As the NFL begins anew for a 92nd season, it is easy to focus solely on the present and future of football. Not to be forgotten, though, are the stories of the past. Successful franchises of today are strong and beloved largely because of a team’s rich history within an area.
One of the most appealing forces in any sport is the rush of a team that everyone has written off performing beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. These dark horse teams are perhaps one of the more exciting to watch as they advance into the playoffs farther than anyone but the die-hard fan would have believed possible.
The phenomenon is sometimes called a Cinderella year: struggling teams who somehow manage to put together unpredictably amazing seasons. They don’t always win it all, but even coming close is a boost to the players and the fans.
More often than not, the magic doesn’t last. These teams tend to descend back into mediocrity the next year. It is uncommon for a Cinderella team to transform into a dynasty that can compete for years to come.
Regardless of whether or not the team remains successful, those special years are part of what builds a successful franchise. They generate moments of greatness to sustain teams through long droughts. Cinderella teams attract huge amounts of media and fan attention, much of which can linger well after the season is over. After all, people are inclined to cheer for the underdog.
Over the next five slides, we’ll take a trip down memory lane to relive the magic of some of the Cinderella teams who won it all, presented in chronological order.
The tide began to turn for the Jets in 1967, when they posted their first winning season as a franchise (8-5-1). In 1968, led by AFL MVP Joe Namath, the team blasted their way to an impressive 11-3-0 record to represent the league in the AFL-NFL Championship Game (later known as Super Bowl III).
Although the Baltimore Colts of the NFL were 18-point favorites, Joe Namath went before the Miami Touchdown Club and guaranteed victory for the Jets. That cocky boast proved true; the Jets went on to beat the Colts 16-7.
The Super Bowl Shuffle is perhaps one of the most famous mementos from this storybook year in Chicago. As it turned out, the Bears had every right to inflict that musical travesty upon the world. To-date, this group is considered one of the greatest championship teams of all time.
Going into the 1984 season, Chicago was little more than an afterthought for most opposing head coaches. It had been over two decades since the last time the Bears had fielded a winning team, let alone a playoff-caliber group. Although they made the playoffs in 1984, the team fell short of the Super Bowl.
The Bears were a nearly unstoppable force during the regular season, losing only once to the Miami Dolphins. That domination continued throughout the playoffs, when they posted back-to-back shutouts at Soldier Field.
Matched up against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX, the 10-point favorite Bears finished out their astonishing season by decimating the spread with a record-setting 46-10 victory to win the team’s only Super Bowl title.
The St. Louis Rams have historically been a team that runs hot and cold for years at a time. In the 1940s they were hot, in the 1950s and 1960s they were cold and in the 1970s and 1980s, they swung back to hot.
1990 marked the beginning of a decade-long losing streak for the team. For 10 long years, the Rams never managed to break the 0.500 mark, rarely placing higher than fourth in their conference.
At the beginning of the season, 1999 seemed as though it would be another year of terrible football in St. Louis. A knee injury during the preseason sidelined veteran starting QB Trent Green, leaving the team in the hands of then-unknown QB Kurt Warner.
The Rams lost the season opener against the Chicago Bears, a seemingly poor omen for the rest of the season. Then, in Week 2, they started winning games—and never really stopped.
By the end of the season, the Rams had posted a 13-3 record, enough to secure them a first-round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Under league- and Super Bowl-MVP Kurt Warner’s lead, the Rams triumphed over the Tennessee Titans by a score of 23-16 to secure their only Super Bowl victory.
Although it seems hard to believe, coming into the 21st century, the New England Patriots were far removed from the powerhouse that has dominated the AFC East for the past decade. With the exception of a Super Bowl appearance in 1996 (which they lost to the Green Bay Packers), the Patriots had not advanced past the Divisional round of the playoffs in over 15 years. The franchise had never won a Super Bowl.
In 2001, Bill Belichick was coming off of a dismal 5-11 season in just his second year as head coach. Expectations for his second season were low. Indeed, all hope seemed to be lost early on when nine-year starting QB Drew Bledsoe was injured in just the second game of the season and the team fell to an 0-2 record.
Like the St. Louis Rams in 1999, the New England Patriots were suddenly forced to rely on a previously unknown QB: Tom Brady. Together, Belichick and Brady managed to bring the Patriots out of their slump to end the regular season with an 11-5 record.
Going into the Super Bowl, the 14-point underdog Patriots showed the world that they had the grit and determination to come out ahead. Although Tom Brady walked away with the Super Bowl MVP award, the game came down to a last-second field goal attempt by Adam Vinatieri to break the 17-17 tie.
The success the Patriots enjoyed during the 2001 season turned out to be a true harbinger of the future: The Patriots won back-to-back Super Bowls in 2003 and 2004 and continue to enjoy their current run as one of the strongest teams in the AFC.
In 2007, the New England Patriots made history by churning out a record-breaking 16-0 regular season. They blasted through two playoff games and arrived at the Super Bowl as the heavy favorites to win and complete the longest perfect season in NFL history. It seemed certain that whatever team represented the NFL was doomed to failure.
The fifth-seeded New York Giants were an unlikely pick to play David to the Patriots’ Goliath. Although they advanced to the playoffs with a 10-6 record, they were seen as a comparatively weak team when paired up against opponents such as the 13-3 Dallas Cowboys and the 13-3 Green Bay Packers in their respective home stadiums.
Against the odds, the Giants came away from each must-win game victorious, eventually earning themselves a ticket to face the unbeatable Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. A 13-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress sealed the deal: The 2007 Giants would become just the fifth Wild-Card team to win a Super Bowl, rising from near-obscurity to ruin the Patriots’ perfect year.