It is easy to make assumptions about teams when looking at their regular season records. That is partly why the Washington Football Team (7-9) enters Wild Card weekend as a more than a touchdown underdog to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5).
One look at the Buccaneers' schedule will show the team won its last four regular season games, while Washington lost two of its past three to become just the fifth team ever to make the postseason with a losing record. But records and schedules do not account for history, and that indicates Washington has a better chance of upsetting the Tom Brady-led Buccaneers than people think.
Since 2010, teams that finished below .500 in the regular season are 2-0 in the Wild Card round. It's a fact head coach Ron Rivera is aware of, given that he coached one of those squads in 2014. That, combined with Washington's defensive talent and Brady's history of playing on the road and in the Wild Card, shows the team capable of advancing to the Divisional round for the first time since 2005.
"The old saying goes: 'All you need is a chance,'" Rivera said Monday. "That's what we have is a chance. It's interesting because there's been a lot of upset victories throughout time. No bigger or greater upset or victory than David vs. Goliath. So, who knows? That's why we'll show up on Saturday night."
Coincidentally, the last team with a losing record to get an upset in the Wild Card round was Rivera's Panthers in 2014. After starting the year 3-8-1, the team ended the year on a four-game winning streak, won the NFC South and hosted a playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals. A pair of touchdowns from quarterback Cam Newton helped the Panthers advance with a 27-16 victory.
While Rivera said there are some key differences between that Panthers team and the 2020 iteration of Washington, there are still some noticeable similarities. Both teams lost a handful of close games before going on a four-game win streak that helped push them into the postseason.
"You get into the playoffs anyway you can. It doesn't matter," Rivera said. "What you do when you get into the playoffs, that's up to you. I've been part of a couple of teams now -- one was 7-8-1 and the other was 8-8 [the 2008 San Diego Chargers] -- both those teams got in because they won the division and both teams won in the first round. In both of those cases, I think just because you got hot at the right time. I think that's important if you play well at the right time."
Rivera said other playoff teams tend to overlook those with losing records and start worrying about their next opponent. That gives them a chance, which is exactly what happened in 2010 when the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks hosted the 11-5 New Orleans Saints. The Seahawks took a 34-20 lead, and even though Drew Brees and the offense clawed their way back to a four-point deficit, Marshawn Lynch ended those comeback hopes with his infamous 67-yard touchdown run.
Rivera said that will not happen with Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians, who was with the Cardinals when the 2014 Panthers upset them. He knows Arians will make it a point of discussion for his current team not to consider Washington as an easy win.
"Bruce doesn't miss a lot of things," he said. "This will most certainly be something that will be on his radar and he'll put on his team's radar."
If Washington hopes to advance past the Wild Card round, it will need to match Brady's seventh-ranked offense with its defense, which allows a second-best 304.6 yards per game. Aside from Washington's secondary, which only allows 191.8 yards through the air, Brady will also have to face Chase Young and his fellow pass-rushers. Washington's defensive line has combined for 34.0 sacks, which is more than 14 teams had from their entire defense.
Games like these, Rivera said, are why teams invest so heavily in pass-rushers.
"Getting here and having a chance to see what San Francisco had done the last couple years and then looking at this roster...and the potential of that youth and knowing that, if we developed the youth properly, we'd develop something good. I think we're starting to get that. I mean, we're still developing. They're still learning. They're still growing. But their potential is most certainly on display."
It is also worth pointing out that Brady has not fared well on the road or in the Wild Card round. He was 3-4 on the road with the New England Patriots, and both of his previous Wild Card appearances since 2009 resulted in losses, the most recent of which came in 2019 against the 9-7 Tennessee Titans.
Still, Brady is one of, if not the best quarterback in NFL history. At 43 years old, he has thrown for 4,633 yards and 40 touchdowns to 12 interceptions, all while completing 65.7% of his passes. Washington simply cannot rely on Brady to have a bad game.
"I'll say that with a straight face -- it's another opponent," Rivera said in jest. "No, it's Tom Brady. Let's be realistic about who we're playing. The dude is having another phenomenal year again. He's been hot. Maybe we'll get lucky and catch him down. But right now, he's playing really good football. We'll see. I promise you though, we're going to show up on Saturday night."
Rivera and Washington have proved it is possible to take a team full of potential and make the playoffs in the first year of a culture rebuild. There were few that expected Washington to make the postseason, but that is where the team finds itself nearly four months after Rivera's first season began. Either way, Washington is not going to shy away from the underdog label. The players have been called that all year, and they have embraced it.
"I think they appreciate that just from the fact that, for so long this team has really been down," Rivera said. "Because of that, you're considered the underdog. We have an opportunity to rise above it. That's what I think our guys are trying to do. They relish that opportunity."
The odds are against Washington versus Tampa Bay, and yet it has found a way to endure through an unprecedented season. It is hard to start doubting the team now.
"Let's see how they handle it," Rivera said. "That's the next thing. Don't judge us for where we've been, judge us for where we're going. So, let's see how we handle this going forward. This is a big opportunity for us. I love what they say about just getting in [to the playoffs]. That's all we needed, was a chance to get in. We'll see what happens. We're going to play against a very good football team with a lot of good football players. I'm excited about it."