The Washington Football Team shouldn't feel bad if it ends up winning the NFC East with a losing record. In fact, it might feel encouraged. The past two teams to win their divisions with sub-.500 marks followed those seasons with greater success.
The Seattle Seahawks won the NFC West with a 7-9 record in 2010; four years later, Carolina won the NFC South with a 7-8-1 mark. Both teams won playoff games and both coaches remain active: Pete Carroll is still with Seattle and Ron Rivera, who guided the Panthers to an unlikely division title six years ago, is now Washington's coach.
Two years after achieving this feat, Seattle drafted quarterback Russell Wilson, and one year after that it won the Super Bowl. Carolina reached the Super Bowl the season after its improbable 2014 playoff push.
With Washington (6-7) leading the NFC East and hosting the Seahawks (9-4) on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox), ESPN Washington reporter John Keim and Seattle reporter Brady Henderson look back at how Seattle's surprising 2010 playoff appearance served as a springboard for Carroll's program and whether Rivera's current team can rekindle the magic his 2014 Panthers created late in that season.
Foundation for success
It was time to get on a roll, just as Rivera's Carolina teams had always done in December. But this time was different: The Panthers had lost six in a row, were languishing with a 3-8-1 record and given up for dead. A month later, they had won four consecutive games, earned an NFC South Division title and then won a playoff game.
They also laid the foundation for success in 2015, when they went 15-1 and won the NFC championship.
"We built off that momentum," said former Panther and current Washington linebacker Thomas Davis. "We used those games to realize what we were capable of."
That's what this Washington team hopes to do. It has won four consecutive games, leads the NFC East by a game and, at 6-7, can still finish with a winning record. That possibility was eliminated from Carolina in 2014 with four games remaining. Washington also could become the third team since 2010 to make the playoffs with a losing record.
There are similarities, but also two big differences between that 2014 Carolina team and Washington. Carolina was coming off a 12-4 season in 2013; Washington was 3-13 a year ago under a different coach. And the 2014 Panthers had their quarterback in Cam Newton; Washington can't say it knows whom its starting quarterback will be in 2021.
Carolina had established a young nucleus in 2013, and the 2014 team beat the Arizona Cardinals in the playoffs.
"That really catapulted us forward," Rivera said. "Then you mix that with a sprinkling of the right kind of vets, and lo and behold, you're off to the races."
The 2015 Panthers won two playoff games before losing to Denver in the Super Bowl.
That's where this Washington team shares some similarities with the 2014 Panthers. Rivera has a young team, especially on defense. The starting defensive line -- ends Montez Sweat and Chase Young; tackles Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen -- all are 25 or younger. Three other starters are 21, 24 and 25 years old. Only one player who has received consistent time is over 30 -- end Ryan Kerrigan. Davis, 37, has played sparingly.
Offensively, they're not as young but they do have five skill players 25 or younger. Their big change was benching quarterback Dwayne Haskins and -- after an injury to backup Kyle Allen -- inserting Alex Smith. That has steadied the offense, though at age 36 it's hard to gauge Smith's future in Washington.
The 2014 Panthers team became younger as the season unfolded, especially on defense. They cut veterans such as safety Charles Godfrey and receiver Jason Avant, turning to undrafted rookie receiver Corey Brown. They benched two veterans -- safety Thomas DeCoud and cornerback Antoine Cason -- in favor of rookies Tre Boston (safety) and Bene Benwikere (corner).
Rookie defensive end Kony Ealy played better down the stretch, getting three of his four sacks in December. That Carolina defense ranked fifth in yards and second in points during its four-game winning streak to close the season. Washington's defense ranks fourth in yards and sixth in points this season.
"Once we did that, their energy levels just rose everybody else's," Rivera said of the lineup changes in Carolina. "That's what we're seeing [with Washington]. We're feeding off of the energy level of our young players."
In Rivera's Carolina tenure, his teams were 51-48-1 from September through November but 25-15 in regular-season games in December and January. From 2011 to 2014, Carolina was 17-27-1 from September through November and 19-5 thereafter. Finishing strong was an expectation for the Panthers under Rivera.
And this year, like in 2014, there was an opening to win a division title after a slow start.
"Being in it when we're 2-7 is huge," Rivera said. "I tell everybody: 'As long as there's hope, man, we have a chance. That's all that matters. We can play like it.' That's what they're doing is they're playing like it right now."
Washington tight end Logan Thomas played on the 2014 Arizona team that Carolina beat in the first round of the playoffs. He saw on film how well Carolina was playing; he ignored the record.
"We got a lot of the same qualities on this team," Thomas said. "When you have confidence in what you do and know how to do it, that's when you become dangerous."
2010 'kick-started' the Seahawks
The 2010 Seahawks weren't just the first sub-500 team to win their division in the Super Bowl era. By one metric, they'll likely remain the worst team to do it even if Washington finishes atop the NFC East with a losing record.
Washington has a plus-12 point differential through 13 games. The 2014 Panthers finished the regular season at minus-35. Those 2010 Seahawks got blown out repeatedly en route to a minus-97 point differential, which was fifth worst in the NFL that year.
"The losses were just so lopsided," said Jordan Babineaux, a defensive back whose final season with Seattle was 2010.
Not that anyone expected a lot out of the Seahawks that year.
Carroll and general manager John Schneider had taken a sledgehammer to the aging roster they inherited after being hired that offseason following a 5-11 finish under Jim L. Mora. Their 284 player transactions that year were the most in the league. For Babineaux and Lawyer Milloy, two veteran holdovers from the Mike Holmgren era and Mora's lone season, part of their roles in that transition season was to mentor Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, the pair of rookie safeties who made up the first pieces of what would become a championship core.
Fortunately for the Seahawks, the rest of the NFC West was in transition as well. The Rams had the No. 1 overall pick that year after winning one game in 2009. The Cardinals were coming off a 10-6 season but lost quarterback Kurt Warner to retirement. The 49ers started 0-5 and eventually fired coach Mike Singletary.
At midseason, the Seahawks and Rams were tied atop the division at 4-4, with Arizona only a game back.
"Clearly it was a division that wasn't very good," Babineaux said. "I think it's kind of like that opportunity of, even as bad as it's been for the span of this season, we still have a chance and really all we need to do is get in. That's all that matters. All we need to do is get in and then we knew we would have a home playoff game.
"When the 12s are roaring, it's a tough place to play. So we felt pretty confident about playing at home. That was it. Despite everything that happened and a lot of change, roster moves and new regime, and we still had a chance to do it. And we had a veteran quarterback in [Matt] Hasselbeck."
As is the case now with Smith and Washington, Hasselbeck was an older quarterback who had outperformed his potential successor but faced an uncertain future. Hasselbeck beat out Charlie Whitehurst to keep his starting job, but an injury in Week 16 added a bizarre twist to an already-dramatic finish to the regular season.
The Seahawks hosted the Rams in Week 17 with the NFC West title at stake. With Hasselbeck's mobility compromised after he injured his buttocks, no one was certain who would start until moments before Whitehurst jogged into the huddle for the first play.
He managed the Seahawks to a 16-6 win and a place in NFL history.
All nine of the Seahawks' losses that season were by 15 points or more. Two of their three most-lopsided defeats were to the New York Giants (34 points) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (23), who both finished out of the NFC playoffs despite 10 wins apiece. That gave fuel to detractors who bemoaned NFL rules that allowed a division champion with a losing record to make the postseason over a winning team and host a playoff game on top of it.
"We knew it was a unique circumstance and there was a lot of yapping about it, and it was fun to go against it and kind of defy what everybody thought we could do," Carroll said.
That "yapping" made it all the more gratifying for the Seahawks when they pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NFL playoff history by beating the New Orleans Saints in a wild-card shootout, a game remembered best for Marshawn Lynch's Beast Quake run.
Carroll still regrets how that unlikely trip to the playoffs ended the following week in the divisional round, bringing up their loss to the Chicago Bears both times he was asked this week about the 2010 season. But he thinks the way they got there proved to be a beneficial experience for future Seahawks teams.
"It kick-started us in terms of how much are you willing to believe in the ability to persevere and overcome and resiliency, all that stuff," Carroll said. "It was really the start of all of that. It wasn't a bad way to start. I just wish -- like I always tell you -- I wish we would have beat Chicago. Then we'd have really had something going."
Sunday's game between the Seahawks and Washington could be a playoff preview, with a decent chance of those teams meeting again in the first round. Four days before the Seahawks were upset earlier this month by the Giants, another sub-.500 team in the NFC East mix, Carroll was asked about potentially playing a road playoff game against a team from that division with a worse record than Seattle's.
"I don't think it should be judged by how many games you won," he said. "If you win your division, you win your division. That's the way it was then; that's the way it is now, and I don't think there's any problem with it.
"Whoever comes out of that division, the division champ, whoever plays them better look out."
ESPN's Jordan Raanan contributed to this story.