NFL division champions with non-winning records

By David Kenyon

The 2015 edition of the Indianapolis Colts seem destined to join a unique club of NFL teams who won their division despite having a losing record.

Five teams since the NFL-AFL merger finished 8-8 or worse yet reached the playoffs. Unfortunately for Indianapolis—or whichever team takes the AFC South—the subsequent postseason success was quite limited for those squads.

2014: Carolina Panthers (7-8-1)

Recent history demands comparisons between the 2015 AFC South and 2014 NFC South. The Carolina Panthers won four consecutive games to close the regular season, including a winner-take-all 34-3 dismantling of the Atlanta Falcons in Week 17 clash.

Although the Panthers received plenty of criticism for its place in the playoffs, they bounced the short-handed Arizona Cardinals during the Wild Card round. Carolina had a shot to upend the Seattle Seahawks, but a 17-0 run in the fourth quarter ended the Panthers’ dream.

2011: Denver Broncos (8-8)

You probably remember this team, and it’s not because of the three-way tie that decided the 2011 AFC West. The Denver Broncos clipped the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders for the postseason berth because of a one-game edge (5-5) against common opponents (4-6 for both).

Denver proceeded to stun the Pittsburgh Steelers thanks to an 80-yard touchdown pass from Tim Tebow to Demaryius Thomas, sparking years of Tebow-centered debates. The New England Patriots quickly dispatched the Broncos from contention, though, blasting them 45-10 the next week.

2010: Seattle Seahawks (7-9)

Perhaps the most famous non-winning record divisional champion is 2010 Seattle. After managing a 16-6 win over the St. Louis Rams in Week 17 to even their records at 7-9, the Seahawks advanced to the playoffs because of a better intra-division record.

Seattle wasn’t supposed to manage much, since the high-powered New Orleans Saints were the Wild Card opponent. Nevertheless, Marshawn Lynch ripped off his remarkable 67-yard “Beast Mode” run that essentially sealed the outcome. The Chicago Bears bounced the Seahawks in the following game.

2008: San Diego Chargers (8-8)

The 2008 AFC West also needed a Week 17 matchup between the Chargers and Broncos to decide the division championship. All the Bolts did was post a 52-21 victory, running for nearly 300 yards and earning the tiebreaker by virtue of a 5-1 intra-division clip.

San Diego knocked off a Colts team quarterback by Peyton Manning during the Wild Card round, but the fun didn’t last long. The Steelers eliminated the Chargers en route to a Super Bowl win.

1985: Cleveland Browns (8-8)

Back in the days of three divisions for each conference—yes, kids, that was once a reality—Cleveland Browns became the first team in NFL history to reach the playoffs with a non-winning record. Cleveland had a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack.

The Central Division-champion Browns didn’t last long in the postseason, however. Despite holding a 21-3 lead in the third quarter, the team allowed Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins to storm back. Miami scored 21 unanswered points and earned a 24-21 victory. Cleveland sadness is real.