Cinderella Men: The 10 Greatest Fairytale Seasons in NFL History
The following is a list of the 10 teams who had the most magical, out-of-nowhere-success-story seasons in the Super Bowl era.
Please know that teams such as the 1968 Jets and the 2007 Giants are not on this list, even though their seasons ended magically, because they were sort of successful for a few years beforehand. In this case, a fairytale season doesn't necessarily have to culminate with a championship.
No. 10: 1988 Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills selected QB Jim Kelly in the first round of the 1983 NFL Draft, but Kelly rejected their offer and decided to sign with the Houston Gamblers of the upstart USFL.
In 1985, Buffalo drafted WR Andre Reed, and the following season, appointed 61-year-old Marv Levy as head coach and scooped up a now more cooperative Kelly from the USFL.
The once-terrible Bills improved to 7-8 in 1987. In 1988, Buffalo drafted RB Thurman Thomas and went 12-4, winning the AFC East for just the second time since 1967.
The ’88 Bills lost the AFC Championship Game in Cincinnati, but had laid the groundwork for a remarkable run. The Bills of that era may have never earned a world championship ring, but their four consecutive Super Bowl appearances earned them a special place in NFL history.
No. 9: 1998 New York Jets
In 1996, the Jets were the worst team in the NFL and had won just 10 games in the past three years, but things changed when Bill Parcells was hired as head coach in 1997.
Transforming the Jets was nothing new for Parcells, who had rebuilt and won two Super Bowls with the Giants in the previous decade and also led the once-awful Patriots to an AFC Championship in 1996.
The Jets went 9-7 in 1997 after going 1-15 the previous year. In ’98, New York won the AFC East with a 12-4 record behind QB Vinny Testaverde and former Patriot RB Curtis Martin.
In the AFC Championship Game, the Jets had a 10-0 third quarter lead over the heavily favored Broncos and appeared headed to their first Super Bowl appearance in three decades. However, Denver came roaring back with 23 unanswered points to dash New York’s Super Bowl dreams.
No. 8: 1972 Pittsburgh Steelers
Prior to 1972, the Steelers franchise had just seven winning seasons and made the postseason just once since entering the NFL in 1933.
In head coach Chuck Noll’s first season in 1969, the Steelers went 1-13, but they improved to 5-9 in 1970 and 6-8 in 1971. In ’72, Pittsburgh surged to 11-3 and won the AFC Central, outscoring its opponents a ridiculous 343 to 175.
However, after beating Oakland in the playoffs in the famous “Immaculate Reception” game, the ’72 Steelers lost the AFC Championship to the Miami Dolphins…who were having a certain fairytale season of their own.
A Steelers title in 1972 wasn’t meant to be. But all the pieces for a Pittsburgh dynasty were in place. Six seasons and four Super Bowl championships later, the Steelers had established themselves as one of the most successful and recognizable franchises in professional sports.
No. 7: 2003 Carolina Panthers
In 2003, just two seasons after finishing 1-15, the Panthers advanced to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history. Led by second-year head coach John Fox and a fearsome defense, the ’03 Panthers went 11-5 and won the NFC South.
After a home victory over Dallas in their playoff opener, the gritty Panthers defeated the heavily-favored Rams and Eagles on the road to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
The Panthers ran out of pixie dust just minutes shy of their ultimate dream.
Carolina led in the fourth quarter, marking the first time the Patriots had fallen behind in any game in over 30 quarters. But an out-of-bounds kick by Carolina’s John Kasay set the stage for more late-game heroics from Tom Brady and Adam Vinatieri, as New England prevailed.
No. 6: 2006 New Orleans Saints
If there was ever a city that needed a winner, it was New Orleans.
The ‘Aints went 3-13 in 2005 and had to play their “home” games in San Antonio, TX.
However, the Saints brought in head coach Sean Payton and QB Drew Brees in preparation for 2006 and selected RB Reggie Bush with the second overall pick in that year's NFL Draft.
Clearly, the ’06 Saints would be a lot better than they were in ’05. But no one could have imagined just how much better….
The Saints used the league’s most explosive offense to win the division at 10-6 and eventually advanced to the NFC Championship Game for the first time in franchise history.
2006 was everything Saints’ fans could have hoped for, but New Orleans would have to wait three more years for Prince Charming to officially kiss Sleeping Beauty.
No. 5: 1996 Carolina Panthers
The Panthers won the NFC West in just their second season in existence, winning their final seven regular season games to finish 12-4.
They also swept their division rival San Francisco 49ers, who lost just two other times all season and had won the division nine of the last 10 years.
Carolina also advanced to the NFC Championship Game by beating the NFL’s reigning champ Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs. The surprising, unpublicized Panthers featured six Pro Bowlers, including second-year QB Kerry Collins and LB Kevin Greene.
NOTE: Also in 1996, the Jacksonville Jaguars advanced to the AFC Championship in just their second season in the league. The Jags were 4-7 before winning seven straight (five of those wins came by three or less). Pretty impressive, but not as amazing as the Panthers’ run, since Jacksonville had to settle for a wild card in the far less competitive AFC.
No. 4: 1979 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
How could this happen? The Bucs, who had gone 0-14 in their inaugural season in 1976, were hosting the NFC Championship Game just three years later. Amazing.
Tampa Bay, who had begun its NFL existence with a 0-26 record such a short time ago, started 5-0 in winning the NFC Central at 10-6 in 1979.
Unfortunately, Tampa’s QB Doug Williams tore his bicep midway through the NFC Championship Game as the Buccaneers were blanked at home by the Rams, 9-0.
The following year, the Bucs were back to being the Bucs, going 5-10-1 in 1980.
As for Williams, his personal fairytale culminated in 1987 as he led Washington to a championship. He threw four touchdowns in the second quarter of the Bowl and is still the only African-American starting QB in NFL history to win a Super Bowl.
No. 3: 2001 New England Patriots
Ah yes, just couldn't help throwing the big, bad Patriots into the mix. But the 2001 team followed its magical script perfectly. You have to give them that.
After losing their first two games as QB Drew Bledsoe suffered a collapsed lung, the Patriots won 11 of their last 13 and won the AFC East behind some rookie QB named Tom Brady.
In the “Tuck Rule” playoff game amidst a Foxboro snowstorm versus Oakland, a late-game Brady fumble was overturned and led to Adam Vinatieri making two of the most incredible kicks in NFL history.
Still, the Patriots journey took an ironic twist the following week against the Steelers, as Bledsoe came off the bench to replace an injured Brady and lead New England to the AFC Championship.
Bledsoe had done his part, and Brady returned the following week to lead the Pats over “The Greatest Show on Turf” Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.
Isn't it strange, but fitting, that the first Super Bowl winner in the wake of the 9-11 attacks just happened to be a team nicknamed the Patriots, wearing red, white, and blue?
No. 2: 1981 San Francisco 49ers
In 1979, the 49ers finished 2-14 in Bill Walsh’s first season as head coach, and just 6-10 in 1980.
The Niners had the makings of a good offense, led by a young QB named Joe Montana, but their defense needed a serious upgrade. So, San Francisco rebuilt its defense in the 1981 NFL Draft, selecting cornerbacks Ronnie Lott and Eric Wright. After finishing second-to-last in total defense in 1980, San Fran skyrocketed to the NFL’s second-best defense in 1981.
The Niners finished 13-3. At home in the NFC Championship, they suffered six turnovers but won the game anyway, 28-27, by driving 89 yards in the final moments against “America’s Team” for the game-winning score, culminating in “The Catch.” Two weeks later, the Niners were Super Bowl champions.
The ‘81 dream season triggered perhaps the greatest sustained run of success in NFL history. San Francisco won a total of four Super Bowls during the decade, and five over a 15-year span. The Niners won at least 10 games in every season from 1983 through 1998.
No. 1: 1999 St. Louis Rams
Who could believe that a coach named Dick Vermeil, who had been entirely out of football for 15 years, would lead the NFL’s worst team of the 1990s to a Super Bowl win?
Or that a QB named Kurt Warner, who had been working in a grocery store after his college football days before playing in the AFL, would become the MVP of both the league and the Super Bowl in just his first year as a starter?
The Rams went 13-3 in ’99 despite winning just nine games in each of the two prior years combined. With RB Marshall Faulk and WRs Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, the Rams scored 526 points in earning the nickname, “The Greatest Show on Turf.”
St. Louis stuck true to its Hollywood script all the way to the final play of Super Bowl XXXIV, as Rams’ defender Mike Jones tackled Tennessee’s Kevin Dyson at the goal line to secure the win, and the ultimate fairytale season in NFL history.