Tuesday, August 9, 2022

NFL’s 10 most unlikely playoff teams in Super Bowl era: 1999 Rams, 1996 Jaguars lead list of shocking seasons

The NFL has typically been known for its parity, giving all 32 teams hope they can make the playoffs by the time the season starts. History has shown even the biggest longshots to make the playoffs can make the postseason tournament — so there is hope for the Houston Texans and New York Jets in 2022.

Part of the intrigue of the league are these surprising postseason teams. Some have rosters where fans wonder how those teams even qualified for the postseason in the first place, while others begin a playoff run that lasts multiple seasons (or in the New England Patriots case, decades). The NFL has been fortunate to have these shocking postseason qualifiers, even if some of them aren’t as remembered throughout the league’s history as others. 

These are the 10 most unlikely playoff teams in the Super Bowl era, a ranking that was determined by preseason win totals, the team’s record the previous year, and Super Bowl odds. Not all the teams that qualified for this list won the Super Bowl, but they were teams that weren’t being banked on to make the playoffs once training camp started that year. 

Each of these teams should be remembered more in NFL history, even if some didn’t hoist the trophy at the end of the year. 

10. 2001 Bears 

  • O/U: 7.0
  • Record: 13-3 (won NFC Central)
  • Record previous season: 5-11

The 2001 Chicago Bears were certainly an enigma, given how this season was the only one in the Dick Jauron era the team was good. A team that finished last in the NFC Central the previous season and played in a division with the Green Bay Packers (with Brett Favre), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (with Tony Dungy and one of the best defenses ever), and Minnesota Vikings (with Randy Moss and Cris Carter) — won the NFC Central and advanced to the playoffs.

Led by the No. 1 scoring defense, the Bears let up only 12.7 points per game — one of the best of the 16-game era. They only allowed 20-plus points four times during the regular season and won consecutive overtime games on interception returns for touchdowns. 

Brian Urlacher, Ted Washington, and Mike Brown were first-team All-Pro selections on a top-five run defense in every major statistical category. Journeyman quarterback Jim Miller went 11-2 as a starter, throwing for 2,299 yards with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions (74.9 rating), while Anthony Thomas won Rookie of the Year with 1,183 rushing yards and seven touchdowns (never reached those numbers again). 

Earning the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs, the Bears fell to the Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round. They went 4-12 the next season and never made the playoffs under Jauron again (Jauron was fired after the 2003 season). 

9. 1981 49ers

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  • O/U: N/A
  • Record: 13-3 (won NFC West, won Super Bowl XVI)
  • Record previous season: 6-10

The 1981 San Francisco 49ers were the beginning of one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history, the start of Bill Walsh and Joe Montana dominating the 1980s. San Francisco wasn’t expected to be this good so fast, as the 49ers entered the season with Super Bowl odds of +5000. 

This season was Montana’s first as the full-time starting quarterback, as he unseated Steve DeBerg for the job the previous year. Montana made the Pro Bowl after throwing for 3,565 yards with 19 touchdowns to 12 interceptions (88.4 rating). He accomplished all this with Ricky Patton leading the team in rushing (543 yards), but was assisted with a breakout season from Dwight Clark (85 catches, 1,105 yards, four touchdowns) and a career year from Freddie Solomon (59 catches, 969 yards, eight touchdowns). 

Ronnie Lott and Fred Dean were the first-team All-Pro selections on a defense that finished No. 2 in the NFL in points per game (15.6) and yards per game (297.7). That unit carried San Francisco in the regular season, but Montana rose to superstardom in the playoffs, as he threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Clark with three seconds left to send the 49ers to the Super Bowl. San Francisco then defeated the Cincinnati Bengals to win the franchise’s first Super Bowl title — capping off an improbable season. 

This team is arguably Walsh’s worst championship squad, but his best coaching job. The 49ers were third in the NFC West the previous season with the Atlanta Falcons (12-4) and Los Angeles Rams (11-5) at the tail end of their runs. Everything came together in 1981 for San Francisco. 

8. 2017 Jaguars

  • O/U: 6.5
  • Record: 10-6 (won AFC South)
  • Record previous season: 3-13

Incredible how this Jaguars team held a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game against the Tom Brady-led New England Patriots. The 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars weren’t even on the radar heading into the year, coming off a last place finish in the AFC South at 3-13 — the franchise’s sixth consecutive season of five wins or less. 

The Jaguars earned the reputation of “Sack-sonville” after finishing second in the NFL with 55 sacks on the year. Jalen Ramsey and Calais Campbell were first-team All-Pros and Malik Jackson, Yannick Ngakoue, Telvin Smith, and A.J. Bouye earned Pro Bowl berths. The defense allowed the second-fewest points (16.8) and the fewest passing yards (169.9) — ranking in the top-five in every major pass defense category.

Then there was Blake Bortles, who threw for 3,687 yards and 21 touchdowns (84.7 rating) in his best season. Jacksonville’s leading receiver was Keelan Cole (748 yards, three touchdowns), while Leonard Fournette rushed for 1,040 yards and nine scores in his rookie season. The offense finished fifth (26.1) in points per game and sixth in total yards (365.9). 

Jacksonville won the AFC South and won two playoff games, including upsetting the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round. If Tom Brady didn’t lead a fourth-quarter comeback in New England, the Jaguars would have been playing for a title. Jacksonville hasn’t had a winning record since that 2017 season. 

7. 2006 Saints 

  • O/U: 7.0
  • Record: 10-6 (won NFC South)
  • Record previous season: 3-13

Even though the Saints shockingly landed Drew Brees that offseason, the odds of the franchise making a turnaround from worst to first seemed improbable. A year after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city and forced the Saints to play home games in San Antonio and Baton Rouge (including a “home” game in New York), the Saints decided to rebuild the franchise.  

Mickey Loomis hired Sean Payton from the Dallas Cowboys to be the head coach and the team landed Brees at quarterback. The “Air Coryell” offense was installed and the Saints became one of the most electrifying — and feel-good — stories in football. New Orleans got off to a 3-0 start and had a captivating victory in its return to the Superdome on “Monday Night Football” — which was led by Steve Gleason’s blocked put that resulted in Curtis DeLoatch’s recovery in the end zone for a touchdown in the first quarter of a 23-3 victory. 

Brees was a first-team All-Pro, throwing for 4,418 yards with 26 touchdowns to 11 interceptions (96.2 rating), as he and teft tackle Jamaal Brown were the only Pro Bowlers on an offense with Deuce McAllister rushing for 1,057 yards, rookie Reggie Bush having 1,307 yards from scrimmage and seventh-round rookie Marques Colston recording 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns. The offense led the NFL with 391.5 yards per game. 

The Saints earned the No. 2 seed in the conference, defeating the Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round before losing to the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship Game. The start of the Payton-Brees era was one of the most memorable seasons in team history.

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6. 2008 Dolphins 

  • O/U: 5.5
  • Record: 11-5 (won AFC East)
  • Record previous season: 1-15

Somehow, the Dolphins made the playoffs following a 1-15 season with the worst point differential in the conference at -170. Cam Cameron was fired after one season, and Tony Sparano was hired to create a new culture in Miami. The Dolphins brought in Chad Pennington at quarterback, who was the catalyst for the incredible turnaround. 

Pennington finished second in NFL MVP voting (to Peyton Manning) after throwing for 3,653 yards with 19 touchdowns to seven interceptions. He led the league in completion percentage (67.4) and recorded a 97.4 passer rating. Ronnie Brown made the Pro Bowl with 1,170 yards from scrimmage and Ricky Williams rushed for 659 yards as a valuable reserve. Ted Ginn Jr., Greg Camarillo, and Davone Bess were the top three receivers in an offense that was 21st in points per game. 

Joey Porter was the lone Pro Bowler on the defense with 17.5 sacks (defense was ninth in NFL in points allowed). The Dolphins started 0-2 and were 6-5 after a Week 12 loss to the Patriots. They won five straight games and snatched the division from the Patriots on the final day. (New England missed the playoffs with an 11-5 record (same as the Dolphins).)

This was the year Miami unveiled the short-lived but famous “Wildcat” formation, which it used to beat the Patriots in Week 3. Miami was crushed by the Baltimore Ravens in the wild card round and never returned to the playoffs under Sparano — making the 2008 division title even more incredible. 

5. 2021 Bengals

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  • O/U: 6.5
  • Record: 10-7 (won AFC North, won AFC Championship)
  • Record previous season: 4-11-1

Joe Burrow and the Bengals going the Super Bowl last season was a run very few saw coming, even if the quarterback was impressive his rookie season before going down with a torn ACL. Even with a 4-11-1 finish the season before, the Bengals had a core of Burrow, Joe Mixon, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd

Ja’Marr Chase changed everything. Having arguably the best rookie season for a wide receiver in NFL history, Chase had 81 catches for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns as one of the best wideouts in football last year. Burrow threw for 4,611 yards with 34 touchdowns to 14 interceptions — completing an astonishing 70.4% of his passes (108.3 rating). Mixon rushed for 1,205 yards and Higgins had 1,091 yards and six touchdowns. All this production came with an offensive line that allowed 55 sacks in the regular season and 15 more in the playoffs. 

Even with a mediocre defense, the Bengals’ top-10 offense won the AFC North. The defense came alive in the postseason, holding the Las Vegas Raiders and Tennessee Titans to under 20 points as Cincinnati advanced to the AFC Championship Game — where they upset the Kansas City Chiefs after recovering from an 18-point deficit. 

Cincinnati almost pulled off the improbable Super Bowl victory, losing to the Los Angeles Rams in the final two minutes. The postseason run may not have been possible if it wasn’t for Burrow’s comebacks and Evan McPherson’s perfection on field goals in the playoffs. This Bengals team was one of the most surprising ones in recent years.  

4. 1979 Buccaneers 

  • O/U: N/A
  • Record: 10-6 (won NFC Central)
  • Record previous season: 5-11

The Buccaneers were starting to turn things around after their 0-26 start as a franchise in 1976 and 1977, but the 1979 team deserves credit for one of the biggest turnarounds ever. Tampa Bay went from worst to first in the NFC Central, taking advantage of a subpar division to capture its first division title in its fourth year of existence. 

Led by the No. 1 defense in points allowed (14.8) and yards allowed (246.8), the Buccaneers rolled off to a 5-0 start and hung on after a poor December to win the division. Lee Roy Selmon was the lone first-team All-Pro on the defense, as he anchored the unit with 11 sacks. Jeris White, Cedric Brown, and Mike Washington formed arguably the best secondary in the NFC. 

Ricky Bell paced the offense with 1,263 rushing yards and seven touchdowns — a unit that finished 21st in points scored. Doug Williams threw for 2,448 yards with 18 touchdowns and 24 interceptions (52.5 rating) as the offense scored fewer than 10 points in four of their final five games. 

John McKay’s squad still earned a first-round bye in the playoffs and defeated the Philadelphia Eagles en route to the NFC Championship Game. The Buccaneers hosted the game, but were shut out, 9-0, by the Los Angeles Rams. Tampa Bay never was able to replicate the 1979 success, even if the Buccaneers made the playoffs in 1981 and 1982. 

Going from zero wins in 1976 to the playoffs in 1979 with no salary cap or free agency is quite a feat. 

3. 2001 Patriots 

  • O/U: 6.5
  • Record: 11-5 (won AFC East, won Super Bowl XXXVI)
  • Record previous season: 5-11

Five years removed from a Super Bowl appearance, the Patriots slid into mediocrity in the aftermath of Bill Parcells. Pete Carroll led the franchise to two playoff appearances, but the roster bottomed out in 2000 with a 5-11 record — Bill Belichick’s first season. 

The Patriots gave Drew Bledsoe a 10-year, $103 million contract in the offseason, tying the franchise to its longtime quarterback. Bledsoe went down in Week 2 on a hit by Mo Lewis that resulted in a punctured lung and internal bleeding. In came Tom Brady, a sixth-round draft pick in 2000 with just three career passes to his name. Brady was the quarterback the 0-2 Patriots rolled with the rest of the season, and the franchise changed forever. 

Brady went 11-3 as the Patriots starter, as the team sat 5-5 after a “Sunday Night Football” loss to the Rams before winning out the rest of the year. Brady threw for 2,843 yards with 18 touchdowns to 12 interceptions (86.5 rating). Troy Brown was his top target with 101 catches for 1,199 yards and five scores. Antowain Smith rushed for 1,157 yards and 12 touchdowns to pace the ground game. 

Longtime Patriots Lawyer Milloy and Ty Law were Pro Bowlers on a defense that allowed 17 points per game (sixth in the NFL). The Patriots had a top-10 scoring offense and defense, but were just 19th in total yards and 24th in yards allowed. 

Thanks to the “Tuck Rule” and Adam Vinatieri, the No. 2 seeded Patriots advanced to the AFC Championship Game, where they upset the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game during which Bledsoe replaced an injured Brady and led them to victory. New England was a double-digit underdog to the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl when Brady returned and led the Patriots to one of the biggest upsets ever, capped with a 48-yard Vinatieri field goal with no time remaining for the title. 

This was a championship no one outside the Patriots locker room saw coming, and it started the greatest dynasty in the Super Bowl era. 

2. 1996 Jaguars 

  • O/U: 5.5
  • Record: 9-7 (second AFC Central)
  • Record previous season: 4-12

A second-year football team made its conference championship game? How in the world did that happen? The Jaguars and Carolina Panthers both made their respective conference championship games in 1996, but the Jaguars’ run was more improbable. 

Handed the reins as the franchise quarterback, Mark Brunell made the Pro Bowl — throwing for 4,367 yards with 19 touchdowns and 20 interceptions (84.0 rating). Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell were the best kept secrets in football, as Smith had 1,244 receiving yards while McCardell finished with 1,129 (and a Pro Bowl appearance). Tony Boselli was excellent on the offensive line, making the first of five straight Pro Bowls.  

Jacksonville’s season seemed to turn around after moving on from Andre Rison in Week 12, rebounding from a 4-7 start to win five straight and advance to the playoffs in just their second year of existence. Jacksonville got into the playoffs despite a minus-10 point differential and needed Morten Andersen to miss a 30-yard field goal with no time left just to even advance to the tournament. 

The Jaguars took advantage of the opportunity as the No. 5 seed, upsetting the Buffalo Bills in the wild card round before going into Denver and upsetting the Broncos. Natrone Means rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown and Brunell matched whatever John Elway and the Broncos offense did to escape with the win. 

Jacksonville fell to the New England Patriots the next week, but had a postseason run for the ages. This was the start of four straight playoff appearances for the franchise, but the 1996 playoff appearance was one of the most surprising in league history. 

1. 1999 Rams

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  • O/U: 5.5
  • Record: 13-3 (won NFC West, won Super Bowl XXXIV)
  • Record previous season: 4-12

The beginning of the “Greatest Show on Turf” was one of the most improbable playoff appearances — and championships — in NFL history. The St. Louis Rams were dominant in many phases of the game, even more surprising considering the team went 5-11 in 1997 and 4-12 in 1998. 

Even with the offseason trade of Marshall Faulk, the Rams lost starting quarterback Trent Green in the preseason and had to rely on Kurt Warner (who threw just 11 passes in his career) to lead the offense. All Warner did was earn first-team All-Pro honors, throwing for 4,353 yards with 41 touchdowns to 13 interceptions in winning the league MVP. Warner led the league in completion percentage (65.1%), touchdown passes, yards per attempt (8.7), and quarterback rating (109.2). 

Faulk had 1,381 rushing yards and seven touchdowns with 1,048 receiving yards and five touchdowns, finishing with 2,429 yards from scrimmage (first-team All-Pro). He joined Roger Craig as the only players to rush for 1,000 yards and have 1,000 yards receiving in a season. Isaac Bruce recorded 1,165 yards and 12 touchdowns while rookie Torry Holt finished with 788 yards and six touchdowns. Orlando Pace was a first-team All-Pro on the line. 

The Rams led the league in points scored (32.9 per game), total yards (400.8 per game), passing yards (272.0) and passing touchdowns (42). St. Louis also had the No. 1 run defense, allowing the fewest rushing yards (74.3 per game) and rushing touchdowns (four). This led to a 13-3 record and the No. 1 seed in the NFC. 

St. Louis’s offense cruised past the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional round, and Ricky Proehl’s touchdown catch with under five minutes left ended up being the game winner in an 11-6 conference championship game victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Bruce then caught the game-winning 73-yard touchdown pass from Warner with 1:54 to play in Super Bowl XXXIV, and Mike Jones stopped Kevin Dyson at the 1-yard line with no time left on the clock to preserve the 23-16 win over the Tennessee Titans (the play is known as “The Tackle”). 

Dick Vermeil led the greatest one-year turnaround in NFL history and retired days after the championship. The Rams wouldn’t get another Super Bowl, but they returned to the game two years later (lost to the Patriots). 

Not only are the 1999 Rams the most unlikely playoff team in league history — they’re one of the greatest teams in NFL history. 

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