Is NFC West a lost cause?
One day after his team’s 31-13 road loss to New Orleans, St. Louis Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo succinctly summarized his team’s performance in a Monday news conference.
“They were better,” he said.
Not that it matters under the NFL’s current playoff system.
The Saints conceivably could post a 12-4 record and still be forced to play their opening postseason game on the road as a wild-card team against the first division winner ever to finish with a losing record.
Yup, that’s how the NFC West could be won.
St. Louis (6-7) and Seattle (6-7) are tied for the division lead with San Francisco (5-8) still in the mix. With three weeks of regular-season games remaining, a 7-9 champion is a possibility.
Such a mark would be apropos for what ultimately may be remembered as the worst division in league history.
Even an 8-8 record is shameful. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, only two divisions have featured champions with a .500 winning percentage. Cleveland won the four-team AFC Central in 1985 when the NFL featured 28 franchises. The 2008 San Diego Chargers also were 8-8 when winning the AFC West.
The 1985 Browns finished ahead of Pittsburgh (7-9), Cincinnati (7-9) and the Houston Oilers (5-11). Those teams had a combined winning percentage of .422 and a negative-107 point differential.
The 2008 Chargers and Denver Broncos were 8-8 followed by Oakland (5-11) and Kansas City (2-14), which translates to a combined .359 winning percentage. The combined negative-260 point differential was far worse than the 1985 AFC Central, but the Chargers did finish with 92 more points scored than allowed.
None of the 2010 NFC West teams has a positive point differential. The combined point total is negative-236. Along with Arizona (4-9), the NFC West has a .404 winning percentage.
Yet there is no postseason price to pay for such mediocrity. In spring 2008, NFL owners overwhelmingly decided to keep the current playoff format. The sentiment was so strong that a reseeding proposal was tabled without lengthy dialogue and has yet to resurface at any subsequent league meetings.
NFL owners don’t want to diminish the importance and popularity of division rivalries. That means the reward remains at least one home playoff game for every division kingpin.
But if there is a 7-9 or even an 8-8 NFC West champ, at least one other NFC team with a winning record will pay the price. Like the 2008 New England Patriots squad that missed the playoffs at 11-5 while San Diego gained entry, clubs such as Tampa Bay (8-5), Green Bay (8-5), Chicago (9-4), Philadelphia (9-4) and the New York Giants (9-4) face the distinct possibility of being squeezed out sans a division title provided New Orleans (10-3) and Atlanta (11-2) continue their winning ways.
To their credit, the 2008 Chargers redeemed themselves with a first-round playoff upset of a strong 12-4 Indianapolis squad. The 1985 Browns lost their lone playoff game and remain the only division winner to finish the season with a losing record (8-9).
There’s little to indicate that the 2010 NFC West champ will avoid the same fate.
Of the division’s 21 overall victories, only four have come against an opponent that currently has a winning record. None of those triumphs have come since Week 6.
This has added to the long-standing perception of the NFC West being the NFL’s weakest division. The NFC West has fielded only one wild-card representative since 2004 – and that was an 8-8 Rams squad. No other non-NFC West winner has finished with a winning record since the 2003 Seattle Seahawks.
Such failings have overshadowed the NFC West’s successes. Since the NFL switch to an eight-division format in 2002, only two divisions (AFC East and NFC South) have fielded more Super Bowl representatives. And thanks to the 2005 Seattle Seahawks and 2008 Arizona Cardinals, the NFC West has played for a Lombardi Trophy more frequently in the past eight seasons than the AFC West and NFC North (once each).
No matter who captures the 2010 title, this won’t be remembered as a wasted year for two NFC West squads. Seattle is guaranteed a better record than the 2009 Seahawks (5-11). Even more impressive, St. Louis could join the 2008 Miami Dolphins as the only teams to rebound from 1-15 records to win a division title the following year.
Despite losing by double-digits, the Rams had their moments against the Saints and Falcons (Atlanta won on the road, 34-17, in Week 11). Asked by a reporter if he believes St. Louis “can play” against teams of that caliber, Spagnuolo answered affirmatively.
“It’s not, ‘We’ve got a long way to go,’ ” he said. “It’s, ‘If we can do this and that a little bit better, we’re right in the middle of it.’ ”
The same can be said of the Seahawks and 49ers. The key now is actually doing “this and that” so the NFC West winner can salvage the division’s pride in the postseason.