The 10 Most Surprising Playoff Runs in the Super Bowl Era
"Tebow Time" was over almost as soon as it began.
Tim Tebow's surprising first season as an NFL starting quarterback had its highs and lows but reached a peak when the controversial quarterback led his Denver Broncos to an improbable Wild Card round victory over the defending AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Tebow hype spread nationwide, but it lasted only a week. Denver traveled to New England, Tebow struggled, the Broncos lost, 45-10 and, as his detractors would argue, order was restored. After all, Cinderellas aren't supposed to make it long in the ultra-competitive NFL playoffs.
But some do. Some stick around beyond their astonishing first victories and go on a run. They hang around. They baffle the pundits and bewilder the fans. They force themselves into the Super Bowl picture.
And some keep winning until there's nothing left to win, and no one else to beat.
Here are the 10 most surprising runs of the Super Bowl era. Most are from recent years because the field has increased, allowing more teams in. It's easier for teams with mediocre records to enter the party and, therefore, crash it.
These teams gave their fans something to cheer about for at least a few weeks, when no one else expected them to.
Honorable Mention: 1968 New York Jets and 1969 Kansas City Chiefs
The first, and only, two teams to win the Super Bowl from the American Football League are exempt from this list because they didn't face the jump in competition until they reached the title game. Still, it'd be hard to make a list of Cinderellas without at least mentioning them.
The Jets beat the Oakland Raiders in the 1968 AFL championship game before shocking the world with an unimaginable victory over the powerhouse Baltimore Colts. The Chiefs had a longer road, beating the defending champion Jets and division rival Raiders before pulling off another grand upset over the NFL's Minnesota Vikings in the Super Bowl.
Those teams have a firm place in football postseason lore, but because it's difficult to compare their runs, half of which took place in a league deemed inferior, to those of teams that went through the post-merger NFL, they're out of the countdown. But a tip of the cap to them.
1979 Los Angeles Rams
The dominant teams of the 1970s are known as much for their nicknames as for their appearances in Super Bowls. There were the Dallas Cowboys and the "Doomsday Defense." The Minnesota Vikings and the "Purple People Eaters." The Pittsburgh Steelers and the "Steel Curtain." The Oakland Raiders, the "Silver and Black."
In the second tier were the Los Angeles Rams, a team that won six straight NFC West division titles between 1973 and 1978 but kept running into one of those teams and losing out on a first Super Bowl berth.
The 1979 season seemed to be no different, as the Rams won a seventh division title but had only an unimpressive 9-7 record as they entered the playoffs.
Instead of heading in for their usual beating, the Rams caught fire. They traveled to Dallas to beat the No. 1 Cowboys in the divisional round and then blanked the No. 2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 9-0, to reach Super Bowl XIV, the first 9-7 team ever to make it to the final game.
There, the fantasy run stopped as the Rams became Pittsburgh's fourth victim in six years, but they had finally earned the NFC championship they had been unable to obtain the previous six years. The Rams didn't return to the Super Bowl for another 20 years.
1983 Seattle Seahawks
In 1983, their eighth year in the league, the Seattle Seahawks finally got over the hump. A 9-7 record was good enough for the fourth seed, clinching their first-ever berth in the AFC playoffs.
And then the Seahawks outdid themselves. They took advantage of the home game they were awarded by defeating Denver in the Wild Card round, 31-7. Of course, all that meant was that Seattle had to go to the Orange Bowl to face No. 2 and defending AFC champion Miami and rookie quarterback, and future Hall of Famer, Dan Marino.
Over 3,000 miles away from home, the Seahawks continued their run. They upset the Dolphins, bouncing back from a 20-17 deficit in the fourth quarter as Curt Warner scored on a two-yard run and Norm Johnson connected on a 37-yard field goal to seal the 27-20 victory.
A trip back west didn't fare well for the surprising Seahawks, who fell to the eventual Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Raiders, 30-14. It would be the only trip to the AFC championship game for Seattle, which returned to the NFL's "final four," but as a member of the NFC, in 2005.
1985 New England Patriots
The first team to win three road games to get into the Super Bowl, the 1985 New England Patriots needed lucky breaks and upset magic from the start.
The first game was against the New York Jets in the Meadowlands, where New England had lost during the regular season. The Patriots won, 26-14.
The second game was against the top-seeded Los Angeles Raiders, to whom New England lost during the regular season. The Patriots won, 27-20.
The third game was against the AFC East champion Miami Dolphins in the Orange Bowl, where New England had—you guessed it—lost during the regular season. You probably know the outcome. The score was 31-14, the Dolphins showing 2011 Green Bay Packers form with six turnovers.
The fifth-seeded Patriots had earned a Super Bowl berth few saw coming, if only because of the road-heavy route there. Of course, in the Super Bowl, the Patriots were obliterated by arguably the greatest defense of all time in the Chicago Bears, 46-10. But it was fun while it lasted.
1987 Minnesota Vikings
The Minnesota Vikings weren't supposed to do much in the 1987 postseason. They were a fifth seed, but with an 8-7 record and only one more point scored than allowed during the season, they were an easy out.
Instead, the Vikings channeled their NFC-winning selves from a decade earlier. Minnesota thumped the 12-3 New Orleans Saints in the Superdome, 44-10, and drew the No. 1 San Francisco 49ers, who had cruised through the season with a 13-2 record, the league's highest-scoring offense and the NFC's top scoring defense.
The Vikings, underdogs by more than 10 points, shocked again. Wide receiver Anthony Carter caught 10 passes for a playoff record 227 yards, and the Vikings rolled to a 20-3 halftime lead. Minnesota's start was so effective that Joe Montana was lifted for backup Steve Young, but San Francisco was behind by too much and ended up falling, 36-24.
Minnesota's unthinkable run almost carried it all the way through the NFC playoffs. The Vikings battled with the Washington Redskins and reached their six-yard line down 17-10 late, but an incomplete fourth-down pass ended their hopes at RFK Stadium.
1995 Indianapolis Colts
The Indianapolis Colts in 1995 were an unremarkable team with an unremarkable 9-7 record and fifth seed to show for it. But their postseason success that year would put the franchise back in the spotlight and make quarterback Jim Harbaugh a household name.
The Colts opened with a 35-20 victory in San Diego over the Chargers and continued in Kansas City in the divisional round against the top-seeded and 13-3 Chiefs. That game marked perhaps the biggest collapse of coach Marty Schottenheimer's letdown-prone postseason career, as the Colts forced four turnovers and benefited from three missed field goals from Lin Elliott to come away with a 10-7 victory.
The Colts then traveled to Pittsburgh, where they faced the second-seeded Steelers. The Colts continued to show their resiliency, taking a 16-13 lead in the fourth quarter on Harbaugh's 47-yard touchdown pass to Floyd Turner. The Steelers drove down for a go-ahead score later in the game, however, and Indianapolis' comeback effort fell just short when Harbaugh's Hail Mary pass in the closing seconds was dropped by receiver Aaron Bailey, preserving a 20-16 final.
The Colts fell short of a Super Bowl but gained some respect for their playoff progress. Harbaugh, for instance, became regarded as a leader and gritty competitor. Years later, things don't appear to have changed for the former quarterback.
1996 Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jacksonville Jaguars were supposed to use 1996 as a year to get their bearings straight. Their 1995 expansion season was a 4-12 mess, so 1996 was supposed to be all about improvement. When the Jaguars took the field in September that season, they were supposed to be laying the groundwork for playoff success a few years down the line.
Or, as it turned out, a few months.
The Jaguars were outscored by 10 points on the season, but behind the left arm of Mark Brunell, who led the league in passing yards, they won their final five games and went 9-7 to capture the fifth seed in the playoffs. There, they got their first postseason win in their first try, beating Buffalo, 30-27, on the road.
The next stop for Jacksonville was Denver and a matchup with the No. 1 and 13-3 Broncos. With John Elway still leading the offense and Terrell Davis leading the ground attack, the Broncos were thought to finally have the formula necessary to win Elway his long-awaited first Super Bowl ring.
Instead, Jacksonville's magic ride was nowhere near finished. The Jaguars stunned the Broncos in the Mile High altitude, overcoming their two-touchdown underdog status as Brunell threw for 245 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions.
The ride came to an end in the AFC championship game in New England, as a late Brunell interception and James Stewart fumble helped the Patriots come away with a 20-6 victory.
That was coach Tom Coughlin's first experience taking an underdog to a conference championship game. It wouldn't be his last.
2001 New England Patriots
The New England Patriots in 2001 didn't have a 9-7 record or Wild Card seed like some of the previous teams on this list. In fact, at 11-5 and with a first-round bye as the No. 2 seed, the AFC East champions that year were set up well for a run.
The problems facing the Patriots were talent and image. They weren't that good, and nobody thought they were, either.
So when the Patriots began their postseason in the divisional round against the Oakland Raiders, they were overlooked by analysts for more talented and impressive teams, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles and St. Louis Rams.
New England answered with a Cinderella run for the ages.
They proved they were legitimate with a 16-13 overtime victory in a blizzard against the Raiders, but due to the infamous "Tuck Rule" call, many people following the league still considered them to be a lucky, flukey team, and they were forced to eat their words when New England traveled to Pittsburgh and beat the top-seeded Steelers in the AFC championship game, 24-17.
Still, the Patriots were counted out against the "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams, as evidenced by a 14-point spread in favor of the Rams. New England was supposed to be way too slow to match up with the track stars in Rams uniforms on the artificial turf at the Superdome.
Instead, the big stage only provided the iconic moments for Tom Brady's and Adam Vinatieri's Hall of Fame careers, as Brady won MVP honors in leading New England to a 20-17 victory, won on Vinatieri's 48-yard field goal with time expiring. To this day, the victory remains the second-biggest upset (spread-wise), behind only Super Bowl III, in the game's history.
2007 New York Giants
Nothing was shocking about the 2007 New York Giants' postseason run—until the final game.
The Giants were a 10-6 fifth seed entering the playoffs that year but had shown their resolve with seven straight road wins. That streak continued when New York beat the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay, 24-14, in the Wild Card round.
From there, the Giants began to build buzz as a dark horse in the NFC playoffs, and they validated it by pulling off upsets in hostile environments. They erased a regular-season sweep at the hands of the Cowboys by beating top-seeded Dallas in Texas Stadium, 21-17, and then beating No. 2 Green Bay at frigid Lambeau Field in overtime, 23-20.
While those victories were upsets, everyone knew the Giants had good pieces. Their front seven, led by Michael Strahan, was sensational. Their quarterback, Eli Manning, was a marquee player.
But the Giants weren't supposed to come away with a victory in the Super Bowl over New England. The undefeated Patriots had the highest-scoring offense in league history, the NFL MVP in Tom Brady and a 12-point spread in their favor. Perfection wasn't supposed to be denied.
But the Giants, again, had an answer. Five Brady sacks later, an incredible helmet catch and a Manning drive later, they were NFL champions, their up-and-down regular season a thing of the past.
2008 Arizona Cardinals
The 2008 Arizona Cardinals were supposed to be what was wrong with the NFL playoff system.
There was too much wrong with them for them to be in the playoffs. Their defense stunk. They couldn't win on the east coast. They lost to the Patriots, 47-7, in the second-to-last week of the season. They were the Arizona flippin' Cardinals.
They were only in the playoffs because they had won their mediocre NFC West division. They were an easy out—or so people thought.
Instead, the fourth-seeded Cardinals' offense went berserk. Larry Fitzgerald morphed into the best player alive and began catching everything Kurt Warner threw to him. The Cardinals beat the Atlanta Falcons, 30-24, in the Wild Card round, then crushed the No. 2 Carolina Panthers, 33-13, in the divisionals and beat the No. 6 Philadelphia Eagles, on a good run of their own, 32-25 in the NFC championship game.
It was thought that the Pittsburgh Steelers and their fearsome defense would finally slow down the Arizona aerial circus. But the Steelers were the ones fighting for life after Fitzgerald's 64-yard touchdown catch made it 23-20 late in the fourth quarter.
Ben Roethlisberger was up to the task, however, and he led a game-winning drive that ended with Santonio Holmes' six-yard touchdown reception and a 27-23 final.
The Cardinals were finally done. But, unlike what was projected at the start of the postseason, they didn't go quietly.
2009 New York Jets
Rex Ryan was laughed at when he promised a Super Bowl title upon taking the podium in his inauguration as New York Jets head coach before the 2009 season. He was laughed at when he basically declared AFC East war on Bill Belichick. He was laughed at when the Jets were sputtering at 4-6 and considered dead in the water in the hunt for a playoff berth.
Ryan was laughing as the Jets got life late and ran with it in January. He was laughing as New York, a fifth seed at 9-7, shut down the No. 3 Cincinnati Bengals, 24-14, in the Wild Card round. And he was really laughing when the Jets, an afterthought in the middle of the season, stunned the second-seeded San Diego Chargers, 17-14, in the divisional round.
The Jets were thought to have no chance in the postseason. Their team seemed about to implode in the earlier weeks. Their quarterback, Mark Sanchez, was throwing the ball to the other team. He still is.
The difference is, that year, Ryan kept the ship from crashing into the rocky shores.
Ryan's Jets marched into the AFC championship game for the first time in 11 years and came very close to going all the way to Super Bowl XLIV, as they led the Indianapolis Colts 17-13 at halftime. A Peyton Manning comeback, however, foiled those plans and sent the Jets home—though a lot later than people thought it would happen.