— Teams that finish 6-10 are supposed to spend January firing their coaches, licking their wounds and stacking their draft boards with the likes of Ryan Mallett and Mark Ingram.
This year, a 6-10 team might make the playoffs.
Everyone knows the NFC West has become an ugly dog contest. St. Louis and Seattle lead the division with 5-6 records; the Rams are in first place because of a head-to-head win, but the Seahawks have a better division record. All four teams in the division have allowed more points than scored. The Rams, Seahawks, 49ers and Cardinals have a combined 5-17 record on the road. The last-place Cardinals are 3-8, in the throes of a six-game losing streak and coming off an embarrassing Monday Night loss, but incredibly they are still alive in the division race.
The NFC West has been weak for years, but nothing like this season where it's possible that a team could win the division with a 6-10 record. Here's one way how that depressing scenario could unfold:
Voila! The Seahawks and Niners — yes, the team that started the season 0-5 — tie for the division lead. Not only that, but they split their season series and have identical division records. That takes us to the third tiebreaker: common games. The Niners, if this scenario plays out, would be 6-6 against common foes, the Seahawks 4-8. The difference between the teams comes down to San Francisco's wins over the Raiders and Broncos. Seattle lost to both those teams. Who thought those games could have any playoff implications? If this late-season nightmare really happens, the Niners make the playoffs, though the Seahawks could still be alive for the wild card. Just kidding.
If the Niners reach the postseason at 6-10, they will become the worst playoff team in NFL history, hands down. The last team to reach the postseason with a .500 record was the 2008 Chargers. The only teams to ever reach the postseason with losing records were the 1982 Lions and Browns, each with strike-shortened 4-5 records. No team has ever won a division with a losing record, let alone a record as bad as 6-10.
There are other ways a 6-10 team could win the NFC West. The Cardinals or Rams could win one of their non-division games, for example. It's possible for all four teams to finish 6-10, causing an ugly chain reaction that forces us to dig deep into each team's record and ferret out tiebreakers.
There are about 100 different ways that a team can win the NFC West with a 7-9 record, which would still be an unprecedented event. Some of those scenarios are very plausible. Say the Rams beat the Cardinals on Sunday and the Niners at home in Week 16 but lose their other games. If the Seahawks go 1-4 down the stretch, and the other two teams keep goofing off, the Rams win the division at 7-9. It actually takes more wishful thinking to project any NFC West team to a .500 record than to predict a 7-9 champion. The Rams have the best chance, facing three division foes, but they won't beat the Saints or Chiefs.
Can you imagine the Seahawks beating the Falcons or the Buccaneers in Tampa? Can you picture the Cardinals running the table, Derek Anderson laughing all the way? There are some winnable games on the upcoming schedule — the Cardinals and Seahawks each play the Panthers — but "winnable" is a relative term for these four teams.
The only good news is that it's impossible for any team to win the NFC West with a 5-11 record, because the Rams and Seahawks face off in the season finale. Of course, they could tie. A 5-10-1 team could win the NFC West if … oh, nevermind.