. This was a unit coordinated by Ron Rivera, current Carolina Panthers head coach.
How It Ended: Sproles could only manage 15 yards the next week as San Diego fell, 35–24, to the eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
2010 Seattle Seahawks (7–9)
Who They Beat: Drew Brees and the 11–5 New Orleans Saints, fresh off their Super Bowl victory.
How They Did It: The Beast got unleashed for the first and most historic time:
At Their Best: This was the first season in Seattle for both Pete Carroll and John Schneider, and they got to work right away by drafting six Seahawks who would eventually hoist the Super Bowl trophy. In draft order: OL Russell Okung, DB Earl Thomas, WR Golden Tate, DB Walter Thurmond, DB Kam Chancellor, and TE Anthony McCoy. That's half of the Legion of Boom, their best offensive lineman, and that team's leading wide receiver.
At Their Worst: Seattle ranked among the bottom six teams in the league in both total offense (28th) and total defense (27th). The Seahawks were outscored by a whopping 97 points during the regular season, the worst point differential by any team to make the playoffs in NFL history.
How It Ended: The Seahawks lost to the then-not-neurotic Chicago Bears, 35–24. That score makes it look like a close game, which it wasn't - the Bears led 35–10 with three minutes left before Seattle managed two garbage-time touchdowns.
2011 Denver Broncos (8–8)
Who They Beat: Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had just completed their second consecutive 12–4 season.
How They Did It: Through the unlikely improvisations of Tim Tebow:
At Their Best: In the 11 fourth quarters that Tim Tebow played (Kyle Orton was the starter for the first five games of the season), he passed for 961 yards and six touchdowns. Prorate that over a full season, and that's 5,591 yards (a would-be NFL record) and 34 touchdowns.
At Their Worst: In those eleven games, Tebow still had to play the first three quarters, where he threw for a combined 741 yards and six touchdowns. Prorate that over a full season, and you've got 1,437 yards and 11 touchdowns. No quarterback in NFL history has ever thrown for less than 2,000 yards while starting all 16 games - mostly because quarterbacks who play that poorly get benched out of necessity.
How It Ended: The magic ended when Tom Brady and the New England Patriots wiped Denver away, 45–10, in the next round. Brady threw for nearly as many touchdowns (6) as Tebow had completions (9). That still is Tebow's most recent game as an NFL starter.
2014 Carolina Panthers (7–8–1)
Who They Beat: An Arizona Cardinals team that was down to their third-string quarterback, having lost four of their last six regular-season games.
How They Did It: Not in any way that inspired confidence. In a game that featured six coach-infuriating turnovers, the Panthers managed to keep the ball just long enough to win, 27–16. Their defense showed up, too, holding the Cardinals to an NFL-record 78 yards of total offense.
At Their Best: The Panthers ended the regular season on a four-game winning streak, including victories over all three of their divisional opponents by an average score of 27.7–10.8.
At Their Worst: That winning streak immediately followed the Panthers' aforementioned seven-game winless streak, in which they lost their games by an average score of 30.1–17.7 and went more than two months between victories.
How Will It End?: On Saturday evening, the Panthers will kick off against 12–4 Seattle, who is fresh off a bye week and riding a six-game winning streak. What's bizarre is that Seattle has been host to two of the four playoff upsets described here, with the Seahawks getting upset in 2004 and winning as the underdog in 2010.
It will be a steep, steep climb for the Panthers to win again, which would make them the first .500-or-worse team ever to appear in a conference championship game. Seattle beat Carolina during regular season - albeit by the slim margin of 13–9 - and the Seahawks have held five of their last six opponents to a single-digit point total. Furthermore, Seahawks veterans like Okung, Thomas, and Chancellor were part of the team that upset the defending Super Bowl champion Saints in 2010 - meaning they should know better than anybody the dangers of a potential trap game. Making matters even worse for Carolina, on Wednesday it was reported that their stellar defensive tackle, Star Lotulelei, will miss the game with a broken foot.
So, yes, it is a bit of an uphill battle for the Panthers. But games are not won and lost based on a team's record coming into the day. You still have to play the game on the field. And if the Panthers manage - by some improbable alignment of the stars - to emerge as the winner, it just might be the greatest playoff upset of all time.