Some franchises' best efforts have not led to victory parades or even Super Bowl berths. Because of untimely injuries, unfortunate circumstances or myriad other reasons, many teams' plans throughout NFL history have not produced the desired result. These are the best of those efforts from the Super Bowl era.
In a brutal era for NFC fringe contenders, the Lions qualified for six playoff fields from 1991-99. Detroit crushed soon-to-be dynasty Dallas twice in 1991 — including a 38-6 divisional-round mauling. Unfortunately eventual champion Washington bludgeoned the Lions twice. Detroit deployed a top-three all-time running back, the 1995 Lions produced a No. 1 offense and four different QBs (Erik Kramer, Dave Krieg, Scott Mitchell, Gus Frerotte) made playoff starts during the Wayne Fontes/Bobby Ross years. The Lions' 1-6 postseason mark diminishes this span historically.
Given their penchant for employing character-risk mainstays and an inability to win a playoff game, these Bengals teams are not exactly revered. But Marvin Lewis' bunch made six playoff berths from 2009-15 and won three AFC North titles in a period that featured strong Steelers and Ravens operations. Cincinnati's 2015 team was a Super Bowl threat before Andy Dalton's injury, ranking second in DVOA and sitting 10-2 when Dalton went down. The Bengals, namely Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones, unraveled in an ugly playoff loss to the Steelers and began to decline. Lewis was fired after the 2018 season.
We are not yet at the possible champions sector of the list, but the Chuck Knox/Steve Largent Seahawks factored into the AFC's 1980s contention mix. Their 9-7 1983 team derailed the Broncos and Dolphins in John Elway and Dan Marino's rookie years to qualify for their first AFC title game (a Raiders rout). Seattle avenged that defeat a year later in the wild-card round after a 12-4 season but could not keep up with Marino in his record-setting form. However, the Seahawks interrupted Elway's AFC West reign in 1988 and totaled four playoff berths in a six-year span under Knox.
Boasting quality teams in one of the two toughest eras to be an AFC contender, Paul Brown's Bengals made the four-team playoff bracket three times from 1970-75. Led by offenses Bill Walsh helped design, one featuring a young Ken Anderson, the Bengals won the AFC Central in 1970 and '73, edging the Steelers' imminent dynasty the latter year. These Bengals didn't win a playoff game, coming closest in a 31-28 loss in Oakland in an 11-3 1975 season, but faced some dominant playoff teams -- including the 1973 Dolphins. Promoting Bill Johnson over Walsh after Brown's 1976 retirement looms as this franchise's biggest "what if?"
Like the NBA's Pacers in LeBron's East years, these Saints crested at a bad time — as Joe Montana and Steve Young thrived. Anchored by their "Dome Patrol" linebacker quartet — Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson, 1991 Defensive Player of the Year Pat Swilling, Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson — who made 19 combined Pro Bowls, the Saints booked four playoff spots from 1987-92. They twice won 12 games (their 12-3 1987 team's DVOA ranked behind only the 49ers), won the NFC West in 1991 and led the NFL in scoring defense in '91 and '92. Unfortunately, Jim Mora's teams did not win a postseason game and came close only once.
Roads through Tom Brady and Peyton Manning were treacherous for other AFC threats, but the Broncos nearly broke through. Built around defense and myriad 1,000-yard rushers, the Broncos made the playoffs four times from 2000-05. The Ravens and Manning, respectively, shellacked three Mike Shanahan teams in Round 1. But his 2005 squad became the first to oust Brady in the playoffs. Led by Champ Bailey (eight INTs, two TDs), the 13-3 Broncos ranked second in '05 DVOA but fell short of Super Bowl XL when the Steelers upset them in Denver. A Jake Plummer-to-Jay Cutler 2006 pivot preceded a five-year playoff drought.
Don Shula's final seasons produced some forgotten contenders (or Dan Marino-propped-up lineups). Miami failed to provide its icon with much help, defensively or on the ground, but made four postseasons in the final five Marino/Shula years. Three Bills teams eliminated the Dolphins; the 1992 AFC championship game was in Miami but non-competitive. Miami would have gone to the '94 title game (in a Bills-less bracket) had Pete Stoyanovich made a 48-yard game-winning field goal try in San Diego. Fun fact: The Dolphins had one 1,000-yard rushing season during Marino's 17 seasons (Karim Abdul-Jabbar, 1996).
Like Paul Brown's Bengals, these Colts emerged at a bad time for AFC success outside of Pittsburgh or Oakland. A young nucleus almost entirely different from the Super Bowl V champions won three straight AFC East titles from 1975-77. The eventual champion Steelers ousted the Colts in 1975. Bert Jones won the 1976 MVP award for the best of these Colt teams — an 11-3 squad — but the best Steel Curtain edition muzzled Baltimore in Round 1 again. Dave Casper's Ghost to the Post sequence helped the Raiders vanquish the Colts in a 1977 overtime classic. The Colts never made the playoffs again in Baltimore.
This may be too brief to be deemed a run, but Ryan's first two Jets teams made a strong impression before the regime's lean years. Among the Jets' four playoff victims during their 2009-10 mini-surge: the 13-3 Chargers and 14-2 Patriots. Peyton Manning's final Colts game was a loss to the 2010 Jets. While the '09 Colts and '10 Steelers ended these defense-oriented Jet iterations' hopes in AFC championship games, this was still the most noise Gang Green has made since the Joe Namath days. Unfortunately for the Revis Island Jets defenses, Mark Sanchez did not climb to Namath's level and regression followed.
The Vikings have not finished outside the top 10 in points allowed since 2014. Zimmer's teams have made the playoffs with three QBs -- Teddy Bridgewater, Case Keenum, Kirk Cousins -- and won 10-plus games in each of those slates. Minnesota used the 2012, '13, '14 and '15 drafts to assemble its defensive nucleus, which backed Keenum in a 13-3 2017 season and Cousins in an 11-5 '19 campaign. The Vikings beat the Saints twice in the playoffs under Zimmer despite having the inferior passer -- once on perhaps the play of the 2010s. While they were blown out after each win, this group has shown staying power in the modern NFC.
The Eagles paired a new-age quarterback with upper-crust defenses, opening a Super Bowl window. Buddy Ryan's 1988 team interrupted the Giants' and Washington's NFC East reigns but lost to the Bears in the Fog Bowl. Early playoff exits followed in 1989 and '90, leading to Ryan's ouster. Rich Kotite's 10-6 1991 team did not make the playoffs, losing Randall Cunningham to an ACL tear in Week 1, but Football Outsiders called that Reggie White-led defense the best of the past 32 years. The '92 Eagles exorcised past playoff demons by beating the Saints, but a Cowboys blowout soon confirmed Philly missed its chance.
The 1987 Vikings nearly became the only eight-win team (thanks to their scabs' 0-3 strike work) to book a Super Bowl berth. A week prior to a 17-10 defeat in Washington, 8-7 Minnesota — on the strength of Anthony Carter's 227-yard receiving performance — stunned 13-2 San Francisco (No. 1 in offense and defense that year) 36-24 in Round 2. Darrin Nelson's drop prevented Jerry Burns' team from forcing OT against Washington, and the Vikings' double-digit-win teams (and No. 1 defenses) the next two years ran into 49ers Super Bowl squads. The 1989 Herschel Walker trade, which ravaged Minnesota's draft capital, helped end this chapter.
Known more for their work in other decades, the Rams carried championship potential in the late 1960s. Spearheaded by Roman Gabriel and a Fearsome Foursome defensive line that housed Hall of Famers Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen, George Allen's Rams notched 10-plus-win seasons from 1967-69. They tied for 1967's best record at 11-1-2, and Gabriel won the 1969 MVP. The Rams beat the Packers in December of '67 but saw Vince Lombardi's final team get to the Ice Bowl via a Los Angeles blowout. The eventual NFL champion Vikings eliminated the 1969 Rams. Allen was coaching Washington by 1971.
Not mentioned much because of what the 49ers became in the 1980s, their teams of the early '70s challenged the Cowboys for NFC supremacy. Led by 1970 MVP John Brodie and Hall of Fame defenders Jimmy Johnson and Dave Wilcox, the 49ers won three straight NFC West crowns from 1970-72. Their 10-3-1 1970 team ousted the Vikings, and in '71 the 49ers eliminated Washington. Their legacy is an 0-3 playoff mark against the Cowboys, however. A Dallas 15-point, fourth-quarter comeback in a 1972 divisional game keyed a 49ers swoon that lasted until Bill Walsh and Joe Montana's arrivals.
Sean Payton and Drew Brees have Super Bowl rings, but the modern Saints boast an entirely different nucleus from the 2009 squad. Thomas' 2016 arrival and a historic 2017 draft haul -- headlined by Kamara and Pro Bowl tackle Ryan Ramczyk -- reopened a championship window. From 2017-19, the Saints went 37-11. Payton and GM Mickey Loomis built elite rosters to back Brees, who has thrived into his 40s. Like the previous Saints nuclei, this one has run into brutal playoff fortune. The Minneapolis Miracle and an indefensible pass interference error cost the Saints in 2017 and '18. With Brees now 41, this group is short on time.
Known for a cutting-edge aerial attack, these Oilers made the playoffs every year from 1987-93. Warren Moon led all QBs by 700-plus passing yards in 1990 and '91, earning Offensive Player of the Year acclaim for his 4,689-yard '90 showing. Moon led the Oilers to an 11-game win streak and the No. 2 seed in his final Houston season (1993). It is fair to call these Oilers regular-season sensations. They went 3-7 in the playoffs and never made an AFC title game. The '92 team bottomed out by blowing the biggest lead in NFL history, and a Round 2 loss to the Chiefs a year later ended the Oilers' run and paved the way for the franchise's relocation.
Only three teams made more AFC championship game appearances than the Jaguars in the 1990s despite the north Florida franchise's 1995 debut. Tom Coughlin's 1996 team upset the Bills and shocked the No. 1-seeded Broncos to secure a sophomore-season title game. Aided by an offense that housed Pro Bowlers Tony Boselli, Mark Brunell and Jimmy Smith, the Jags made four straight playoff brackets from 1996-99. But their '99 team had Titans issues, going 15-0 against all non-Titans opposition and 0-3 against their then-AFC Central rivals. The last of those defeats cost the Jags a Super Bowl XXXIV berth.
As the Raiders regrouped, the Steelers' main late-'70s AFC competition came from the division rival Oilers. The upstarts won two games to reach the 1978 AFC championship game, but probably the best Steelers edition walloped the Oilers 34-5. However, Bum Phillips' team was back after two 1979 playoff conquests — including an upset in San Diego without MVP Earl Campbell or quarterback Dan Pastorini. Aided by officials appearing to cost the Oilers a touchdown, the Steelers stopped Houston again. The revived Raiders routed the Oilers in the 1980 wild-card round to end the Luv Ya Blue stretch.
The exits of Troy Polamalu and others from Steelers Super Bowl defenses ushered in an offense-geared era. Le'Veon Bell, a top-tier offensive line and a historically dominant wideout enabled Ben Roethlisberger to post career-best numbers from 2014-18. But the Ben-Bell-Antonio Brown Steelers ran into frequent bad breaks -- from Bell or Brown playoff unavailability to the Jesse James replay review that denied them home-field advantage to Ryan Shazier's career-ending injury that gutted their 2017 defense. The Steelers went 45-19 from 2014-17 and won three playoff games, but a Round 2 loss to the Jaguars, Bell's holdout and Brown's chaos defined this era more than the success.
Much like in the 1970s, the Rams persisted in their pursuit of a Super Bowl title in the '80s. They still hold NFL records (Eric Dickerson's rushing mark and Flipper Anderson's single-game receiving standard), but John Robinson's teams came up short. That said, his top two squads ran into arguably the two best teams ever. The 1985 Bears and '89 49ers beat the Rams by a combined 55-3 margin in NFC championship games. The Rams, who finally found a quarterback (Jim Everett) during this span, made the playoffs six times from 1983-89 and won four postseason games. But they are a footnote in the NFC's premier era.
The Chargers won four AFC West titles from 2006-09 and twice earned playoff byes. They carried four top-five offenses — headlined by fantasy warlord LaDainian Tomlinson — into second-round games but advanced to only one AFC championship. That game featured Tomlinson injured and Philip Rivers playing on a torn ACL. The then-unbeaten Patriots eliminated the Bolts, after upsetting their 14-2 team a year earlier. After the 13-3 2009 group's upset loss to the Jets, the Charger nucleus splintered. The Bolts did not play another playoff game in San Diego, moved to Los Angeles in 2017 and won 10 games just once in Rivers' final 10 SoCal seasons.
Known for agonizing near-misses, these Browns had strong teams. "The Drive" and "The Fumble" don't need rehashing, but the 1985 Browns led the No. 1-seeded Dolphins 21-3 in a divisional game and lost. A 12-4 season and Bernie Kosar's 489-yard outing in a Round 2 comeback over the Jets preceded "The Drive," and Earnest Byner totaled 187 scrimmage yards and two TDs before his defining moment. The '88 Browns started four QBs, still went 10-6, but watched a Bengals Super Bowl. Even after Marty Schottenheimer's exit, John Elway beat the Browns for the AFC crown in 1989 (though at least that game is unnamed). One playoff game has occurred in Cleveland since.
Marty Schottenheimer's Chiefs made seven playoff berths from 1990-97. They started five QBs in the playoffs during this span, which included just one AFC title game cameo. Joe Montana and Marcus Allen's 1993 arrivals helped the Chiefs to the '93 title game -- after comeback wins over the Steelers and Oilers -- but a Montana injury keyed a Bills romp. Derrick Thomas-led defenses ranked first in 1995 and '97, but the Colts and Broncos upset the top-seeded Chiefs. Lin Elliott missed three field goals in the 10-7 Colts loss, and Schottenheimer's decision to reinstate Elvis Grbac as QB1 over future MVP Rich Gannon proved costly against Denver two years later.
The Vikings have a vast history of near-misses. Their worst letdown came in the 1990s. A string of above-average Green-led teams (eight playoff berths from 1992-2000) wouldn't rank this high were it not for a January 1999 sequence. Setting the single-season scoring record -- after rookie Randy Moss joined an already-potent offense -- the 15-1 Vikings saw Gary Anderson's only missed kick of the season trigger a Super Bowl-denying OT loss to the Falcons. Minnesota made it back to the playoffs the next two years, but a 41-0 loss to the Giants in the 2000 NFC title game forced a Vikings regroup. Minnesota has since lost two more NFC championship games.
Don Coryell arrived with a cutting-edge blueprint in the late 1970s, but his pass-happy teams fell short in January. Dan Fouts' five INTs doomed the '79 Chargers against a depleted Oilers team; the Bolts regrouped to deploy a then-unprecedented three 1,000-yard receivers (John Jefferson, Kellen Winslow, Charlie Joiner) in 1980. The Raiders then secured a Super Bowl XV berth in San Diego. Air Coryell's peak and low point occurred in January 1982. After an epic OT win in Miami, the Chargers played in the NFL's coldest game (wind chill: minus-59 degrees). The Bengals' "Freezer Bowl" rout nixed a tantalizing Coryell-Bill Walsh Super Bowl. San Diego's run ended soon after.
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.
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