By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 8, 2011; 12:37 AM
Stan White still remembers the feeling when he and the Detroit Lions made the NFL playoffs with a 4-5 record following the strike-shortened 1982 season. It wasn't shame or embarrassment, White said this week. It was a sense of pride, and optimism that the Lions could make some noise in the postseason despite their modest record.
"I remember we won our last [regular season] game and then we went back to the locker room to watch the 49ers-Rams game, I think it was, to see if we'd get in," said White, a linebacker who spent eight of his 11 NFL seasons with the Baltimore Colts and now is a broadcaster in Baltimore. "We were excited to make the playoffs. There hadn't been too many playoff teams in Detroit. It was an accomplishment."
The spotlight is back on losing teams in the NFL playoffs after the Seattle Seahawks beat the St. Louis Rams last Sunday night in Seattle to win the NFC West with a record of 7-9. The Seahawks became the first team to reach the NFL playoffs with a losing record in a non-strike season, and they'll host the New Orleans Saints in a first-round NFC playoff game Saturday.
"The competition within a division sometimes isn't as good," former Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Doug Dieken said. "That changes on a year-to-year basis. The NFC West this year, it looked like everyone was tripping over themselves."
Dieken played for the Browns in 1982 when they, like the Lions, made the playoffs with a 4-5 record. After the '82 season was interrupted by a 57-day players' strike, the NFL opted to follow its nine-game regular season with a 16-team postseason.
"A lot of things went on," Dieken said. "You didn't really feel like you'd played a season. We didn't play all the games. You didn't have that endurance factor, with the highs and lows of a season. It was nice to get into the playoffs. But with that said, it was just such a unique situation. You were just happy to be back playing football."
The Seahawks have joined the '82 Lions and Browns as the only losing teams to reach the NFL playoffs. Ten other teams have made the playoffs with .500 records. The 1969 Houston Oilers of the AFL reached the playoffs with a record of 6-6-2, and nine NFL teams have made it with 8-8 records.
Two of those 8-8 teams, the 1985 Browns and the 2008 San Diego Chargers, won their divisions. The Seahawks are the league's first-ever division winner with a losing record. They have taken an unapologetic approach.
"This is the system. . . . We just played it out and this is what happened," Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll said after last weekend's 16-6 triumph over the Rams.
The Seahawks' inclusion in the playoff field - along with the fact that they'll be hosting the wild-card Saints, who had an 11-5 record but finished two games behind the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South - has reignited a debate about the NFL's system for seeding playoff teams.
Few people in and around the league, it seems, are begrudging the Seahawks their spot in the playoffs. But some are questioning whether they should be allowed to play at home.
"If you win your division, you should be in the playoffs," former NFL coach Dan Reeves said. "But that doesn't mean you need to get a home game. Once you make the playoffs, winning your division shouldn't be any different than being the wild card. The better team gets to play at home."
Falcons President Rich McKay, the co-chairman of the NFL's competition committee, has said he wants the franchise owners, at some point, to reconsider a re-seeding proposal that would enable a wild-card team with a superior record to be seeded ahead of a division winner. Currently, the division winners get the top four playoff seeds in each conference. The wild-card teams get the fifth and sixth seeds. The higher-seeded team in each postseason matchup plays at home.
But owners have rejected such proposals in the past, wanting a team to be rewarded for winning its division.
"It's part of the system, and I think it's the right system," White said. "It's going to happen that way some years. The Patriots didn't make the playoffs a few years ago when they were 11-5 [in the 2008 season]. Now the Seahawks make it at 7-9. But those are the extreme examples. . . . This is an anomaly. I mean, you're asking me about 1982. So it doesn't happen very often. I don't think you change things just because anomalies happen."
The Seahawks aren't a particularly imposing playoff opponent for the Saints, the defending Super Bowl champions. Before beating the Rams last weekend, the Seahawks had lost three straight and five of six games. All five defeats in that stretch came by at least 15 points. The Seahawks lost, 34-19, at New Orleans in November. They finished the regular season ranked 28th in the NFL in total offense and 27th in total defense.
The history of losing teams in the playoffs doesn't favor the Seahawks, either. In 1982, the Browns lost their playoff opener to the Los Angeles Raiders, 27-10. The Lions were beaten by the Washington Redskins, 31-7, in the opening round of the playoffs.
But Saints Coach Sean Payton said no opponent should be overlooked, particularly at playoff time.
"I think more than anything else, it's playing your best football at the right time," Payton said at a news conference this week. "And that time is right now."
The Seahawks do have a veteran quarterback capable of getting hot in the passing game in Matt Hasselbeck, who returns to the lineup after backup Charlie Whitehurst started and won the Rams game. But their best chance for a first-round upset might stem from the fact that the Saints must make a long trip to play in one of the league's loudest venues at Qwest Field.
"You get the ball bouncing the right way for you," White said. "You get a team having to travel across the country to play in that loud stadium out there."
Three of the 8-8 teams that reached the playoffs - the division-winning 2008 Chargers and two 2004 wild-card teams, the Minnesota Vikings and Rams - won one postseason game each before bowing out. The Chargers won at home against an Indianapolis Colts team that had gone 12-4 during the regular season.
And if the Seahawks really want to have their hopes for postseason success buoyed, they can think about the Arizona Cardinals of two years ago. Those Cardinals were much maligned after losing four of five games late, including a 47-7 loss at New England in the next-to-last game of the regular season, to finish 9-7. But the Cardinals crafted three victories in the NFC playoffs to reach the Super Bowl before losing narrowly to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"Two years ago everyone, including myself, was saying the Cardinals were the worst team ever to make the playoffs, and they came within a whisker of winning the Super Bowl," White said. "Is Seattle now the worst team ever to make the playoffs? Yeah, probably. . . . But anything can happen in the playoffs. That's why the goal is to get there."