Sport culture is inundated with efforts to figure out who is the best or who is the worst, while ignoring the milieu of teams that may be the most tortured and intriguing of all -- the frustrated middle for who a bounce or two can mean the difference between a laudable record and a tumble into the nether. A team is never so insecure as when it is clawing to get out of purgatory. Being bad is an identity. Being mediocre is nothing.
So here's an experiment. Let's take the worst teams in the NFL and put them in the playoffs. The better team moves on, just like in the real playoffs, and the teams with better records get higher seeds. The pool will be made up of the 12 worst teams in the NFL, and we'll see who (theoretically) emerges to take the title of Best of the Worst.
That team will have a legitimate claim as saddest in the league -- a team who still has to suffer the agony of facing an immense but not impossible climb up to relevance, entertaining the idea of a flicker of a hope and not knowing quite whether the give up or give one's all.
This is serious stuff. To be perfectly clear, the goal isn't to shame. So to that end, we'll be running past seasons through the same simulator to see if there truly is reason to be optimistic about coming in 21st place.
Meet the participants as of Week 7's results:
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-5, 4th place NFC South)
5. Washington (2-5, 4th place NFC East)
4. Minnesota Vikings (2-5, 4th place NFC North) [tiebreaker over Washington due to better in-conference record]
3. St. Louis Rams (2-4, 4th place NFC West)
2. Atlanta Falcons (2-5, 3rd place NFC South)
1. New Orleans Saints (2-4, 2nd place NFC South)
The NFC South placed three teams in the playoffs, and the top two seeds are sort of perfect. The Saints are strong contenders to win this tournament as arguably the most tortured team in the NFL this season. The Falcons aren't far behind. There is so much talent on both offenses that feels as if its going to waste. Unlike the Saints, the Falcons aren't coming off a promising season. The Saints are working frantically to bail out a defense that looks nothing like last year's unit despite improving on paper during the offseason. Things look bleak at the moment.
6. Oakland Raiders (0-6, 4th place AFC West)
5. New York Jets (1-6, 4th place AFC East)
4. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-6, 4th place AFC South) [tiebreaker over Jets due to strength of victory]
3. Cleveland Browns (3-3, 4th place AFC North)
2. Tennessee Titans (2-5, 3rd place AFC South)
1. Houston Texans (3-4, 3rd place AFC South)
Apparently, being involved with anything called "______ South" banishes one to doomed existence. As with the NFC's top two seeds, the Titans and Texans are fitting teams. The Titans have seemingly been treading through middling records for years now, while the Texans, like the Saints, are burning out with talent and staying in one place. The tangible crisis of a 2-14 season has been conquered. Now their concerns are more existential.
Wild Card (Winners in bold)
5. Washington vs. 4. Vikings
6. Buccaneers vs. 3. Rams
The 3-6 matchup feels a bit lopsided The Rams are coming off an upset of the Seahawks, and are decidedly not-awful. The 4-5 matchup is much trickier. Both teams have similar resumes, including blowout losses to division rivals. Both would likely be much better if they could get healthier at quarterback. Washington gets the edge because Robert Griffin III has the potential to elevate the team to higher ground. Also, it won more recently.
4. Vikings vs. 1. Saints
3. Rams vs. 2. Falcons
These picks were easy based on who feels like the better team at the moment. Maybe the Rams' win over the Seahawks is being overvalued, but what do the Falcons have that's comparable?
3. Rams vs. 1. Saints
This results seems odd, but what else are we to do with a two-win Saints team? Its best result of the season might be its one-point loss to the Detroit Lions on the road last week. Wins over Minnesota and Tampa Bay don't mean much.
5. Jets vs. 4. Jaguars
6. Raiders vs. 3. Browns
In a bout between two 1-6 teams, what matters is a trend. Who's closer to getting the next win? The Jaguars' losses have been gradually getting better -- from 19 points to the Chargers, to eight points to the Steelers, to two points to the Titans and finally a big win over the Browns last week. That loss, so far, is out of character for the Browns, and at 3-3 they are significantly better than the Raiders.
4. Jaguars vs. 1. Texans
3. Browns vs. 2. Titans
But trends be damned, the Jags are still a one-win team, and the Texans have mostly been quality even in their losses. The Titans were over-seeded due to the general crappiness of their division. After a Week 1 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, they've found their equilibrium as a sub-mediocre team.
3. Browns vs. 1. Texans
This would be a decent matchup within the normal season slate. Of the entire playoff field, these teams probably harbor the strongest normal Wild Card hopes (though the Saints probably have the easiest path to a division title). Fittingly for both teams, they skid into the game off losses that reflected their own struggles from a year ago. The Texans have more top level talent, but who can truly feel safe betting on them at this point?
The Saddest Super Bowl
Rams vs. Texans
The Rams and Texans are riding two very different waves right now. Things aren't so bleak for St. Louis. Sure, there was a lot of luck involved in a win over the Seahawks, but we also saw young players get put in starting roles and thrive. The top of the 2014 NFL Draft class of Greg Robinson, Aaron Donald, Lamarcus Joyner and Tre Mason appears to be a hit. The Texans are stuck reading the tea leaves of a phenomenal collapse against the Steelers.
So let's ride the hot hand. Rams, you win the day, and get to live the week as the most tragic team in the NFL. You're not without hope, but hope is in the form of proto-stars burning hot and quick to fizzle. Bask in their warmth now. The cold and dark is never far.
Does this mean anything?
Maybe! Let's see how this sad tournament would have played out in years past, and see how winners were able to rally. Starting with ...
AFC Playoffs: 6. Texans (2-14) 5. Browns (4-12) 4. Raiders (4-12) 3. Bills (6-10) 2. Jaguars (4-12) 1. Titans (7-9)
NFC Playoffs: 6. Washington (3-13) 5. Buccaneers (4-12) 4. Vikings (5-10-1) 3. Rams (7-9) 2. Falcons (4-12) 1. Lions (7-9, lost head-to-head tiebreaker with Giants)
Swap the Jets for the Bills and last year's AFC pool is the exact same as this year's. In the NFC, only the Saints are new, standing in for the Lions. It sure is hard to climb out of the basement, and apparently easy to fall.
AFC Divisional: Bills vs. Jaguars, Browns vs. Titans
NFC Divisional: Rams vs. Falcons, Vikings vs. Lions
The 4-5 matchups were again incredibly difficult to pick, especially with this seasons' results clouding perception. When the Browns lost last season, they at least lost relatively close, however, and the Vikings stayed competitive in a discombobulated NFC North.
AFC Championship: Bills vs. Titans
There is no debate over who advances to the AFC Championship, however. The Jaguars are WAY over-seeded, and the Titans might have cobbled together a case for a Wild Card spot in the real playoffs with some injury luck.
NFC Championship: Rams vs. Vikings
The Rams' biggest problem last season was the rest of the NFC West. They went 7-9, but just 1-5 within the division. Injustice can be a key component of tragedy, too. The Vikings get by the Lions, who were a mess at the end of the 2013 season.
2013 Saddest Super Bowl: Bills vs. Rams
Shit, let's just give the Rams the title again. Buffalo was supposed to suffer growing pains last season behind a rookie quarterback and new coaching staff. The Rams don't really have an excuse unless they want to trot out Sam Bradford's injury, but the team was just 3-4 with him and went 4-5 the rest of the way. How the team deployed Tavon Austin is a tragedy unto itself. Unfortuanately for St. Louis, it doesn't appear that being the best of the worst does a team a much good.