These teams are proof that anything can happen once the playoffs start
The past four decades have demonstrated that anything can happen in the NFL playoffs starting from the opening round. However, the larger number of divisions and level of parity in today's league has turned Wild Card Weekend into must-see TV.
When the NFL merged with the AFL in 1970, the new playoff format included a wild card for the good teams that may not have won their division, but whose record deemed them worthy for a playoff spot. There was originally only one in each conference, but that expanded to two in 1978, then to three in 1990 and then back to two in 2002 when each conference expanded to four divisions.
As it so happens, 10 wild card teams to date have played in the Super Bowl. Here they are ranked by their success.
10. 1985 New England Patriots
The Patriots became the first team to win three road games to make the Super Bowl. Entering the playoffs at 11-5 as the No. 5 seed, New England used a strong running game and nasty defense to upset the New York Jets and the top-seeded Los Angeles Raiders to advance to the AFC Championship Game. There, the Patriots racked up 255 rushing yards and capitalized on six Miami turnovers to win 31-14. New England’s magical run came to a dead stop in Super Bowl XX, as the Patriots were annihilated by the famed ’85 Chicago Bears 46-10.
9. 1992 Buffalo Bills
After two straight Super Bowl appearances where they entered as the top seed in the AFC, the Bills took a step back in 1992. They finished 11-5 and runner-up to the Dolphins in the AFC East. However, Buffalo shocked the Houston Oilers and the football world, coming back from a 35-3 deficit to win 41-38 in overtime in the largest comeback in NFL history. The Bills then beat No. 1 Pittsburgh and No. 2 Miami on the road to advance to Super Bowl XXVII. There, they were beaten 52-17 by the Dallas Cowboys in one of the biggest blowouts in Super Bowl history.
8. 1975 Dallas Cowboys
The first wild card team to make the Super Bowl beat the Minnesota Vikings on the legendary “Hail Mary” touchdown pass from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson with less than a minute to play. The next week, the Cowboys blew out the Los Angeles Rams 37-7 to advance to Super Bowl X, where they faced the Steelers. Acrobatic catches by MVP Lynn Swann proved too much and the Cowboys lost 21-17.
7. 1999 Tennessee Titans
At 13-3, the 1999 Titans had the best record of any wild card to play in a Super Bowl. The only problem was that the Jacksonville Jaguars, their division rival, were 14-2. In the wild card round, the Titans beat the Bills thanks to what became known as the “Music City Miracle” (Are you starting to see a pattern here?). Down 16-15 with 16 seconds left, Frank Wycheck took the kickoff and lateralled it to Kevin Dyson, who returned it 75 yards for a touchdown. The next week, the Titans beat a young Peyton Manning and Indianapolis Colts team and then faced the Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game. Tennessee had already beaten Jacksonville twice in the regular season and pulled off a third win to advance to Super Bowl XXXIV. In the big game, the Titans matched the St. Louis Rams score for score, but came up one yard short when Mike Jones stopped Dyson from getting into the end zone on the game’s final play in a 23-16 loss.
6. 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers entered the playoffs 11-5 and opened Wild Card Weekend by beating the Cincinnati Bengals 31-17 on the road. The next week, they shocked the top-seeded Colts 21-18 and then beat the Denver Broncos to advance to Super Bowl XL to face the Seattle Seahawks. Pittsburgh won 21-10 and head coach Bill Cowher and running back Jerome Bettis were able to retire as Super Bowl champions. The Steelers are also the first team to win a Super Bowl as a No. 6 seed.
5. 2010 Green Bay Packers
The second team No. 6 to win a Super Bowl was the Packers, who seemed to be at their zenith entering the 2010 playoffs. Green Bay never trailed during the second half of the NFC playoffs, beating the Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons, and Chicago Bears. In Super Bowl XLV, the Packers faced the Steelers and MVP Aaron Rodgers threw for 304 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions as his team won 31-25.
4. 1980 Oakland Raiders
The first wild card team to win the Super Bowl got there winning every way possible in the AFC playoffs. First, Oakland blew out the Houston Oilers 27-7. Then, the Raiders beat the Browns 14-12 in frigid Cleveland thanks to a last-minute interception by Mike Davis. In the AFC Championship Game, Raider quarterback Jim Plunkett threw for two touchdowns and ran for another as Oakland won a shootout with the San Diego Chargers 34-27. Plunkett also played brilliantly in Super Bowl XV and the Raiders’ defense shut down the Philadelphia Eagles en route to a 27-10 win.
3. 1997 Denver Broncos
The defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers seemed destined to repeat in Super Bowl XXXII. All they had to do was beat John Elway and the Broncos, who had a history of losing the big game and had surprised the football world by beating the Jaguars, Chiefs, and Steelers to get there. On this night, however, the Broncos surprised the Packers by jumping out to a 17-7 lead in the second quarter. The Packers tied the game twice but the Broncos pulled ahead for good on a one-yard touchdown run by Terrell Davis with 1:45 left to win 31-24. Few Super Bowl moments were as touching as Broncos owner Pat Bowlen holding up the Lombardi Trophy after the game and saying, “This one’s for John.”
2. 2007 New York Giants
While we’re on the subject of teams of destiny; the Patriots were undefeated and only had to beat New York, whom they had topped the last week of the regular season, to record the first perfect season since 1972. The Giants, though, were one scrappy team. They entered the playoffs 10-6 and the No. 5 seed, but advanced to the NFC Championship Game thanks to road wins at Tampa Bay and Dallas. The Giants then beat the top-seeded Packers in overtime in below-freezing conditions at Lambeau Field to earn their shot at New England. This time, they used their fierce pass rush and one of the greatest catches in NFL history to beat the Patriots 17-14 and score the biggest upset in Super Bowl history.
1. 2000 Baltimore Ravens
All the Super Bowl winners on this list are great in their own right, but no team is as revered as the 2000 Ravens. Sporting one of the best defenses in NFL history, Baltimore shut out four of its regular-season opponents on its way to a 12-4 season. In the playoffs, they beat the Broncos, Titans, Raiders, and Giants, allowing an average of fewer than six points per game. The only defense more dominant was the ’85 Bears.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)