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The Sad Bracket: This is the cruelest season

Joe Flacco is the most elite tragic hero.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

This is the cruelest season. There are 32 teams in the NFL. Seventeen of them have winning records the most ever this late in the season. Nineteen of them are .500 or better. Twenty-one are 4-5 or better. The weeks are dwindling and no one's backing down. We get nervous as time compacts, scared that our good deeds and intentions meant nothing and served nothing. So many are about to learn that they never should have tried.

Tragedy is potential spilled like milk. It's a valiant effort that can't overcome inevitability. Sometimes you're just not good enough. Sometimes your capability to do the thing you're best at is eclipsed, and so in comparison you may as well be nothing. Sometimes you're just OK, and no one cares.

This is a weekly attempt to parse out the NFL's most noble loser. Its first loser, if you will the team that is ultimately living a delusion that it's any good. And falling short of that delusion, it must now accept that it's no good. Which isn't true either, but that's the effective reality.

Maybe that team will feel better if we stick it in a tournament it can actually win. That's pitiful consolation, but it's something. It's an acknowledgement that it's not awful at everything. That it's the best of the arbitrarily bad, and that maybe in some other universe it would have been great. At least then a team can say welp. A cold and broken welp.



Division losers:

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-7, 4th place NFC South)

5. Washington (3-6, 4th place NFC East)

4. St. Louis Rams (3-5, 4th place NFC West)

3. Chicago Bears (3-5, 4th place NFC North [tiebreaker over Rams because of in-conference record]

Wild card:

2. Atlanta Falcons (2-6, 3rd place NFC South)

1. New York Giants (3-5, 3rd place NFC East)

The Giants are fitting newcomers to this week's playoff field. They are in the midst of a "fit" in their fit-start-fit cycle to start the season. They have now lost three straight games after winning three straight games. You could throw the "inconsistent" label on them, if the results didn't follow a trend. The Giants have played three teams with losing records, and beat them all. They have played five teams with winning records and didn't win a single one.

The reason why this feels like an inconsistent team is because of its inability to play a close game. All eight of the Giants' matchups have been decided by 10 points or more. So yeah, it makes sense why many labeled the Giants a surging team when they beat Washington 45-14 to improve to 2-2, just as it makes sense that many are now turning on the team after a 40-24 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.


Division losers:

6. Oakland Raiders (0-8, 4th place AFC West)

5. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-8, 4th place AFC South)

4. New York Jets (1-8, 4th place AFC East) [tiebreaker over Jaguars because of in-conference record]

3. Baltimore Ravens (5-4, 4th place AFC North)

Wild card:

2. Tennessee Titans (2-6, 3rd place AFC South)

1. Houston Texans (4-5, 2nd place AFC South)

The Ravens are the odd-man in this year's bizarre NFL season. They shouldn't be associated with the dregs of this year's AFC — and dregs they are, as the other six teams have been exactly the same for the third week in a row — but the AFC North may be the league's most hyper-competitive division. Rules stipulate that they hang out with this sad crew for at least this week, and on top of which suffer the indignity of not earning a first round bye despite being the clear top dog in the division.

I don't like that I have done this.

NFC Playoffs

Wild card (winners in bold)

6. Buccaneers vs. 3. Bears

5. Washington vs. 4. Rams

The Bears are about to get matched up against perhaps the only two teams in the NFC that they can beat right now. This is terribly unfair, but then the point of this exercise is to point out systemic injustice. Yay, Chicago?


4. Rams vs. 1. Giants

3. Bears vs. 2. Falcons

Rams-Giants is a tricky game to pick. The Rams' wins have come against more impressive opponents, but the Giants' have come in more impressive average margin of victory of 18 points. The Rams are on the upswing coming off a win, so maybe that's the difference. The defense finally looked somewhat like we expected it to, racking up eight (!) sacks against the San Francisco 49ers. The Giants do a reasonably good job protecting Eli Manning, but if last week was Robert Quinn's coming out for this season then it might not matter.


4. Rams vs. 3. Bears

The Buccaneers and the Falcons were perhaps the only two teams in the conference in more dire straits than the Bears, so it's a relative cakewalk to the division championship for Chicago. The run ends against a Rams team that can actually win games at the moment.

AFC Playoffs

Wild card

6. Raiders vs. 3. Ravens

5. Jaguars vs. 4. Jets

Still rolling with the Jaguars over the Jets for a third straight week. It's almost a shame this game won't actually get played this season. It'd be an awful game, to be certain, but at least one of these teams could have a happy moment again. Two wins feel so much better than one.


5. Jaguars vs. 1. Texans

3. Ravens vs. 2. Titans

The AFC North and AFC South should really come together and swap teams to form two balanced divisions. This is the third straight week that the Titans have received a first round bye, and the third straight week they have lost to the AFC North loser, who inevitably lands in the No. 3 seed. This is also the third straight week that the Texans have advanced to the AFC Championship, and if that makes them the most tragic team in the NFL by reputation who could argue.


3. Ravens vs. 1. Texans

But the Texans aren't the most tragic team in the AFC this week. The Ravens are 5-4 and deserve so much more than this two seasons removed from a Super Bowl win. Teams with winning records shouldn't be banished to the division basement, but that's the miniscule margin for error in the AFC North this season.

The Saddest Super Bowl

Rams vs. Ravens

This is depressing season overall for the Rams, but it hasn't felt like it in recent weeks. Sam Bradford's torn ACL lowered expectations early on, so a 1-4 start wasn't too surprising. They've since gotten two wins over division rivals, so at least they're winning the battle for bragging rights.

For the Ravens, however, this ought to be misery. They haven't proven they can beat anyone with a particularly strong pulse, and it's hard to figure out what the upshot is for this season. They are now 2-3 in their own division. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns are getting better. The Cincinnati Bengals are getting worse, but the Ravens have already lost both bouts against them.

With seven games left, you could say that Baltimore should have a lot to look forward to, but it has already played five of six division games and can finish no better than .500 against its biggest rivals. The Ravens are having reasonably good season, and somehow are still behind the 8-ball.

But they would beat the Rams, probably. They can take that to heart.

Does this meaning anything?

Each week we'll go back in the past to see if past winners of this sad, sad tournament improved significantly afterwards. This week ...


NFC Playoffs: 6. St. Louis Rams (2-14) 5. Minnesota Vikings (3-13) 4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12) 3. Washington (5-11) 2. Carolina Panthers (6-10) 1. Seattle Seahawks (7-9)

AFC Playoffs: 6. Indianapolis Colts (2-14) 5. Cleveland Browns (4-12) 4. Buffalo Bills (6-10) 3. Kansas City Chiefs (7-9) 2. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11) 1. Miami Dolphins (6-10)

Several Sad Bracket usual suspects in both field — the Rams, Bucs and Vikings in the NFC, the Browns and Jaguars in the AFC — but a enough new faces to give anyone hope that things should get better. The Colts are the most drastic. They won two games in 2011 only to go on to win 11 in 2012. Of course, it helped to have the No. 1 overall to grab Andrew Luck.

NFC Divisional: Washington vs. Panthers, Vikings vs. Seahawks

AFC Divisional: Chiefs vs. Jaguars, Bills vs. Dolphins

Man the Rams' offense was bad that season — they were shut out twice, and held to seven points or fewer six times. As for the other NFC matchup, the Bucs actually beat the Vikings early in the season, but ended the year with 10 straight losses. This was the era when everyone was trying to figure out what the hell Josh Freeman was about.

The AFC picks were helpfully straight forward. The teams with the better records also finished out their respective seasons stronger.

NFC Championship: Panthers vs. Seahawks

The Panthers had closed out their season with four wins in their final six games, so it's hard not to like them against Washington and potentially going forward. They might have been a favorite if they weren't going up against a Seahawks team that won five of its last eight. Seattle suffered some embarrassing losses early in Pete Carroll's second season, but by the end they had begun to show signs of what was to come.

AFC Championship: Chiefs vs. Dolphins

The Dolphins started the season 0-7, then finished it 6-3. Just like the Seahawks, the strong finish foreshadowed great things to co — oh wait.

2011 Saddest Super Bowl: Seahawks vs. Dolphins

Who knows what these teams could have been with competent passing. A murderer's row of Matt Moore, Tarvaris Jackson, Charlie Whitehurst and Chad Henne made starts. Moore was the easily the best of them, completing 60.5 percent of his passes at 7.2 yards per attempt for 2,497 yards, 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Moore alone may be what gives the Dolphins and edge in this game. The two teams were otherwise equal, more or less. They featured weak passing game, slightly stronger running games and solid defenses defenses — Miami ranked No. 12 in defensive DVOA, while Seattle ranked 10th.

But though they sport similar records and profile in 2011, the two teams have diverged in the seasons since. Miami went 7-9 in 2012, and 8-8 the year after that, leading to for general manager Jeff Ireland. The Seahawks immediately jumped to 11-5 in 2012, before going 13-3 last season and winning the (real life) Super Bowl.

That hindsight makes this Dolphins team all the more tragic, especially since it was one of the more hopeful teams as far as Sad Super Bowl winners go. But c'est la vie and all that. Maybe Dolphins fans will learn to appreciate what was good about that late season run in 2011 if the 2014 team cashes in on its promising 5-3 start.

Previous Saddest Super Bowl winners

2013: St. Louis Rams

2012: Carolina Panthers