NFL Playoffs: 13 Unlikeliest Postseason Teams in History
Part of the thrill of sports is the wonder and mystique surrounding the underdog.
I know it sounds corny, cliché and something right out of a movie, but there really is something fascinating about watching a team not expected to do much overachieve.
It must be the way every member of those teams seems to reach beyond himself for the greater good, that the whole can sometimes be greater than the sum of its parts.
An overachieving team can uplift a city and a fanbase, and it can be a powerful feeling.
In football and in the NFL, there always seems to be one team every year that proves all the doubters wrong and makes a nice season of it. Most times, it's a quick playoff exit. But other times, the underdog can make an amazing run and even end up winning the ultimate prize.
With the playoffs not that far off, here are some of the more unlikely playoff teams in NFL history.
1999 Indianapolis Colts
Previous Season: 3-13, Last in AFC East
Season Record: 13-3, First in AFC East, No. 2 seed in AFC
The Colts thought they were getting a good quarterback the year before when they drafted Peyton Manning with the No. 1 overall pick in front of Ryan Leaf. It wasn't long into Manning's first season when it seemed apparent they had made the right decision.
But no one could have expected what would happen in Manning's sophomore year, when the Colts had a 10-game turnaround and went from worst to first, a first-round bye and a home playoff game.
Manning also laid the groundwork for one of the most dynamic offenses in the game behind a rookie running back from Miami (Edgerrin James).
The season came to an end when the Colts were knocked out by the Tennessee Titans in the Divisional Round, but perhaps the lasting memory of this season can be summed up in three words:
Manning to Harrison.
1999 St. Louis Rams
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Previous Season: 4-12, Last in NFC West
Season Record: 13-3, First in NFC West, Super Bowl XXXIV Champions
The team is straight out of a movie. The star quarterback (Trent Green) goes down to a season-ending knee injury in the preseason, leading to a former Arena League quarterback and supermarket bag boy becoming the starting quarterback (Kurt Warner) and a tearful proclamation from the gutsy coach (Dick Vermeil) that he is the quarterback.
Of course, no one expected then that the Rams would run through the season with one of the best offenses in NFL history thanks to three future Hall of Famers (Warner, Isaac Bruce and Marshall Faulk).
Then, as fate would have it, this ragtag bunch makes it to the Super Bowl and needs a late touchdown and a tackle at the 1-yard line to secure the first Super Bowl win in franchise history.
Just like Hollywood would write it.
1996 Jacksonville Jaguars
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Previous Season: 4-12, Last in AFC Central
Season Record: 9-7, Second in AFC Central
Perhaps no expansion team in NFL history (and perhaps in modern North American sports) accomplished more in its first few years of existence than the Jaguars.
It all started with a magical run in 1996, first by winning six of their last seven games to make it into the postseason. Then not only did the Jaguars win their first playoff game in franchise history, but they won two, on the road.
First came a 30-27 win in Buffalo, and then a 30-27 win at Denver, which was only the AFC West Champ and the No. 1 seed in the AFC. This was before finally falling to New England in the AFC Championship Game.
Did I mention this was only the second year of the franchise's existence?
1981 New York Giants
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Previous Season: 4-12, Last in NFC East
Season Record: 9-7, Third in NFC East
If you were a New York Giants fan during the 1970s, it wasn't exactly a fun time.
There wasn't much to cheer about with Big Blue. The Joe Pisarcik fumble/Herman Edwards touchdown run forever labeled as the "Miracle in the Meadowlands" seemed to sum up the Giants franchise, whose glory days of the 1950s seemed like a lifetime ago.
But Phil Simms was drafted in 1979, and in 1981 the Giants drafted the face of the franchise, Lawrence Taylor. Taylor's attacking style and vicious sacks would terrorize quarterbacks for a decade, and behind his efforts, the Giants made the playoffs for the first time since Y.A. Tittle was under center in 1963.
Taylor won Defensive Rookie and Defensive Player of the Year for his efforts.
1997 New York Giants
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Previous Season: 6-10, Last in NFC East
Season Record: 10-5-1, First in NFC East
Fast-forward 16 years and the Giants are down again. The core of the Super Bowl teams of the '80s has retired or moved on, and the team is struggling again.
Dan Reeves was fired after three mediocre seasons in New York, and Jim Fassel is hired as the head coach. To shake things up, he benches starting quarterback Dave Brown (yes, THAT Dave Brown) and starts Danny Kanell at quarterback.
The Giants in turn win their first division title since the Bill Parcells era, doing so by going 7-0-1 in the division. The one tie came famously in Washington, or at least infamously, as the game is more remembered for Gus Frerotte's ill-fated celebration involving a wall than the actual score.
The Giants were ousted in the Wild Card round by Minnesota.
2001 New England Patriots
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Previous Season: 5-11, Last in AFC East
Season Record: 11-5, First in AFC East, Super Bowl Champions
Not many fans remember how that late September afternoon game between the Jets and Patriots ended, but everyone will remember the hit that knocked Drew Bledsoe out of the game and out of commission with a collapsed lung.
Out came Bledsoe, and the hopes for the season supposedly went with him. In came an unknown rookie from Michigan named Tom Brady.
But almost all of New England remembers what happened after that.
Brady rallied the Patriots and brought New England all the way to Super Bowl XXXVI and a meeting with the Rams. In a game that the Rams were heavily favored in, Brady drove the Patriots down the field to set up Adam Vinatieri's game-winning field goal—or as it's probably remembered in New England, the kick that launched a dynasty.
2006 New Orleans Saints
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Previous Season: 3-13, Last in NFC South
Season Record: 10-6, First in NFC South, NFC Finalist
For the Gulf region in 2005, football was the furthest thing from anyone's mind. As the world watched New Orleans post-Katrina, the Saints split time between San Antonio and Baton Rouge, playing out the season and trying to provide a distraction from the harsh realities of real life.
The struggles the entire region went through made 2006 and the Saints' magical run to the title all the more special to the city and the region still trying to heal.
We all remember that first game back in the Superdome on a Monday night, something that seemed to transcend football, and just the absolute joy every person in that building had that night.
In a football sense, 2006 helped lay the groundwork for 2009 and the Super Bowl champions. But those Saints did so much more than just win games.
1979 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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Previous Season: 5-11, Last in NFC Central
Season Record: 10-6, First in NFC Central
It's hard not to forget those uniforms.
Those orange cream jerseys with the Winking Buccaneer had a lot of losing in them, and there were some growing pains for the first Buccaneers.
Before the Lions went winless, the Buccaneers did. In fact, the Buccaneers needed a season and a half (26 games to be exact) before the first win in franchise history.
Which made 1979, when Bucco Bruce and the rest of the Bucs went 10-6 and won their first-ever division title, all the more special. It was a magical ride for a team that prior to that didn't have a lot of magic, despite its proximity to Orlando.
2004 Pittsburgh Steelers
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Previous Season: 6-10, Third in AFC North
Season Record: 15-1, First in AFC North, AFC Finalist
Before Ben Roethlisberger was a Pro Bowl and Super Bowl-winning quarterback, he was a rookie who wasn't expected to play much in his debut season in 2004.
Tommy Maddox (formerly of the XFL's Los Angeles Xtreme) was the Steelers starter and had been since 2002. But he suffered a season-ending injury in Week 2, and Roethlisberger was forced into action. He responded by going 13-0 (an NFL record for a rookie) the rest of the season and not losing his first game until January.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, the loss was in the AFC Championship Game to New England.
2000 New Orleans Saints
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Previous Season: 3-13, Last in NFC West
Season Record: 10-6, First in NFC West
Long before the current version of the Saints that captured the franchise's first Super Bowl championship, the Saints were a lowly bunch that had little to nothing to hang their hats on. For most of their existence, the Saints were known for Tom Dempsey's record kick and paper bags as an accessory.
But with Jim Haslett at the helm in 2000, New Orleans had one of its better seasons in franchise history. After he had worn a wedding dress with Mike Ditka and his visored helmet in training camp media scrums, Ricky Williams started to show the promise and the potential from college, running for exactly 1,000 yards before suffering a season-ending injury.
Behind young quarterback Aaron Brooks, the Saints won the NFC West and beat the Rams in the Wild Card round, the first playoff win in franchise history.
At least for a while, the paper bags could come off.
1980 Oakland Raiders
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Previous Season: 9-7, Fourth in AFC West
Season Record: 11-5, Second in AFC West, Super Bowl Champion
Long before the Steelers and the Giants made it fashionable for wild card teams to win the Super Bowl, there were the 1980 Raiders, the first wild card team to win a Super Bowl.
What made the Raiders story even more interesting is that it was done without Ken Stabler and John Madden, who had retired. It was done with Tom Flores as coach and Jim Plunkett as the quarterback.
Plunkett stepped into the starting role after Dan Pastorini suffered a season-ending injury in Week 5. He led the team into the playoffs and then led the Raiders to playoff wins against three division winners: Cleveland and San Diego in the AFC Playoffs and Philadelphia in the Super Bowl.
2005 Pittsburgh Steelers
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Previous Season: 15-1, First in AFC North, AFC Finalist
Season Record: 11-5, Second in AFC North, Super Bowl Champion
It's hard to call a team that won 15 games the previous season and 11 games the next season an unlikely playoff team.
But no other team can call itself the first No. 6 seed to win a Super Bowl either.
After falling to 7-5 late in the season, the Steelers needed to go into desperation mode just to make the playoffs and then went through the gauntlet of facing three division winners on the road in the AFC Playoffs and winning them all.
The Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks might be just as well-known for the questionable officiating as the winner, but the Steelers were finally able to vanquish demons with the win. Bill Cowher and Jerome Bettis got their rings, and the Steelers finally got the "One for the Thumb."
2007 New York Giants
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Previous Season: 8-8, Third in NFC East
Season Record: 10-6, Second in NFC East, Super Bowl Champion
Perhaps no wild card team achieved more in five games than the New York Giants did in 2007.
And it all began with a decision.
The Giants were 9-6 and locked into a playoff seed, facing the undefeated Patriots. Instead of resting their starters, New York went out and gave the Patriots a huge scare before New England held on to secure the undefeated regular season.
The momentum propelled the Giants to three road wins against three division winners, including what turned out to be Brett Favre's last game as a Packer, to make it to the Super Bowl and a rematch with the Patriots.
All before the Giants pulled off one of the greatest upsets in NFL history by shocking the undefeated Patriots for their third Super Bowl championship.
Funny what confidence does for a team.