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The 2010 Seattle Seahawks: Worst. Playoff. Team. Ever?

By defeating the St. Louis Rams Sunday night, the Seattle Seahawks qualified for the N.F.L. playoffs in spite of having lost nine games and won only seven.

They are not, technically speaking, the first N.F.L. team to have reached the playoffs with a losing record: in its strike-shortened 1982 season, the league temporarily expanded its post-season to include 16 teams, and the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns each advanced with 4-5 records.

But they are almost certainly the worst. The Seahawks are not any garden-variety 7-9 team: they are an incredibly bad 7-9 team.

First, consider the Seahawks’ point differential. They allowed 407 points during the regular season while scoring just 310, meaning that they were outscored by roughly a touchdown per game on average. Although it is quite common for N.F.L. teams to reach the playoffs with a negative point differential, none has had one as poor as the Seahawks’ minus-97.

The Seahawks, moreover, were probably fortunate to be outscored by only 97 points. Measured by yardage, their offense ranked 28th of the 32 N.F.L. teams, while their defense ranked 27th. (Bizarrely, the San Diego Chargers led the N.F.L. in both categories, but finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs.) The Seahawks’ yardage differential — they were outgained by more than 1,100 yards this season, not counting special-teams plays — was the second-worst in football, ahead of only the Arizona Cardinals.

What’s more, the Seahawks compiled this inglorious record against mediocre opposition. Not only did they have the benefit of playing six games against the other weak teams in the N.F.C. West, but their four intra-conference games were scheduled against teams in the A.F.C. West, which was also rather weak this year. According to the ratings compiled by Jeff Sagarin of USA Today, the Seahawks’ schedule was the fifth easiest in the league.

Nor, despite Sunday’s victory, can one really give the Seahawks credit for having peaked at the right time. They went 2-5 over their last seven games, defeating only the Rams and the Carolina Panthers, who finished their year at 2-14.

The more deeply one looks at the Seahawks, indeed, the worse they tend to appear: according to an advanced statistic known as Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, or D.V.O.A. — compiled by the geniuses at Football Outsiders — the Seahawks were actually the very worst team in the N.F.L. over the course of the regular season.

Perhaps the Seahawks will stun everyone and defeat the New Orleans Saints, whom they will host on Saturday. The Seahawks’ open-air home stadium, Qwest Field, is one of the most raucous environments in the N.F.L., and the forecast calls for rain, which may upset the timing of the Saints, a team that is used to playing indoors. Still, Las Vegas has established the Saints as early 10.5-point favorites.

The situation could, theoretically, have been worse: it is technically possible for a 3-13 N.F.L. team to make the playoffs (and have the home-field advantage in its first playoff game!).

For appropriate comparison, however, the Seahawks probably have to look outside the N.F.L. to the other three major American professional team sports. These, in my estimation, are the 10 worst teams ever to have advanced to the post-season from the N.F.L., the N.H.L., the N.B.A., and Major League Baseball:

10 — 2005 San Diego Padres Because baseball is less generous than other sports with its playoff berths, few truly execrable clubs have made it to the post-season. The 1981 Royals are the only one to have done so with a losing record (50-53), under a bizarre playoff system instituted for one strike-shortened season. The 2005 San Diego Padres, however, were almost certainly worse, advancing from an exceptionally weak N.L. West at 82-80 despite having been outscored by 42 runs over the season. According to a statistic known as Simple Rating System — which takes account of run differential and strength-of-schedule — the Padres were just the 23rd best of the 30 major league teams that year, a team that would ordinarily go 69-93.

9 — 2004 St. Louis Rams The Rams were the Seahawks’ victims yesterday. But until last night, the 2004 version of the team had probably been the poorest N.F.L. team to have reached the post-season. They did so with an 8-8 record, going 5-1 against other N.F.C. West teams (including two victories over the Seahawks, whom they beat again in the playoffs), but only 3-7 against the rest of the league. The Rams’ point differential was minus 73, and according to Mr. Sagarin’s ratings, they were just the 26th best of the 32 N.F.L. teams that season.

8 —1987-88 San Antonio Spurs Other N.B.A. teams of this era, like the 1985-86 Chicago Bulls, managed to qualify for the playoffs with a slightly worse record than the 31-51 Spurs. But the Spurs were worse according to advanced statistics, allowing 118.5 points per game — by far the most in the N.B.A. that year, and among the worst totals in the league’s modern history. They also finished the year worse than they began it, going 18-39 after a 13-12 start, with their poor play carrying over into the next season, when with largely the same roster they went 21-61.

7 — 1987-88 Toronto Maple Leafs The N.H.L. has always been extremely liberal about allowing teams to make its post-season, but things were especially easy on the clubs from the league’s old Norris Division during the 1980s: four out of five were guaranteed to qualify each year, even though, according to Simple Rating System, over a six-year stretch only two of the 30 Norris Division teams (the 1987-88 Detroit Red Wings and the 1985-86 Minnesota North Stars) were better than the league average. The 1987-88 Maple Leafs — who advanced to the playoffs during the last weekend of the regular season despite a 21-49-10 record (beating out the 19-48-13 North Stars by a single point) — were probably the single biggest beneficiaries.

6 — 1949-50 Sheboygan Red Skins In the earliest days of the National Basketball Association — 1949-50 was the first season the league played under that monicker; before then it had been known as the Basketball Association of America — the league’s Western Division featured obscure expansion franchises like the Anderson (Indiana) Packers and the Waterloo (Iowa) Hawks. The Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Red Skins sneaked in to the playoffs at 22-40 despite a roster with only three players who had previous professional experience.

5 and 4 — 1968-69 Los Angeles Kings and 1969-70 Oakland Seals A similar pattern was manifest during the N.H.L.’s expansion era starting in 1967, after the Original Six teams that had monopolized the sport since 1942 finally agreed to let in six more. The expansion was handled problematically, however, rushing in all six new teams at once instead of phasing them in as leagues had in other sports. On top of that, the new teams were treated punitively, charged $50,000 for each player they dared to select in the league’s expansion draft. This left the six expansion teams as essentially minor league franchises.

To give them a fighting chance, the N.H.L. placed all six expansion teams into a new division of their own — called the Western Division even though it included the Philadelphia Flyers — and provided for four of the six to make the playoffs each year. Because the six teams from the Western Division were almost certainly worse than any of the six original teams, this essentially guaranteed that the 10th best team in the 12-team league would reach the post-season. The 1968-69 Kings (24-42-10) and the 1969-70 Oakland Seals (22-40-14) were probably the very worst teams to do so, judging on the basis of their records and goal differential.

3 — 1978-79 Vancouver Canucks At first glance, the Canucks, who finished with a 25-42-13 record, don’t look quite as bad as the worst N.H.L. teams from the Norris Division of the mid-1980s or the Western Division of the late 1960s. However, the Canucks qualified for the playoffs mostly because almost every team did, and their division, the Smythe, was exceptionally poor. The division’s nominal champion, the Chicago Black Hawks, had a losing record, and the other two teams joining the Blackhawks and the Cancuks in the Smythe — the St. Louis Blues and the Colorado Rockies — were by far the worst two in hockey. Against Smythe division teams, the Canucks went 13-3-8. They went 12-39-5 against the rest of the league, however, losing by an average of almost 2 goals per game.

What’s more, this was an era in which talent in the league was very watered-down: the N.H.L. had exploded from 6 teams to 17 in the span of just 12 seasons, while there were another 8 teams in the World Hockey Association, which wouldn’t merge with the N.H.L. until the following season. So even if, on paper, the Cancuks were a bit better than the 1969-70 Seals or the 1987-88 Leafs, on the ice they were probably somewhat worse.

2 — 2010 Seattle Seahawks I didn’t want to pile on the Seahawks too much, but here is another piece of context that I skipped above: According to Jeff Sagarin’s ratings, the four teams in the N.F.C. West were each among the six worst teams in football this year.

Okay, let’s pile on: I don’t think I have a trip to Seattle planned any time soon. According to Mr. Sagarin’s formula, the Seahawks would deserve to be favored by just 3 points against the 2008 Detroit Lions, who went 0-16.

1 — 1952-53 Baltimore Bullets It takes no advanced statistics to figure out why this team tops the list: they made the playoffs despite a 16-54 record — by some margin, the worst ever for a playoff team in any of the four major professional leagues — because in those days four of the five teams in the N.B.A.’s Eastern Division were guaranteed berths, and the Bullets finished a few games ahead of the 12-57 Philadelphia Warriors. Of their 16 wins, 6 came against the Warriors; the Bullets went 10-50 against the rest of the league. (These were not, technically speaking, the same Baltimore Bullets who would later become the Washington Wizards, even though the two franchises share something of a reputation for futility: these original Bullets took the hint and folded abruptly in the middle of the 1954 season.)

So there you have it, Seahawks fans, you lucky dogs, you. You are probably no worse than the 1953 Baltimore Bullets. At least when you’re playing at home. And when Matt Hasselbeck is healthy.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.